The elevator pitch for Freaky must have lasted seconds. You can imagine Jason Blum, producer of films like Get Out and Happy Death Day, chatting with writer/director Christopher Landon. “What if I made Freaky Friday, except with a teenage girl and a serial killer?” I doubt Blum hesitated when he shouted, “Sold!” What I’m trying to say is that Freaky is a critic proof-movie: its simple premise instantly engages our imaginations. Sure, it delivers on its simple promise, but what is more intriguing is what Landon includes in the margins. He shrewdly remixes film history, and in the middle of his entertaining horror/comedy, there is enough good stuff to usher in legions of new genre fans.
Almost every scene plays out exactly like you would expect, and that is true from the first gruesome minutes. Vince Vaughn plays The Blissfield Butcher, a demented killer who uses whatever is at his disposal to slaughter his victims. They are all teenagers – like Halloween, Freaky does not supply him a motivation – and we do not hear Vaughn speak until he switches bodies with Millie (Kathryn Newton), a high school Goody Two-Shoes type. Once she switches bodies with the Butcher, both of them are confused and mortified. While Butcher (as Millie) sees a new opportunity in a high school full of potential victims, Millie realizes she only has hours to reverse the spell.
Starting with the first of many deaths, Landon borrows from the absurdity and gore of Giallo, an Italian horror movement made famous by Dario Argento. Blood pops with color as the Butcher slaughters teenagers in disgusting, often creative ways (my favorite involves a broken wine bottle). This approach is so stylized, so beyond our understanding of human anatomy, that the effect is frequently funny.
What heightens this humor is the physical acting of Newton and Vaughn. Newton has the trickier part, shifting how she carries herself so she’s a plausible psychopath. It works, thanks in no small part to the classic upward stare perfected in many Kubrick films. Vaughn also hams it up as a teenage girl stuck in an adult’s body. She moves daintily, and does not recognize her full strength. Obviously, Vaughn draws on his experience as a dramatic and comic actor, but this film reminds us how he can move his body in a compelling way.
There is a slight reactionary streak to this film. Landon’s pushes the audience past their comfort zone, but only up to a point. One character teases Millie about pronoun usage, for example, and there is a bizarre scene where Vaughn (as Millie) nearly makes out with her crush. Some of this is deliberately offensive, but if great trash serves any purpose, it is to push our buttons.
Along similar lines, all the characters are one-dimensional. Landon is guilty of lazy stereotyping to define his characters quickly (the gay best friend is a cliché, for example, but at least he gets some solid one-liners). What ultimately makes this reactionary streak more palpable is the film’s sense of morality. The Butcher kills some awful people as Millie, and Landon never squanders an opportunity to bring us to his level.
The key to Freaky’s success is an unlikely influence. Its climax involves a high school dance and a ticking clock, and you know what film also puts its important characters in that situation? Back to the Future. There are flashes of business where one thing goes wrong after another, just like when the DeLorean suddenly shuts off. The more I think about it, the more it unfolds like a demented riff on the Zemeckis classic. Landon realizes there are two things in movies that never go out of fashion: a ticking clock, and a character who has to convince everyone that they are right. Freaky has that in spades, plus a scene where a beloved character actor gets sawed in half.
Editor’s note: The only way to see Freaky is in a movie theater. Our reviews are not tacit endorsements for going to the movies. We feel that criticism is more than a consumer recommendation for an entertainment product. It is a debate about art, ideally providing insight and context, and that discussion should continue. If you make the safer decision to skip theaters for now, we hope you return here when the film is available on streaming platforms.