Director: Christopher Landon
Stars: Kathryn Newton, Vince Vaughn, Celeste O’Connor
A common problem in film criticism one finds (and something I’ve been guilty of several times over) is not being able to separate how enjoyable something is from its inherent flaws. I had a reasonably good time watching Christopher Landon’s Freaky; a flick I’ve been looking forward to indulging in ever since late last year when it’s release began getting the inevitable COVID rug-pull. I was and remain a huge fan of his Happy Death Day four(ish) years ago; an unassuming horror comedy that sneakily stole Halloween 2017.
Freaky looked set to repeat this trick. Where Happy Death Day pilfered the Groundhog Day conceit of a protagonist stuck in a time loop and then fed it through the slasher movie playbook, Freaky applies the same tactic to Freaky Friday. The body-swap comedy but with a maniacal serial killer. It has potential, especially given Landon’s track record with providing a good time.
And while I smiled through Freaky, I can’t come out now and recommend it. There are too many problems with it. It’s a good time, but not a good time, y’know?
Welcome to Blissfield – your typical, wholesome suburban American town as popularised by Hollywood. Millie (Kathryn Newton) is a typical white girl with low self-esteem, flanked by her more diverse buds. Panic is high as a local maniac has just offed four of her fellow students. This killer – nicknamed The Butcher of Blissfield – may or may not have been up to this kind of thing for decades. Honestly, life sucks in high school.
Said Butcher (Vince Vaughn) targets Millie after a school football game. Pinning her to the ground, he stabs her with a wacky ceremonial knife that he looted from his most recent spree. Cue body swap. Millie finds herself trapped in the stocky frame of American’s Most Wanted, while the Butcher has to deal with being a frail little girl. Hi-jinks ensue.
Where Freaky immediately falls down is in its characterisation or lack thereof. Body swap comedy only really works if you have some level of knowledge or investment in both characters. Unfortunately for Landon, he gives us nothing of who the Butcher is. Not even a name. He’s played as a Jason-esque unstoppable cipher and that’s as far as it goes. With no character tics, traits or background, half of the potential of Freaky is squandered straight out the gate. When it comes to Newton portraying a school girl possessed by a serial killer, all she gets to do is scowl silently at everyone and, occasionally, do a murder.
Things further degrade when we flip the coin. In the early scenes of the film, Newton puts the work in as Millie. We understand who she is; what kind of wallflower teen we’re dealing with. Once Vaughn takes the reigns, however, we get a measurably different version of the character. As performed by Vaughn, Millie is bubblier, ditsier, flakier.
Now, part of this comes from the ‘comedy’ part of the film’s mandate. If you enjoyed Jack Black playing the avatar for a cheerleader ditz in the recent Jumanji movies, you’ll have a good idea of what Vaughn is going for here. But he goes for the same thing, which is not who we’ve been introduced to. It rests all of its collateral on the idea that its funny enough for a big strong man to be flippant and cowardly. That’s the extent of the joke. Freaky thinks of itself as progressive, but a lot of the time it seems anything but, and this is a major part of that downfall.
Look to the sides and a similar sense of laziness tends to invade. Millie’s gay friend Josh (Misha Osherovich) gleefully channels Eric from Sex Education, but there’s nothing else to the character, just how screamingly gay he is. Celeste O’Connor’s role as the black friend, Nyla, fares better… but not by a lot thanks to how little she is given to do (Osherovich and O’Connor are both superb though). And this flick’s token sentimentalism over a recently deceased parent might have played with sincerity had Landon not wholesale lifted it straight out of his own Happy Death Day.
Landon relishes with tangible glee the opportunity to go harder with his kills than he did in HDD. The cold open in which the Butcher nails those four students induces some wonderful squirms from its over-the-top violence. And, when the Butcher is thrown into the body of Millie, further outlandish craziness ensues (maybe its a cultural disconnect but why is there a cryogenic freezer in a high school locker room?). Just like last month’s Nobody, Freaky also trades in the lascivious joys of revenge fantasy. Quite by accident, the Butcher seems to target everyone that’s already made Millie’s hit list.
Its all presented with quick-fire, tongue-in-cheek glee. To the extent that I wonder whether I’m looking too hard here. But even in something that’s deliberately flippant, basic storytelling traits still need to work. That’s not wholly the case here. Freaky is frustrating because it feels like such a missed opportunity. It doesn’t feel like it does enough with it’s fantastic premise and, arguably, misses the boat on deep-diving into some promising transgender insights. It may be a colourful and pacey ride, but the missed marks aren’t easily forgotten.