Premise: After swapping bodies with a deranged serial killer, a young girl in high school discovers she has less than 24 hours before the change becomes permanent.
Following his work delivering slasher hijinks to the time loop trope with Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2U, Christopher Landon affixed his horror-comedy eye on the body swap genre with 2020’s Freaky. The film stars Kathryn Newton as Millie, a teen whose family suffered the loss of her father a year ago. Vince Vaughn co-stars as the nameless Blissfield Butcher, a deranged killer whose urban legend has him operating for decades in the Everytown (well, in California, at least), USA hamlet of Blissfield. When an ancient Aztec artifact causes the two to switch bodies, gruesome killings and funny misunderstandings ensue.
Freaky opens with your standard teen slasher suspense sequence in which the Butcher terrorizes a group of isolated teenagers engaging in some lightly debaucherous behavior. Of course, their purpose is to provide exposition for the local legend and be fodder for his derangement. As expected and unsurprising as this prologue is, the violence that ensues is equal parts gruesome and over the top. A tennis racket is used as a tool of violence in an ultimate display of absurdity, yet it works in cultivating the horror-comedy tone to come. There’s also a kill involving a wine bottle that feels like it was Landon making it explicitly clear that unlike his Death Day films, Freaky is an R-rated affair. It’s a fun and energetic way to open the film.
Once we’re introduced to Millie, things slow down slightly as the film works to set up the family dynamic she has at home (grieving mother drinks a lot, older cop sister fears Millie is missing out on her youth) and at school (her best friends, her conflicts with classmates and faculty alike, and her crush on a classmate). The work the screenplay does to setup this first act, coupled with the always sincere performance by Newton, almost makes you wish this was simply a conventional teen slasher movie. This plays well in the film’s favor as you don’t quite know how the body swap will play out until it happens. Nor do you know who the Butcher will target once he is in Millie’s body.
The body swap itself happens in a secluded, misty high school football field and is accompanied by a thrilling chase sequence to boot. The scene is a beauty of horror lighting and set design as the wide open football field highlights how dire the situation is in Millie’s isolation. The effects employed in the body swap itself are also eye-catching as the field under the characters disappears and briefly places them atop an Aztec temple.
Once the bodies are swapped, the film really gets moving. The straightforward (but don’t think too hard on it) logic and rules in the film establish that the body swap only lasts for 24 hours and if they aren’t swapped back by stabbing each other with the artifact knife the Butcher used before, the swap will be permanent. It’s a fine premise and the ticking clock aspect gives a fun propulsion to the plot. It also leads to a different kind of tension as Millie and her friends Nyla (Celeste O’Connor) and Josh (Misha Osherovich), along with Millie’s crush Booker (Uriah Shelton), are faced with the complicated task of retrieving the artifact.
But of course, the bread and butter of any body swap movie is the performances therein. Vince Vaughn’s performance as the Butcher in the opening sequence is as good and imposing as any slasher serial killer that it emulates. But it’s his performance as Millie after the swap that makes Freaky such a fun movie. Vaughn pours his comedic talents full bore into Millie’s reactions to slasher brutality and his interactions with Millie’s friends. When it comes to Vaughn’s scenes as Millie with her crush Booker, the timid sincerity he brings to the performance is surprisingly sweet and endearing.
It’s no secret that Kathryn Newton is a very bright up and coming talent and her streak of strong performances continues with Freaky. Pre-swap Millie is played by Newton with an amiable vulnerability that would make her a fantastic final girl in the conventional slasher version of the film. However, her turn as the Blissfield Butcher is as rich and layered as Vaughn’s teen girl performance is fun and creative. Newton’s vacant stare as the Butcher, self-assured stride, and the character’s ultra violent tendencies work in tandem to create an imposing monster in an unassuming body.
The action and violence is varied and the obstacles Millie and her friends have to contend with throughout the film makes for a thrilling adventure that doesn’t skimp on violent slasher kills. The film also has some fun with the size discrepancy the characters feel. The Butcher struggles with his kills as he adjusts to living in a teen girl’s body. Likewise, Millie finds her confidence and strength boosted thanks to the bump in body mass.
Freaky has plenty of comedy and slasher violence to entertain through an hour and 43 minute runtime. The R-rating gives the film the freedom to explore more gruesome and over the top kills. But the film really shines on the performances of Vaughn and Newton. The two bring unique perspectives to their swapped roles and the energy in both their performances means the film rarely suffers a downturn in pacing once the plot gets moving.
Freaky is a fucking piece of slasher comedy!
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.
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