Freaky: Gender Swap Horror Finds More Life in the Slasher Subgenre

If you’re old enough, you’ll remember the brief 80’s craze with body-switching comedies. Everyone from Fred Savage to, yes, Kirk Cameron, got in on the act. Flash forward 20 years and Hollywood recycled the fad with 13 Going on 30 and the Rob Schneider clunker, Hot Chick. So in a year where most studios shelved their major horror releases, Blumhouse stepped up with their own subversive take on the classic Disney standard that started it all – Freaky Friday. If Freaky feels similar in tone to Happy Death Day, it’s not a coincidence. Writer and director Christopher Landon returns and brings back his horror and comedy sensibilities for this unique take on a familiar story.

Synopsis

With just one day before the Blissfield Valley High Homecoming football game, a masked figure brutally murders four high school students. Considered an urban legend, The Blissfield Butcher – a very real serial killer – leaves his victims’ bodies behind, stealing a mysterious ancient dagger known as La Dola. The next day bullied student Millie Kessler finds herself alone, waiting for her ride. When The Blissfield Butcher attacks and stabs Millie in the shoulder with La Dola, she survives but with unexpected consequences. Come the following morning, Millie finds herself trapped in The Blissfield Butcher’s body. And The Blissfield Butcher continues his killing spree in Millie’s body. Now Millie has until midnight to stab The Blissfield Butcher with La Dola or she’ll be trapped in his body forever.

Freaky Sub-Title

No one’s likely to struggle to see the similarities between Freaky and Landon’s work on Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2U. Many of the hallmarks that made those movies so much fun are present. But Freaky distinguishes itself with its R-rated approach to the material. That is, Freaky feels more like a slasher movie than its predecessors. From its wickedly fun opening scene, Landon assures audiences that Freaky won’t shy away from gore and flashy death scenes. In one scene, The Blissfield Butcher rams a vintage bottle of wine down a victim’s throat. Later, ‘The Butcher’, now in Millie’s body, sends her bullying shop teacher through a circular saw. Cinematographer Laurie Rose (Pet Sematary) captures the carnage with a sharp eye, mixing humor and intensity in equal doses.

In addition to nailing its high concept, Freaky works as both a slasher movie and clever subversion of the subgenre. Though it’s clearly more interested in dark humour and laughs, Freaky has more than a few decent scares. In many ways, this feels like a spiritual successor to Wes Craven’s Scream. And it’s no coincidence then that Freaky’s more subtle achievement is how it subverts the stereotypical gender roles of the slasher. Landon eschews the ‘stalk and slash’ formula for a ‘coming of age story’. Trapped in The Blissfield Butcher’s body, Millie finds empowerment an dinner strength.

Clever Script and Fun Performances Make Freaky’s High-Concept Work

Like Happy Death Day, Landon makes Freaky work by getting two things right – a story with heart and great casting. Though its violence is more Rated-R, Landon doesn’t rely on it to carry the movie. Tucked firmly between the novel premise and flashy gore, Freaky never forgets that it’s essentially a ‘coming of age’ story. Even if most of the story beats are familiar – some recycled from Happy Death Day – they work. Most importantly, Millie’s character arc gives the movie a heart that, in turn, elicits investment from the audience. When there’s lulls in the action, Freaky can lean on its story to keep audiences watching and, more importantly caring about the character. Not surprisingly, Freaky also bares Landon’s hip, witty dialogue that characters fire off at a rapid pace.

Tucked firmly between the novel premise and flashy gore, Freaky never forgets that it’s essentially a ‘coming of age’ story.

And if Freaky’s premise seems too silly for a horror movie, Vince Vaughn and Kathryn Newton’s performances go above and beyond in selling it. Though it’s hard to believe now, Vince Vaughn was once a ‘serious actor’, starring in ‘serious movies’. But Old School and Wedding Crashers showed that Vaughn had comedic silver streak. And that comic sensibility is on fully display. We’ve already seen Vaughn play a serial killer in the regrettable Psycho remake. Fortunately, for the most of the movie, Vaughn plays the high-schooled aged, Millie. And his performance pitch-perfect, producing much of the movie’s effective humour. As a high school girl trapped in a middle-aged male serial killer’s body, Newton delivers the kind of breakthrough performance we saw from Jessica Rothe in Happy Death Day. Both Celeste O’Connor and Nicholas Stargel turn in winning supporting performances. In particular Stargel turns in some of Freaky’s funniest moments.

Freaky One of 2020’s Best Horror Movies

In a truncated year for theatrical releases, Freaky still stands out as one of the better horror movies of 2020. Clever, funny, and subversive, Landon’s latest effort confirms that he’s a mainstay in the genre. Both Vaughn and Newton shine in their respective roles. In particular, Newton’s performance likely guarantees bigger roles in the future. In what’s a laudable achievement, Landon aptly balances the movie’s high concept, humour, and gory kills. There’s a good chance we’ll see a sequel somewhere down the road. Now can we also get that Happy Death Day trilogy capper?

THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: A-

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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