In a way, the slasher subgenre functions like its movies’ antagonists: It refuses to die. Just when you think it’s gone for good, it gets back up and resumes its carnage. It has long felt like it’s about to perform its one last scare, but that has yet to manifest. It owes its endurance to evolution—at some point in the late ’80s, a guy running around and knocking off characteristically blank teens could no longer hack it. So then came the self-aware slasher, perfected by Scream in 1996—it proved regurgitating the same old tropes could be downright delightful if they were commented upon in the text itself.
The modern slasher is less brainy than sensitive: The 2018 Halloween sequel was a smash with socially conscious pretensions (really it was just another watchable Halloween movie). And now we’re being treated to Christopher Landon’s Freaky, a mash-up horror flick along the lines of the director’s 2017 movie Happy Death Day, which took the temporal-loop concept of Groundhog Day and made it gruesome. Freaky is like something out of Jeopardy!’s Before and After category rendered into cinema—its full title could have been Freaky Friday the 13th. It melds the body-swap hijinks of Freaky Friday, with the body-count fetishism of Friday the 13th. The formula, derivative as it is, is a lightning bolt to the central nervous system of a subgenre that’s been on the brink of creative bankruptcy since Jason Voorhees first showed his disfigured face.
Freaky starts like a typical teen hack-’em-up, albeit a tart-tongued one with a particular flair for identity matters. A few high school students sit around outside the mansion in which one of them lives and discuss the local legend of the Blissfield Butcher, who killed a bunch of kids in the ’90s. He’s long since disappeared but his potential reemergence is perpetuated every year around homecoming. That would make him geriatric now by these kids’ standards, but as one of the girls notes: “Don’t underestimate a straight white man’s propensity for violence, I don’t care how fucking old they are.” These are sage words, as a Jason-esque masked brute soon appears to off them all. You can practically see the wheels in Landon’s and co-screenwriter Michael Kennedy’s heads turning as they devise hilariously absurd methods of death that rival the best Friday the 13th kills, including a broken-off wine bottle down one boy’s throat and a split tennis racket effectively reassembled inside one of the teen’s heads. The brazenly R-rated Freaky immediately proves itself capable of hanging with the franchise to which it owes its nihilistic pulse.
Meanwhile, Millie Kessler (Big Little Lies’s Kathryn Newton) is an outcast in her high school, mostly because, it seems, she hasn’t bothered to run a comb through her hair in some time. Newton’s conventional beauty is hard to disguise under her tangles and ill-fitting fast fashion from her widowed mother’s workplace Discount Bonanza, but Freaky moves at such a brisk pace it barely gives you a minute to ponder the warped movie logic of its setup. When news breaks that four students at Millie’s school have been murdered, she notes that their school’s homecoming game and dance are likely to be canceled, but her sassy gay friend Josh (Misha Osherovich) quips, “Please. Homecoming is like Christmas around here. They’re not canceling it.” And that is that. After all, the movie has a climax to race to.
When Millie is left stranded after a football game (she’s the school’s mascot, a beaver, which invites more derision from her peers), the Blissfield Butcher appears and attempts to murder her with a dagger he stole from the artifact-filled house in which he committed Freaky’s opening massacre. The dagger is, naturally, enchanted and the body swap commences soon after he injures Millie with it. Via the school’s Spanish teacher, Millie and her friends learn that they have 24 hours to recreate the ritual sacrifice or Millie will be in the Butcher’s body for life.
The high-concept nature of Freaky almost guarantees goofy broad strokes, but the strength of the story comes out in the finer details. In true 2020 fashion, the movie interrogates the identity implications that come from a teen girl swapping bodies with an adult man. Vince Vaughn plays the Butcher-turned-teenager with restraint—his voice is maybe a half-octave higher, his sentences turned upward, his mannerisms slightly self-conscious like he’s never known what it is to be truly comfortable in one’s skin.
Meanwhile, Newton’s performance is slightly less convincing—playing a 50-year-old man waking up in the body of a teenage girl, she cocks her head and peers up from her lowered brow in cinematic-psychopath fashion. She finds her voice along the way—one of the movie’s great joys is watching her wreak convincing havoc in a template that has been traditionally reserved for male actors, like when a bunch of boys from the football team surround her in a back room during the Homecoming dance, convinced a gang bang is imminent. Freaky manages to produce a catharsis similar to I Spit on Your Grave without resorting to morally convoluted depictions of rape.
As is the norm in a body-swap scenario, it takes some convincing for Millie’s friends to accept that she’s now inhabiting the body of a hulking man. Her friend Nyla (Celeste O’Connor) provides the moral compass, making sure Josh refers to her by the proper pronouns. As Millie pees standing up for the first time, with her friends just outside the stall, marveling at the floppy anteater between her legs, Nyla notes to Josh, “She’s got a dick in her hand and you’re wearing Chanel No. 5. Think we’re past labels.”
To me, the fun Freaky has with matters of identity felt not glib, but a thoughtful way to contemporize the body-swap trope. The script requires Millie to divulge her crush on her classmate Booker (Uriah Shelton) in order to prove her identity, which leads to a romantic scene in which Booker doesn’t flinch at the prospect of kissing the lips of someone who, hours ago, was a murdering man. It’s an optimistic reading of teenage boyhood that one would be so enlightened, but it’s also played earnestly and without comedy, suggesting that the essence of a person is what truly matters.
In scenes like that one, Freaky manages to incorporate a sense of right-side-of-history social consciousness with pith and wit. Whereas some woke-ified modern horror has all the dryness of a lecture (like last year’s abysmal Black Christmas remake), Freaky does much more with less. To Booker, Millie reflects on her experience in the body of an adult man: “It hasn’t been all bad… I felt oddly empowered being in this body. Like, invincible or kind of bad ass. I know it’s ridiculous but I guess when you’re someone like me and you’ve been bullied most of your life and put down a lot it does feel kinda good to just feel strong for once.” Freaky’s blood bath flows with the best of classic slashers, but it also wears its heart on its sleeve—no dismemberment necessary.