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There’s a stinging sense of cruelty to just how much fun one can squeeze from the high-concept comedy horror Freaky, a film that most of us won’t get to enjoy with the large, audibly reactive audience it so demands, a giddy crowd-pleaser that will only get to please the smallest of crowds. Its entertainment value is bittersweet, as thrilling to watch as it is melancholy to think on, another wistful reminder that communal experiences such as the cinema are difficult, if not impossible, in many places, to come upon at this moment. But if you do have a chance to see it, safely, and modestly, on the big screen (it’s forgoing a multi-platform premiere), then I still recommend it highly, for even an imperfect consumption will provide more pleasure than most films have this year, a November surprise that we all truly deserve.
Like the writer-director Christopher Landon’s 2017 sleeper hit Happy Death Day, Freaky is a throwback slasher spliced together with the plot of a much-loved family-friendly comedy and while his murder loop Groundhog Day homage was patchy but pacey enough (and a masterpiece in comparison with its God-awful sequel), second time proves more of a charm, creases smoothly ironed out. The classic being thrown into the blender on this occasion is Freaky Friday, explaining the otherwise off-putting title, with Landon swapping the bodies of killer and victim – a smart conceit that also yields even smarter results. And this is what is most refreshing about his work here, that he doesn’t just rely on his gimmicky elevator pitch to sell an entire movie but instead delves deeper, elevating a “what if?” punchline into something surprisingly substantial, even soulful perhaps, a rare Saturday night schlock horror with more on its mind than mere mayhem.
High schooler Millie (Blockers and Big Little Lies rising star Kathryn Newton) is not exactly comfortable in her own skin. At home, she is dealing with the loss of her father and a mother who isn’t coping while at school, she is the put-upon football mascot, bullied by girls and rejected by boys (somehow the most far-fetched element in a film about a mystical body swap is that Newton is an awkward, unattractive nerd). When she sees a creepy figure late at night, she runs while also resigned to the fact that, knowing her luck, she is going to be killed, always the supporting character, never the lead. But when Millie is thrown to the ground, something else happens. Her attacker, notorious local legend the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn) stabs her with a magic dagger that causes their bodies to switch by the next day … Friday the 13th.
While Happy Death Day ultimately crumbled within the restrictive nature of its neutered, sleepover-ready PG-13 rating (a film with so many deaths yet so little blood), Landon, and the co-writer Michael Kennedy have convinced Universal, and horror factory Blumhouse, to let them run riot with an R this time round, an important, fan-friendly upgrade they make the most of from the very first scene. In a slick cold open, Vaughn’s infamous killer slaughters a group of teens in a variety of inventively gnarly ways, establishing an “anything goes” tone that trickles down to their equally free-spirited exploration of gender and sexuality. Body swap films have often found room for light commentary on class and gender yet Freaky pushes just that bit further, beyond the obvious reveals (although yes, urinating while standing is a superpower Millie discovers), updating the formula with a cool contemporary edge. Those who demean Millie, such as a creepy, callous teacher (played by Alan Ruck) or the boys who try to take advantage of her sexually, are instant targets when she turns killer as a man discovers just how other men treat young women, violent rage the obvious response. While as a lumbering 6’5” man, Millie gains strength, physically and emotionally, the film-making for an oddly effective argument for the importance of combining both masculine and feminine energies.
Its progressive nature is noteworthy yet casual, Landon understanding that young characters don’t need to over-explain and justify their wokeness to be woke (a lesson last year’s heinous remake of Black Christmas failed to figure out). In one of the most deftly handled subplots, Millie – as a man – finally gains the courage to reveal her crush on a jock in school and, despite her masculine shell, the pair continue to flirt and even, in one impressively handled scene, kiss. The fluidity of the dynamic reflects the fluidity of the film as a whole, an unrestrained and unconventional eye-opener wrapped up in glossy studio packaging. As wild as some of the content might be though, at least within the territory, there is strict control over pace and plotting, no room for extraneous blubber, just exactly what is needed to entertain us and keep us invested. It’s packed with ideas and nifty touches yet never falls into smugness, Landon aware of his talents without being cocksure.
The body swap subgenre is also something of a dream for actors, a unique challenge that gives them the chance not only to be someone else but the chance to be someone else being someone else. Newton, with the less showier of roles, is an effectively ferocious killer, her determined stalk and icy death stare making up for her minimal dialogue. But it’s Vaughn who steals it with career-best work, a surprisingly impactful and, at times, moving turn that goes way beyond the surface silliness of the setup. Too often, male actors in a similar scenario (such as Jack Black in Jumanji) play a girl in a man’s body as high camp, leaning into hoary gay affectations, mincing around while doing a high-pitched voice. But Vaughn is so much more studied than that, focusing on more specific aspects (the biting of nails, an awkward, never not funny, run, how a change in size then changes behaviour), realising that not all girls act in the same cliched way. It’s a marvellous, thoughtful performance from an actor who’s been doing so very little for so long, and he owes Landon a great swell of gratitude for gifting him with such a doozy of a role.
It’s just a rare joy to see a film-maker scrambling together overused tropes and making something so vibrant and vital as a result, an exciting and unexpected studio movie with a brain, some guts and a heart. Freaky might have made me a little sad for the ebullient big crowd I’ll never get to see it with but it also made me look forward to the future, when films as big and as clever as this will bring us all together once again.
Source: The Guardian
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