for strong bloody horror violence, sexual content, and language throughout
Kathryn Newton, Vince Vaughn, Celeste O'Connor, Misha Osherovich, Uriah Shelton
Universal Pictures on
Blumhouse has an uncanny ability to identify projects that sound compelling on paper but are less attractive when watched on-screen. Freaky is the latest of these. Originally dubbed Freaky Friday the 13th, the movie weds traditional slasher film tropes with the body-swapping conceit of Freaky Friday (and countless similarly-themed comedies). This time, instead of a mother and daughter spending a day in each other's shoes (literally), the swap is between a shy high school student and a mangy serial killer. Sounds like a can't-miss proposition, right? Yet, like too many of Blumhouse's can't-miss propositions, this one somehow misses.
Freaky opens with a spot-on '80s slasher film prologue (borrowing, perhaps, from Wes Craven's Scream). Two high school couples are gathered together to look forward to Blissfield Valley High's annual Homecoming Dance while recounting urban legends about the "Blissfield Butcher," who may or may not have committed unspeakable deeds in years past. On cue, almost as if he's Candyman, said Blissfield Butcher (played by Vince Vaughn) makes an appearance and commits unspeakable deeds on the four soon-dead teenagers.
Cut to the estrogen-laden household of Millie (Kathryn Newton), who lives with her widowed mother, Coral (Katie Finneran), and police officer sister, Charlene (Dana Drori). Attractive and studious, Millie isn't a member of her school's "in" circle. She has two equally ostracized friends, Nyla (Celeste O'Connor) and Josh (Misha Osherovich), who hang around with her but are of no hope late one night when she's all alone and comes face-to-face with the Blissfield Butcher. When she's cornered, she fights back and the magical dagger wielded by the Butcher somehow stabs them both. The next morning, they awaken in each other's bodies. Millie learns that she has 24 hours to reverse the spell or she'll be stuck inside Vince Vaughn forever. She also has the difficult task of convincing her friends that she's not a very tall mass murderer. The Butcher has it comparably easy since he can now use Millie's squeaky-clean image as a front for a killing spree.
There are some fun moments. Best line of the movie? When Millie's friends are running from the Butcher (actually Millie), one of them shouts: "You're black! I'm gay! We are so dead!" This is the kind of meta thing that Scream did exceptionally well and if there had been a little more of it in Freaky, the screenplay might have popped. It's amazing what a bunch of quotable lines can do for a script. The murders are suitably gruesome and, in some cases, inventive. If you've ever been squeamish about the circular saw in woodcrafting class, Freaky offers justification for the nervousness.
Pacing issues abound. Although most of Freaky proceeds at a breakneck clip, there are interludes when it takes too much time attempting (with minimal success) to develop emotional connections that don't work. A couple of these character-based scenes bring the film's momentum to a standstill. While it's possible for a horror movie to incorporate elements of pathos, it's a tricky thing to do and thus far, writer/director Christopher Landon hasn't shown an aptitude for it - not here or in his other two Blumhouse successes, Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2U.
Although there's nothing nuanced about Vince Vaughn's turn as the gender-altered Millie, he conveys the sense of someone uncomfortable in a new body - not unlike Jack Black in the recent Jumanji films. Kathryn Newton provides a more intriguing portrayal, channeling not only the Butcher's homicidal tendencies but capturing his annoyance at no longer having the overpowering physicality of his former self. Both actors have some fun moments related to their unfamiliar genders. The Butcher seems fascinated by his boobs and Millie discovers the benefits (and pitfalls) of being able to pee while standing up. Some of the more serious (and non-homicidal) scenes recall Prelude to a Kiss (a gender-swapping movie in which Meg Ryan switches bodies with an old man).
Although the movie leaves a lot of stones unturned (both in the comedy and horror arenas), there's enough spattered blood to satisfy fans of the latter and a sufficiently light tone to assuage those who don't like unleavened tension and grimly-delivered gore. Freaky feels like a throw-away and, considering the way Universal has elected to distribute it (releasing it into a pandemic-retarded climate where finding an audience will be difficult even given its target demographic and the lack of competition), that's what it may end up being.
© 2020 James Berardinelli
Cinemas About Town