Before Freaky even introduces its high concept body-swap premise, director Christopher Landon delivers a whole slasher film in miniature. As a few haughty teenagers swap horror stories at a slumber party, debating the reality of “The Blissfield Butcher,” their worst fears turn out to be true. A hulking, masked intruder swiftly dispatches the adolescents in inventive ways (death by tennis racket) before removing his mask for the benefit of the audience. The punchline, revealing the murderer of some milquetoast Gen Zers to be an outspoken Hollywood Libertarian, Vince Vaughn, is endemic of Freaky’s approach. It conflates ideas and throws them at the audience with great abandon, and that’s a large part of the fun.
Millie (Kathryn Newton) is going through it. She’s taken a huge confidence dip since her dad passed a year ago, and her mom’s alcoholism is getting worse, telegraphed through an empty bottle of wine in the trash. Now, every school day is an endurance test, as she’s hooted at by passers by in the hall and bullied by a mean girl Ryler (Melissa Collazo), along with a teacher (Alan Ruck, transferring his Succession clout into this horrible character — you could even say he’s an inverse of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’s Cameron Frye ). Things don’t get any better for Millie when she is attacked by The Blissfield Butcher after school. Through a welcome plot contrivance, the plunging of a knife causes the soul of Newton’s character to swap with the killer. Now, Millie is stuck inside Vaughn’s body trying to evade the police, while The Blissfield Butcher, in Millie’s body, gives herself a makeover in order to look great when she goes out murdering. Before long, “Que Sera, Sera” blasts on the soundtrack as Butcher/Millie struts into school in a red leather jacket that complements the school’s light blue palate.
Read More at VV — Know the Cast: ‘Freaky’
Even from Landon’s first film Burning Palms, a Todd Solondz-lite discomfort comedy about middle-class Californians, the Freaky director has displayed an uncanny knack for taking a known quantity and repackaging it for his own needs. In a confectionary way, this is no bad thing. Landon’s Paranormal Activity sequels pushed the digital aesthetic of the films to new spaces, a kind of Blumhouse Slow Cinema. Happy Death Day and its sequel, Happy Death Day 2 U, retooled Groundhog Day into a slasher film, and Disturbia (which Landon wrote but didn’t direct) is an ingenious remix of Rear Window that cements the persona of then-rising star Shia LaBeouf while commenting on post-9/11 erosion of civil liberties. Landon succeeds because he doesn’t play the reference game. You don’t need to have seen his previous films to get the riff, because these are such indelible high-concepts to be easily cut-and-pasted to any genre. Landon just got there first. With Freaky, his concepts are “Freaky Friday” and “Vince Vaughn.” Half of the work is done already.
But for a film that’s so self-aware in concept, some of Freaky’s micro elements are half-baked placeholders that one might expect in a less inspired slasher flick. “Homecoming is like Christmas around here,” Millie says for the audience’s benefit, as if to explain the nauseous level of candy-coloured confetti and Dionysian teenage frivolity at the prospect of a school dance. Even though Millie is a shy girl constantly battling the pestering of bullies, she performs in a Chipmunk costume as the school mascot, with Landon signaling that she’ll be wearing another skin soon enough. The nuts and bolts rarely make sense, because they are in service of a larger project: the rehabilitation of Mr. Vaughn.
Read More at VV — Soundtracks of Cinema: ‘Freaky’
Though once prone to give compelling performances, like his Antony Perkins simulation in Psycho, Vaughn spent the Bush era draining his clout as the dependable comic leading man. However, the highs of Dodgeball and Wedding Crashers were replaced with the lows of The Dilemma and The Internship. So, Vaughn attempted a change in course through gritty crime projects like True Detective and Dragged Across Concrete. He even received good notices in a Mel Gibson film. This later phase of the Vaughn’s career coincided with the rise of Donald Trump, and his own increasingly outspoken conservatism. Vaughn’s personal life and choice of projects has undoubtably alienated him from the younger cinema-going public that is weary of polarized America. And although Vaughn’s turn as the cold-blooded killer is fairly limited in Freaky, he lights up when Millie inhabits his body. The six-foot-something actor swings his hands around as her, inflecting his voice with a touch of vocal fry that doesn’t condescend but actually captures the contradictions of this young woman trapped in a middle-aged man’s body.
This makes for some great gags when Millie learns how to wee with a penis for the first time. “So I wipe?” s/he says, before slapping a presumably hose-like member against each side of the bathroom stall with a sly smirk on their face. More boldly, Freaky directly indulges in a queer narrative regarding Millie as Vaughn’s crush on one of the football team. At the very least, it seems like Vaughn is trying to understand a point of view outside of his own, and this is the least dead behind the eyes he’s seemed in quite some time. Freaky is uneven, but it has moments of magic. Yet, one cannot help but worry for Landon. In carving out a space as the reinterpretor of high concept Hollywood as Horror, Landon may find that his endlessly generative style becomes benign. What will be next to get the horror makeover treatment? You’ve Got Mail? Lost in Translation? Moonlight?
Ben Flanagan (@manlikeflan) is a film critic and programmer based in London.