It’s been exactly three years and one month since movie fans discovered Happy Death Day, a high-concept horror-comedy from (then) little-known writer/director Christopher Landon.
That Landon is back, on Friday the 13th, no less, with another high-concept horror-comedy isn’t the takeaway here. The big news is that Happy Death Day was absolutely not a fluke (and yes, we’re choosing to ignore Happy Death Day 2 U, which wasn’t awful but didn’t thrill quite the same way).
But Freaky, a wickedly funny twist on the familiar body-swap fantasy genre, is better, bloodier and more balls-out than anything Landon has done before. And it gives Vince Vaughn one of the best roles of his career, allowing him to be both vicious and vulnerable in ways that you’ve never seen.
A hallmark of Landon’s best work is always razor-sharp, socially aware dialogue, and Freaky, which he co-wrote with Michael Kennedy, comes out swinging for the fences.
The film opens with four high school students gathered at a mean girl’s mansion while her “relic hunter” father is out for the night. As they sit around a fire pit, one of the male students shares the tale of the Blissfield Butcher, a local urban legend. His buddy chortles, dismissing what he calls a ‘geriatric serial killer.’
“Don’t underestimate a straight white male’s propensity for violence,” the mean girl snaps.
Minutes later, the Blissfield Butcher has decimated the crew with an astounding array of highly creative weapons, including a wine bottle, a toilet seat lid and a tribal spear.
Kudos to Landon for leaning heavily into the gore allowed with an “R” rating. If there was one complaint about Happy Death Day, which was PG-13, it was the near complete absence of blood and carnage. In Freaky, Landon not only gifts fans a dizzying slew of demises, but he goes old-school, allowing practical effects to shine in lieu of CGI.
While at the mean girl’s house, the Butcher (Vaughn) picks up an ancient dagger from her dad’s collection, and it’s that blade that plays a pivotal role in helping the Butcher and Millie (Kathryn Newton) swap bodies, and awareness.
Newton, so good in Supernatural, shines as a nerdy bookworm still reeling from the death of her father a year earlier. She has two best friends, Nyla (Celeste O’Connor), a young black female, and Josh (Misha Osherovich), who is openly gay and gets some of the best lines throughout Freaky.
“I love your black wiener, Mr. Daniels,” Josh says at one point to a Black teacher walking a dachshund.
Josh also gets the privilege of coining Millie as “murder Barbie,” after her true identity becomes known.
But the real powerhouse here is Vaughn. From the second he wakes up in his decrepit murder house after stabbing Millie with the dagger, and realizes that he is Millie, only stuck in the hulking 6-foot-4 frame of a deranged murderer, Vaughn is on fire.
Whether sitting in a bathroom stall and reading graffiti about Millie — “I am not a cock gobbler” — or waxing poetic about the virtue of urinating while standing upright — “This is like three gallons of pee! This guy’s bladder is huge!" — Vaughn never breaks character.
You believe he’s a 17-year-old girl, and it’s glorious.
Freaky also excels at genuine, surprisingly tender moments. At one point, Vaughn is trapped in a women’s changing room, and ends up talking to Millie’s mother, who works there, through the door, about the depth of pain from her husband’s death. Later, Vaughn shares an incredibly heartfelt sequence with Booker (Uriah Shelton), Millie’s long-unspoken high school crush, who doesn’t care that Millie’s soul has suddenly appeared in Vaughn’s body.
If there’s any question why I have been calling Landon the “John Hughes” of horror-comedies for years, that’s why.
Much like Hughes, Landon has a gift for creating characters that aren’t caricatures. They feel real. They know angst and heartbreak, but not too much. You feel as if you’re watching people you know, having conversations you too have had, even as they traverse incredible and outlandish situations.
Freaky is just on another level, entirely.
It’s stupid good, and a major step up for Landon, whose career is poised to go supernova as a result.
John W. Allman has spent more than 25 years as a professional journalist and writer, but he’s loved movies his entire life. Good movies, awful movies, movies that are so gloriously bad you can’t help but champion them. Since 2009, he has cultivated a review column and now a website dedicated to the genre films that often get overlooked and interviews with cult cinema favorites like George A. Romero, Bruce Campbell and Dee Wallace. Contact him at Blood Violence and Babes.com, on Facebook @BloodViolenceBabes or on Twitter @BVB_reviews.