Freaky December 21, 2020
1 Hr., 41 Mins.
hen the two women at the center of 2003’s Freaky Friday — a teenager and her mother — realized they somehow switched bodies overnight, the nightmarish reality was humorously confirmed in the morning when the mother (daughter?), played by Jamie Lee Curtis, looked at herself in the mirror, her face gnarled in raisin-esque agony, and screamed, “I’m old — I look like the Crypt Keeper!” A
horrible realization, to be sure. But in comparison to the switch in Freaky,
a new movie that gives the Freaky Friday conceit a slasher-film twist, Curtis and Lindsay Lohan’s body swap was a vacation. In Freaky, a teenage girl and a serial killer who attempts to murder her one evening are the ones doing the internal loop de loop. It’s a trade-off to be blamed not on a meddling old woman with magical fortune cookies at her disposal (like in Freaky Friday) but an apparently ancient (and cursed) blade the would-be killer stole a few days ago and has unwisely started using as his preferred weapon.
Kathryn Newton is Milly, the teenage girl. Vaughn is the Blissfield Butcher, who has been terrorizing the town from which he gets his urban legend-esque name intermittently for the last couple of decades. In Freaky, the pair have just 24 hours to switch back before they get stuck in each other’s bodies for the rest of their mortal lives. (The maker of this blade sure wanted to cause trouble.) Milly-as-Butcher teams up with her best friends (Celeste O’Connor and Misha Osherovich) to improvise their way out of this waking bad dream. Characteristic for co-writer and director Christopher Landon, who is best known for the Happy Death Day franchise (which put a slasher-movie twist on the Groundhog Day conceit — Landon loves putting scary spins on beloved comedies), the film finds a comfortable middle-ground between comedy and horror. It’s lighter and softer than the Scream movies (1996-2011) — the collective acme of the horror-comedy combo. Comparatively, it’s almost sweet.
The comedy in Freaky never renders the expected kill-offs cutesy. They’re as inventive as something you’d find in a straight-laced slasher, gleefully using tennis racquets and table saws as alternatives to the usual assembly of machetes and butcher knives. And the horror never gets so horrible that there comes a point we can’t laugh at the movie anymore. Freaky is careful — almost contrivedly so — that when Milly, possessed by the Blissfield Butcher, unavoidably murders people, it’s only people who “deserve” it (e.g., Milly’s chief bully; a teacher who humiliates her in front of the class) who are targeted. When these deserving parties are offed, there are always no witnesses. There is always, though, a superfluity of people who notice that the Butcher, possessed by Milly, is wandering around the premises.
It’s all so tidy that we almost laugh at the neatness; there never comes a point where we actually worry Milly’s reputation is going to be sullied or her soul forever trapped in the wrong place. But, of course, if we were ever genuinely worried about potential life-ruining happenings watching Freaky, it wouldn’t work — it's horror as slapstick. In some ways, it’s less anxiety-inducing than Freaky Friday, a movie where friendships, looming weddings, and budding music careers were decisively up in the air. Freaky is a farce colored in red — more excitingly adventuresome than scary.
Things are held together by Newton and Vaughn’s admirably committed performances. In early scenes, where Newton is still in the correct body, she’s a little unconvincing. It's like she’s been instructed to play a shy, bullied girl and is doing her best imitation of one. I don't know her temperament, but she suggests an exuberant extrovert playing against what she knows. (The character and her family are also grieving: the patriarch died a while ago, and Mom has turned to the bottle to ease her sorrow; the film fairly seamlessly embeds this emotional element in the otherwise all-thrills narrative.) But once Milly has been possessed by a bad guy, it’s as if a spark’s been lit within Newton. She's given a shockingly stylish makeover by her possessor, who thinks Milly looks particularly cool wearing a James Dean-evoking leather jacket from her sister's closet, a tight ponytail, and blood-red lipstick rather than her usual baggy art-school raiment. The petite and nimble Newton easily complements her new look with an eager, go-for-broke physicality that suggests action heroism. She’s a natural at bolting around with a mission. Persuasively intimidating with a perpetually raptorial look in her eyes, she’s like Lauren Bacall reimagined as a bloodthirsty action star.
I wasn’t expecting it, but Vaughn gives one of his best performances in Freaky.
One hears of Vaughn having to pretend to be a teenage girl and the immediate thought is that he’s going to attempt it in a way more undergirded by mockery than a vested interest in believable personification. He’s built a career on mostly guys-being-guys comedies — often ones where he seemed to be phoning it in. Jack Black was memorably given a similar task to Vaughn in Freaky with 2017’s Jumanji (he, too, played a teenage girl thanks to hard-to-explain magic in it). But when word traveled ahead of the film’s release of what he was going to be doing, there was never a doubt he’d give it his all. Black, unlike Vaughn, is a performer who has over the years remained feverishly committed to making his audience unequivocally believe in him when he’s doing something absurd. Black is so good at making us laugh because he can temporarily convince us that he isn’t in on the joke. You laugh at him in part because you can’t believe how far he’s willing to go to keep you giggly — his dedication rarely swerves into unbelievable cartoonishness, either.
In Freaky, Vaughn is about as good as Black was in Jumanji, and it's what, I think, makes the movie unmissable. His performance suggests he spent a lot of time before shooting hanging out with Newton, making sure he got her girlish affectations down. It's the kind of comedy performance that stays with you because Vaughn’s commitment never loses its novelty. Even when he sporadically has to coquettishly scream in terror, it’s not the scream of someone copying someone else’s. You can’t believe how touched you are when Milly-as-the-Butcher tells her crush (Uriah Shelton) that it’s been empowering being in this 6’5” body. Or when, when the movie has Vaughn and Shelton kiss (Milly’s crush is nicely more interested in her essence than anything), it’s earnestly played, not fodder for a laugh. It’s an extension of, and a complement to, Vaughn and the movie’s devotion to being absurd without forgoing the heartfelt. It’s almost like the latter scene is here because in the hands of someone other than Landon it would have the lift of a joke. Landon wants to show that through his lens, that’s not going to be the case. The movie has a lot of fun subverting our expectations.
Freaky’s frankly insane conceit works mostly because of Vaughn and Newton, equally fervent in making sure there isn’t a stuntishness to their acting — something that has also helped Freaky Friday and other classic persona-switching comedies (from 1959’s Some Like It Hot to 1983’s Tootsie) endure. A movie with a gimmicky premise almost always persists when its performers play it with sincerity. Freaky, while more escapist than essential, made for one of the most enjoyable moviegoing experiences I’ve had this year. I try not to think about how I would likely have had an even better time if I had been watching it with a receptive crowd. B+