"Great. We're gonna be killed by Murder Barbie" - Josh
There’s nothing better than getting more than you bargained for, and this is certainly the case with Freaky, a film that almost slipped under my radar.
At first glance, I dismissed it as just another reimagining of Freaky Friday – a body swap comedy that had already been remade once, and I’ve seen neither version so far. Basically, a young girl swaps bodies with her mother and they see each other from the other’s perspective in a heart-warming comedy. (Of course, it’s heart-warming, it’s Disney)
My interest was piqued when I realised that while this IS a reimagining of that concept, it’s a horror-based reimagining. Better yet, it’s a Blumhouse production. That’s what sold this film to me. Blumhouse Productions are responsible for bringing some of the best horror movies of the last several years to cinema screens. Among my personal favourites are The Invisible Man remake that blew me away last year, Happy Death Day, Split, The Hunt and so on. They’re kind of a seal of quality for us horror fans.
Horror comedy can be problematic to bring to the screen, although the emotions are closely linked it takes skill to pull off a film that both evokes fearful unease and laughter. Hitchcock was a master of using comedy as a valve to relieve pent up tension, but films like Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and Love at First Bite are broad comedies which pay homage to the Universal classics of the thirties, and don’t involve horror in any way, any more than really Munster Go Home did. Blumhouse have a proven track record of walking this fine line of horrific comedy, or comedic horror without lapsing into broad parody in a gothic setting. They did it in Happy Death Day, and they did it with an added satirical edge in The Hunt. Speaking of Happy Death Day – Freaky is the latest offering by the same director, Christopher Landon. We’re in good hands – and it shows from the first frame.
The film begins with four teenagers discussing the local legend of the Blissfield Butcher, and whether he’s real or an urban legend. Teens being teens, naturally, they’re sceptical about EVERYTHING. Until their reverie is interrupted by the Blissfield Butcher himself. A large, imposing figure wearing a mark that seems to be a hockey mask made of leathery human skin – a disturbing cross of Jason Voorhees and Leatherface (the original title of this film was Freaky Friday the Thirteenth, which would’ve worked) and we’re straight into classic eighties slasher movie mode. The kills, the walk, the head tilt while watching a victim breathe their last – they’re all classic Friday the 13th cues, all pure Kane Hodder mannerisms (which led me to feel that it’s a shame Hodder himself wasn’t cast as the Butcher). During this attack, the Butcher (Vince Vaughn) steals an ancient dagger, without knowing really what he’s stealing – dude just wants a weapon, I guess.
We meet our second protagonist, high school student Millie (Kathryn Newton). Millie is an outsider. She doesn’t fit in, she’s studious, lives with her recently widowed mother and older sister who’s a cop. Her social circle is limited to only two friends, Nyla and Josh. She’s bullied at school, ostracised and her chances of going to college are limited by her sense of duty not to leave her needy mother who’s leaning towards alcoholism.
And at this point, you’d be justified in wondering where the comedy is in this horror film. Just wait and see.
After an night time high school football game, where she’s dressed up as a beaver mascot, Millie is waiting for a ride home, when she’s cornered by the Butcher and attacked. The Butcher uses the stolen dagger to stab Millie – but only gets her in the shoulder – simultaneously, the same wound appears on his shoulder. The dagger has a magical property to swap bodies, and now we have a situation, where the Butcher, who escapes capture, wakes up the following morning in Millie’s body. He’s wandering around the house choosing an outfit, while regarding both Millie’s sister and mother as potential victims – because as a psychopathic serial killer, all he knows is how to murder people – now he’s in a teenaged girl’s body. And that’s pretty sinister.
Meanwhile, Millie wakes up in The Butcher’s lair, a filthy mattress on the floor of a long disused mill, inhabited by drug addicts – and she’s both terrified and disgusted by everything she sees. And the hulking Vaughn’s performance as essentially a frail teenaged girl is just downright hilarious.
The juxtaposition of both characters as their opposites is incredibly well handled, as is the juggling of horror with a teen comedy. Although a lot of credit must be given to Vince Vaughn for his performance, just as much credit and kudos – actually, maybe even more – must be given to Kathryn Newton as with changes in expression and gesture, she perfectly expresses that she is now an imposing man of around 6’ 6 in a girl’s body – she becomes the embodiment of menace as she manipulates those around her by affecting the tone of a teenaged girl, but her eyes just gleam with malevolence, while Vaughn is hapless and helpless in his role. He has the powerful build, but the perfect “deer caught in headlights” expression as he tries to persuade Nyla and Josh that he’s really Millie in a psycho’s body.
Worse – they only have twenty-four hours to swap back or the change becomes permanent, and The Butcher is enjoying his new body because as a teenager, he’s free to lure other teenagers to their deaths, and as a teenage girl, he can murder in his Butcher style while being above suspicion because well, he’s a teenage girl. And if Millie, in The Butcher’s body is caught and imprisoned or executed – he gets a fresh start.
I’ve rarely seen a horror comedy carried out this well, this effectively. I give it a big thumbs up.
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