With 2017’s “Happy Death Day,” director Christopher Landon helmed a zippy take on the slasher film, depositing archetypal gore into the comedic premise of “Groundhog Day.” Thanks to buoyant writing and Jessica Rothe’s capable performance, “Happy Death Day” manages an upbeat genre fusion that smartly skirts overindulgence. “Freaky,” which Landon also co-wrote, clearly aims for — and largely achieves — a similarly charming spin, this time pairing horror tropes with the body-swap device of “Freaky Friday.”
The swap in question occurs when the “Blissfield Butcher” (Vince Vaughn) — a small-town serial killer who gets his kicks murking debaucherous teenagers — stabs wallflower Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton) with a mystical dagger. The knife causes both parties to wake up Friday (the 13th, of course) inside the wrong body, with only 24 hours to reverse the mix-up. While the Butcher enjoys the predatory advantage of being a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Millie teams up with friends to prevent the killer from massacring her classmates and, thanks to the built-in power that accompanies walking around in a white man’s body, rediscovers her self-confidence while she’s at it.
“Freaky” lives and dies by its high-concept gimmick, carried by Vaughn and Newton’s game performances. As Millie, Vaughn occasionally retreats to the domain of easy shtick, flapping his arms around and firing off a few breathy “OMG”s. For the most part, however, Vaughn’s teenage girl is taken seriously, and he ably embodies the endearing shyness established by Newton in her introductory scenes.
Newton herself is given less to work with. The Butcher is somewhat of a nonentity, a purposeful amalgam of Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and the like that doesn’t even speak before the character switch occurs. Newton tackles this blank slate with enviable commitment, resulting in a fun, if whiplash-inducing, portrayal that vacillates between “taciturn zombie” and “femme fatale.”
It seems that Newton, as well as the film itself, most relishes her character’s murder sequences, which focus on serving Millie’s bullies their just desserts. The Butcher’s lack of a signature weapon — he simply uses whatever’s available at the scene of the crime — lays the groundwork for some pleasantly gruesome and self-consciously creative kills (a wine bottle, freezer and woodshop classroom provide the high points here). Laurie Rose’s cinematography further augments the campiness, rendering high school hallways and rowdy teen parties in bright, candylike colors. The barefaced zealousness of these sequences admittedly stymies any efforts to build lasting tension, but it’s hard not to be engaged when Landon is clearly having so much fun playing around in the slasher sandbox.
The film’s commitment to exaggerated comedy and carnage is thankfully balanced with moments that provide a more earnest character arc for Millie. The romantic connection between Vaughn’s Millie and her crush Booker (Uriah Shelton) is played refreshingly straight, infused with teenage naiveté rather than the cheap jokes that a lesser film might rely on. Other dialogue that touches on gender roles also remains nicely tactful, even if the film seems a little reticent to delve deeper into these themes: The Butcher uses people’s dismissal of Millie to his advantage, just as Millie translates the respect and fear afforded to adult men into renewed inner strength. Such quieter segments do leagues more to sell Millie’s progression than the contrived familial discord thinly outlined by the script — one of a few cliches that “Freaky” falls back on instead of interrogating.
“Freaky” finds more glee in playing with well-known slasher beats than in constructing anything radically new. The slaughters, as well as the boilerplate stock characters given to an otherwise capable supporting cast, carry an incontrovertible familiarity that will flatline for some. Still, a killer lead duo and a well-utilized twist separate “Freaky” as something more than the sum of its murderous parts. Should Landon want to take a stab at the film’s not-so-subtly-teased sequel, we’d be hard-pressed to call it overkill.