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Freaky

Look what finally dropped down to a reasonable rental price online.

Freaky comes to us from writer/director Christopher Landon, previously responsible for the supernatural horror Happy Death Day and its sequel. Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s a film populated with unflattering, annoying, outdated teenage stereotypes. Only this time, we hit the ground running a lot faster.

The film opens with a group of teenagers at someone’s outrageously expensive mansion, drinking and fucking as they trade stories about a local serial killer who’s somehow been around long enough to kill a new string of victims once a year since the 1970s (or the ’90s, the urban legend is unclear). Our hapless cannon fodder is then strung along to a delectably spooky score from maestro Bear McCreary, before they’re all killed off in bloody and goofy fashion. And we’re not even ten minutes in.

Yeah, this movie wastes no time letting you know what you’re in for. The opening promises a straightforward old-fashioned slasher flick in which hapless screaming teenagers are killed off by a masked killing machine for various transgressions. But there’s a twist: After the opening massacre, our slasher (known only as “The Butcher”, played by Vince Vaughn) gets his hands on an ancient ornate dagger called “La Dola”. (That’s Spanish for “the leapfrog”, fittingly enough.)

Enter Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton), a high school girl whose home life has been visibly strained since her father died a year back. I might also add that her older sister (Charlene, played by Dana Drori) is introduced in a police officer’s uniform, so I’m sure she’ll come in handy.

Millie herself has put her social life on hold (She has to miss the homecoming dance! *SHOCKED GASP!*) to spend more time with her overbearing, grief-stricken, alcoholic mother. I swear Anna and the Apocalypse ruined this whole trope for me because they did it better in one song than most others could accomplish in a whole movie. Though at least Millie’s domestic troubles provide a semi-plausible reason for how anyone who looks like freaking Kathryn Newton could possibly be a high school social outcast, so there’s that.

Anyway, at the end of the first act, Millie crosses paths with the Butcher. He stabs her with the ancient magical dagger and the two swap bodies. So now the serial killer is running around in the body of a hot teenage blonde, the helpless socially withdrawn girl is running around in the body of a middle-aged man, and our protagonist has to find a way to undo the switch before she’s blamed for someone else’s murder. Hilarity ensues.

I’ll say this much for the film: It’s built for speed. For all of Landon’s dependence on threadbare stereotypes, he deftly uses them as cinematic shorthand to convey minutes’ worth of exposition to the audience within seconds.

Though on the flip side, this does mean Misha Osherovich playing a homosexual stereotype who’s flamboyant to the point of rapey. No joke, one character explicitly calls him out as “rapey” and he just shrugs it off. And his big desperation play at the 70-minute mark… yikes.

There are definitely a few times when the filmmakers went a little too far for their own good. A key example is the freezer kill — I don’t care how badly the filmmakers wanted someone to freeze and shatter, the context makes no lick of sense. We also get a sequence set in a “haunted house”-themed mini-golf course under blacklight. That’s trying so hard, it’s just laughable.

The film was made on a reported budget of $6 million (It’s a Blumhouse flick, of course “low-risk/low-reward” was the strategy here.), and the filmmakers were visibly straining to make every dollar count. As a direct result, we get truncated action scenes (an especially pathetic car chase scene comes to mind), and sequences that draw out the tension far more than the blood. It’s certainly a valid filmmaking approach, especially when exploring such a premise as this could take up a lot of screentime, but the limitations as a horror flick are still readily apparent.

And of course it doesn’t help that the characters draw things out when they make the worst possible choices. Alas, it just isn’t a horror film (certainly not a Blumhouse horror film) until I hear myself saying “You fucking idiot!” at least once.

With all of that being said, all that really matters with this premise are the two leads, and these two are absolutely perfect. Of course Kathryn Newton has no problem playing such a well-worn teenage archetype, but she also dives into the “serial killer” role with creepy soulless aplomb like she’s playing a goddamn Terminator.

As for Vince Vaughn, say what you will about him, but the man has long since proven that he has absolutely zero shame. The man fucking commits to his job playing a teenaged girl, hamming it up without reservation. And when he’s called upon to play a bona fide monster, Vaughn does a surprisingly admirable job of that as well.

Vaughn is a very tall person and he can be imposing when the situation calls for it. Thus Millie discovers her own courage with the help of the Butcher’s physical strength. A young woman — in addition to her two best friends, a young gay man and a young black woman (Nyla, played by Celeste O’Connor) — with access to straight white cis-male privilege, and the movie only skims the surface of what that must be like.

Hell, what about the Butcher? After living one day in the shoes of a pretty teenage girl, dealing with all the sexist pressure and bullshit he’s never had to even think about — never mind live with — are we really sure he wouldn’t want to change back?

The feminist in me is curious to think of what potential ramifications the premise could lead to, beyond what the movie explores. Makes me wonder what a female director (or even a female writer) might have brought to the movie.

Anyway, of course Butcher-turned-Millie is all too eager to use her newfound feminine wiles to get her way. That said, it’s visibly obvious that the Butcher is not very practiced at using them. What’s more, the Butcher is used to being far taller and stronger than Millie, so he’s put himself in an unexpected disadvantage in a fight. So if the filmmakers didn’t completely think through the gender swap on a social or psychological level, at least they thought it through for the action sequences.

In the supporting cast, the only player of any note is Alan Ruck as a particularly dickish teacher. As a movie built on the teenage tropes of yesteryear, throwing in a supporting turn from Cameron Frye himself is definitely worth a few points.

I have to admire Freaky for being bold, if nothing else. There’s definitely something to be said for a movie that knows exactly what it is, goes hard and fast in that direction, and makes no apology for it. Even so, it’s frustrating that the premise and the supporting cast invite all sorts of possibilities for commentary on race and gender politics, and the best that any of those topics get is a surface-level acknowledgment before getting brushed off. In the worst case scenario, we get… well, basically everything involving the gay best friend. Seriously, gay characters in a horror movie dependent on outdated teenage stereotypes just don’t mix.

For better or worse, this is a straightforward slasher flick with a body-swap gimmick. It’s not here to make any kind of sociopolitical statement, it’s just here for a few basic horror/comedy thrills. It works fine on those merits, the filmmakers do a commendable job of working within their shoestring budget, and the film is worth seeing just for Newton and Vaughn.

Check the movie out. You’ll know within the first ten minutes if it’s right for you.

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