Freaky: What Will I Be?, by David Bax
If there was ever a time when merely being self-aware was enough to make a horror movie seem cool or smart (like, say, the 90s), that time has long passed. For an entire generation of horror fans raised on Scream and its many snarky descendants, irony is now nearly the default. For some of us, the result is an automatic skepticism about large swaths of the horror-comedy subgenre. Christopher Landon’s Freaky mercifully begins to overcome such doubts right away. The first death in the movie is preceded by a clever series of teases, repeatedly priming us for jump scares that don’t show up, denoting Landon’s deft hand with the film language of horror, not just the plotting. Eventually, Freaky will make good on the promise of these opening scenes by using its high concept to explore bigger ideas than its own self-satisfaction.
After the massacre of the prologue, the killer–known as the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn)–sets out again the next night to claim another life. This time, he lands on Millie (Kathryn Newton), an awkward kid with an only mildly functional family and two loyal best friends (Celeste O’Connor and Misha Osherovich). But the Butcher has the misfortune of choosing as his weapon a cursed dagger that, instead of dispatching Millie, causes killer and victim to switch bodies.
So Freaky is a genre mash-up, both slasher flick and body swap movie. Winningly, it pays homage to both modes equally. Of course, there’s the body swap comedy of Millie’s mom unknowingly serving pancakes to a mass murderer or Vaughn trying to convince Millie’s terrified friends that she just looks like a hulking, unkempt psychopath. But Freaky is also a textbook slasher movie, not so much scary as a showcase for a series of gory, creative kills.
Landon and his co-screenwriter Michael Kennedy know their stuff and they endeavor to prove it by stuffing Freaky with references to its predecessors. As in the aforementioned Scream, the events take place exactly one year after the death of one of the protagonist’s parents. The rendition of “Que Sera, Sera” that plays as the Butcher-in-Millie’s-body enters the high school is reminiscent of the opening titles of Heathers. When the murders lead to the cancellation of a big event, the students stage their own unofficial version on the outskirts of town, just like in My Bloody Valentine. And there are probably many more this casual horror fan missed.
Freaky has plenty of grisly deaths for pretty young people and plenty more dark comedy but it might actually be most shocking in the area where it’s the most reverent. The film never forgets that, no matter how they look, the Butcher identifies as male and Millie as female; when one character accidentally refers to the Butcher as “she” just because he’s in Millie’s body, the admonishment “Pronouns!” comes immediately. That’s a laugh line, of course, but it’s not a mocking one. On the contrary, Freaky finds novel ways–Millie being able to defend herself with the Butcher’s size; the Butcher discovering he can disarm victims with Millie’s looks–to illustrate that gender and sex are two different things.
There are a lot of ingredients in the mix here but Landon never lets things get too dark, too violent, too meta or too preachy. With its peppy cast and its brilliant, social media-hued color palette, Freaky never forgets to be anything less than a fun time.