The new horror-comedy Freaky (in theaters November 13) could easily have coasted on its kicky premise: it’s Freaky Friday, except our teen heroine swaps bodies not with her nagging mother, but with a hulking slasher-movie serial killer. That’s a fertile enough setup up to lazily mine for scares and humor. But writer-director Christopher Landon (who also made Happy Death Day, a horror-comedy riff on Groundhog Day) is not satisfied with simple, predictable laughs. He expands Freaky’s elevator pitch into something rather rich, a riotously funny, odd, and curiously sweet burst of cinematic verve.  

Crucially, Landon finds a nuance lying beneath the obvious jokes. When high schooler Millie (Kathryn Newton) is attacked by the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn), who wields a mystical ancient dagger stolen from a mansion in the film’s bloody cold open, the two switch corporeal forms. This could lead the film into territory lucratively covered (in financial terms, at least) in the recent Jumanji films: Vaughn need only make a silly show of stereotypical teenage girl vocal tics and physicality—way more mocking than loving—and figure his job done. We may even expect that of an actor like Vaughn, who has made a mint over the years appealing to audiences’ appetite for brash male chauvinism, so often targeted at women. 

Vaughn, though, takes a more subtle tack here. He seems to have genuinely worked with Newton, to have studied her in some non-leering sense, and channels all that particular observation into his performance. Yes, it is plainly amusing to watch tall, broad Vaughn run around pretending to be a scared and confused teenager, trying desperately to convince Millie’s friends that he’s not the murderer stalking their town. But that run is carefully calibrated. It’s deft physical comedy rather than dopey, inexact flailing. Vocally, too, Vaughn reins in any impulse toward the outsized. There is a genuine affection put toward the transformative task set before him, which lends Freaky a strangely poignant dimension. 

The film has a lot of gender discourse to juggle, at a time when conversations around that kind of identity are necessarily fraught and complicated. Freaky isn’t afraid to have fun with its concept, but it also treats its potential signifiers to the real world with compassion and thought. There is a budding romance between Millie and a boy in her class—largely played out while Millie is stuck inside the Butcher’s body. Is that truly daring, or transgressive? Maybe not, in this jokey horror movie setting. But it does feel excitingly different, an approach that fully eschews revulsion and instead insists that Millie’s love interest genuinely cares for Millie in an interior sense. Her exterior seems, at least in one charged scene, almost incidental. 

Millie’s two best friends at school are Nyla (Celeste O’Connor) and Josh (Misha Osherovich). Nyla is Black and Josh is gay, two shorthand labels that are directly addressed in one of the movie’s creakier jokes. (As the old wisdom goes, Black characters and gay characters don’t tend to survive slasher movies—more recently, those characters are supposed to remark upon that fact.) Once that well-worn trope is acknowledged, though, Nyla and Josh are incorporated into the fullness of the story, and are given much more to do than their characters might in a less conscientious movie. (Both O’Connor and Osherovich seize the opportunity with pluck.) Freaky is a friends-on-a-quest movie, one in which we get to spend actual quality time with the supposed sidekicks—even if they don’t really have anything in terms of personal backstory.

Our protagonist gets more rounding out. Millie is mourning her father while her bereft mother, Paula (Katie Finneran), loses herself to grief and wine. Landon nicely traces their emotional arc through the film. He pauses for one especially winning little set piece in which Paula gains comfort—and Millie finally hears her mother’s unvarnished woe spoken aloud—in the most peculiar of circumstances. The scene is an awfully moving one to be housed in a slick, antic genre film like this. But there it is, its existence serving as another fine example of Landon’s clever and almost experimental command of tone. 

Many of Freaky’s other joys arrive in more traditional horror-comedy packaging. There’s the aforementioned run, Vaughn turning his looming frame into something discordantly coltish. The kills are gnarly enough to earn the film’s R rating—one death, involving a table saw, just about reaches my threshold for gore—though the horror side of the film’s equation does lose some momentum in Freaky’s middle stretch. There are loads of tart one-liners given dizzy spin by the whole company. While playing the killer, Newton gets a real wallop of a zinger, landed as the killer dresses down a caddish jock in satisfyingly profane fashion. I also love a quick shot of Paula’s preferred brand of wine: Swan Song Chardonnay. 

Freaky is a charming testament to how a mere good idea can be smartly developed. How refreshing it is when a filmmaker has a thorough understanding of the world of their film: its rules, its social conventions, its possibilities, and, yes, its moral framework. The film’s embellishments and digressions all have a pleasing, well-considered texture. Freaky is a pure pleasure, an absurd thriller that cuts through descending autumn gloom with a surprisingly bespoke prop knife. I only wish it were premiering in normal days, when we could all laugh loudly, unmasked and in public, without worrying about becoming killers ourselves. Ah well. Maybe we’ll be saved in time for the sequel.

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