Slasher horror and comedy can co-exist, as most recently demonstrated by director Christopher Landon with “Happy Death Day” and its underrated sequel, “Happy Death Day 2U.” That same lightning doesn’t quite strike again with Landon’s latest, “Freaky”; some of the laughs and some of the scares definitely land, but overall, the two genres resist blending into a successful mix.
The unspoken joke of the title is that this movie really wants to be called “Freaky Friday the 13th,” which is not a bad starting point, but the line dividing gory violence and farcical hilarity — which Landon has skillfully walked in the past — gets too blurry for the movie’s own good.
The “Friday the 13th” part involves The Butcher (Vince Vaughn), a brutal serial killer who has somehow simultaneously wreaked bloody havoc on a seemingly idyllic town but also retained urban-legend status among the town’s teens. In the film’s prologue, four horny adolescents try to scare each other with tales of the Butcher’s reign of terror, only to have him show up and dispatch them in gruesome ways with unusual implements. If you’re the kind of horror fan who says “kills” as a noun, you’ll dig this opener, although the more intense level of violence at the jump may make it trickier for non-buffs to follow “Freaky” as it segues into comedy.
The other half of the “Freaky Friday” equation is Millie (Kathryn Newton, “Big Little Lies”); she dreams of going away to college but feels trapped at home as caretaker to her widowed mom Coral (Katie Finneran, “Wonderfalls”), whose grief has made her clingy and prone to pass out after finishing a bottle of white wine on her own. Millie is the Hollywood version of a high-school outcast, the kind played by an objectively attractive actress who’s given a slightly unflattering hairdo and a slightly frumpy wardrobe.
The Butcher leaves that opening crime scene with an ancient dagger, and when he stabs Millie in the school’s abandoned football stadium at midnight, their souls swap places — and if they can’t switch back in 24 hours, the swap will remain permanent. Now in Millie’s body, the Butcher dresses her in a leather jacket and starts taking retribution on her bullies, while Millie, in the Butcher’s body, tries to avoid a town that’s keeping their eyes peeled for the killer and to convince Millie’s best friends Nyla (Celeste O’Connor, “Selah and the Spades”) and Josh (Misha Osherovich, “The Goldfinch”) that no, really, it’s their pal inside this hulking brute.
As a gay filmmaker, Landon handles the material with more sensitivity than others might have, from the Butcher’s shock of discovering himself in a teenage girl’s body (there’s one self-breast-grab moment, but the killer doesn’t lean into objectifying his new housing) to Josh’s unapologetic gay fabulousness and zingy retorts. There’s also a comic subplot about Millie finding the courage to admit her feelings to her crush Booker (Uriah Shelton, “Looking for Alaska”) — while in the Butcher’s body, of course.
Generally speaking, the PG-13 horror movie can be disappointing because filmmakers deprived of bloody carnage are forced to rely upon cheap jump scares. In the case of Landon’s horror-comedies, the restrictions of a PG-13 rating might actually be helpful; there is tension and suspense in the “Happy Death Day” movies that work in conjunction with the comedy, but given free rein to get gross in the R-rated “Freaky,” the brutality tends to undercut the wit — and there is wit, as the film pokes fun at high-school stereotypes and at the way that white women (even white women with the soul of a serial killer inside them) can make the police jump to their defense.
Newton and Vaughn are both game — although Vaughn does cop out during a kissing scene with Shelton’s character – finding the fun in the physicality of these very different characters: The Butcher realizes that Millie doesn’t have his physical strength, and Millie keeps bumping her head since she’s not used to a body that’s about a foot taller than her own. O’Connor and Osherovich take characters that have clearly been written (by Landon and Michael Kennedy) to play off typical teen-movie tropes and further enrich their individuality and quirky personalities.
Editor Ben Baudhuin (2019’s “Black Christmas”) keeps a sure hand on the pacing, with some genuinely surprising jolts, enhanced by Bear McCreary’s score, and while “Freaky” follows the Blumhouse formula of unfolding in as few locations as possible, the production design team and location scouts have assembled an ideal slasher milieu, from the leafy town square to a high school that has nooks and crannies and dangerous wood-shop equipment around every corner.
Hardcore fans of either “Friday the 13th” or “Freaky Friday” might not get enough of what they like from “Freaky,” but anyone in the Venn diagram overlap — which has a definite lean toward the “13th” side — may well enjoy the carnage.