By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Vince Vaughn, Kathryn Newton and Katie Finneran
Directed by Christopher Landon
Written by Michael Kennedy and Christopher Landon
Since the FRIDAY THE 13TH franchise only officially took Jason to the FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN stage of his cinematic history, here’s HAPPY DEATH DAY director Christopher Landon to unofficially bring him to the ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN phase. Since FREAKY is a comedy about an adult and a teen who switch bodies, part of the joke in the title is the day missing from it. And just in case there’s any doubt, the title identifies the first scene as taking place on “Wednesday the 12th,” with the second and third words in a familiar font.
FREAKY (opening November 13) isn’t exactly a spoof, though; rather, it uses the tropes of FRIDAY THE 13TH and its brethren as the basis for a satire that’s very up-to-date, razor-sharp and full-blooded in both senses of the term. No PG-13 reticence here; the opening sequence is as red-streaked as anything seen in the ’80s FRIDAY films, directed with the violent vigor of the real thing. It knowingly hits familiar beats, as a quartet of teens discuss the Blissfield Butcher, a notorious killer who’s been carving a local reign of terror since 1977. They laugh about how he’d be “geriatric” now, but the joke’s on them as the strapping, vicious Butcher turns up, wearing what looks like a tribal variation on Jason’s goalie getup, and very quickly, sex = death. Wouldn’t you know it, one of the doomed youths’ dad, whose house they’re hanging in (literally in one case, by the end of the night), is an art collector, and the Butcher leaves the crime scene in possession of the La Dola blade, an ancient relic with magical properties.
On “Thursday the 12th,” Landon and his co-scripter Michael Kennedy deftly and swiftly introduce us to our teen heroine and her life situation. Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton) lives with her older cop sister Charlene (Dana Drori) and widowed mom Coral (NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD 1990’s Katie Finneran); neither Millie nor Coral have gotten over the death of her father a year before, and the latter deals with it with drink. At school, Millie’s a target for mean girls and obnoxious jocks, but has two tight friends in African-American Nyla (Celeste O’Connor) and gay Josh (Misha Osherovich). Their bantering camaraderie is instantly appealing, and having allied our sympathies with Millie, Landon puts her in The Butcher’s path that very night. But his attempt to kill her with the La Dola blade winds up instead, in an unexpectedly eye-popping setpiece, transferring his soul into her body, and vice versa.
The transition doesn’t happen immediately; just like in HAPPY DEATH DAY, our heroine wakes up the next morning (Friday the you-know-what) to find herself in a bizarre situation. She’s now trapped in a male body that the police are looking for; meanwhile, the Butcher finds himself in a new female form that allows him new and surreptitious entry into the milieu of his preferred victims. Landon and Kennedy have a lot of fun with the possibilities of Millie and the Butcher adapting to their new identities, and the two stars make the often hilarious most of adopting each other’s personas. Newton brings a tougher physicality and gaze to the possessed Millie (one of the first things “he” does, of course, is feel his new breasts), while Vaughn fully commits to getting girly as the newly feminine Butcher. Vaughn is particularly astute casting; his 6-foot-5 frame makes him a truly imposing Butcher when he’s himself, and the actor is clearly down to get back to his comedic roots after his more intense recent roles. (Not to mention that he once played Norman Bates, cinema’s original serial murderer inhabited by a female personality.)
The initial confusion of the two protagonists and the ongoing consternation of those around them make for plenty of good humor in FREAKY’s first half, which develops into sustained comedic tension as Millie-in-the-Butcher tries to reclaim her body and the-Butcher-in-Millie starts to claim a body count. Landon finds the right tonal balance to deliver big laughs amidst some serious splatter (courtesy of Alterian Studios), and amidst the general slasher homaging, he pays tribute to other ’80s teen classics, casting FERRIS BUELLER’s Alan Ruck as an antagonistic teacher and placing “Que Sera, Sera” (cf. HEATHERS) on the soundtrack. There are surprisingly touching moments along the way too, as Millie’s plight leads her to re-examine herself and her relationships with her family. While embracing diversity in its casting, FREAKY also delves into issues of gender confusion and identity that its body-swapping forebears (which tended to be male-to-male or female-to-female) never explored, in ways that play fair and with sensitivity yet still deliver some of the movie’s biggest laughs.
The true achievement of FREAKY is that it incorporates its extra levels seamlessly into a raucously entertaining movie while respecting the genre enough that it can be enjoyed by the hardest-core horror fan. It’s the biggest game-changer on the slasher scene since SCREAM; no bads to all the fine slow-burner fright fare that has emerged in the last couple of years, but it’s great and refreshing to see a new movie that aims to give the audience a bloody good time, and fully delivers.