Producer: Jason Blum Director: Christopher Landon Screenplay: Christopher Landon and Michael Kennedy Cast: Vince Vaughn, Kathryn Newton, Celeste O’Connor, Misha Osherovich, Uriah Shelton, Dana Drori, Katie Finneran and Alan Ruck Distributor: Universal Pictures
Over the years there have been lots of body-switch movies, one of them obviously alluded to in the title of this new one from Christopher Landon–“Freaky Friday,” which Disney made with Jodie Foster and Barbara Harris in 1977 and then remade with Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis in 2003. Most were comedies, of course, but the take on the premise that Landon and his writing partner Michael Kennedy have chosen is similar to that of “Happy Death Day,” the director’s previous success for producer Jason Blum—a mixture of comedy and slasher horror (in this case, R-rated horror rather than the PG-13 variety). So the “Friday” here isn’t just “Freaky,” it’s also literally “Friday the 13th.”
For a man who loaded the “Death Day” movies with convolutions galore, including shifts in time and dimension, though, Landon’s follow-up has a fairly thin plot, short on twists and big laughs. Still, it’s a moderately diverting genre mash-up/send-up.
The set-up is a simple one. Blissfield has been troubled for years by a serial killer who’s been engaging in annual slaughters for so many years that it appears the town has become pretty blasé about it. In the opening sequence we see the masked figure (Vince Vaughn) begin his yearly work on the evening of Wednesday the 11th by killing four dopey teens partying at one’s family mansion while her parents are away. The deaths are all pretty gruesome, and as he leaves the Blissfield Butcher, as he’s called, picks up a useful souvenir—an Aztec knife that, unbeknownst to him, is a potent ritual tool (and, in fact, the linchpin of the plot).
The next morning attention shifts to high school senior Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton), a nice, shy girl devoted to her mother Coral (Katie Finneran), a recent widow who’s taken to drinking too much white wine at night and is extremely dependent on Millie and her sister Charlene (Dana Drori), a cop. At school Millie is mercilessly bullied not only by classmates but by her nasty shop teacher (Alan Ruck). Luckily she has two stalwart protectors in Nila (Celeste O’Connor) and Josh (Misha Osherovich), the latter doing the obligatory all-out gay BFF bit. She also has a crush on Booker (Uriah Shelton), the handsome, pleasant fellow she shares a bench with in shop class.
Millie’s other outlet is acting as the cheerleading mascot for the football team, dressing up in a burly Beaver suit that doesn’t prevent her from being insulted even by the players on the sidelines. After the game on Thursday the 12th, unfortunately, she’s stranded when Coral, who’s passed out on the couch, fails to pick her up, and the Butcher targets spies her sitting alone. The arrival of Charlene saves her, but only at the stroke of midnight, when the Butcher has pinned Millie to the ground and wounded her in the shoulder with that Aztec knife. In doing so, however, he feels the pain in his shoulder too and runs off. The next morning both are astonished to find that they’ve switched bodies.
That means that Vaughn, who’s now been publically identified as the Butcher, starts running around like the frightened girl he now is, and Millie, dressing up like a vamp, goes off to school with a malicious gleam in her eyes, looking for prey.
What follows is pretty much what you’d expect. Vaughn’s Millie will terrify everybody s/he comes into contact with, but after a struggle will convince Nila and Josh of the transfer; eventually Booker will become an ally, too, as they seek to stop Newton’s Butcher, who eventually does off six additional victims. (Not to worry, though, they all deserve it—they’re that shop teacher, the campus mean girl, and four senior sexist pigs who try to take advantage of her. Naturally, all the deaths are gorily over-the-top.) The effort to switch the bodies back becomes more urgent when Vaughn’s Millie and her friends learn that unless the transfer occurs by midnight, the change of bodies will become permanent. You know full well they will succeed. And you also know that despite that, there will be a coda in which Vaughn, now the Butcher again, will seek his revenge before the final credits roll.
Still, both Vaughn and Newton seem to be having fun with their personality-altered roles, with the former especially skilled in toying with the consequences of the gender reversal, and the rest of the cast is fine (though it’s rather a shock to watch Ruck going so violently against type), and the production benefits visually from the Blumhouse formula for achieving a good deal on limited budgets. (The cinematography is by Laurie Rose, and the production design by Hillary Andujar.) Ben Baudhuin’s editing is relatively crisp despite the repetitiveness of much of the action, and Bear McCreary’s score is apt.
“Freaky” never really manages to get beyond the confines of its original premise. Whatever you might feel about the “Death Day” movies, they were extravagantly imaginative in taking the premise they started with into unpredictable places. By contrast this movie just works through what you’d expect of the body-switch formula-plus-serial-killer combination. But there are sporadic pleasures to be had in the grace notes that arise among the characters along the way (as in Booker’s profession of attraction to Millie when she’s still in the Butcher’s body; a heart-to-heart between Coral and Vaughn’s Millie over their shared grief is less winning, because it goes on too long and is borderline saccharine), though they’re not sufficient to avoid the suspicion that Landon and Kennedy ran out of ideas before they did story.
So coming from Landon, the truly surprising thing about “Freaky” is how predictably its mixture of slasher horror and broad comedy plays out. But the committed performances and energetic pacing keep it afloat, especially when compared to the only previous Hollywood movie to use a remotely similar premise, “The Hot Chick” (2002), in which petty crook Rob Schneider switches bodies with cheerleader Rachel McAdams. Watch that atrocity and you’ll be far more tolerant of “Freaky.”