Freaky: Body-swap slasher is good, weird fun

Who doesn’t love a good comedy-horror? From Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead franchise and Ghostbusters right through to the meta-madness of The Cabin in the Woods and Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, it’s a sub-genre that has graced audiences with a ton of pictures predicated on that most addictive of formulas: that which usually repels and terrifies us played for laughs. While I love all genres (providing the story is well-executed), I’m fairly picky with horror and even more so with comedy, but there has always been something of a tractor-beam element when it comes to the melding of the two. I put it down to the fact that my sense of humour is fairly absurdist and risque, and the notion of malevolent legendary creatures and bilious spooks being wisecrackers or dumbasses and/or placed in ludicrous situations carries that in spades. If the gags land and the brutality/scare quotient is balanced, you pretty much have yourself a winner.

Cue Freaky, the new offering from Happy Death Day director Christopher Landon and a film that takes the ridiculousness to funny and inventive new heights. Have you ever envisioned a meeting of Disney classic Freaky Friday with, well, Friday the 13th? If you have, your wish has been fulfilled in this gloriously silly and uber-violent reinterpretation of the former movie’s relatively innocent high concept.

Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton) is a troubled high school student contending with frequent bullying and the loss of her father a year prior. Living with her alcoholic mother Coral (Katie Finneran) and older sister Charlene (Dana Drori) in the town of Blissfield, Millie struggles to muster even the most rudimentary levels of personal confidence, much to the loving impatience of best friends Nyla (Celeste O’Connor) and Josh (Misha Osherovich). Outside of pining for her crush Booker Strode (Uriah Shelton), Millie’s existence is a ceaseless exercise in silently feeling frightened and abused.

After performing as the mascot for her school’s homecoming football game, Millie awaits a ride from her currently sleeping-and-shitfaced mother. Sitting on a bench in the windy dark, she is confronted by none other than the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn). A hulking serial killer who the residents regard as nothing more than an urban legend, the Butcher chases Millie onto the field and proceeds to stab her in the shoulder before being threatened away by Charlene, who we should mention is a fairly aggressive police officer. Settling into bed after getting patched up at the hospital, Millie endeavours to forget her run-in with this random psycho. Then something pretty crazy happens during the night.

Millie wakes up the next morning….with the consciousness of the Butcher. It turns out that he stabbed Millie using La Dola, an ancient ritual dagger that can cause body-swapping (the Butcher comes into possession of said dagger in a hilariously gory opening sequence), meaning that the mind of poor Millie is now confined to the deranged murderer’s beefy and towering frame. Freaking out as she finds herself not only in a man’s body but surrounded by horrific Ed Gein-like trophies in the Butcher’s disgusting hovel, Millie goes into full-fledged panic as pictures of the Butcher’s likeness flood the news and the townsfolk run screaming from her in the streets. Meanwhile, the Butcher remains arguably calm despite finding himself in the form of a small teenage girl, promptly freaking out everyone at Blissfield Valley High School as they witness the previously timid Millie adopt the world’s most serious attitude problem.

As the Butcher covertly toys with/lays waste to the high school denizens, Millie locates Nyla and Josh and manages to convince them of her identity. Researching La Dola, Josh discovers that the mystical weapon must be used once again in no more than 24 hours, after which a body exchange becomes permanent. The plucky trio faces a race against time trying to track down the now-pint sized blonde psycho, the added impossibility of attempting to convince people that the Butcher is really Millie ensuring madcap and often gruesome misunderstandings.

Freaky works due to the wonderfully concise and throwback tonal mash-up of teen dramedy and idiotically violent slasher film tropes. From the outset, the body count is delivered in implausible and over-stylized fashion, leaving the viewer hard-pressed to feel disturbed despite the appalling mayhem adorning the screen. In its nods to the Friday the 13th franchise, the Butcher utilises a Jason Voorhees-like mask as he decimates unwitting victims with his bare hands and blunt instruments, an aspect that appears verisimilar when employed by the enormous Vaughn and plain funny in the hands of the lithe and diminutive Newton. Laurie Rose’s cinematography and Bear McCreary’s score have a strong tandem effect in crafting suspense and creep factor that makes the film’s psycho-killer angle genuinely exciting, even if we know the whole thing is patently absurd.

The kernel of the film is found in the surprisingly tender performance of Vince Vaughn. His shrieking teen-girl freakouts are imbued with just the right amount of comic timing and thankfully don’t outstay their welcome, leaving some room for him to flex some dramatic muscles in his rendition of a confused and vulnerable teenager’s angst. This counterintuitively sweet turn is nicely contrasted with Newton channelling the Butcher, a man who is sadistic in both action and word, giving a bizarre air of satisfaction to scenes where the Butcher is mean-spirited toward those who had previously tormented Millie. You know a film has cojones when it depicts a sad and diffident 17-year-old girl as feeling empowered by inhabiting the body of a man-mountain mass murderer. It’s a facet that simultaneously manages to be poignantly badass and keeping in tune with the film’s utterly bonkers premise.

Never pretending to be anything other than the sweet-yet-scary farce that its conceit suggests, Freaky is nicely acted, funny, stupidly violent and peppered with some bold and welcome developments when it comes to sexual politics. Its pacing and genre balance transports the viewer to the realm of the grand 1980s teen comedy-horrors, the kind of movie that offers a smart hook and keeps its tongue planted in its cheek, guaranteeing a worthwhile and imaginative popcorn ride with some heart. Give it a spin.

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