Freaky – Review: Body-Swap Slasher with a Message

Conventional wisdom is boring.

In every election year it is always gravely intoned that elections boil down to turnout, and if that obvious fact is true it is equally so that casting can make-or-break films. Facts are stubbornly resistant to the human desire for novelty and adages grow hoary through both overuse and truthfulness and if any film this year shows the veracity of the latter, it’s Christopher Landon’s Freaky.

Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton) and the Butcher (Vince Vaughn) | Courtesy of Blumhouse

Vince Vaughn has trod interesting and artistic paths over the last few years — from the underrated Hacksaw Ridge, to Dragged Across Concrete, and a career-best performance in Brawl in Cell Block 99 — Vaughn successfully dabbled in the pitch-black grime of Gibson and Zahler with tremendous results, but now joyously returns to his comedic roots in Freaky, and it’s a delight to watch. The Swingers and Wedding Crashers star has not lost a step.

Co-starring alongside Vaughn is Kathryn Newton, who is suitably game in her twin roles as Butcher and heroine Millie Kessler — The pair riff off each other extremely well. Rounding out the cast are Uriah Shelton, Alan Ruck, Celeste O’Connor and Katie Finneran, who are all well suited for this small-town tale of high school magic, mayhem and murder.

An inversion of the ‘Freaky Friday’ motif, Christopher Landon has crafted a mostly serviceable, sometimes hilarious film with Freaky. While Landon and co. can properly claim to have created a film perfectly suited for this absolute dumpster fire of a year — muted horror with genuine laughs that require nothing from the audience but the willingness to have a good time — it’s not the direction nor the writing that makes Freaky so enjoyable.

The true star of Freaky, is Vince Vaughn. His roles in Brawl in Cell Block 99 and Dragged Across Concrete strongly hinted that there’s always been something vaguely sinister about Vaughn, but it is through Freaky that it is made wholly clear through the genre of comedy. Whilst the aforementioned films leaned heavily into Vaughn’s imposing physique as the basis for his intimidating persona, Freaky mines the same territory but additionally brings in his facial expressions and patented manic energy for heightened scrutiny. The contrast between his comedic talent and his visceral menace is made explicit in Freaky, and invests the entire undertaking with believable stakes.

The Butcher (Vince Vaughn) | Courtesy of Blumhouse

Bear McCreary’s score slots easily into the background, swelling and disappearing with metronomic precision as the film conforms to each story beat without deviation. In a film with higher aims the music would be derivative, but here it’s appropriate.

Faint praise aside, there is lingering value to Freaky beyond the immediacy of jump scares, sanguinary scenes and body-swapping horror. Both blatant and sly, the film delivers a critique of the contemporary conversations about equality and gender that’s worth taking seriously.

On the surface, Freaky points to the ways that women and men are still treated differently by society today. Kessler (who inhabits the Butcher’s body) finds that her life is significantly different as a man, with different privileges and abilities she’d never experienced before. She feels powerful, not just because of the physique she inhabits but the way society values masculinity.

It’s in this way that the casting choices of Newton and Vaughn are proven particularly wise. The stark differences in stature allows Newton and Vaughn to act as stand–ins for how gender roles are perceived in American society. There may also be a clever aside to the discerning viewer about the self-exculpation/self-perception of white feminist psychology in the casting. However, space does not permit a fuller examination of these issues.

On a deeper level, Freaky points to the ways that gender can be used to ill-effect by people with bad intentions, and how those bad intentions join with power structures to create oppression. Thankfully, Landon shows sophistication in how he seeds societal critique within the film. For instance, the critique of patriarchy and gender manipulation he advances in the film is typified not by the hallway scene shown in the trailers, but by a later scene where male claims to dominance plus female manipulation lead to gory (and deserved) outcomes. An earlier scene shows how critiques of sex under patriarchy can often be repurposed for selfish, non-egalitarian ends. These scenes show that Landon and co. are genuinely committed to delivering a critique that disarms before it stings, and critiques the spectrum contained within our gender discussions without glib bothsidesism. It’s this slick critique of both patriarchy and modern feminism that makes Freaky such an interesting film, and worthy of rewatching.

None of this is to suggest that Freaky is some academic work of symbolic fiction — a Feminist version of Darkness at Noon — it’s clearly created to be a fun film capitalising on the body-swapping motif. That, however, doesn’t mean that we can’t take it seriously, even with all the laughs.

Although the film ends with an obligatory ode to the power of united white feminism, in context, the scene is satisfying and more than warranted. Thoughtful viewers may find themselves wondering if the sense of power expressed in the ending is meant as praise or condemnation. Nevertheless, that the question can be posed at all is a victory for a genre comedy.

Fans of Ready or Not and Happy Death Day will enjoy this entertaining body-swap slasher. ★★★☆☆

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