Christopher Landon returns with another genre mash up that doesn't necessarily work
Christopher Landon has emerged as a curious director specializing in a kind of genre-mash. Having begun his directing career in such franchises as the Paranormal Activity films, Landon dug down in the horror genre and broke out onto film fans’ radar with Happy Death Day (2017), which meshed the time-loop concept with that of the slasher. The film proved to be incredibly enjoyable, mostly by satirizing the different tropes from both genres. The film was so successful it garnered an unnecessary sequel in Happy Death Day 2 (2019). Thankfully, Landon is leaving the Death Day Films and is back with a new original take, mixing the body-switching concept with the slasher in Freaky (2020).
Freaky is the story of a shy high school girl named Millie (Kathryn Newton), who when attacked by a serial killer (Vince Vaughn) using an ancient Aztec knife, a strange curse makes the two characters switch bodies. Thus Millie as the serial killer must try and prove she’s innocent or else to find a way to switch back to her body, before the serial killer wreaks carnage using his new disguise.
The title and subsequent in-movie text fonts and color-schemes are clearly making references to Freaky Friday (1976) and Friday the 13th (1980), no doubt the filmmakers would have liked to call their film Freaky Friday the 13th as an homage to both of their source materials (in fact that was the original title of the film before it was changed for unknown reasons). Landon certainly indulges in more direct references to his inspirations than in the Death Day films, making obvious nods to Jason Voorhees with his serial killer wearing a hockey mask, or to Halloween (1978) with certain kills and even the use of a celebrity Halloween mask on the killer. These nods prove to be fun to a certain extent, but after a while you realize that Landon is not so much satirizing these genre flicks as he is copying them.
Freaky does attempt to set its filmic world in modern times, using a more tongue-in-cheek tone, and including a more diverse array of characters than slashers usually do. However, the comedic elements seem to be slightly restricted by the fact that the body-swap genre doesn’t mix as intriguingly with the slasher as the time loop did. Happy Death Day was enhanced by having our character die at the hands of our killer multiple times before she pieces the mystery together, always waking up at the start of the same day. In Freaky the genre mash seems to restrict our characters and potentially original situations. Instead, Landon gets hung up on stale character development regarding Millie’s dead father, which is so poorly written, the dialogue feels written by a robot.
Landon’s forte has never been in providing an emotional dimension to his stories. The romance in Happy Death Day was not very believable and yet viewers went along with it thanks to the fun aspects of the rest of the film. In Freaky the more entertaining aspects come only in short-spurts before the pace is ground to a halt as Landon attempts to craft character moments. The result is a rather slow film to watch, which sticks close to tired tropes of its genres instead of ridiculing them as viewers would want.
The film is able to cast two great performers for the body-switching roles. Kathryn Newton gets her most high-profile role yet, after bit parts in Big Little Lies (2017-2019) and Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019). I’m glad to see that the young American actress has more range and capabilities to share onscreen and I look forward to seeing further work from her. She was certainly able to sell the shyness of her character at first and then embody the cool indifference of the killer. Vince Vaughn was also incredible, proving to be the essential comedic element when he has to perform as Millie. Vaughn committed himself surprisingly to the role, proving that he is capable of more other than his signature deadpan delivery. I would wager to say that this role is perhaps the best comedic acting from Vaughn in his career.
In the end, Landon’s twist and mixes of genres stumbles with Freaky. His concept is original enough, but he isn’t able to expand or connect the strengths of each genre or propose comedic commentary as he did with Happy Death Day. The result is a slightly more predictable and slower film, which is slightly enhanced by some strong leads.