The Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn) is a killer in the Michael Myers mold — wears a mask, improbably strong, not much for talking, slow-but-inexorable style. His victims, at least at the start, are the sort who violate the first two rules in Scream, the ones warning off sex and substances if you want to survive. In the opening sequences of Freaky, a quartet of hard-partying teens discuss the homecoming-dance murders he committed in the ’90s, one of them rolling her eyes about how he’s become a bogeyman meant to warn about “the dangers of underage debauchery.” Naturally, the Butcher shows up and slaughters them all. When, two days later, he’s magically transported into the body of a 16-year-old girl named Millie (Kathryn Newton) — while she wakes up in his — it’s technically because he stabbed Millie with a mystical dagger he picked up during that initial killing spree. But the switch also seems to happen because he made the mistake of going after Millie in the first place, after finding her sitting irresistibly alone in the dark after a football game. Millie is a neglected nerd who serves as the school mascot and lets her widowed mother (Katie Finneran) lean on her too much. She is, in other words, the kind of character who tends to make it to the end of these kinds of movies.
It’s been 26 years since Scream kicked off a wave of self-referential horror, which means we’re farther from that milestone now that it was from Halloween and the other movies it skewered when it came out in 1996. Freaky, an unabashedly gory but also oddly sweet feature from Christopher Landon, is a riff on slashers that really owes more to the meta-horror trend than it does to any of the original films that inspired it. But this isn’t a bad thing — Landon proved how good he is at playing with genre conventions without getting lost in them in Happy Death Day and its sequel, and while Freaky doesn’t reach the same heights as those films, it has more on its mind than just geeking out on its cleverness. By mashing its serial-killer story together with another well-established narrative device, the body-swap comedy, it gives itself a set of clashing expectations to work with and subvert. Freaky whiplashes between the high concept and the sincerely heartfelt, constantly on the verge of rattling off the rails but never quite losing tonal control. It’s not an especially scary movie, but it sure is a good time.
And most of that entertainment value comes from its lead performances, which lean into all the comic possibilities of a meek young woman finding herself in the form of a bedraggled bruiser and a looming, glowering murderer having to go to high school. Vaughn doesn’t exactly replicate Newton’s performance when he’s playing Millie — when he holds his arms high and close to his sides when he runs, he’s going for some easier idea of what girlishness looks like — but he’s funny with the physicality in more micro ways. As Millie-as-the-Butcher, he acts like he’s never realized the dimensions of his body, constantly underestimating his own size, and instinctively curling his shoulders as though trying to shrink — an insecure teenager’s gesture as replicated by a middle-aged man. Newton’s more precise as the Butcher, death glowering and grabbing at nearby sharp objects, and nevertheless getting disregarded because Millie’s the quiet, well-behaved type people are used to ignoring. While Millie sneaks around town, hoping to enlist the help of her friends Josh (Misha Osherovich) and Nyla (Celeste O’Connor) while eluding the cops, the Butcher uses Millie’s social invisibility to his advantage and starts killing again, this time turning his attention to the bullies who’ve made her and, for the moment, his life harder. The kills are satisfyingly gruesome and feature some creative use of nearby objects, like a dusty wine bottle or a locker-room cryotherapy chamber.
But while Freaky may offer up the indelible image of Alan Ruck getting bisected on a shop-class table saw, it’s ultimately more about, as absurd as it may sound, the ways in which Millie’s adventures in the Butcher’s body teach her to be more sure of herself. This comes through in particular in two scenes that are played mostly straight. The first involves a run-in Millie has with her mom, who doesn’t know who she is and opens up emotionally to the supposed stranger. The second is with Millie’s crush, Booker (Uriah Shelton). If the golden age of slashers was one rife with undercurrents of sexual anxiety, moralizing, and coded queer themes, this latter sequence in Landon’s film exemplifies instead an unexpectedly straightforward, and very 2020, lack of squirmishness. It’s that adeptness with combining the familiar and the new that makes Freaky work and allows it to be more than just an homage to the two movie traditions it’s pulling from. Because that’s the trouble with self-referential horror, and the nostalgia it banks on — it can curl into itself, offering nothing but self-consciousness and a congratulations to its audience for picking up on the touch-points it offers up. Freaky is a love letter to the slasher genre that doesn’t come up with a way to make everything old new again, but it does prove that there are still ways to surprise.
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