by Leoni Horton
In one of her biggest hits with her formative band No Doubt, the pop-punk goddess Gwen Stefani sang, ‘Oh, I’m just a girl, guess I’m some kind of freak.’ The iconic line recognises the sense of otherness that comes with being a girl, especially a young girl, who, no matter how hard they try, can’t seem to escape the unfair constraints and standards society, social media, and their peers demand they conform to. This constant pressure results in loneliness, compromised self-esteem, and feelings of failure and abnormality. It’s enough to make you wish that you could become someone else entirely.
Pushing this idea to the limits comes Freaky, a plucky comedy-horror directed by Christopher Landon. Katherine Newton plays Millie, a young high schooler, who, due to relentless bullying, ignorant teachers and complicated feelings of grief following her dad’s passing, feels seriously uncomfortable in her own skin. Following a spree of grisly murders – which are believed to be the work of the town’s terrifying urban legend, The Butcher – Millie finds herself alone on a cold, dark night with a dead battery and no way to reach home. It isn’t long before The Butcher (Vince Vaughn), brandishing a stolen ancient weapon, sniffs her out and attempts to hunt her down. The crazed madman manages to stick Millie with his cursed knife, but before he can cause any significant injury, her sister – a no-nonsense cop played by Dana Doiri – arrives and scares him off. All seems well until Millie awakes across town in an old, abandoned mill surrounded by horror and gore in The Butcher’s body. Likewise, The Butcher awakes in Millie’s body, which he eventually realises, grants him easy access to a school full of teenagers to terrorise.
The film wears its influences like a badge of honour, proudly drawing from beloved classic slashers such as Scream, Friday the 13th, and I Know What You Did Last Summer. While The Butcher, dressed to kill in a vivid red leather jacket, uses Millie’s body to stalk and murder her classmates and teachers, Landon offers a bold feast of gore and clichéd, carnivalesque horror, with impalings, throat slashings and head-smashings aplenty. Landon seamlessly blends this bloody banquet with the classic body-swap formula, drawing from the same vein as Freaky Friday, The Hot Chick, Scooby-Doo: Spooky Island, The Change-Up, It’s A Boy Girl Thing,and, more recently, Jumanji: Welcome to The Jungle. It’s a familiar narrative in which our characters encounter an otherworldly anomaly – be it a cursed video game or a pair of enchanted earrings – that implants their consciousness into the mind of their antithesis. Chaos ensues as they race against the clock while trying to figure out an assortment of cryptic clues to get their bodies back!
Yet, although Freaky is literally splitting at the seams with the body-swap genre’s tired tropes, somehow it defies the odds and manages to put a fresh and progressive spin on every overused idea it recycles. Although we do encounter the typical gender jokes, genital discovery (it looks like a floppy anteater, according to Millie), sexual confusion and homoerotic teasing, Landon’s Freaky plays with form and adds some much-needed spice into the mind-switching mix. The film never punches down and thus delivers a nuanced understanding of bullying, gender roles, female empowerment and sexuality. A great example of this comes when Millie – still trapped in The Butcher’s hairy and imposing male body – finally confesses her romantic feelings to Booker (Uriah Shelton), the hot jock she’s lusted after for years. Booker – able to see past her physical appearance – reciprocates Millie’s feelings and leans in for their first kiss. Where a lesser narrative might attempt to play this moment off for laughs, Landon defiantly crafts a lovely – and sure it’s coy and self-aware – scene that builds genuine heart and encapsulates the momentum of his cheeky and innovate direction.
The body-swap film is a real treat for actors, allowing them to stretch their legs and lean into a character they would never usually get the chance to play. However, no other actor has ever had quite as much visible fun in a film of this kind as Vince Vaughn. Known for his rapid-fire mouth and prolific comedy career, Vaughn is a hoot throughout, having riotous fun as he projects the traits of a teenage girl almost too well. Where other actors, such as Jack Black in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, used the body swap formula to mock teenage girls, bitching about not looking hot or having access to their iPhone, Vaughn chooses a kinder route into the character. He taps into the shades of grey of being a young woman, radiating shyness, insecurities, nervous energy and fondness for Millie’s close friends. In his characterisation, we watch Millie blossom into a surefooted young woman as she learns that her strength doesn’t come from her physical body but from within. Vaughn, backed up by Millie’s two best friends, Josh and Nyla (Misha Osherovich and Celeste O’Connor), are an unparalleled mix, milking hilarity out of every second of their shared screen-time. Katherine Newton is equally as brilliant, morphing from an anxious loser into a ferocious, punk-rock sociopath. There are undoubtedly big things on the way for her—she brings to mind a young Emma Stone, who also found her start brandishing her wit in raunchy comedies.
Freaky’s preppy and overblown style make up for its sometimes messy plot-points and infrequent bum notes. However, these little irksome details don’t take away from the film as a whole. Overall, Freaky is a glossy, gore-packed thrill ride and an energetic addition into the cannon of both body-swaps and slashers!
Freaky is out in cinemas Friday 2nd!