New from Jeff York on The Establishing Shot: VAUGHN AND NEWTON CUT UP IN CHRISTOPER LANDON’S “FREAKY”

Mary Rodgers’s durable children’s novel Freaky Friday has yielded oodles of screen interpretations including four done by the Walt Disney Corporation alone. The newest take on the material is an R-rated horror/comedy called FREAKY, opening this Friday the 13th in theaters, and this time out, the body-switching foregoes mom and daughter for a beleaguered teenager and serial killer. The revenge tale that ensues, with the high schooler cutting her classmates down to size, practically writes itself. Indeed, FREAKY plays out as a crass and vicious exercise, albeit one that is quite a hoot. And its best laughs come from the film’s two leads all in on pimping their own screen personas.

Casting Vince Vaughn as the serial killer and Kathryn Newton as the put-upon high school senior was a clever move by filmmaker Christopher Landon. Both are accomplished actors and compelling screen presences who know their way around comedy and drama. And both understand that the way to sell a comedy is to treat being in one seriously. They commit to all the screaming, running, fighting, and killing here 100 % and it makes a lot of what’s wholly unsavory – stabbings, slashing, kicks to the nuts – hilariously infectious because they’re going so full-throttle with it all.  

Vaughn plays serial killer Barney Calvin Garris, a brute already busy slaughtering four trysting teens in the film’s first set-piece. Garris dons a hockey mask a la Jason Voorhees from the FRIDAY THE 13TH films and it’s such a hoary, old trope it’s almost funny again. Almost. The film takes a long time to dispose of those first victims, and I was worried that Landon was going to lazily trudge through this effort. Fortunately, he does not, and in almost every scene after that, he gives the whole shebang real snap, crackle, and pop.

Landon and co-screenwriter Michael Kennedy pull out all the stops throughout, never letting the film breathe enough to stop and make us watching feel guilty for enjoying it. They throw in tons of visual gags, rat-a-tat one-liners, gushing arteries sliced to be more funny than frightening, it’s a lot of arsenic-laced candy. Even some gags that are on-the-nose come and go fairly quickly that they don’t mar too much of the proceedings, though setting the story in a quaint town named Blissfield is sophomoric, as is having the football team go by the name “the biting Beavers.” 

You might groan at some of the obvious tropes Landon and Kennedy pull out as well to create sympathy for the protagonist. Millie Kessler (Newton) is an overly angsty teen with a widowed mother, an older sis who’s an over-achieving cop, and two BFF’s – one gay male, one black female. You can practically hear the boxes being checked. Of course, Millie is badgered by the snooty mean girls at the school too. They’re sexy cheerleaders. She’s relegated to playing the buck-toothed beaver in a ratty beaver mascot costume. Thankfully, when she finds herself on the receiving end of Garris’ knife a third into the story, the film starts to freshen up such genre tropes and really percolate. 

The weapon Garris uses is a stolen blade from the teen victims’ house and it turns out to be an ancient Aztec artifact full of magic. When he stabs Millie with it, the weapon’s supernatural power causes slayer and slayee to switch bodies. Soon, Garris will be flitting about as a terrified, overly sensitive teen girl, and Millie will find herself cruising the school hallways with the swagger of a stone-cold killer.

Millie, channeling Garris, starts to take out those cretinous Barbie’s and Ken’s that bullied her one-by-one, while Garris, channeling Millie, frets over all the carnage in the school hallways. Landon wisely ladles in some in-jokes to add more merriment to the mayhem, like having Alan Ruck, the put-upon Cameron from the classic teen comedy FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF, show up as a shop teacher who bullies Millie as much as her classmates. When he picks on the newly emboldened Millie, she pushes him headfirst into a buzz saw with Landon making sure we witness the educator’s entire body being split down the middle.

Indeed, FREAKY owes a lot to Robert Louis Stevenson’s take on split personalities in his classic book The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, particularly in how it mines similar themes regarding the human id. Stevenson surmised that even though Jekyll was an accomplished member of upper-class society in Britain, the good doctor longed to act out and embrace his darker impulses. The transforming formula just hastened his wishes. The same idea can be found in the inspired casting of Vaughn and Newton.

Watching Vaughn’s tall, lumbering serial killer change into a fraidy-cat girlie-man smacks of Stevenson in that the actor’s screen persona has always displayed such large swaths of cowardice, albeit of the silver-tongued variety, in feature film after feature film. And for those who remember Newton’s memorable turn in BIG LITTLE LIES, you know that the surly-looking actress is more than capable of delivering looks that can kill. How much of a leap is it for her to essay a character who delivers actual kills? 

Landon’s FREAKY is ridiculous throughout, of course, yet at times, it’s as smart as far tonier works. Just as he did in his successful HAPPY DEATH DAY films, Landon both embraces all the tropes of the horror genre and chides them. He’s laughing at it as much as we are. This time, the director not only delivers enough scares and grotesqueries to please the hardcore horror fans, but he also manages to satirize both Rodgers and Stevenson, not to mention the screen careers of Vaughn and Newton. FREAKY may not be a four-star film, but it sure has fiendish fun with its two stars.  

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