Walt Disney Studios struck the proverbial motherlode in 1976 with its now-classic body-swap comedy Freaky Friday, starring Jodie Foster and Barbara Harris as a daughter and mother who switch bodies. Both Foster and Harris received Golden Globe nominations for their performances, even though the film received mixed reviews. The studio has returned to that vein multiple times, with a 1995 TV movie remake, a 2018 TV musical for the Disney Channel, and a critically acclaimed 2003 remake with Lindsey Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis in the lead roles.
The latest twist on the body-swapping concept is not even remotely family-friendly. Vince Vaughn stars as an aging serial killer who switches bodies with a hapless teenaged girl in Freaky, which also pays homage to classic teen slasher movies like Friday the 13th (1980) and Scream (1996). Universal Pictures debuted the film at Beyond Fest in October. The film hit theaters (despite the pandemic) on Friday, November 13th, garnering solid reviews and eking out $7.2 million at the box office so far—not a bad showing considering how many movie theaters remain closed. It’s now available on VOD, and makes for an entertaining, if familiar-feeling, weekend watch.
(Some spoilers below.)
Director Christopher Landon is no stranger to horror, having helmed three films in the Paranormal Activity franchise. He’s also the mastermind behind 2017’s delightful horror/comedy mashup, Happy Death Day—basically a combination of Scream and Groundhog Day, in which sorority sister Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe, Utopia) is murdered on her birthday by a killer in a Babyface mask and finds herself reliving that day over and over. Landon followed up with last year’s equally entertaining sequel, Happy Death Day 2 U, which added an ingenious multiverse twist and paid particular homage to Back to the Future II. So a horror/comedy mashup of Freaky Friday and Friday the 13th seems like a natural follow-up.
The official synopsis pretty much says it all:
Seventeen-year-old Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton, Blockers, Big Little Lies) is just trying to survive the bloodthirsty halls of Blissfield High and the cruelty of the popular crowd. But when she becomes the newest target of The Butcher (Vince Vaughn, Zoolander, Mr. and Mrs Smith), her town’s infamous serial killer, her senior year becomes the least of her worries.
When The Butcher’s mystical ancient dagger causes him and Millie to wake up in each other’s bodies, Millie learns that she has just 24 hours to get her body back before the switch becomes permanent and she’s trapped in the form of a middle-aged maniac forever. The only problem is she now looks like a towering psychopath who’s the target of a city-wide manhunt while The Butcher looks like her and has brought his appetite for carnage to Homecoming.
With some help from her friends—ultra-woke Nyla (Celeste O’Connor, Ghostbusters: Afterlife), ultra-fabulous Joshua (Misha Osherovich, The Goldfinch) and her crush Booker (Uriah Shelton, Enter the Warriors Gate)—Millie races against the clock to reverse the curse while The Butcher discovers that having a female teen body is the perfect cover for a little Homecoming killing spree.
There will be blood
The success of the body-swapping concept in any given film always rests on the shoulders of its leads, who must nimbly switch between characters. Vaughn and Newton do not disappoint. Vaughn especially shines at channeling his inner teenaged girl, despite his hulking 6’5″ frame—and not just in the obvious slapstick moments, like when he performs the Blissfield High mascot dance to convince Josh and Nyla it’s really him. He also brings out Millie’s sweet vulnerability in brief tête-à-têtes with her mother, Paula (Katie Finneran, Brockmire) and with Booker. And he aptly conveys Milly’s delight at being able to pee standing up, and finally being big and strong enough to stand up to her high school tormenters.
On the flip side, The Butcher in Millie’s body shows a surprisingly keen fashion sense and relishes being able to slide under everybody’s radar as an “innocent” high school student, although he must also come to grips with being considerably smaller and weaker, making it a teensy bit harder to kill his targets. Speaking of those targets, Freaky hews to the strict morality code of classic slasher movies: those who die, inevitably did something to “deserve” it, like the mean girl who torments Millie, or the wood shop teacher who revels in publicly humiliating her.
While I very much enjoyed the film, I can’t quite shake this niggling feeling that it doesn’t work quite as well as the Happy Death Day movies, even though Landon has said the two worlds “share the same DNA.” He has not ruled out a Freaky sequel—like Jason Voorhees, The Butcher could always come back—where Millie and Tree finally meet. (For the record, I am here for that.) Perhaps that’s because there’s only so much you can do to make the classic slasher film tropes seem fresh—especially since they’ve already gotten the horror/comedy treatment with the hugely successful Scream franchise and Josh Whedon’s brilliant Cabin the Woods. That’s some pretty stiff competition.
Still, Landon and his cast are clearly having a blast, and Landon always infuses his horror/comedies with a bit of heart—Tree dealing with the death of her mother, for instance, while Millie has lost her father, and her mother has descended into alcoholism to cope. Predictable though it may be, Freaky ultimately succeeds in mixing horror, humor, and pathos in just the right measures.
Freaky is now available on VOD, as well as playing in select theaters.
Listing image by Universal Pictures