Millie (played by Kathryn Newton) is a petite, blond high schooler with an awkward streak—the kind of character who’d traditionally be the victim in a horror movie. Since the slasher genre began in earnest in the late 1970s, Hollywood has made countless films about hulking male serial killers preying on teenagers, but it’s still rare to see the reverse. Christopher Landon’s new film, Freaky, achieves that turnaround through an old narrative trick, magically placing the mind of a murderer in the body of the young woman he’s targeting. But the goofiness of the plot device doesn’t undo the movie’s symbolic power.
Freaky begins with a gory cavalcade of murder as an imposing masked psychopath called the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn) sweeps through a mansion full of partying teens before swiping a mystical, ancient-looking knife. When he stalks onto a nearby high-school campus and tries to attack Millie, the mysterious knife swaps their consciousness, a trope one might recall from ridiculous comedies such as Freaky Friday, The Change-Up, and The Hot Chick. And although Landon’s film is certainly funny, it’s also not shy about belonging to the slasher genre, mixing up scares and laughs with genuine potency.
The director understands that the best-known slasher villains, such as Halloween’s Michael Myers or Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees, derived their terror in part from how physically intimidating and unstoppable they seemed. So many famous horror-movie kills involve murderous men picking up their victims like toys and tossing them around, shrugging off stab wounds and gunfire with zombielike indifference. Vaughn himself is 6 foot 5, and Freaky emphasizes his size by surrounding him with diminutive teens (Newton is a good foot shorter than him). So when the roles reverse, and Vaughn is suddenly running screaming from a teenager holding a kitchen knife, the visual gag is electrified with genre-bending self-awareness.
One might be forgiven for forgetting that Vaughn spent more than a decade as one of Hollywood’s biggest comedy stars. After years racking up hits such as Old School, Dodgeball, and Wedding Crashers, he’s been taking grimmer roles of late, including in the controversial cop drama Dragged Across Concrete and the bleak second season of True Detective. But Vaughn’s comic chops remain undiminished, and he leans into the whimsy of playing a teenager, bouncing from scene to scene with the nervous energy of a horror-movie extra. Just as the actor uses his large frame to communicate menace early on, he turns his physicality into a hilarious hindrance after the body swap, playing someone who doesn’t quite know how to control the lumbering form she’s now possessing.
But the real star of Freaky is Newton, who has been doing consistent, winning work in television (on Halt and Catch Fire and Big Little Lies) and film (she’s had memorable supporting roles in Blockers, Ben Is Back, and Detective Pikachu). Newton is perfectly charming as Millie, but once she’s playing the Butcher, she’s terrifically calculating and precise, a mini-Terminator who suddenly behaves with the kind of assured coolness that the real Millie (now played by Vaughn) finds almost breathtaking. This is the sly undertone to Freaky—as with many a body-swap comedy, both characters unlock hidden potential in their new personages. Vaughn-as-Millie confesses to enjoying the Butcher’s bullying size and strength, but although she’s still scared of what the Butcher (played by Newton) is doing in her own body, she’s also beguiled by how confident he seems while doing it.
Landon is a genre filmmaker who is growing only more confident with every script (he co-wrote Freaky with Michael Kennedy). He emerged from the Paranormal Activity franchise, for which he wrote several entries and directed a spin-off, but first caught my attention with 2017’s Happy Death Day, another clever parody that mashed up the slasher movie with a supernatural subgenre (the time-loop movie, e.g., Groundhog Day). That film, and its hilariously convoluted sequel, also took a familiar, marginalized horror figure (the peppy female victim) and turned her into the hero, giving her actual characterization rather than treating her as another corpse in a growing body count.
Still, the director isn’t afraid to stage effective, surprisingly elaborate kills in Freaky (there’s one moment with a buzzsaw that’s particularly intricate). Landon’s new film is bracingly irreverent without sacrificing the scare factor, a combination that’s been missing from a lot of Hollywood’s horror output in the past decade. The success of excellent but deadly serious demonic films such as 2013’s The Conjuring led to a rash of clones that emphasize deep, pervasive, indestructible evils. Freaky knows it’s a farce and winks at the silliest of slasher tropes, but that satirical edge doesn’t keep it from being one of the most purely enjoyable horror works I’ve seen in a long time.