There’s appeal to the genre mashup. Two genres that rarely go together meshing together for perhaps the first time provides a sense of originality that’s missing from many movies, especially when it comes to the genres at hand. Max Landis has made a screenwriting career out of this where Chronicle was the found footage movie and a superhero movie, American Ultra was a spy movie and a stoner comedy, and Bright was a fantasy movie and a cop movie. The director of Freaky, Christopher Landon, has done something similar in his short career as writer/director, most notably with Happy Death Day, which was a well-made and amusing combination of the serial killer movie with Groundhog Day. What made that movie work in its limited capacity was the film’s strong focus on its main character’s emotional journey through the genre mashup happenings she ended up caught in. Freaky uses some of the same conventions, combining the serial killer film with a body swap comedy out of the 80s (playing off the title of one of the most famous of them, Freaky Friday), but the script’s emotional and character elements are deficient at best, dragging what starts as an amusing little slice of genre into unfocused and random storytelling beats that never come together.
The film begins with a winking serial killer opening as four teens hang out in an empty mansion owned by one of their parents’. They all get murdered in inventive ways, and we see our killer, The Butcher. With knowing echoes of Michael Meyers in John Carpenter’s Halloween, he’s presented as a bulking presence of murder, played by Vince Vaughn. We then cut to Millie, a shy high schooler in the same town of Blissfield, as she goes about her typical day of school flanked by her best friends Celeste and Josh. Everything up to this point is fine. The opening with the killings is inventive and a decent introduction. The stuff is school is a little heavy-handed, especially when we get to Millie’s shop teacher who’s such an unrepentant little tyrant of no depth that we know, from the moment he first opens his mouth, that he’s going to end up dead somehow.
Then the body swap happens, and we see the movie’s greatest strengths. The Butcher had stolen an old Aztec dagger (with Spanish written into it? Sure), and by stabbing Millie, left alone after a football game by her alcoholic mother with her older sheriff’s deputy sister on the way to pick her up, but not killing her, a curse falls on them both where they switch bodies. She wakes up the next morning in his body, on a dirty mattress in the Old Mill, and he wakes up in her bed (fully made up, of course), and he slowly learns his position. The joys of this film really rest on the performances, most notably Vince Vaughn as the sixteen year old in a grown man’s body (similar to Jack Black’s fun in the Jumanji movies), and Kathryn Newton as the psychotic killer trapped in a teenage girl’s body. Vaughn embraces the absurdity fully, flailing his hands around as he runs, pitching up his voice, and reacting to his new body with amusement. Newton’s also a lot of fun as she stares off into space with a killer’s gaze, realizing that she can move around the world without getting chased as a killer automatically. These joys are relatively short lived, though.
The problem is really around Millie. She has, essentially, three different arcs that never really intersect. The first is about her father, who died a year before the action of the movie. Her mother is still in a deep state of depression, and Millie has become more reserved. The next is about her crush, Booker, that she had slipped a secret poem to sometime before (and is only revealed late in the film as a last second thing, undermining its effect at the time), sits next to in shop class, and mostly just mopes around hoping he’ll notice her. The third is an unfocused desire to be stronger. All three little stories get their due, but they end up feeling almost like they’re happening to separate characters. The death of her father feels unconnected from her crush on Booker which feels unconnected to her desire to be stronger. In fact, the stuff about her dead father ends up playing more with her mother, a very peripheral character, than with her.
And I think that’s the main source of my problems with the movie, there are too many characters given too much prominence. There’s a complete lack of narrative focus, and it feels like a first draft rushed into production. Considering this was produced by Blumhouse Productions, it wouldn’t surprise me if Jason Blum saw Landon’s first draft and immediately greenlit the project. The script for Happy Death Day probably got more attention as Landon worked to find financial backers, the sort of time that he didn’t need in order to sell Freaky. So, he had ideas that he hadn’t quite ironed out, but before he could decide to cut characters and even arcs, he was behind the camera with Vince Vaughn playacting as a teenaged girl.
There’s also some plot mechanics that feel strange at best. There’s an extended, okay-looking, action scene where Vaughn as Millie has to convince his two friends that he is who he says he is. It’s fine with some amusing beats, but there’s a point later in the film where Millie could do the same with her sister. The sister, the sheriff’s deputy, is trying to get Millie in the Butcher’s body into a prison cell, but Millie disarms the sister, throws her into the cell, and then runs off. Millie feels like there’s a ticking clock, of course, because the Butcher just got away and is getting ready to kill again, but how long would it take to convince Millie’s sister of the body swapping? Millie doesn’t even try, and if she had succeeded, she would have had the sheriff’s office on her side. Ultimately, nothing comes of the confrontation at all, like it was a half-thought out idea that never got the rewrite treatment it needed to become something more. And the back half of the film is just littered with this, as undeveloped ideas come to either nothing or unconvincing little conclusions that feel like they happen in isolation to everything around them.
There’s charm to the movie, of course. The acting is amusing. The concept is entertaining, especially when the Butcher in Millie’s body realizes how weak he is and has to improvise to kill. However, there’s just too much going off in too many directions for the movie to have the sort of focus it needs in order to provide Millie with the kind of emotional payoff the movie so obviously wants in the end. I was disappointed in the fractured, unfocused storytelling that marred an entertaining genre mashup.