Dir: Christopher Landon. Starring: Vince Vaughn, Kathryn Newton, Katie Finneran, Celeste O'Connor, Misha Osherovich, Alan Ruck. 15, 101 mins.
With Happy Death Day, director Christopher Landon birthed his own peculiar brand of horror-comedy – taking the nostalgic comforts of a classic like Groundhog Day and filling it with blood, guts and bile. Its 2019 sequel took a detour into Back to the Future territory. These films have zeal and wit, gesturing to their inspirations with the subtlety of a flashing, neon sign, but still finding fresh and inventive ways to combine them.
Happy Death Day’s spiritual sister, Freaky, is a slightly lesser beast. It’s a spin on Freaky Friday – either the 1976 or 2003 version, take your pick – with a plot that sees a teenage girl (Kathryn Newton’s Millie) and a masked killer (Vince Vaughn’s Blissfield Butcher) swap bodies thanks to the powers of an ancient Incan dagger. Millie, in the Butcher’s body, scurries around town looking for a solution to her problem – or at least a friendly face – not quite realising that a middle-aged man smelling faintly of corpse juice probably isn’t going to receive quite the same warm welcome. Especially after he’s slaughtered three teenagers.
The Butcher, in Millie’s body, is mostly out for a good (meaning murderous) time. He slips on a red leather jacket, some red lipstick, and starts mowing down the local jocks all slack-jawed at the local mousy girl’s Grease-like makeover. Freaky is as playful in its references as the Happy Death Day films, while giving Millie the kind of sweetly tragic backstory that makes her immediately empathetic – the reason she’s so withdrawn is that she’s still grieving her father’s death. And, since her cop sister (Dana Drori) has always been the independent one, she feels burdened by the expectation to stay at home and take care of their mother (Katie Finneran).
But body-swap films are always a kind of actor’s duet, and Freaky’s biggest issue is that it can’t merely rely on Newton’s innocent charms. The draw of 2003’s Freaky Friday was that the quirks and mannerisms of its A-list stars, Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis, are so recognisable that it was easy for them to imitate and poke fun at each other. Newton certainly has the potential for that kind of star power (there’s an unguarded sweetness to her that’s reminiscent of Molly Ringwald), but she’s not quite there yet. And Vaughn isn’t even playing the character we recognise from Wedding Crashers or Dodgeball. His Butcher, in the brief moments we’re introduced to him, is a complete blank slate of a serial killer.
Once they’ve swapped, Newton goes hard on the Jack Torrance-esque malevolent stares, and Vaughn perfectly pitches his teen girl mannerisms, in a way that’s funny without sliding into cheap misogyny. The supporting cast, meanwhile, are all slightly underwritten (Misha Osherovich as Josh, one of Millie’s best friends, is saddled with some bizarre clunkers like “Wecome to Tragic-stan”).
Freaky zips by amusingly enough, but its concepts never quite pop like they did in Happy Death Day, nor does it push the envelope enough for a film that references the dark masterpiece that is Heathers so early on. Ah, well. Landon can always try again with a horror spin on 1988’s Big.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies