Freaky review – deceptively astute body-swap horror
Vince Vaughn and Kathryn Newton give it their all in a wildly fun genre subversion that’s more social than physical
The body swap genre traditionally loves to tell you how the two human beings caught in a freak incident which put their souls in each other’s skin are, actually, completely alike – they find common ground in their differences and their relationship becomes stronger once they swap back. But Christopher Landon's Freaky, which borrows half the title and the loose premise of the Jamie Lee Curtis-Lindsay Lohan vehicle that catapulted the sub-genre into the comedic mainstream in 2003, leans in to its afflicted duo’s almighty differences – and is all the better for it.
Here is a smart movie that understands what sells in Hollywood: the high-stakes insecurity of a teenage girl, and the physical star power of a brutish straight white man. Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton) is a high school student like any other – a bit meek, perfectly sweet – who has the misfortune of running into the town’s local serial killer, the “Blissfield Butcher” (Vince Vaughn), who, two days prior, came into contact with a mystical dagger and, trying to kill Millie with it, gets the pair into this sorry mess.
They swap bodies, and panic ensues. So far, so familiar. But then it gets interesting: Butcher-as-Millie has the advantage, for who would mistrust a pretty teenage girl who claims she’s in lethal danger (the irony lies in the fact that in the current world an accusation against a violent older man actually isn’t enough to save anyone)?
Then there's Vaughn, who without a doubt gives the most outright entertaining performance of his career to date. As Millie-as-Butcher, the weathered actor loosens his vocal cords and goes half an octave higher – not so high that it becomes farcical, just enough that you really believe there’s a terrified young woman rattling around in there. His hands flop and eyebrows wince, and what should have been a traditional teenage first kiss gives way to the most bizarrely moving scene of the year.
The best and worst parts of Freaky are in the script, a hyperaware commentary on gender expectations and power dynamics in the modern day. It could have only been made in 2020 (pre-pandemic, the film was released in the US on Friday 13th November). It thrives on its understanding of the condescending micro-aggressions young women face every day – we won’t be feared, really, but maybe that’s part of the problem? – yet, conversely, suffers when shoehorning in tokenistic gags (Millie’s two best friends, as likeable as they are, contribute little to the story and are given cringe-inducing lines like: “You’re Black, I’m gay, we’re never going to survive” as they dart away from Vaughn’s lumbering frame).
On balance, though, Freaky offers a welcome revamp of a sturdy formula. There’s high-octane violence that ensures sure you’re laughing more than quaking, and just enough self-awareness to forgive the imperfect, if a little try-hard, feminist teachings. The film uses two wildly different bodies to say something potent, and critical, about the strength unfairly bestowed to each one, rather than finding a way for Vaughn and Newton to forge an arbitrary bond about how lonely they both feel. Sometimes, your gut instinct is correct. Sometimes, a cruel man is exactly that – and revenge tastes all the sweeter for it.
Freaky is showing in cinema from 2 July.Where to watch