Genre filmmaker Christopher Landon has carved out a niche for himself in the past couple of years. His two clever slasher comedy riffs, “Happy Death Day” and “Happy Death Day 2U,” beg the question: What if “Sorority House Massacre” were “Groundhog Day”? It’s a conceit that’s just so silly it’s brilliant, and Landon managed to squeeze real pathos out of the sci-fi-flirting sequel. His latest flick, “Freaky,” co-written with Michael Kennedy, has a similar approach. Take a familiar horror genre (the high school slasher), apply a high-concept narrative trope (“Freaky Friday”-style body swapping), add a couple of committed actors and stir vigorously, sprinkling generously with horror references to delight any genre fan.
“Freaky” stars Kathryn Newton as a mousy Final Girl archetype, Millie. She’s pretty but frumpy, smart but shy, relentlessly bullied save for a couple of close friends. After a homecoming football game toiling as the Beaver mascot, she ends up on the wrong end of an enchanted dagger wielded by the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn), who just the night before slaughtered a quartet of frisky teens, as local masked murderers do. When the Butcher stabs Millie with “La Dola,” the knife he’s nicked, the sky roils and the earth parts to reveal an ancient temple beneath the football field, both of their shoulders oozing blood. Although Millie escapes, the next morning, the Butcher wakes up in Millie’s body, and she wakes up as, well, Vince Vaughn.
The swap offers the opportunity for Vaughn, Newton and Landon to skewer stereotypical gender roles in horror and play with those performances. As the Blissfield Butcher, Millie lumbers and glowers; her wardrobe is sexed up with a red biker jacket and swoosh of lipstick (sure to be the toast of Halloween 2021). Newton sure is fun as Bad Millie, who can turn on the damsel-in-distress act when the Butcher needs to get out of a tight spot.
However, the revelation here is Vaughn, who in his 6-foot-5-inch frame physically channels the body language and gestures of an otherwise petite, cowering teen. He bumps into branches, marvels at appendages, utilizes emphatic clapping when trying to make a point. Like Jack Black in the “Jumanji” movies, it’s a characterization that is notably juvenile and feminine, but it’s not an outlandish stereotype. It’s the restraint that makes the performance work, which in turn grounds Millie in real danger and real emotion.
After the PG-13 outings of the “Death Day” movies (which cleverly skirted gore with each repeated wake-up), the R-rated “Freaky” is refreshingly bloody. The creative kills are veritably dripping in viscera, plus the teens talk to one another with a biting, crude wit (especially standout Misha Osherovich as Millie’s gay best friend, Josh) that feels authentic to the world and the genre.
Kennedy and Landon have cooked up a gender-bending twist on the classic slasher with flourishes of social commentary that make “Freaky” resonate far beyond its novelty. There’s some surface-level discussion about bodies and power, but it’s the imagery in this gender-flipped genre that speaks louder. When the blond-ponytailed Millie wields a blood-spattered chainsaw, the frisson of recognition reverberates all the way back to 1974, Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” In “Freaky,” Landon and Kennedy create an anarchic space of gender and sexuality, where men can be vulnerable and girls can be feared. How liberating and how fun. The possibilities are endless.