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Lit entirely in red, Freaky star Kathryn Newton brandishes a chainsaw Photo: Universal Pictures

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For a body-swap horror-comedy, Freaky is surprisingly sincere

The latest horror-comedy from the director of Happy Death Day is gleefully gory

There’s a nuanced way to explore what our outward appearance signifies about us and how our bodies serve as traps, but Freaky, the new theatrical release from Happy Death Day director Christopher Landon, isn’t it. The horror genre generally welcomes questions that probe at the limits of physical bodies, from the grotesque transformations of the Cronenbergs to the fantastical folklore of Clive Barker to the demonic possession of Jennifer’s Body. The body-horror subgenre needs more nuance than Freaky provides: The recurring joke in this film truly boils down to, “Isn’t it weird to have breasts? Or to have balls?” That gets old quick. But Freaky boasts such energetic performances from the thoroughly game Kathryn Newton and Vince Vaughn that the horror-comedy breezes by in a pleasant, amusing way, no matter how reductive its central conceit gets.

If the 2002 Rob Schneider comedy The Hot Chick were melded with the Buffy the Vampire Slayer monster-of-the-week episode “The Pack,” in which Xander and a group of bullies begin to act like predatory hyenas, the result would be something like Freaky. In the small town of Blissfield, two days before Friday the 13th, an urban legend recirculates about the Blissfield Butcher. For decades, the story goes, the Blissfield Butcher has killed high schoolers before the homecoming dance. Is this an old wives’ tale, just used to scare teens away from “the dangers of underage debauchery,” as one young woman sneers? Maybe — but the group of kids who scoff at the Blissfield Butcher during a booze-and-sex-fueled hangout end up brutally murdered. The Butcher (Vaughn) is on the loose again, and like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, he wears a mask, brandishes a knife, and targets teenagers.

High-schooler Millie Kessler (Newton) has more immediate concerns than the seemingly distant danger of a serial killer, though. Her father died a year ago, and her mother Paula (Katie Finneran) still isn’t over it, drowning her sorrow in wine. Millie’s older sister (Dana Drori) is a police officer, and her schedule precludes her from spending a lot of time with Millie. At school, Millie is bullied by the popular rich kids. Her crush, varsity athlete Booker (Uriah Shelton), doesn’t notice her. And her woodworking teacher Mr. Fletcher (Alan Ruck) is unrelentingly cruel. The only people Millie really gets along with are her best friends, the socially progressive Nyla (Celeste O’Connor) and the school’s only out gay student, Josh (Misha Osherovich). They know Millie as clever, funny, passionate, and loyal.

Vince Vaughn straddles Kathryn Newton at night on a football field as he attempts to stab her in Freaky Photo: Universal Pictures

So when Millie is stabbed by the serial killer and shows up at school the next day acting strange, Nyla and Josh are the first to believe the unlikely story told to them by the frantic man they know as the Blissfield Butcher: He’s really Millie, and somehow the teenage girl and the aging serial killer switched bodies. Millie needs her body back, and because of some magical fine print related to the ancient dagger the Blissfield Butcher used to attack her, she only has 24 hours to switch back before they’re permanently stuck.

A fair amount of the humor Landon and co-writer Michael Kennedy inject into the script is overly familiar: Of course Millie-as-the-Butcher will be curious about her new male genitalia, while the-Butcher-as-Millie will squeeze his breasts in wonder while staring in the mirror. The former will be aghast and then impressed by her strength, and will speak of feeling empowered by her size and bulk; the latter will take advantage of how often people underestimate teenage girls to lure others into his murder traps.

None of that commentary on gender, age, or physicality is particularly new or insightful, but Newton and Vaughn elevate the material with how willing they are to go for it. Newton so firmly establishes Millie as a tentative, trod-upon young woman struggling to move past her father’s death and kindly react to her mother’s smothering that her shift into the Butcher has an immediate emotional impact. It isn’t just Millie’s new outfit, which is straight out of the Faith Lehane playbook: a smear of red lipstick, a badass moto jacket. Newton perfects an unbreakable, resentful glare to help us understand the hateful transformation that takes hold when Millie becomes the Butcher, and she follows it up with a chillingly maniacal giggle when she evades police and sneers, “Fuck off, piggies.”

In his version of the Blissfield Butcher, Vaughn gets the opportunity to combine his goofy, motor-mouthed style from Wedding Crashers and Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story with the more foreboding, physically intimidating vibe of his work in True Detective season 2 and Brawl in Cell Block 99. Landon is purposeful in how obviously the Blissfield Butcher evokes legendary horror villains: silently tracking his victims, weapon in hand, or appearing suddenly in an empty parking lot, wispy fog blowing around his solid frame.

Vaughn switches that up with a looser, sillier energy when Millie is transferred into his body. When Millie-as-the-Butcher walks into a tree and complains, “I’m a giant. I’m a giant!”, it’s Vaughn’s self-deprecating delivery that sells the identity swap. And Vaughn also pulls off a few moments of surprising sincerity as Millie-as-the-Butcher, including a heart-to-heart with Paula that lets both mother and daughter consider how they treasure each other, and what they want out of their relationship.

Vince Vaughn looms silhouetted against a window, holding a knife, as Kathryn Newton sits in the foreground in Freaky Photo: Universal Pictures

While Freaky refrains from using the Millie/Butcher switch as a way to thoughtfully question stereotypes about body types or gender identity, its well-paced, giddily gory scenes deliver in the horror department. Creative murder methods abound, including a particularly inspired scene involving a broken tennis racket. The script has a snappy sense of humor that winks at horror traditions. “Please don’t be the Butcher!” Millie fruitlessly whispers to herself when she spots the killer across a parking lot. “Everyone’s tired, we’ve done lots of hitting,” Millie-as-the-Butcher implores Naya and Josh after they initially disbelieve her story and attack her, in the school’s cafeteria, with tater tots and carrots. “You’re black, I’m gay, we’re so dead,” Josh complains to Naya when they’re in danger.

Much like Landon’s Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2U, Freaky is committed to a cheeky upending of genre conventions, with a concluding act that delivers one last bloody thrill. The film is slightly suspect in its suggestion that the best way a young woman can come into her power is by experiencing life as an older white man. But Freaky is amusing and gory enough to still be an entertaining slasher movie with its own satisfying spin on the final-girl trope.

Freaky debuts in theatrical release on Nov. 13. For guidelines to safe movie viewing during the COVID-19 pandemic, check our current guide to theater regulations nationwide.