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► Freaky is in cinemas from 2 July.
Christopher Landon’s Happy Death Day (2017) fused the knowing slasher tropery of Scream with the premise of Groundhog Day, all the better to present a character study of a heroine who seemed to incarnate a teen movie stereotype.
Landon’s Freaky replicates the formula but melds slasher activity with another seminal, much-imitated fantasy comedy. It also replaces the mean girl of Happy Death Day with a shy girl who’s an incipient knockout, as found in any number of teen makeover comedies.
Freaky even repeats the hidden motivation for its heroine’s assumption of a stereotype – the recent death of a parent; though where in Landon’s earlier film an absent mom turned Jessica Rothe’s Tree into someone callous, here the loss of a father has shaken Kathryn Newton’s Millie’s confidence.
The title evokes Freaky Friday (filmed in 1976 and 2003), itself a mother-daughter take on the father-son identity exchange of F. Anstey’s much-filmed novel Vice Versa (1882) – though the gender-swap angle was originally added by Thorne Smith’s Turnabout, filmed in 1940 and often imitated (by the embarrassing 1969 Star Trek episode ‘Turnabout Intruder’, for instance).
Thanks to Aztec jiggery-pokery, the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn), an urban legend-type slasher movie villain, switches souls with ‘final girl’ Millie when he stabs her with a magic knife. Millie in the Butcher’s body has to convince her outsider friends – Black Nyla (Celeste O’Connor) and waspish gay Josh (Misha Osherovich), who are so tokenist it’s hard to tell whether Landon is joking about teen film conventions or just giving in to them – that she’s essentially herself. Meanwhile, the killer smartens up wallflower Millie’s original body (with a leather jacket and scarlet lipstick) and threatens to be more socially successful than her, if only to lure future victims to set-piece deaths (the most elaborate cribbed from Jason X, 2001).
The stars enjoy themselves hugely as the mixed-up antagonists. Vaughn plays shy virgin with the heroine’s crush Booker (Uriah Shelton), who is surprisingly willing to go ahead with their first kiss even though she’s in the body of a middle-aged mass murderer. Newton is especially venomous in moments when the Butcher mimics a squeaking victim in order to sic angry mobs on his former body.
But where Happy Death Day turned out to be deeper than it seemed, this goes for easier laughs and is crucially evasive. We learn little about the nameless killer, even when Millie gets to pilot his body around; the fact that he’s an equal opportunity murderer of male and female teens, polishing off two of each in the prologue, means there’s no frisson when a homicidal misogynist finds himself in a girl’s body. He’s frustrated not to be able to batter down a door, just as Millie is empowered by suddenly being able to intimidate a bully, but given that Vaughn’s maniac CV includes playing Norman Bates it’s a missed opportunity that the Butcher isn’t one of the many genderfluid psychos found throughout the genre.
Happy Death Day review: an irreverent slasher that bears repeating
The Groundhog Day-meets-grindhouse premise of Christopher Landon's enjoyable comic horror allows room for offbeat comedy and an enjoyably knotty narrative, writes Philip Kemp.
By Philip Kemp
Sight & Sound Summer 2021
In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy