In the increasingly popular subgenre of the meta-horror-comedy, irony is the soul of wit. How else to explain the moment in Freaky when two of its supporting characters — written and cast for their tokenism — run for their lives through the corridors of their school, a purported serial killer barreling down upon them, and the flamboyant Josh (Misha Osherovich) offers this prediction: “You’re black, I’m gay, we are so dead!”
It’s a line so aspirationally clever that it turns up in the movie’s trailer. Like much of the film itself, it riffs on decades of hackneyed slasher tropes — in this case, the inevitably early and gruesome demises of the genre’s minority characters — hoping that by acknowledging its self-awareness it will transcend its own compounding clichés. The extent to which you’ll appreciate Freaky, at best the guiltiest of pleasures, may rest with your ability to tolerate the quotation marks hovering, and smirking, over every scene.
The title itself is a cheeky play off Disney’s Freaky Friday, the wholesome family comedy in which a horn-locking mother and daughter learn to appreciate each other by spending a day in each other’s body. In Freaky, the supernatural swap occurs between the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn), a notorious serial killer, and Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton), a bullied high school senior with a tragic home life. The switch manifests after the Butcher stabs his prey with a pilfered antique knife, a McGuffin which Millie, now in the lumbering body of an aging madman, must recover and plunge into her perpetrator within 24 hours, lest the change become permanent.
Freaky is quite nearly a one-joke movie. It exists primarily for the image of Vaughn channeling a 17-year-old girl, as when he gamely pantomimes the school’s cheerleading choreography to convince his/her friends that she really exists in the body of this he (“watch your pronouns!” a character admonishes at one point, in one of the few arrestingly funny moments). Newton also makes the most of her dual role, reveling in the cold-eyed psychopathy and more aggressive fashion sense that suddenly allures her to schoolmates who previously tormented her.
But this is mostly a film of untapped potential, and it’s telling how quickly the novelty of its premise sputters out like a wheezing jalopy. Its plot becomes a procession of deliberately hollow stock characters from every teen movie — the predatory jocks, the hectoring teacher, the requisite mean girls — earning their baroque comeuppance. Director Christopher Landon, whose experience in hyphenated genre work includes Happy Death Day and Scouts Guide to the Apocalypse, is indeed adept at devising creative fatalities, which this time involve table saws, wine bottles, tennis rackets and toilet seats.
To his credit, Landon even films a touching scene in a department store, in which Millie, in the body of the Butcher, unpacks much-needed family trauma with her alcoholic mother (Katie Finneran), who is separated from this apparent stranger by a fitting-room door. Landon shoots the moment like a priestly confessional, which is what it is; it’s also a rare moment in which the film’s ironic crutches are given a rest.
And yet it is mystifying that such a hollow work of appropriation has earned salutary comparisons to Scream, which rather amazingly turns 25 next year — a reminder that meta horror has been with us for at least a quarter-century, and that its makers need to strive ever higher to hit original marks.
Freaky certainly isn’t in the same league as Wes Craven’s definingly deft genre juggle; it also isn’t Cabin in the Woods or You’re Next or even, if I’m being honest, the original Scary Movie. It’s a hand-me-down horror-com, its laugh lines and jump scares serving as references to references, derivations of derivations. How appropriately ironic that its most impactful audience members may not be Fangoria-reading horror aficionados but those sheltered souls who have never seen Scream.
FREAKY. Director: Christopher Landon; Cast: Kathryn Newton, Vince Vaughn, Katie Finneran, Celeste O’Connor, Alan Ruck, Misha Osherovich; Distributor: Universal Pictures; Rating: R; Opens: Today at most area theaters