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Review: Vince Vaughn swaps bodies with a teen girl in high-concept slasher comedy ‘Freaky’

Vince Vaughn in "Freaky."
Vince Vaughn, center, plays both a serial killer known as the Butcher and high school student Millie Kessler, inside the body of the Butcher, in “Freaky.”
(Brian Douglas / Universal)

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

The old showbiz term “high-concept” was practically invented for “Freaky,” a horror-comedy easily described in six words: “Friday the 13th” meets “Freaky Friday.” A body-swap story crossed with a slasher picture — and leaning into the teensploitation elements of both genres — “Freaky” has a lighthearted tone and a bouncy energy that keeps it watchable, even though writer-director Christopher Landon and his co-writer, Michael Kennedy, don’t do as much as they should have with a killer idea.

Landon is best known for directing one of the most clever horror-comedies of recent years, “Happy Death Day” (as well as for writing and directing its disappointing sequel). Fans of that movie will recognize a similar sensibility at work here: a mix of dark humor, shocking violence and the occasional unexpected swell of sentimentality.

The film’s heart comes courtesy of its heroine, Millie (Kathryn Newton), a high school misfit mercilessly teased by her more popular classmates, in a town plagued by the return of the mysterious, possibly supernaturally powered serial killer “the Blissfield Butcher” (Vince Vaughn). When the Butcher stabs Millie with an ancient dagger, his soul shifts into her body and vice versa. Weirdly, watching a ruthless murderer take over her life gives Millie a new perspective on her many personal problems.

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Both Newton and Vaughn are fun to watch, essentially playing dual roles. As Millie, Newton is timid and dorky, relying a lot on the support of her fellow outcasts Nyla (Celeste O’Connor) and Josh (Misha Osherovich). As the Butcher, she changes her whole look and attitude, dressing more fashionably and taunting the boys and girls who’ve made Millie’s life a living hell.

The big comic gimmick here is the physical presence of the beefy Vaughn, who for long stretches of “Freaky” gets to pretend he’s a teenage girl. To the actor’s credit, he doesn’t overplay it. He mainly makes Millie into someone very aware of her feelings — whether she’s taking giddy delight in urinating as a man or taking advantage of being incognito to have a heart-to-heart conversation with her mother.

Kathryn Newton holds a chainsaw in "Freaky."
Kathryn Newton as the Butcher, in Millie Kessler’s body, in “Freaky.”
(Brian Douglas / Universal)

Unfortunately, the script here isn’t as strong as the direction or the leads. Aside from a few genuinely daring digressions — including a welcome willingness to engage with the issue of gender identity in a story where a male and a female swap bodies — “Freaky” mostly clings to a generic movie-ish version of high school, where the mean cheerleaders and the rich jocks line up against the working class, the nerds, the ethnic minorities and the LGBTQ students.

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Going this route gives the audience the freedom to cheer whenever the Butcher taunts and tortures Millie’s bullies. But it also makes the film’s stabs at saying something moving and sincere about its heroine’s hard life feel forced. Unlike in “Happy Death Day,” the emotional resonance doesn’t arise organically.

The one bit of social commentary that does connect in “Freaky” is probably inadvertent. It comes when the kids sardonically note that even though there’s a serial killer knocking off teens all over town, the school won’t cancel homecoming. That joke undoubtedly jabs harder during our current pandemic than it otherwise might have.

But even in ordinary times the joke would be pretty pointed, speaking to how youngsters are often sacrificed to preserve the social order. A more nuanced and thoughtful film could have built off of that theme, rather than rushing ahead to another routine scene of a psychopath slaughtering a jerk in a letterman jacket.

'Freaky'

Rating: R, for strong bloody horror violence, sexual content, and language throughout

Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes

Playing: Starts Nov. 13 in general release where theaters are open

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