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by Jay Seaver

"Fun parts of its two parents, but not the crazy mashup it could have been."
3 stars

This movie was almost certainly called "Freaky Friday the Thirteenth" at some point of it being pitched and developed, and I hope the producers reached out to Disney, Paramount, New Line, and/or the estate of Mary Rodgers in the hopes of possibly using that title, because it can't hurt to ask, right? It's fun to imagine what this would be like as a way-off-kilter entry in the franchise(s), rather than a mostly-fun riff that doesn't quite live up to its insane potential.

It starts out in Scream territory, as a group of teens chat about their town's urban legend, the "Blissfield Butcher", a couple of days before homecoming, only to have said killer (Vince Vaughn) show up and do horrible things with the collection of South American relics that one girl's father collects. That's when the film introduces Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton), a sweet girl who's a bit too accommodating of her mess of a mother (Katie Finneran), especially compared to her sister Charlene (Dana Drori), along with her best friends Nyla (Celeste O'Connor) and Josh (Misha Osherovich), along with crush Booker (Uriah Shelton) and an assortment of mean girls. Millie is set to become the Butcher's next victim only to be interrupted - and for the pair to find that the ancient Aztec knife the killer used somehow switched their bodies.

From the moment he's introduced, it's easy to see where the filmmakers' inspirations are as far as their killer is concerned; The Butcher is a Jason Vorhees/Michael Myers type: His face is initially hidden behind a mask, his bulk is intimidating, and he sort of lumbers after his victims slowly but crashes through walls and otherwise displays incredible strength, like his body is both stiff from rigor mortis but powered by some demonic force of pure malevolence. The opening gambit is the sort of thing that would fit easily into a Friday the 13th movie (despite its cheeky "Wednesday the 11th" label) where Jason comes upon a group of kids and just exterminates them because they're unprepared and that's what he does. It's one of the first places co-writer/director Christopher Landon shows a genuine fondness for bloody kills and a lack of interest in a PG-13 rating that should please those who like these movies for the gore.

Still, there's a reason that a lot of slashers have more than a dash of murder mystery to them, and Freaky finds itself halfway between the Fridays and Scream (or Landon's own Happy Death Day) as it goes for the twist - its Butcher is initially presented as a hulking, mindless menace, and the filmmakers need to either completely commit to the bit or have him be more, but they never do either. The bits where they play with the tropes of these killing machines are fun, whether it's Millie consistently not knowing her own strength (but not actually being able to run), a scene where a non-vocal "Millie" is presumed to be in shock by Charlene and Coral, or most especially a potential kill where the Butcher finds himself physically outmatched and the audience has to kind of root for him not to get killed in Millie's body so she can get it back (though it might be even more delicious if the shop teacher he's targeting wasn't a complete dick). Eventually, though, Butcher-as-Millie has to act like a person, talking and pretending to be her, and that's when the fact that there's nothing there starts to really become a problem. A slasher villain is built to just be a force of nature, killing teenagers less because he hates anything about them specifically than because they're there, but the script winds up raising questions about what he's got going on inside his head (or technically Millie's) that Landon and co-writer Michael Kennedy never do much with.

That may be a missed opportunity, but the filmmakers chose this route, and Vince Vaughn and Kathryn Newton make a fine tag-team as the body-swapped killer and final girl, both doing a good enough job at capturing Millie's essential sweetness that it's no trouble to follow the character rather than the actor. It's not exact - Vaughn does an exaggeratedly girly run that looks especially silly when Celeste O'Connor sprints past him as Nyla at one point, and Newton's Butcher has a more gleeful nastiness than Vaughn's - but the filmmakers aren't trying to make a point about the pair being more similar than you might think, so the heightened difference work. The cast around them is actually quite good, more than enough to invest in: Particularly noteworthy are O'Connor, who's enough fun as Millie's best friend that I look forward to seeing her in a leading part, and Dana Drori, whose tough older sister plays off Newton's Millie and Katie Finneran's mother in just the right way.

There's no specific moment in "Freaky" when Christopher Landon and company hit the wall with what you can do with an old-school slasher, even as parody, but they can't really get past the genre's limits, even with a game cast and a fun start. I suspect that this idea's natural format is a 15-minute short that plays the genre film festival circuit to fans' great amusement; doing it as a more mainstream feature dilutes it a bit, but it still does what it sets out to do.

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originally posted: 11/19/20 05:23:07
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  13-Nov-2020 (R)
  DVD: 09-Feb-2021

  N/A (15)

  12-Nov-2020 (MA)
  DVD: 09-Feb-2021

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