The 2015 reboot of Jumanji might have initially looked like nothing more than a gratuitous cash-in, but it ended up making a surprisingly compelling case for its existence through Jack Black’s marvelous performance as a teenage girl stranded in a middle-aged man’s body. Freaky takes that absurd scenario and stretches it out into an entire movie, this time starring Vince Vaughn and Kathryn Newton (Blockers, Big Little Lies) as the swappees. That Vaughn’s character is a Jason Voorhees–esque serial killer known as the Blissfield Butcher adds a little extra spice, turning this take on Freaky Friday into something more like Freaky Friday the 13th.
The unlucky high schooler the Butcher swaps bodies with is Millie Kessler (Newton), a social outcast (seemingly just because she dresses in a more hipster-y fashion than the preppy popular crowd). Though Millie’s friends Nyla (Celeste O’Connor) and Josh (Misha Osherovich) do their best to coax her out of her cocoon, her sense of obligation to her mother (Katie Finneran) in the wake of their father’s death has made it seem impossible that she might ever emerge as a social butterfly. But when she survives an attack from the Blissfield Butcher, she becomes the center of attention—only, she’s no longer who everyone thinks she is. The knife used to carry out the attack, an ancient Aztec ritual dagger, has put Millie and the Butcher into each other’s bodies.
Freaky doesn’t have much more meat on the bone than the twist that sets the action into motion, but there doesn’t need to be thanks to Vaughn and Newton’s performances. Like many of his predecessors in the slasher genre, the Butcher doesn’t have much of a personality to speak of—all we see of him before the switch is a wordless killing spree—so Newton isn’t working with much, but the way she moves as Butcher-as-Millie, reminiscent of someone who might have to express “predator” in a game of charades, is a hoot. Vaughn has the room to give an even bigger performance, and he makes the most of it. From time to time, he comes off as a grown man doing an impression of a stereotypical teenage girl rather than a teenage girl trapped in a grown man’s skin, but director Christopher Landon, who co-wrote the script with relative newcomer Michael Kennedy, keeps things moving too quickly for the distinction to ever become too much of a problem.
Vaughn also gets the film’s best moments, which call for him to embody Millie with a surprising amount of sincerity. Like Landon’s other claim to fame, Happy Death Day, Freaky is filled with references to other horror movies and their tropes without ever winking at the audience or seeming to pat itself on the back for how clever it is. The appeal of Freaky is less in deconstructing the genre than in injecting it with some humanity. When Millie, still inside the Butcher, must interact with her crush Booker (Uriah Shelton), the resulting scene is funny—but touching, too, especially as Booker, once he gets over his initial reluctance to believe what’s happening, treats Millie just as he would if she weren’t transformed. It really is just a scene between a high school girl and her crush, and Vaughn commits to the emotion of the scene so fully that you almost forget he’s a 50-year-old man.
Landon and Kennedy also mine some intriguing material from what Millie and the Butcher get out of being in each others’ bodies (besides the requisite jokes about their new genitalia). The Butcher, now a foot shorter, doesn’t have as easy a time throwing his victims around. And Millie, who’d felt helpless before, suddenly feels confident and empowered in her new six-and-a-half-foot frame. The film doesn’t spend more than a couple of scenes interrogating the change, but the detail adds a little depth to a film that otherwise doesn’t dig too deep.
Though Freaky may first appear to be a high-concept hybrid of Freaky Friday and Friday the 13th, its spirit is closer to a mix between the aforementioned Jumanji and Happy Death Day, with the freakiness acting as a vehicle for harmless(ish) fun and some minor (if surprisingly gory) frights. As strange as it may sound, Freaky is one of the 2020 movies that comes closest to being truly feel-good. While it may be a horror-comedy, the characters’ feelings are rarely the butt of the joke. Like Millie stuck in the Butcher’s body, it’s a sheep in wolf’s clothing.
For more on Freaky, listen to Sam Adams and Karen Han discuss the movie on Slate’s Spoiler Specials podcast.