Freaky is a fresh horror take on body-swapping high-jinks

Freaky (MA, 102 minutes)

4 stars

Just as the recent hit lite-horror film Happy Death Day took the Groundhog Day premise and fashioned a witty horror film around it, the filmmakers of Freaky take the Freaky Friday premise and work the same magic.

Misha Osherovich, Melissa Collazo, Kathryn Newton and Celeste O'Connor in Freaky. Picture: Netflix

Misha Osherovich, Melissa Collazo, Kathryn Newton and Celeste O'Connor in Freaky. Picture: Netflix

Whether you like your mother-daughter body-swaps a la Lindsay Lohan/Jamie Leigh Curtis, or prefer the old-school Jodie Foster/Barbara Harris, the premise of a mystically-driven transfer of souls between bodies is always great big-screen hi-jinks.

As the film opens, four photogenic high-school teens are drinking in the mansion of the spoiled daughter of art and antiquity-collecting parents. The folks are out, and one of their prized new acquisitions, an Aztec dagger, sits on the bar the teens are pilfering booze from.

The teens scare each other with a local urban legend about the serial killer The Blissfield Butcher, who returns to town every year around Homecoming to slice his way through loved-up high-schoolers. But the urban legend is true, and one by one the Butcher (Vince Vaughan) makes short work of the teenagers, grabbing the dagger as he exits the carnage.

The next day at school, news of their slain classmates is certainly on the minds of the students, but for a quiet bullied teen like Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton), it's only one of a number of concerns, including dodging her popular bitchy bully Ryler (Melissa Collazo), hoping to catch the eye of her longtime crush Booker (Uriah Shelton), avoiding the wrath of her wood shop teacher Mr Fletcher (Alan Ruck), or spending time with her pals Nyla (Celeste O'Connor) and Josh (Misha Osherovich).

Millie performs at that evening's football game as the school football team's dancing mascot, a beaver, and waves away offers for lifts home as she is expecting her mother. But widowed mum Paula (Katie Finneran) is still grieving her way through a bottle of wine a night and is asleep on the couch, making the lonely school mascot at the bus stop a target for the Blissfield Butcher.

After a case through the empty late-night sports field, the Butcher pins Millie and whips out the Aztec dagger. Strange music plays, the hint of an Aztec temple appears around them. It is midnight on Friday the 13th, and after the dagger is plunged into Millie's shoulder, the injury appears on both killer and victim.

The following morning, Millie arrives at school with a new look and a new attitude, silent and mercurial, while on the other side of town in an abandoned warehouse, the Blissfield Butcher awakes. He just totally can't. He is, of course, actually Millie, while the body of the high school hottie is housing the actual killer. Millie-in-a-killer's-body learns that she has until midnight to retrieve the knife from the police evidence lockup and repeat the accident or she will be forever trapped in his body.

There have been many dozen high school horrors, but director Christopher Landon makes it all feel fresh, subverting centre tropes or just letting them play out in the most delicious ways. Landon make his name with the indie Scouts Guise to the Zombie Apocalypse, and built a big revenue earner with this Happy Death Day franchise.

Landon and his co-writer Michael Kennedy's screenplay goes in interesting places. They tell us next to nothing of the killer's backstory, but as his day progresses in Millie's body, we see hints of his evolution, a growing sense of restraint and signs he may enjoy the kind of torture teenagers employ on each other every day just as much as the actual torture that is his stock-in-trade.

This film is gold and gives Vaughan the chance for wonderful physical comedy.

Elsewhere, their dialogue is Mean Girls funny, and their pop culture references add to the audience's knowing enjoyment. There are plenty of scenes that would have really gotten big laughs in a packed cinema, and you feel that absence.

The film's absolute highlight is Vince Vaughan, who seems to come from the Michael Caine school of "appear in every film offered to you and every so often one won't be awful". But this film is gold and gives Vaughan the chance for wonderful physical comedy as a teenage girl trapped in the body of a middle aged man. Millie's side-kick best friends Nyla and Josh get fun self-aware dialogue as the minority characters that are usually the first to go in traditional horror.

A feel-good horror film would have been perfect for cinema screens over Halloween, and I was wondering why the distributors were releasing it a full fortnight later. Only on my drive home did I realise the date - Thursday the 12th. Punters seeing this Friday the 13th will have doubled down on their enjoyment.

This story Sly fun and screams for kicks first appeared on The Canberra Times.