REVIEW: Freaky (2020)

dir. Christopher Landon.

You know how it goes: a bunch of teens are cutting loose, drinking beer and telling each other scary stories, before someone brings up an urban legend about local serial killer the Blissfield Butcher – a maniac who is allegedly still at large. The teens laugh it off, then separate in a dark and spooky mansion, unaware that the Butcher is very much real, watching from the shadows.

The formulaic recipe of slasher movies has always been both its strength and downfall: a sub-genre arguably created by Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), honed by Carpenter with Halloween (1978) and weaponised into a money-making cash-cow by Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980) its template was replicated ad infinitum throughout the 1980s, yielding huge returns but ultimately – perhaps even quickly – becoming staid and dull. There were of course some exceptions – most notably the films of Wes Craven – that transfused fresh blood into tired veins: a slasher in your dreams (A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984); a slasher where all the characters have seen slasher films (Scream, 1996).

In this sense director Landon is the perfect heir to Craven, finding similarly new angles from which to creep up on old material. His Happy Death Day films blended slasher beats with time-loop tropes (Groundhog Slay, if you will), and so too his latest (also for Blumhouse) mashes the slasher with another well-worn sub-genre: the body-swap comedy. As per the original title, this is Freaky Friday the 13th.

The result of splicing these two sub-genres together is to essentially create something new but familiar, serving a meal that is pure comfort food without ever falling prey to the rote boredom that can plague the genre’s lazier offerings. So although all expected plot points are present and correct – virginal Millie (Kathryn Newton) is overcoming the loss of her father when a masked murderer (Vince Vaughn) starts offing kids at her high-school: until they wake up in each other’s skin – everything is shot through with such sly cine-literacy so as to approach the audience like an old friend.

Which isn’t to say that Landon’s film is pure vacuity: part of the slasher code has always been its traditionally conservative moral paradigm, where sins such as drinking, drugs and pre-marital sex were brutally punished. Here that framework is kept, but the transgressions updated, the Butcher shredding Insta-obsessed mean girls, misogynistic teachers and rapey bros. And as with Happy Death Day 2U there are disarmingly touching moments of human connection, the film’s standout set-piece not coming from a gory kill but a delicate changing room sequence where Millie tries to reach out to her grieving mother.

Not everything works so well: some of the humour is a little misjudged, and with the aforementioned familiarity comes a sense that, in one guise or another, audiences have seen this all before. But ultimately in our post-Post-Modern, post-Scream world, it seems that Landon et al have hit on a winning formula: the future is fusion, and what other sub-genres they might mix up next suggests tantalising possibilities.

⭐⭐⭐

Tim Coleman

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