Body swapping is a well known and often used plot device. As it literally involves two people (or more) switching bodies, it’s the ultimate method of forcing a character to live the life of someone else and learn to see the world from their point of view. The idea of two people directly exchanging bodies via some means either magical or scientific dates back in fiction to at least the 1880s with Thomas Anstey Guthrie’s novel Vice Versa. Notable authors such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, P.G. Wodehouse, Anne Rice, and numerous others have incorporated the idea into their works at some point, though the most famous example in literature is Mary Rodger’s 1972 novel Freaky Friday. It’s become the staple, with about a half dozen named adaptations to film from Disney, a pseudo-sequel written half a century later by a different author, and ripped off by countless production companies around the world.
In film, it’s no different. Body swapping has been used as a device across genres, from comedies like the Carl Reiner film All of Me or David Dobkin’s The Change-Up, to romance such as Norman Rene’s Prelude to a Kiss, to horror films such as Iain Softley’s The Skeleton Key and Robert Stevenson’s The Man Who Changed His Mind. It’s a worldwide trope too, from Japan’s Your Name to China’s Never Say Die, Singapore’s Just Follow Law, Denmark’s The Greeneyed Elephant, Australia’s Dating the Enemy, and so on and so forth. In short, it’s popular.
Enter Christopher Landon, horror screenwriter extraordinaire, who had already successfully transformed the Groundhog Day time loop into the slasher Happy Death Day. Landon specifically goes over the horde of Disney versions of Freaky Friday and decides sticking Lindsey Lohan’s mind into Jamie Lee Curtis’ body wasn’t good enough; we needed another slasher film, so he melds it directly with Friday the 13th. Landon’s crazy, folks. And we love him for it. He even originally called the film “Freaky Friday the 13th.” God bless him.
Millie Kessler is your typical somewhat nerdy high school girl. She’s bullied, mistreated, or simply forgotten by most other students and even some teachers. While she has two best friends, Nyla and Josh, who would do absolutely anything for her, her home life is also a total mess as her mother has latched on after the death of her father, and her sister is throwing herself into her job as a cop. And then Millie has a run-in with the Blissfield Butcher, who stabs her with an ancient Aztec dagger that causes them to swap. Now as a huge adult, Millie has to navigate her friends and families, Homecoming, being in the body of a serial killer, and trying to swap back before midnight or the change becomes permanent. Also, the Butcher goes on a tear and manages to murder a bunch of Millie’s bullies, so…that’s a perk.
The key component to any of these movies is how well the two people who swap manage to match the actions and physicality of the character they have swapped with; here it’s actress Kathryn Newton as Millie and actor Vince Vaughn as the Butcher. Can Newton be a stone cold killer while Vaughn takes on the role of a teenage girl? God yes, and Vaughn does way better than Rob Schneider in The Hot Chick. The hilarity of Vaughn’s performance as Millie learns about this body’s strength, size, and power, while still managing to woo her high school jock crush is fantastic. I used to have mixed thoughts on Vaughn’s acting ability until I saw him in Brawl in Cell Block 99. That movie put aside all doubts, and he’s fantastic here as he struggles with portraying femininity while also exploring a newfound empowerment. Newton, meanwhile, becomes the dead eyed killer of some of the best slashers. She’s Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers but without the frame, so she struggles at times to beat down her enemies but still manages to surprise and get the kill in fantastic fashion. And just as Millie learns, the Butcher learns too, how to seduce or insult the way to the killing zone instead of simply overpowering the way he had done previously. Old killers really can learn new tricks.
Is it perfect? Well, not gonna lie, it has some awkward moments. There is a heartwarming romance brewing between Millie and a fellow high school kid named Booker. In fact, the way she convinces him that it’s her inside the Butcher’s body is to recite a love poem that she wrote for him. After that, he believes, and he loves her for who she is inside, despite her now being trapped in the body of an aging mass murderer. The awkward part is seeing Vaughn and actor Uriah Shelton share a kiss that, while humorous for how it gets played off, still involves a man of about fifty kissing someone who is supposed to be around sixteen. I know, the point is that inner beauty and the soul of an individual is more important than the physical body, but the pedo vibes are tough to get past. Hey, it’s Hollywood; they love their spring-winter romances. How else can you explain that whole Hulk/Black Widow thing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or all of Leonardo DiCaprio’s girlfriends?
The film also has highlights in actors Celeste O’Connor and Misha Osherovich. The two play Millie’s best friends, and they come across as funny, entertaining, and believable as crazy kids. Misha had done some horror work previously for AMC’s TV adaptation of NOS4A2 and seems to be continuing with the genre in Crypt TV’s The Girl in the Woods. Celeste has since popped up in Ghostbusters: Afterlife. I’m hoping they both continue doing horror cinema, because their performances in Freaky are delightful and entertaining; even if I wasn’t enjoying everything else, it’s worth watching just to see Celeste and Misha act.
So, does Landon best Disney by adding some blood and guts to an old formula that the Mouse has been using for decades? Oh yeah, it’s fantastic. It’s not new ground, but it’s a great take on an old idea, further boosted by great performances from a creative cast including skilled stalwarts and fresh new talent that I hope to see more of in the future. Freaky isn’t something I would have asked for, but it’s something that I’m happy to have gotten.