Recent studies have suggested that horror movies may have the capacity for soothing, rather than rattling, jangled nerves in some viewers.
That notion, combined with the comforting formula and lighthearted tone of the gory supernatural serial killer movie “Freaky” (opening Friday the 13th in select theaters) makes it perfect for this time of COVID-19.
It’s a body-swapping movie, and the title is deliberately meant to recall the two “Freaky Friday” movies, the 1976 version with Jodie Foster and Barbara Harris, and the 2003 version with Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis.
Its practical-looking gore effects harken back to the more innocent days of 1980s horror, when monster-makers like Rick Baker and Rob Bottin would spend hours building characters from latex and rubber and other goopy ingredients.
“Freaky” fits like a glove, but, coming from the director of the two clever and spirited “Happy Death Day” movies, it’s also fresh and lively and funny.
No one could have asked for two better body-swappers than Vince Vaughn, as the serial killer known as the Blissfield Butcher, and Kathryn Newton as shy, under-confident high-schooler Millie.
The 6-foot, 5-inch tall Vaughn is sinister enough to pull off a vicious killer, but also goofy enough to comfortably play a teen girl. Then, Newton seems to relish the idea of donning a red leather jacket, glaring at handsy jocks, and letting them have it.
The movie begins with a prologue, as four expendable teens drink beer and make out and tell stories of the Butcher before he strikes. It’s typical, but director and co-writer Christopher Landon (son of Michael) knows it’s typical, so he rolls with it.
Then, it’s established that Millie has recently lost a father. Her mother (Katie Finneran) drinks too much chardonnay and forgets to pick up Millie after football games, where she jumps up and down in the beaver mascot suit. Millie’s sister (Dana Drori) is a no-nonsense police officer.
One night, after the homecoming game, the Butcher strikes, using a special, mystical knife stolen from the prologue. When he stabs Millie, they somehow switch bodies.
Millie, in Vaughn’s body, must convince her best friends Nyla (Celeste O’Connor) and Josh (Misha Osherovich), to help her; they have 24 hours to switch back or the change will be permanent.
Meanwhile, the Butcher, in Newton’s body, starts to have fun whacking teachers (Alan Ruck, from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” is one particularly nasty example) and other annoyances, and no one recognizes him.
In one terrific scene, Millie, in Vaughn’s body, finds out that her crush, Booker (Uriah Shelton), likes her back, and their flirting escalates, despite the obvious obstacle.
Landon’s direction is clean and springy, and it moves at a good clip. And he knows how to stage a perfect scare.
One amazing scene takes place in what appears to be a haunted house-style miniature golf course, with pastel-colored rooms jammed full of eerie, plastic horrors just waiting to be mistaken for the real thing.
Landon’s rhythms and use of space suggest that he has studied Wes Craven at length, and perhaps especially the “Scream” movies, which took horror to new levels.
“Freaky” is produced by the inimitable Jason Blum, who has built his Blumhouse empire on the backs of low-budget, high-concept horror movies that tend to please fans and make small fortunes at the box office.
A recent New York Times article took a deep-dive look into his “Purge” series and how effectively those four (so far) films reflect America’s dark times.
“Freaky” will never merit that kind of article, but it’s a delightful distraction, albeit one with some slashed throats and a few severed heads.
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Kathryn Newton, Celeste O’Connor, Misha Osherovich
Written by: Christopher Landon, Michael Kennedy
Directed by: Christopher Landon
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes