Christopher Landon’s latest film is an addition to the Happy Death Day expanded universe – not because the narratives explicitly link up here (although Landon has suggested they might in the future) but because Freaky continues the post-slasher signature and sensibility that Landon has made so thoroughly his own. At their height, slasher films were fixated with the undead intractability of the white father-function in American culture. Slashers nearly always targeted a fatherless household, filling in the space left by the father only by intensifying his regulatory authority to a monstrous degree. Removing fathers just intensified this monstrous father-function, meaning that slasher films were nearly always testaments to patriarchal realism – the sense that no other reality was conceivable outside the domain of the suburban father-figure; a collective failure of imagination that forced slasher writers and directors to respond with increasingly odd and novel scenarios to keep these questions of patriarchy alive.
By the 90s, this had started to segue the austerity of the 70s slasher into horror-comedy, as directors like Wes Craven tried to displace or dislodge the slasher rather than unseat him entirely, knowing that dethroning the father-figure just tended to unleash a spate of slasher energy in his absence. More than any other director of the last twenty years, Landon has continued this process – first by trapping the slasher and victim in a potentially endless time loop, as occurred in Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2U, and now by effecting a body swap between slasher and victim in a horror take on the Freaky Friday franchise. The plot, then, is ingeniously simple – after being stabbed with a magic dagger by the Blissfield Butcher, played by Vince Vaughan, Millie Kessler, played by Kathryn Newton, wakes up in the Butcher’s body, and soon discovers she has only twenty-four hours to reverse the swap before it becomes permanent. In other words, Newton spends most of the film playing a middle-aged male psychopath, while Vaughan spends most of the movie playing an archetypal “last girl.”
This all occurs after an abbreviated opening act, which starts at a house party in a lavish mansion, where a teenage girl makes a joke about the inviolability of the straight white male body that apparently conjures the Blissfield Butcher – who hasn’t been seen since the 1970s – back into existence. What ensues is very reminiscent of the iconic first scene in Scream, as Landon immerses us in the same lush hyperreality as the 90s slasher revival, only indicating the present moment in the sheer intensity of various types of head violence that the Butcher visits upon his victims. Landon gets the classical slasher horror out of the way – he shows us how well he can do it – before using the rest of the film, and the body swap, to shift even more adventurously in the direction of post-slasher style than Happy Death Day or its sequel.
Before we get to the body swap, however, Landon introduces a high school comedy that’s every bit as poised in its genre coordinates as the opening slasher sequence. In fact, I’m tempted to say that this has become the very best horror-comedy franchise since Scream, given how brilliantly Landon captures the catty rapport between the three main characters – Millie and her best friends Nyla, played by Celeste O’Connor, and Josh, played by Misha Osherovich. Josh’s campy humour is the closest cognate for Landon’s comic voice, which is driven by a perky sense of place, along with the inanity and toxicity of American high school culture. Indeed, this abbreviated second act would easily work on its own terms as a high school film, without any overt horror element, so when the Butcher does finally appear it’s not as a “real” figure, but as a figment from another time, cloaked in diaphanous coils of mist.
No surprise that the body swap happens on the football field, the centre of toxic high school masculinity, where the Butcher plunges his magical dagger into Millie’s left shoulder. With the killer and victim switching bodies, Landon displaces the entire slasher dyad, and the whole system of masculinity and patriarchy that it witnesses, starting with the way in which Millie and the Bucher now relate to the world around them. All of a sudden, being in Millie’s body makes the Butcher invulnerable, partly because of how quickly he learns to weaponise the white female body, crying and screaming whenever he wants to distract attention from his own psychopathic behaviour. With the Butcher inside her, “Millie” also grows more cool and alluring to her classmates, who simply can’t picture as a serial killer, despite her constant giveaways, since the Butcher is now ensconced in the body of an archetypal serial killer victim.
Conversely, Millie’s use of the Butcher’s body, and Vaughan’s depiction of this process, strikes to the heart of the genre – specifically the slasher film’s inability, or refusal, to normalise or naturalise the straight white male body as an optic. No cinematic genre is quite so reluctant to accept this type of body as a given, or so anxious about conceding that it is one body amongst many – the dynamic driving conservative American politics – meaning that straight white masculinity always has to be exceptional in its phallogocentrism when it comes to slasher horror, regardless of whether it is presented as antagonist or victim, tragically absent father or monstrously intensified father. By contrast, Millie gets used to the Butcher’s body so quickly that she doesn’t have to learn to relinquish her own bodily quirks, meaning that his body is subtly denaturalised, but never ostracised, transformed into one option amongst many. This is also a testament to one of Vaughan’s best ever comic performances, as he plays up this weird transitional space between teenager and middle-aged man just enough to keep it dynamic and comically surprising, never quite “impersonating” or “pretending” to be a girl.
More generally, displacing the slasher dyad creates a mood of pure joy, or jouissance, that gives the horror here a really emphatic edge but drives the film as a whole towards the kind of anarchic comedy that Landon does best. The result is a kind of queer utopia, since reversing the slasher dyad has a ripple effect, cascading out until the entire patriarchal edifice built upon the slasher no longer ramifies. At one point, Josh reluctantly comes out as straight to his parents; at another point Millie makes out with her crush Booker, played by Uriah Shelter, while she is still in the Butcher’s body. Not only does this not pose a problem for Booker, but he only seems to recognise his love for Millie (or at least seem capable of acting upon that love) while he’s communing with her through the Butcher. In the best scene of the film, Shelter and Vaughan make out in the back seat of Millie’s car – and it’s Millie, in the Butcher’s body, who pulls away, as Booker tells her he’ll be waiting to resume their pash session regardless of what body she takes, or how she relates to him in terms of gender presentation.
In today’s climate, it’s hard not to read this scene as a reparative response to a partner transitioning – and even if Landon isn’t aiming for a direct trans allegory here, the slasher-victim body swap reveals a world where gender is so fluid and provisional (in other words, the real world) that the whole concept of transitioning loses a great deal of its trauma to begin with. The utopia, then, is partly the utopia of the next generation – the teenagers and young adults who haven’t been acclimatised to rigid pronoun use, and so shift and slide amongst them as fluidly and easily as all the characters do in this gorgeous film. Finally, in this space, the slasher becomes a figure of genuine patriarchal disruption – not by doubling down on patriarchy, or intensifying it to a monstrous extremity, as occurred in the regular slasher film, but by melding so thoroughly with his victim that he effectively becomes her agent, or vice versa, as the Butcher, in the guise of “Millie,” beats up and then kills the local bullies as they’re preparing to assault her, before killing another bully who threatens to out Josh for being gay.
All of that makes it especially uncanny when we return to the conventional slasher format for the abbreviated final scene. At first, I was hoping for more of a twist ending – perhaps we’d get a hint that the Butcher was still inside Millie after the body swap was finally reversed? – but I’ve since come around to this ending, even or especially as its impact is a bit muted after the riotous abandon of the middle part of the film. By these closing scenes, the slasher topos has become a contrivance, a convention, that even at its most extreme seems staid and stale compared to the post-slasher sensibility that Landon showcases for the majority of the action. In the end, queer people probably gravitated towards slasher horror because it always gestured to this world beyond it – a world that Landon has not only found, but made his own, so here’s hoping this continues to evolve and expand as a horror franchise, since it’s easily the best horror-comedy combination since the high point of Scream in the mid-to-late 1990s.