The core appeal of body-swap movies is simple: It’s fun to watch people — particularly famous people with recognizable screen presences — act out roles they could never otherwise play. The mechanics of how those changes happen really don’t matter all that much. (The Wikipedia page for body swaps in popular culture offers a list of methods for these changes that includes “struck by lightning,” “drinking a potion,” “magical espresso,” and “a text message.”) What matters are the actors involved and how much they embrace the swapping gimmick as a chance to let loose onscreen.

In that regard, the new body-swap horror comedy Freaky is a clear success. Again, the reason that a deranged serial killer (Vince Vaughn) and a sweet high school girl (Kathryn Newton) switch bodies is absurd. A lot of the plot is standard teen horror fare. But Vaughn and Newton both relish the opportunity to play each other’s roles, and even sneak in a little bit of pathos between the laughs and scares.

Newton initially plays Millie, a high school kid with typical high school kid preoccupations like a crush (Uriah Shelton’s Booker) and bullies. One night she’s attacked by the Blissfield Butcher (Vaughn), a local urban legend who turns out to be very real. He stabs her with a mystical knife called “La Dola” which somehow sticks Millie’s consciousness inside the Butcher’s body and vice versa. When the Butcher wakes up the following morning, he finds himself in Millie’s bed, in Millie’s body, surrounded by her Pitch Perfect 2 posters and her loving family, including her widowed mom (Katie Finnerman) and police-officer sister (Dana Drori).

Universal

Vaughn has the flashier role of the two, since he gets to go from brooding mass murderer to screeching teenager. But Newton actually gives the stronger performance, both as the real Millie and then as The-Butcher-as-Millie, as she totally changes her speech patterns and body language, sizing her victims up like a lion ready to strike. It really is a transformation, done without any prosthetic makeup or special effects. Once she becomes the Butcher, and begins lashing out at the people who make Millie’s life miserable (including a cruel shop teacher played by Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’s Alan Ruck in a fun nod to teen movie history), Newton is legitimately frightening.

The notion of Vaughn playing a terrified teenage girl while still looking like a large, middle-aged man (Vaugh is 6'5") is exactly as amusing as it sounds. If there’s a knock on his performance it’s that at times he seems to lean more into being funny than honoring the Millie character Newton establishes in Freaky’s early scenes. Granted, she’s been dropped into the body of a slasher movie villain by that point, but Vaughn’s Millie is a lot more girly and frazzled than Newton’s. Occasionally, he goes overboard for the sake of an easy laugh.

Universal

On the other hand, Vaughn brings a surprising sweetness and sensitivity to his scenes with Millie’s family, who are reeling from the recent death of her father, and to his scenes with Booker as his relationship with “Millie” deepens. This would be surprising if not for the fact that Freaky was directed by Christopher Landon, who previously made Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2U, two horror comedies with high-concept premises that managed to balance genre thrills with a genuine curiosity about the emotional lives of their characters. Landon’s recent work is all high concept — Happy Death Day was Groundhog Day as a horror movie, Freaky is Freaky Friday as a slasher — but they’re not just high concepts. Landon knows how to take an idea that sounds good on paper and flesh it out into a fully satisfying experience. (He’s also good with color, as in Freaky’s eye-catching sequence set in a blacklit arcade.)

There were times I wished Freaky was a little bit bolder and more surprising. Still, it’s an entertaining showcase for Vaughn and Newton, and a solid entry in the body-swap canon. In other words, it’s exactly what you think it is, inside and out.

RATING: 7/10

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