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Freaky's body-switching makes the real 'Final Girl' slasher trope explicit in an unexpected way

By Noah Berlatsky

The new Blumhouse comedy slasher Freaky is obviously meant to be a riff on the 1976 film Freaky Friday and its remakes, in which a mother and daughter magically switch bodies. The fun is in the incongruity of horror-film bloody-mindedness and the goofiness of psycho-killer, fish-out-of-water body swapping. 

But, what's really great about the conceit is that the psycho-killer-fish is in fact in his (or her) element. Freaky doesn't actually shuffle the genre tropes. It just gleefully builds on the fact that the slasher genre is always shuffling the bodies of who holds the knife, and who is on the business end.

Directed by Christopher Landon, Freaky's antagonist is the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn), a deadly killer who steals a whispering, ancient magic dagger during a standard teen-killing opening sequence. The next night, he finds teen nerd Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton) alone at school when her alcoholic mother fails to pick her up. He stabs Millie with the dagger, which causes the two to switch bodies. 

Delighted at the new opportunities presented by his innocent young girl outerwear, the Butcher continues his murder spree by targeting Millie's fellow students. Millie, for her part, now inhabiting the oversize Butcher body, has to convince her friends to help her find the knife (now in police evidence) so she can repeat the stabbing. If she doesn't switch back bodies before 24 hours pass, the change becomes permanent. 

Vaughn is obviously having the time of his life as he lightens his voice so he can talk about his crush on that dreamy boy like a high school girl. Newton, too, embraces the opportunity to shape her Hollywood-pretty features into a mask of bloodlust. Helpless girls becoming killers and killers becoming helplessly feminized isn't some sort of innovation, though. It's the whole point of the genre. 

In her famous 1992 study Men, Women, and Chainsaws, film scholar Carol J. Clover argued that the pleasure of slashers came from the rush of reversing positions. Slashers start off with some evil, often masked monster of a man picking up some terrible weapon — knife, ax, chainsaw — and stabbing and slashing his way through the film. The slasher murders just about everyone, with the exception of one, almost always female survivor, who Clover refers to as the "Final Girl," a term that's since entered the horror lexicon. Laurie Strode in Halloween, Ripley in Alien, Sarah Connor in Terminator, Sidney Prescott in Scream —  all examples of Final Girls who escape the scythe

But, Final Girls often do more than just survive until the credits roll. At the conclusion of the movie, the Final Girl picks up the phallic blade and kills the killer. The slasher almost always ends with a gender flip at the point of a knife, as the female victim becomes the empowered, ruthless murderer, and the male slasher becomes a disempowered, penetrated, unresisting body.

Slasher creators are well aware of these dynamics, and have played with gender since the genre's beginnings. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which is a huge influence on the slasher genre, is famously about a man who dresses in his mother's clothes to murder. Many other slashers — Friday the 13th, Scream, Happy Death Day — reveal that their mysterious, assumedly male killer is actually a woman in the final twist. 

Other slashers aren't quite as obvious about the gender-swapping, but it's almost always there. In Halloween, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is famously something of a tomboy, less interested in sex than her peers. This contributed to the not entirely accurate myth that the Final Girl has to be a virgin, and that the slasher effectively punishes victims for having sex. 

In practice, many sexual Final Girls survive, and many virgins die in slashers. But Freaky plays with this trope that sex equals death in its opening sequence, in which a teen couple has vigorous sex. The girl, Ginny (Kelly Lamore Wilson) finishes first and stalks off, while the guy whines "That's really inconsiderate! I only need three more minutes!" In this swap of stereotypical gender roles, Ginny plays the callous male jerk, and the guy is in the stereotypical role of used and discarded woman. Then the Butcher shows up and kills them both.

Ginny's arc is cut short, but she's a thematic acknowledgment that slashers encourage girls to take part in male pleasures. Clover believed that slashers were aimed mainly at guys. They featured female heroes, she thought, because women are stereotypically the most vulnerable victims. There's more of a rush when girls kill because it's a bigger power shift. The slasher for Clover wasn't meant to empower women, but to give men identifying with women a bigger thrill.

But whatever the original intention, the focus on female protagonists in horror in general, and slashers in particular, has inevitably attracted a large audience of women to the genre. Millie (played by Vaughn) explains the appeal in quite explicit terms: "I feel oddly empowered being in this body! Like, invincible. Or kind of badass. I mean it's ridiculous, but I guess when you're someone like me and you've been bullied most of your life, and just put down a lot, it does feel kind of good to feel strong for once." The Final Girl gets to become the dangerous, violent slasher. Millie likes it; the movie expects other women viewers to like it as well.

Kathryn Newton Freaky

Millie isn't only empowered just at the end of Freaky, either. Part of the pleasure of the film is watching the Butcher take over Millie's life, and turn her from a weak, put-upon high school loser into a leather-jacket-wearing "badass," who doesn't take any sh**. It's not an accident that every victim the Butcher-as-Millie kills is someone who had been awful to Millie-as-Millie. The gossipy girl who mocked Millie for being poor, the a**hole teacher who bullies her, the jocks who sexually harass her — they all get theirs. 

One scene of castration via chainsaw is particularly telling. Millie possessed by the Butcher is Millie possessed by patriarchal, phallic power. That's scary, but it's also exhilarating. Women (and men, for that matter) can feel empowered when the Final Girl finally kills that slasher. But they can also, before that, identify with the slasher himself, and enjoy the inventive punishments doled out to some frankly irritating people. Who hasn't fantasized about killing one's high school tormenters?

Millie-turned-Butcher gets to have his violent revenge narrative. By the same token, Butcher-turned-Millie gets to have her romance arc. Slashers traditionally don't have much of a love plot. But Blumhouse experimented with the slasher/rom-com in the successful Happy Death Day, and the studio runs another variation on it here.

Being placed in the Butcher's body gives Millie the push she needs to go after her crush Booker (Uriah Shelton), and the two get to kiss in various bodies. The slasher's fluidity with gender becomes a fluidity with genre. The killer's body ends up with sweet high school love, even as the girl's body ends up with the deadly pointy thing.

Freaky is a very smart movie, but it does miss a trick or two. Given all the themes of gender reversal and the flirtation with queer romance, it would have been nice to have included more than a single, fairly stereotypical gay character. And even though the movie basically has two endings, it still doesn't get the conclusion quite right. In the most iconic slashers, the plot has the meaty, satisfying inevitability of a scythe swinging forward and then back. Freaky's a bit too complicated for that kind of atavistic finality. But it's still to be commended as the slasher that most consciously encourages people of every gender to identify with people of every gender as they plunge in the knife.

Freaky is now available on VOD.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.