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Horror fans know filmmaker Christopher Landon as the man behind the Happy Death Day franchise, the writer of a slew of horror movies (especially in the Paranormal Activity franchise), and a creative refresher of tired subgenre tropes. Now Landon's got a new spin on a beloved subgenre, the body-swap slasher Freaky. Millie (Kathryn Newton) finds herself swapped with the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn) and chaos ensues. Lovely, gory, murder-filled chaos. But only one kill could be Landon's favorite and it turns out that it was the hardest one in the movie to pull off.
SYFY WIRE sat down with Landon (who directed and co-wrote the film) ahead of Freaky's Nov. 13 premiere and talked about the kill from its very inception: getting the freedom to be bloody with an R rating.
**SPOILER WARNING: This story contains mild, kill-related spoilers for Freaky.**
"I always decide on the rating of a movie before I write it. It just makes your life a lot easier because you know who to write to and what you’re doing," Landon says. "When Michael Kennedy, my co-writer, and I set out to write this movie, we knew we were going to go for R. That was a real set thing for us — it was a condition. When we brought the movie to Blumhouse and Universal, we said, ‘This is what it is and we’re not going to tone it down or reverse it.’"
PG-13 is the typical way to go for horror films targeting a larger audience, but it constrains what can be shown on screen versus what must be implied. For Landon, this was a tonal dealbreaker. "Because we were messing with this body trope, which is traditionally cute, we wanted to make sure we counterbalanced it with stuff like gore," the director says.
"It’s very different from Happy Death Day. That movie didn’t benefit from gore," he explains. "There was nothing to be gained from making that movie gory because you’re supposed to see the moment right up until her death and nothing after. Whereas here, you have this shy teenage girl who suddenly has a serial killer in her body and so, what fun is it to see her almost kill somebody? We had to go for it."
And go for it they did. Aside from including a shattering freezer kill in the trailer for the film (most movies shy away from putting the horror money shots in marketing material), there's a parade of grisly death marching from Millie throughout the film. From a filmmaking perspective, however, one stands out. "My favorite kill was a favorite because it was so complicated and because, several times, I was told to abandon ship," Landon said.
He's referring to a scene in which (spoiler alert) Millie’s mean shop teacher (played by Alan Ruck) meets a meaty, bifurcated end thanks to a giant, motorized saw. Genre fans are familiar with the sawmill-sized blade and the mechanism that draws unlucky victims ever closer. But actually making the rig so that it'd work for the shot was tough.
"It was really hard because there was nothing that existed in the real world that did [what happens in that scene]. We had to build all of it, the actual device and all the other stuff that goes with it," Landon said. "We were such a low budget movie that I was told that even if I got to do it, I was really only gonna get one shot at it. There was a lot of pressure. I was thrilled that we A) figured it out and B) pulled it off. I think it’s great because even in an R-rated movie, you would traditionally cut away from it at some point, but we don’t."
The body was “a combination of things,” including “two parts that were, not glued together, but held together by this... stuff” and a “blood pump built into the rig of the saw.”
“We had operators who had to pull the two sections away from each other," Landon says. "So much of it was timing and those are always the most complicated practical gags to pull off because everybody’s brain has to be perfectly in-sync.” And the worst part of it, for some people, was who was being cut in half in the first place.
“I remember Vince Vaughn because he kept saying ‘Who are you casting for this part and that part?,’ and I told him ‘Oh, we got Alan Ruck for Mr. Bernardi.’ He was like ‘Cameron [from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off]? You’re going to kill Cameron? You can’t do that!’ He was genuinely upset, like I’d murdered part of his youth.”
Freaky hits theaters on Nov. 13.