Blumhouse, which has made a stream of low-budget horror movies into moneymakers at the box office, is an excellent launchpad for up-and-coming filmmakers. Just look at Get Out, Jordan Peele’s directorial debut that captured the zeitgeist and netted an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Blumhouse was also responsible for putting underappreciated auteur Mike Flanagan on the map: After Oculus, Hush, and Ouija: Origin of Evil, all Blumhouse-produced films, he leveled up to work on a sequel to The Shining with Warner Bros., which is the horror genre’s equivalent of getting a golden ticket. (Somehow, Flanagan pulled it off: Nothing could ever live up to Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, but Doctor Sleep is a very good film in its own right.)
If someone created a Blumhouse Hall of Fame, Peele and Flanagan would be first-ballot entries. Leigh Whannell, the director behind the triple whammy of Insidious: Chapter 3, Upgrade (think Venom with a cybernetic sheen), and the terrific 2020 remake of The Invisible Man, would deserve a shout, too. But perhaps the most unheralded Blumhouse would-be Hall of Famer is also the studio’s most seasoned vet. It’s about time Christopher Landon gets his due.
After getting a handful of screenwriting credits—most notably on the 2007 film Disturbia, which put a contemporary spin on Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window—Landon cut his teeth with Blumhouse working on the studio’s Paranormal Activity franchise, penning the second, third, and fourth installments before writing and directing the series’ first spinoff, The Marked Ones. But it wasn’t until the 2017 release of Happy Death Day that Landon struck gold as a horror filmmaker. The key to his success was finding a niche that he’s tinkered with in his latest film, Freaky: doing slasher riffs on high-concept comedies.
Happy Death Day is basically a murderous Groundhog Day, in which a sorority girl named Tree (played by Jessica Rothe) is stuck reliving the day of her death at the hands of a masked assailant. (Naturally, the mask is creepy as hell and makes the attacker look like the King Cake Baby.) As Tree keeps reliving the day, she attempts to piece together the mystery of who’d want her dead, which is difficult on account of the many enemies she’s made on campus. What starts out legitimately unnerving—the baby mask is pure nightmare fuel and Tree’s first death is quite terrifying—becomes darkly funny as Tree accepts the circumstances of her situation. (The humor peaks with a montage when Tree becomes an amateur sleuth and opens one morning walking naked across the quad, because why not?)
As far as slasher movies go, Happy Death Day feels like the only true successor to Wes Craven’s Scream, substituting scares for some playful self-awareness and breathing fresh air into an overworked subgenre. But if there’s one thing about making a slasher movie with a premise nearly identical to Groundhog Day, it’s that it probably doesn’t warrant a sequel. Somehow, though, the appropriately named Happy Death Day 2U is just as delightful as its predecessor; the key is Landon’s determination to double down on the absurdity.
The biggest influence to Landon’s sequel is the Back to the Future franchise, as the series gleefully embraces a sci-fi shift in which Tree’s murder cycle is revealed to be the result of three students working on a buggy quantum reactor that throws her into a parallel dimension. The tone, in turn, tips the scales of Happy Death Day 2U toward comedy more than horror. Tree’s nihilistic acceptance of a new Sisyphean loop, all while trying to memorize a complex algorithm that will hopefully bring her back to her own reality, results in an even more ridiculous montage in which she finds creative ways to die so to avoid giving another masked killer the satisfaction of murdering her. Landon’s ace in the hole is Rothe, who gamely handles all the franchise’s tonal switches, revealing herself to be a multifaceted star in the making capable of slapstick humor, romance, genuine drama, and most important of all, displaying the kinetic energy of a bona fide Scream Queen.
To express just how much I love these movies, I’ve never been more excited for a mid-credits scene than when Happy Death Day 2U introduces agents from DARPA(!) expressing interest in the students’ quantum reactor for mysterious government purposes—setting up a full galaxy brain third film. Landon has been mum about the details of a third Happy Death Day movie, though he promises it’d stick to the trajectory of this franchise getting increasingly batshit. (I’m calling it now: It has to be titled Happy Death Day Tree.) Unfortunately, the future of the Happy Death Day franchise is up in the air. Despite the sequel making more than $64 million off a $9 million production budget, Blumhouse founder Jason Blum has downplayed the prospect of a trilogy-ender.
But perhaps Freaky, out in theaters starting this weekend, is Landon’s way of trying to loosen Blumhouse’s purse strings. After all, the film, which Landon cowrote with Michael Kennedy, applies the Happy Death Day formula to another high-concept conceit: the body-swapping comedy. The obvious inspiration, right down to the almost identical title, is the novel Freaky Friday, of which there’s been multiple adaptations for the screen. (The Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis version is the best, don’t @ me.) But the twist for Landon’s movie is so simple, it’s shocking that we’ve never seen it done before. What if someone accidentally switched bodies with a serial killer?
That’s what happens in the subtly named town of Blissfield, when an infamous killer dubbed the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn) reemerges after decades of dormancy to slaughter some teens during homecoming weekend. But when a dagger the Butcher steals—bear with me—happens to carry an ancient Aztec curse, he switches places with insecure high school senior Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton) after trying to kill her. And that’s not the worst part: If Millie, now in the body of an older man, can’t reverse the curse in 24 hours, their body swap becomes permanent. (Naturally, this all occurs on Friday the 13th.)
In the body-swap movie canon, Freaky’s closest antecedent is probably [deep sigh] The Hot Chick, the 2002 comedy in which Rob Schneider, playing a petty criminal, swaps places with Rachel McAdams, who was basically auditioning for her future role of Regina George. Just like in Schneider’s film—please don’t judge what I watched when I was 12, multiple times—Millie-as-the-Butcher finally convinces her friends that she’s in a different body after getting quizzed. (Favorite movie? “I tell people it’s Eternal Sunshine but it’s really Pitch Perfect 2!”) The movie also has its fun with some low-hanging fruit (no pun intended) in Millie’s discovery of life with a penis, which she describes as a “floppy anteater.”
Most of Freaky’s laughs, however, are mined from the physical comedy of Vaughn acting out the mannerisms of an insecure high schooler unaware of her newfound size and strength. (After suffering through the indignity of True Detective Season 2, he’s earned this.) As for the killer in the body of a teenager, the Butcher has to reckon with the physical limitations of his new form—he can’t overpower his would-be victims anymore—but relishes the ability to hide in plain sight and lure unsuspecting teens to their doom.
Freaky doesn’t have the mean spirit of other slashers; rather, the Butcher’s body count has a karmic bend to it. The easiest victims to fall for the Butcher happen to be predatory high school football players. If the Friday the 13th franchise wipes out any teen characters having sex like a rule of law, Freaky is all about punishing the ones who don’t care about consent. It’s within this context that Freaky feels of a piece with darker teen comedies like Heathers and Jawbreaker—the fact that Ferris Bueller alum Alan Ruck shows up as a chauvinist woodshop teacher is some of the most overt stunt casting you’ll see all year.
While Landon excels at hitting the established beats of a slasher—Freaky earns its R rating with some gruesomely creative kills—his movie also has some humanity hiding underneath all the gore, something that’s become a throughline in his riff-inclined filmography. In Happy Death Day, Tree is coming to terms with losing her mother; the time loop doubles as a self-reflective journey for the destructive ways she’s compounded her grief. Millie, too, is mourning the loss of a parent, as she approaches the one-year anniversary of her father’s death. Spending a day in Vince Vaughn’s body might not be a traditional way to reinvent one’s self after losing a loved one, but a scene between Millie-as-the-Butcher and her grieving mother at a discount store’s changing room is unexpectedly moving. One might say the abrupt yet effective turn to tenderness is almost (sorry) freaky.
For Landon, who’s quietly emerged as one of the most exciting directors working in horror, maybe the appeal of his slasher riffs is just as simple as the concepts he executes. Freaky and the Happy Death Day series are fun, witty, and a little bit bloody, but they’ve also got some heart. There may come a point when Landon’s brand of horror becomes its own worst enemy: If you watch too many winking slasher spins on high-concept comedies, and you might start feeling like you’re going through your own Groundhog Day. But until that time comes, we should give Christopher Landon the benefit of the doubt, and Blumhouse should cut him the third Happy Death Day check he’s more than earned.