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VAUGHN TWO KILL
Review: Dave Stephens
Remember that Disney comedy Freaky Friday? Well, there were actually four films of that name based on a 1972 novel, two of which were TV remakes (one of which was a musical!). Younger genre fans may know of the Jamie Lee Curtis version from 2003 (with Lindsay Lohan, of all people). Some of us older farts will remember the original 1976 version with Jodie Foster, a family-film classic back in the day (hence all the remakes). The first was the OG body swap movie, which went on to inspire other films like Big, the more recent Jumanji films and (*gulp*) 2003's The Hot Chick. But what if a teenage girl body-swapped with a hulking serial killer instead of her annoying "mom"? That's the groovy concept written and directed by Christopher Landon, continuing his streak of horror comedies after Happy Death Day 2 U and its predecessor. Originally to have been called Killer Body, then Freaky Friday the 13th (no, really!), before its shortened final title, the film was released on Friday the 13th of November 2020 in the states. Now, after a long-ass pandemic delay, it's showing at UK cinemas. Worth the wait?
The film starts on Wednesday the 11th (geddit?!) and in the same way that all good retro-slashers do… with drunk teenagers making out, telling scary stories, and being meta. Four kids at a swanky mansion are stalked and ker-slashed by a silent killer who appears to be the love-child of Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers. Part of a (very thin) local urban legend, the is the "Blissfield Butcher" (nicely played by Vince Vaughn), and he leaves the scene of the crime with a natty ancient Aztec knife. We then meet Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton), a nice-girl haunted by a recent loss and hampered by poor social skills. Of course, Millie meets the Butcher, and a supernatural body swap occurs due to the knife's presence, rather than the put-upon student becoming just another victim or a Final Girl. So, the Butcher and Millie have a day to experience the highs and lows of being a wanted killer and a sweet high-school inbetweener before the change becomes permanent…
Yup. This is good fun. It does have a couple of downsides (more on which later), but overall this is a funny and gory love letter to classic slasher films, with some Mean Girls snark as a side order. Those genre fans who picked holes in Happy Death Day for PG-rated violence will have no such complaints here. Landon makes that clear in the opening act with throats decimated and heads being graphically squashed; there's also a nice body dissection in a later scene. He also makes the horror sources noticeably clear, as the Butchers wears a faux-hockey mask and cocks his head after a kill like a certain Mr Myers. One of the characters even has the surname "Strode". Points deducted for building up the chainsaw and then wimping out though…
Despite how welcome and enjoyable the horror nods and moments are, like Happy Death Day this all revolves around the lead female character. It's just that she's in different bodies at certain times. Luckily, Newton and Vaughn are totally up for the job. Playing a psycho (happily, better than in the wish-it-didn't-exist Psycho remake from 1998) suits Vaughn perfectly as the middle-aged urban myth with a death wish. But he also nails it when playing "Millie". It's a pitch-perfect portrayal that is hilarious without being cringey or mocking, like Jack Black's enjoyable turn in Jumanji. He never drops the mannerisms whilst in character, whether it's the slightly mincing running style or awkwardness with size and strength. Of course, the occasional dick joke is made and pretty much works ("It's like a drunken anteater!"). Newton also deserves praise for her work, which is often more subtle in tone. She establishes Millie's characteristics immediately and also makes an effective "Butcher" who revels in the role as a "Trojan Horse" and unwittingly deals with the douche-bags in the hosting body's life with OTT methods. Newton changes to a thousand-yard stare and a potty mouth whilst convincingly slaughtering several victims. She also has a couple of brilliant moments with Newton-playing-Butcher-playing-Millie that just rock ("Booh-hooh-Kerrr!" *Pouts insanely*). Some excellent one-liners are in the script as well, especially "Suspects heading South in a Shit-heap".
With all this slashy goodness and body-swap shenanigans, the only thing that lets it down slightly is the occasional drawn-out preachiness. One moment with Butcher/Millie and Millie's mother connecting over feelings of grief goes on for far too long and stops the story dead. And yeah, we get the idea that Millie feels vulnerable in her own body but finds inner strength through the experience… However, it doesn't need to be spelt out with the leads having to literally stop the action and have a conversation about it mid-fight! It's well-intentioned, but some emotional beats just seem a little too long and jarring in some places. Still, its heart is in the right place, which is more than many films can say. Other than that, this is pretty freaking good, and we'd be up for Landon's online teased cross-over with Happy Death Day… Possibly…
This is good fun, with some considerable nods to genre classics and a great couple of lead performances from Newton and Vaughn. It does tend to get a little "preachy" and too mawkish on occasions, but overall the gory kills and knowing humour receives a thumbs-up from us.
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