Finding the right balance between horror and comedy is one of the hardest things to pull off successfully on film, but writer/director Christopher Landon has done it twice with Happy Death Day (2017) and its sequel, Happy Death Day 2U, in which a college student played by Jessica Rothe keeps reliving the same day on which she dies…and then gets to relive it in a different dimension.
Now Landon gets a shot at a horror/comedy trifecta with Freaky, in which Kathryn Newton plays a high schooler who inadvertently swaps bodies with a hulking, unstoppable serial killer called the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn) and must find a way to get back to her own body before the change becomes permanent.
Landon, who co-wrote the movie with Michael Kennedy, tells Den of Geek that the film wasn’t initially what he was looking to do after finishing up his Happy Death Day duo.
“Not at all,” he says. “This was such a curve ball, just because I felt like, okay, I did that, now I’m going to go off and figure out the next thing. Michael came to me with this idea, not to convince me to do it with him, but because he was going to go out and pitch it to a bunch of places and he just wanted to rehearse it with somebody who has insider knowledge of it. So he just started telling me the idea and I immediately had that knee jerk reaction — ‘Oh, what a good idea, why didn’t I think of that?’”
Landon says Kennedy eventually asked him to collaborate on the screenplay. The pair “banged it out in like three weeks” and brought the project to Blumhouse Films and its distributor, Universal, with both saying yes. Jason Blum, president of Blumhouse, says that he wasn’t initially in the market for a horror/comedy about body swapping either.
“I can’t say it was a dream come true,” he laughs. “It hadn’t occurred to me before, but I’m certainly glad we did one. Definitely what struck me about it was the serial killer and the high school girl. Those are two characters that it would not occur to me to body swap.”
Of course, the title of the movie is a nod to Freaky Friday, the classic kids’ novel about a young daughter who swaps bodies with her mother that has been filmed several times for the big and small screen.
“There’s definitely been a ton of them,” agrees Landon. “I think what I loved about it and why I was so drawn to this is that you have this very, very, very familiar concept, but the approach is entirely fresh and unfamiliar…It’s not like I’m some diehard fan of body swap films, in fact, I haven’t seen most of them, but I’m acutely aware of the trope. All we needed really as a jumping point, and I think that what Michael and I both really brought to this movie is a very extensive and deep knowledge of the horror genre and the teen comedy genre. We both are big fans of all of those movies, and so I think that was what really helped arm us to write something like this.”
Star Kathryn Newton gets immediately excited when asked how Freaky plays off the Freaky Friday concept. “Oh my gosh, are you kidding? Freaky Friday was my favorite movie!” she exclaims. “Freaky Friday was awesome. Hot Chick, I had on DVD and have seen it so many times. But I never in a million years would have dreamt of doing a movie like this, because I just didn’t know it would be possible. Yes, it is a body swap, so we are familiar with the concept. But it’s not like anything I’ve seen before.”
Newton says her immediate response was “yes” when she met about Freaky with Landon, with whom she had worked on Paranormal Activity 4. “He had told me that he had written (Freaky) with me in mind, and I was like, ‘I don’t know who you think I am, but I don’t know how to play a serial killer.’ And he was like, ‘No, it’s in you.’ And he was insane enough to think I could do it.”
Newton adds that her “mind was blown” when she found out that Vaughn was coming on board to play the Butcher — and, by extension, her character Millie as well. “The movie went to a whole new level,” she says. “You have an amazing actor, someone I’m a huge fan of, to act with, and create a character with…Vince had so many great ideas, and I got so much inspiration from him. All three of us collaborated on these characters and created something really special.”
Landon says that the role of the Butcher was “a really challenging part for both Vince and Kathryn,” adding, “When it came to Vince, he was my first choice and my only choice because, I needed someone that was physically imposing, convincingly menacing, charming, funny, and a legit actor. Someone who could really invest in the character. I was obviously very familiar with Vince’s comedic stuff because he’s made so many iconic comedies, but I also have been following him through his darker stuff like Brawl in Cell Block 99 and stuff like that so I knew he had that in him.”
As for Newton, Landon offers, “We had worked together on Paranormal 4, and she’s a great actor and I’ve watched her grow and grow as an actor and was really blown away by the work that she did on Big Little Lies. I really felt like she brought a certain sort of authenticity and empathy to Millie because you need that at the beginning of the film. You need to really feel for this girl and understand that she’s really struggling in the world and trying to figure herself out. But then also Kathryn is a laser focused competitor, and she’s really strong.”
One thing that Newton had to steel herself for in Freaky was the movie’s copious amounts of gore. This may be a horror comedy, but it’s an R-rated one, and the blood flies fast and furious throughout the picture. “When I said I was going to do this movie, Chris was like, ‘You’re going to get bloody. Are you ready?’” she explains. “And I said, ‘I’m down. I’m down to get bloody.’”
Landon concurs that he was ready to let the gore fly in Freaky.
“We agreed from the beginning that this needed to be an R-rated movie,” Landon says. “I think, again, it speaks to the concept of a body swap film which tends to be soft and cute. So in my mind it was like, how can we make the goriest Disney movie never made? It felt like in order to really set us apart and to give this body swap concept real contrast in terms of this genre mashup, going gory was the only way to really do that.”
While Jason Blum admits that he wanted the movie to be PG-13 and that he “fought hard and lost” in that debate, Landon is pleased with the outcome.
“I was grateful that Blumhouse and Universal let us do it and really agreed to it,” Landon says. “If I’m being frank, that was a deal breaker for us, in terms of where we were going to make this movie. If Universal had said, ‘you’re going to have to make it PG-13,’ we would have walked. We would have taken our movie elsewhere. So that was a big deal for us.”
Jason Blum happily acknowledges that Landon, who has written and/or directed nearly half a dozen hit movies for Blumhouse, has “carte blanche” to do whatever he wants at the company, adding, “There are very few who are in his category.” If Freaky proves as successful, Blum says that it only adds to Landon’s unique position as a filmmaker in the horror genre.
“I really admire him, obviously,” says Blum. “I think he’s one of the most talented writer/directors out there. He’s got a real specific voice, which I think is hilarious and great. Clearly Happy Death Day and Freaky are related to one another. In particular, horror movies that are funny are just really tough, and usually they are bad. But Chris is just great at that tone. He really gets it. He also really understands genre, he is a genre fan, and he understands what genre fans want.”
Freaky is out in theaters this Friday (November 13).