Freaky review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Christopher Landon
Cast : Vince Vaughn, Kathryn Newton, Katie Finneran, Celeste O’Connor, Misha Osherovich, Uriah Shelton, Alan Ruck, Melissa Collazo
Genre: Horror/Comedy
Run Time : 1 h 43 min
Opens : 12 November 2020
Rating : NC16/M18

“Body swap slasher movie” – that’s a killer elevator pitch right there. This movie’s initial title was Freaky Friday the 13th, which was likely changed due to rights issues, but tells you all you need to know. Happy Death Day director Christopher Landon continues his collaboration with Blumhouse, Hollywood’s reigning horror studio, with this horror comedy.

The Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn) is a serial killer who has become the stuff of urban legend. Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton) is a shy Bayfield Valley High School student. After an altercation involving a cursed Aztec dagger, they swap bodies. Millie, now in the guise of the Butcher, must convince her best friends Nyla (Celeste O’Connor) and Josh (Misha Osherovich) of her far-fetched predicament. Meanwhile, the Butcher, inhabiting Millie’s body, sets about murdering the other high school students. Millie-as-the-Butcher must retrieve the dagger to reverse the transformation within 24 hours, or it will become permanent.

Landon began his career as a screenwriter and wrote four Paranormal Activity films, directing one. He directed the juvenile, largely off-putting Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, before establishing himself as “the comedy slasher guy” with Happy Death Day and its sequel. Freaky sees Landon upping his game, refining a lot of the techniques he used in the Happy Death Day films. There’s an economy to the way Freaky sets things up and pays them off, and the structure works. This also looks slightly more expensive than many other Blumhouse movies do, with the opening sequence in a mansion filled with antiquities being an atmospheric way to begin the movie.

It’s been almost 25 years since Scream, the meta horror-comedy that defined a generation of slasher movies. Freaky follows in those bloody footprints with a healthy amount of wink-wink genre awareness, but never becomes self-indulgent. This is considerably gorier than Happy Death Day, which was a PG13 movie, while Freaky very much isn’t. Tonally, this works: it’s scary when it needs to be, it’s funny when it needs to be, and it’s a little emotional when it needs to be. There’s even a bit of social commentary, with the-Butcher-as-Millie taking on high school boys who behave in a sexually aggressive manner. The plot device of the dagger is efficient – there’s no need for circuitous explanations about the mechanics of the body swapping. There’s also an inspired visual effects flourish during one crucial moment that sells the body swap well.

While Landon generally has a handle on the tone, Freaky’s cheekiness can sometimes get the better of it. Bear McCreary’s heightened, arch score pretty much announces “hi, I’m a horror movie score, get ready for some jump scares”. Depending on your mood, this can either heighten everything else going on, or pull one out of it a bit. Some moments of comedy are a bit too broad, with the scene in which Nyla and Josh consult the Spanish teacher about the engraving on the dagger sticking out as quite silly. Plenty of the jokes land, but some of them don’t – several attempts at approximating Gen Z dialogue miss the mark, but it’s not as bad as it could have been.

A key ingredient to any body swap story is the differences between the two people doing the swapping. While Vince Vaughn and Kathryn Newton are physically distinct, there are times when it feels like the movie might have been a bit miscast. Vaughn’s casting is likely a nod to the misbegotten 1998 remake of Psycho that he starred in. He is very good at affecting the teenage girl-ness – not quite to the level of Jack Black in the Jumanji movies, but almost there. While Vaughn is physically imposing, he’s just not very scary in this, and for it to work completely, the Butcher must be convincingly frightening before the swap takes place. The excellent supporting cast does make up for it, with Celeste O’Connor and Misha Osherovich being very likeable as the stock best friends. Alan Ruck is also good as a particularly odious shop teacher.

Freaky largely plays by genre rules but has plenty of fun with them and makes the most out of its fantastic premise.

Summary: A teen horror comedy with a bit more kick than most examples of the genre, Freaky knows what it is and has fun while it’s at it.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Warrior’s Gate (勇士之门)

For F*** Magazine

THE WARRIOR’S GATE (勇士之门)

Director : Matthias Hoene
Cast : Uriah Shelton, Mark Chao, Ni Ni, Dave Bautista, Henry Mah, Francis Ng, Sienna Guillory, Kara Wai
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 1h 47min
Opens : 8 December 2016
Rating : PG (Some Violence)

the-warriors-gate-posterAn ancient Chinese kingdom is under threat, and only one person can save the land: an American teen gamer from the year 2015. Jack Bronson (Shelton) spends most of his time engrossed in an online game, taking on the persona of a fearsome warrior called the Black Knight. His single mother Annie (Guillory) is struggling to make ends meet, and their house will soon be foreclosed on. Jack works part-time for antiques dealer Mr. Chang (Mah), who entrusts Jack with a priceless chest. One night, the warrior Zhao (Chao) and Princess Sulin (Ni) emerge from the chest through a portal called ‘the Warrior’s Gate’ into Jack’s bedroom. Zhao gives Jack the mission of protecting the princess. When Sulin is abducted by barbarians, Jack leaps into the chest after her, and is transported to ancient China. Standing alongside Zhao and with the help of the wizard Wu (Ng), Jack must rescue Sulin from the clutches of the ruthless Barbarian king Arun the Cruel (Bautista).

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The Warrior’s Gate is a co-production between France’s EuropaCorp and China’s Fundamental Films. EuropaCorp’s head honcho Luc Besson produced the film and co-wrote the screenplay with long-time collaborator Robert Mark Kamen. The Warrior’s Gate comes off as an extremely tired enterprise. It’s a bog-standard coming-of-age hero’s journey story, combined with fish out of water hijinks. It also feels horribly dated, as if the filmmakers are scrambling about wondering “this is what kids these days like, isn’t it?” The production notes refer to The Warrior’s Gate as “an action-packed adventure film with martial arts derring-do, seen through the eyes of a Gen Z video gamer and set to a hip-hop breakdance beat.” Excuse us while we roll our eyes. There’s a BMX bike chase scene straight out of the 90s and our hero has a rotund, bespectacled best friend who says “bro” a lot.

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Thankfully, The Warrior’s Gate doesn’t take itself too seriously at all, and several jokes land. It does, however, play the Mary Sue (or Marty Stu) trope painfully straight. A meek teenager who is habitually bullied is suddenly thrust into the middle of a grand adventure where he must beat the bad guys and save the girl despite lacking skills and being unfamiliar with the world. The similarities between The Warrior’s Gate and 2009’s The Forbidden Kingdom are inescapable. In that film, it was a martial arts movie geek rather than a gamer who was pulled through a portal into ancient China, but most of the story beats are the same. The Forbidden Kingdom boasted Jackie Chan and Jet Li going toe-to-toe on the big screen for the first time, in fights that were choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping. The Warrior’s Gate has nothing close to that.

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Shelton, whom teen audiences might recognise from the Disney Channel sitcom Girl Meets World, play the designated white saviour. Somehow, an entire contingent of royal guards who have been trained since birth aren’t good enough to defend the kingdom: we need a modern-day millennial for that. Jack is meant to be a shut-in who gets lost in his video games, but his BMX skills are on par with a professional stunt rider and when we see Jack with his shirt off, dude’s got abs. It’s the kind of role Shia LaBeouf would’ve gotten 15 years ago, and Shelton is frequently just about as annoying.

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Taiwanese-Canadian actor Chao, who starred in the TV series Black and White and its big-screen spin-off, does the stoic action hero thing well enough. You know the drill: Zhao thinks little of Jack, but the two eventually bond and learn from each other. Zhao teaches Jack martial arts and discipline; Jack teaches Zhao to loosen up a little. Ni Ni’s Sulin is the spoiled, feisty princess who spends the bulk of the film in captivity. Mah’s Mr. Chang is yet another ersatz Mr. Miyagi – the presence of that hoary archetype is to be expected, given that Kamen wrote the Karate Kid screenplay. As Mr. Chang’s magical ancient Chinese counterpart, Ng is the playful sorcerer with a twinkle in his eye. He sounds like James Hong as Mr. Ping in the Kung Fu Panda films to a distracting degree.

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Bautista is a bright spot here. He’s having great fun playing the villainous Arun, who appears to be a riff on Khal Drogo from Game of Thrones. He even gets a dim-witted henchman named Brutus. Thanks to his sheer physical presence and comic timing, Bautista comes off as both funny and imposing. Fans of Hong Kong cinema will enjoy the cameo from Kara Wai, who makes a brief appearance as a mountain witch.

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While the sub-par visual effects work is most evident during a fight against a trio of tree monsters, the production values benefit from location filming in China. It’s obvious that Besson is attempting to jump on the Chinese film industry bandwagon, because that’s where all the money is now. The Warrior’s Gate is formulaic and limp, a clear demonstrate of how out-of-touch its filmmakers are.

Summary: American teenager is transported to ancient China, saves the day, story goes just how you’d expect. Keep this gate closed.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong