Freaky – A pitch-black horror-comedy that turns body-swap movies inside-out

Audiences have seen an array of body-swap films, but most of those films have been straight comedies. Freaky takes the body-swap movie format and turns it on its head with a teenage girl switching bodies with a relentless serial killer. It’s a dark thriller, and it’s as scary as it is funny, creating an outrageous and entertaining blend of horror and humor.

From producer Jason Blum (Halloween, The Invisible Man) and the deliciously debased mind of writer-director Christopher Landon (Happy Death Day, the Paranormal Activity franchise) and a screenplay by Landon and Michael Kennedy (Fox’s Bordertown), comes a pitch-black horror-comedy about a slasher, a senior and the brutal truth about high school. 

The idea for Freaky came to writer/director Christopher Landon through his writing partner on the film, Michael Kennedy. Ironically, Kennedy was watching one of Landon’s films when he thought of the idea. “I was watching Happy Death Day and thinking, ‘How do I do this?’” Kennedy says. “I wanted to think of a clever premise to make another mash-up similar to that movie, and one of the first things I thought of was the body swap. Happy Death Day is just so smart in how it utilized two very familiar setups and mashed them into one. I never even considered the possibility that I would end up writing Freaky with Happy Death Day’s Chris Landon.”

Christopher Landon (Written by/Directed by) is a filmmaker with a passion for character-driven, compelling stories. Landon’s films focus on telling the stories of the individual characters, no matter the genre. He made his feature film debut writing the thriller Another Day in Paradise, directed by Larry Clark. He then went on to write Disturbia for DreamWorks and director D.J. Caruso. His feature film directorial debut was the thriller Burning Palms. After writing and producing Paranormal Activity 2, 3 and 4, he then wrote and directed the spinoff Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, which was released by Paramount in January 2014. Once he made his mark with the Paranormal Activity franchise, Landon wrote and directed the feature Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse for Paramount Pictures, which was released in 2015. 

Michael Kennedy (Written by), a native Clevelander, began his career working in various production positions on FOX’s long-running hit series Family Guy, later segueing to writing on the Seth MacFarlane-produced animated-comedy Bordertown for FOX. In 2018-2019, Kennedy, along with Chelsea Stardust, wrote the horror-comedy pilot Serial Girls for the CW with Defy Media and CBS TV Studios. Currently, Kennedy is writing a horror feature for Matt Kaplan’s ACE Entertainment, which is based out of Paramount.

After pinpointing the premise for Freaky, Kennedy told Landon about the idea over lunch. “Michael is a dear friend of mine and we’re both big horror geeks,” Landon says. “He came to me and asked me if I’d listen to a pitch that he was developing. He pitched the movie and I got so excited by the idea that I sort of just pushed my way into the process and said, ‘We have to do this together!’ We were both riffing off each other’s ideas and it was so evident that it was something that we wanted to do together.”

Adds Kennedy: “I was getting ready to pitch the idea to Blumhouse. By the time Chris was done reading my pitch, he said, ‘If you’re cool with it, let’s not pitch to Blumhouse quite yet, because I actually want to make this movie with you.’ So, we spent the next three weeks reworking my initial concept and outlining the script and then wrote the script in the month following that.”

The mash up of a slasher film with a comedy felt fresh to Landon from the outset.

“I think broad audiences are only recently starting to come around to the blending of horror with comedy,” Landon says. “Movies in the past like Gremlins, Tremors and Evil Dead II really blazed a path for movies like this. You can have your cake and eat it, too. You get to be scared and thrilled but also get to laugh, and those are my two favorite things.”

“There’s also a certain John Hughes DNA that runs through Freaky and I really love that,” Landon continues. “I think John Hughes was such an impactful filmmaker because he never judged the teenage characters that he wrote about. So, for me, it was fun to approach this movie through a similar lens. I think the high school tableau, mixed with the slasher genre, mixed with the comedy and the body-swap element makes it feel different and in a space of its own.”

That mixture of horror with comedy had to be handled with care. The filmmakers were mindful of not leaning too heavily on one or the other. “We approached tone on a scene-by-scene basis,” Kennedy says. “What was the scene’s motivation and was there room for comedy without taking away the stakes or emotion for the characters? Because the premise is so heightened, we wanted it to be not so much one or the other.”

Landon intentionally avoided watching body-swap films for inspiration for Freaky. “Any time I’m writing something that exists in a similar world, I try not to pollute my process with other people’s work, because I just don’t want it to influence what I’m doing beyond how it has already influenced me,” Landon says. “One of the movies that I went back to for this film was Jennifer’s Body, which is a woefully underrated movie and I think is only now beginning to get its due. I explored how that character was played in that particular space of having a female character in high school who’s on a rampage.”

Kennedy adds: “I, like Chris, avoided watching body-swap movies for reference when we were writing. We really wanted Freaky to stand on its own. I recalled movies using ancient artifacts or magic, so in a way we mashed up even that aspect of the movie when figuring out the hows and whys and rules of our swap.”

As it turned out, the rules of the body swap turned out to be trickier to hammer out than they’d imagined they would be. “The only struggle that we had was figuring out the way in which the body swap would happen and how much information we wanted to give about it,” Kennedy says. “We didn’t want to be too lean with information but, at the same time, didn’t want to give too much information to the point where the movie and the device are no longer scary. So, it was really about finding that balance of the right amount of information about the swap and about The Butcher’s background.”

When developing the script, Landon and Kennedy had to decide how much graphic detail and gore they wanted to show with the kills.

“When I made Happy Death Day, I got a fair amount of criticism for not making that an R-rated movie, but at the end of the day, I didn’t think it wanted to be an R-rated movie because we were always seeing the moment that led right up to her death, but not the death itself,” Landon says.

“For Freaky, Michael and I agreed that we wanted this to be a rated R, violent and gory film. We thought it was an interesting element and something you wouldn’t typically see in a body-swap movie. We thought, ‘How can we make these kills still feel over-the-top and cartoony?’ It’s never like you’re watching it and thinking ‘Oh my god, that’s horrible and so gruesome.’ More often than not, you’re laughing at the kills because they’re just so ridiculous.”

Kennedy credits Landon for devising the outlandish ways that the deaths occur. “Chris called me and said, ‘I think I want to go really high concept with the kills,’” Kennedy says. “He had a bunch of the deaths in his head already. He was like, ‘I’m thinking we break a tennis racket and shove it in this guy’s head, and I think maybe one of the girls should get killed with a toilet seat and let’s shove a wine bottle down that one’s throat.’ And I said, ‘Oh, we’re really going for it.’ And he said, ‘Yes, let’s literally eviscerate these people. Let’s have fun with it.’”

After spending about three weeks writing the script together, Landon and Kennedy brought it to Blumhouse, where Landon has had a longstanding partnership. “It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that we were going to bring the script to them and that we would make it together,” Landon says. “It all happened very quickly.”

Jason Blum loved the idea and was more than happy to produce another Landon film. “From the moment I heard the idea, I knew I wanted to make this film with Chris,” Blum says. “I thought it was a really fun and different take on the classic body-swap idea and was excited to see how it would play out on screen. I’ve worked with Chris on multiple movies now, and I fully trust him creatively. He’s great at creating stories that feel fresh and exciting and he knows exactly how to draw audiences in.”

Beneath the terror and humor of Freaky is a deeper story about a young woman finding her inner strength and power and refusing to be defined or diminished by others.

“Whenever I get to make a movie, it always feels like I’ve won the lottery,” Landon says. “I’m proud that we’ve made a movie that feels true to its goal and whether it’s your cup of tea or not, it’s a genuinely entertaining and fun ride. We were able to imbue it with a real theme, and I think it’s important to say something like that. Just because we’re making something fun doesn’t mean it can’t have some layers and depth to it. It’s really nice to be able to say something, especially to younger audiences.”

Writer-director Christopher Landon with Kathryn Newton as Millie

In a sense, the story of Freaky is centered on Millie’s coming-of-age and finding herself. “Freaky is about a teenage girl becoming a strong, independent woman,” Newton says. “When Millie is in The Butcher’s body, she feels really powerful. She learns that everyone listens to him and she wonders why she hasn’t been manifesting this power that she’s had all along.”

Landon adds: “Something I fell in love with about the concept of this movie was that it gave us the opportunity to speak to a character that feels lost, ignored and swept under the rug. I was excited to explore how Millie discovers her power by first inhabiting a man’s body and then later discovering that she doesn’t need a man’s body to feel powerful. I thought that was a really important message.”

Landon and his writing partner, Michael Kennedy, envisioned The Butcher as being an amalgamation of various classic horror movie serial killers. “He’s a little bit Jason Voorhees, a little bit Michael Myers, and there’s even a Terminator-esque quality to him,” Landon says.

“We wanted to create a cold-blooded, robotic killing machine. We opted not to get too buried in any mythology or backstory for the character because at the end of the day, that wasn’t really the point. The point was to have a relentless maniac who’s bloodthirsty and really into killing teenagers.”

Vince Vaughn

Landon’s co-writer, Michael Kennedy, is especially excited for audiences to see Josh, Millie’s fiercely loyal and protective friend, on screen. “Horror didn’t provide a lot of characters like Josh when I was a young, closeted, gay kid struggling to figure out who I was in Ohio,” Kennedy says. “Now, horror will have a character like Josh who is unabashedly himself. He lives out loud and is free, and is also smart, funny and ultimately a ride-or-die friend. To be responsible for creating that character is really special to me. Josh is really who I wish I was when I was 17. He is my do-over. And when I see that character, I think, ‘Wait a minute, I made that character.’ I’m really proud of that and excited for not only the LGBTQ community to have a character like that, but for young kids to be able to see a character like that, too. If a queer kid looks at Josh and feels seen, nothing will make me prouder.”

Landon adds that it was always the intention that Josh would be unapologetically himself. “When Michael and I tackled this character together, we didn’t want him to be at a point where he’s coming out. We wanted him to be out, confident and comfortable with his sexuality. Josh is outspoken and strong, and that was something that Misha really understood.”

Actor Misha Osherovich was intrigued by the fact that the role broke labels that have been placed on gay characters in horror films in the past. “I wanted to get involved because it seemed like a really clever way to tell a story,” Osherovich says. “I also loved that it went against horror film tropes and that the queer character is given these amazing moments.”

Something tricky that filmmakers of all genres grapple with is making sure their projects are fresh, new and different.

Christopher Landon has broken that code, both in the characters he writes on the page and the actors he finds to play them.

“The old adage is true: Everything’s been done before,” Landon says. “When I approach projects, I try to figure out a way to make a fresh take from an old concept. The idea of doing a body-swap slasher movie just clicked and made a ton of sense to me, and for all my stories, I’ve always thought that it’s critical to start from a place that’s very character-driven. This movie felt like a perfect opportunity to do that in a really entertaining way.”

Producer Jason Blum, founder of Blumhouse Productions

Blum is a three-time Academy Award nominee, and has won two Primetime Emmy Awards and two Peabody Awards as a producer.

His multimedia company is known for pioneering a new model of studio filmmaking: producing high-quality, micro-budget films.

Blumhouse is widely regarded as a driving force in the current horror renaissance. The company’s upcoming releases include Run Sweetheart Run from Shana Feste and The Vigil from director Keith Thomas. 

Through Blumhouse, Blum’s feature film credits include The Hunt, The Invisible Man, from director Leigh Whannell; Fantasy IslandMa, Black Christmas from director Sophia Takal; blockbusters Glass and Split from M. Night Shyamalan; Get Out from Jordan Peele; BlacKkKlansman from director Spike Lee; The GiftUnfriendedThe Visit, among others; and highly profitable franchises that include The Purge, Halloween, Insidious, Sinister and Paranormal Activity

Blum’s television company, run by Marci Wiseman and Jeremy Gold, successfully relaunched three years ago as a vibrant independent studio producing 11 series with over $100 million in annual production revenue.

Blumhouse Television currently has over 10 projects in production with different networks and streaming platforms, including but not limited to Sharp ObjectsThe Loudest Voice, Sacred Lies and The Purge based on the successful film franchise.

The company is currently in production on Into the Dark, a first-of-its-kind, ongoing monthly horror anthology series, and also struck a deal for a series of eight straight-to-streaming films from underrepresented filmmakers.

The indie studio has also earned critical acclaim, including a Golden Globe Award and two Critics’ Choice Awards for Sharp Objects, Emmy and Golden Globe awards for The Normal Heart and two Emmys for The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert DurstThe Good Lord Bird, a limited series for Showtime will debut later this year.

The division also produced feature-length documentaries, with projects that include This Is Home: A Refugee Story, the 2018 Sundance Audience Award winner (World Cinema Documentary) and recipient of the Columbia Journalism School’s prestigious Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award, and Bathtubs Over Broadway, the lauded documentary.

Blum has been included on the TIME 100 Most Influential People list and has appeared on Vanity Fair’s New Establishment list. In 2016, he received the Producer of the Year Award at CinemaCon. He is on the board of The Public Theater in New York and a member of the board of trustees for both the Sundance Institute and the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.