Three framed movie posters hung on Christopher Landon’s wall when we chatted via Zoom. One was for “Disturbia,” the first big-screen smash he wrote. Another was “Burning Palms,” Landon’s little-seen directorial debut; even he calls its quality a “mixed bag.” The third was “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse,” the film that began to establish his reputation as a steward of winky genre mashups.
“It’s really embarrassing because this is our shit throwaway room in our house,” said Landon, who recently became a father. “And it’s the only room that my husband let me — he actually put these up because he’s sweet like that. But now it’s the only quiet room in my house, and so it’s the only spot I can do this [interview] in, and now it’s sort of like, ‘Oh, look at my ego!’ I’m like, ‘It really wasn’t meant to be this. It was not the background by choice.’”
None of those movies are the ones Landon is best known for. Over the past several years, in addition to scripting four “Paranormal Activity” installments, he has chopped and screwed a number of cinematic classics. With 2017’s “Happy Death Day,” Landon turned “Groundhog Day” into a rollicking slasher romp about a narcissistic sorority snob (Jessica Rothe) who gets killed and wakes up in the same dorm room every morning. Its follow-up, “Happy Death Day 2U,” paid homage to “Back to the Future Part II” and satirized the redundancy of most horror sequels.
Landon’s newest film, “Freaky,” presents a clever spin on “Freaky Friday” and other body-swap comedies, animating them with the voltage of a thriller. Kathryn Newton plays Millie Kessler, a bullied teenager caring for her widowed mother (Katie Finneran) when the infamous Blissfield Butcher — a serial killer who has long evaded capture — shows up before her school’s homecoming dance. His mystical Aztec dagger causes Millie and the murderer to switch places, meaning she suddenly finds herself in the physique of the assassin himself, aka Vince Vaughn. Millie has 24 hours to break the curse, yielding a series of frightful mix-ups as she navigates the world in a man’s body and the butcher resembles a 17-year-old girl.
“A lot of the second act of the movie is Millie discovering that she has a different kind of strength that she’s never known — that strength being just purely physical,” Landon said. “She can physically grab her bully and shove him against a wall. But what starts to happen is that, I think, by virtue of circumstance and this ticking-clock aspect of the film, she starts to tap into other reserves that have nothing to do with the physical side of things.”
That conceit sums up Landon’s trademark. He’s bringing emotion and character growth to the slasher genre while still relishing the gory hallmarks that made forebears like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th” so immersive. He’s also mining the genre for maximal laughs: Watching 6-foot-5 Vaughn, in his funniest performance since “Wedding Crashers,” portray a teenage girl in a dude’s body is a riotous take on fish-out-of-water gender dynamics. Vaughn’s résumé is defined by macho bravado, and here he’s tasked with stripping all of that away. To prepare him, Landon captured video diaries of Newton so Vaughn could mirror her gestures without resorting to a broad stereotype of femininity that might seem facetious.
Landon cites “Gremlins,” Monty Python and Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” trilogy as inspirations behind his comedy/horror/sci-fi hybrids. During the script stage, he reverse-engineers a plot based on the story’s thematic centerpiece, instilling it with suspense tropes made fresh by way of a tongue-in-cheek pop sensibility. The protagonist in “Happy Death Day” learns to care about the people around her and process the grief she has experienced in her family life — but first she must vanquish a masked stalker. In “Freaky,” co-written with Michael Kennedy (“Bordertown”), Millie’s need for self-empowerment becomes the fulcrum of the film.
“I don’t think that there is a movie worth watching unless you have some kind of a personal and emotional component to follow,” Landon said.
Another perk of Landon’s expanding catalog: Each of his movies has been gayer than the last. “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse” featured a Britney Spears singalong, “Happy Death Day” had a closeted student realizing his sexuality, and “Freaky” gives Millie an unabashedly gay BFF (Misha Osherovich) who revels in the murderous small-town intrigue.
“Michael was aggressively bullied in high school, and so was I,” Landon, now 45, said of his writing partner. “I had these three guys that would wait outside my class every day when I was a freshman and follow me in the hallway and shout ‘faggot’ and stuff like that. So I think we related to Millie a lot, and conversely, [her gay friend] Joshua became the version of ourselves that we wished we could have been in high school. Like, doesn’t give a fuck, nobody’s going to fuck with him, and unapologetically himself. It was important to us to have that character in the film, and also that he doesn’t die.”
Landon’s relationship to his own queerness has been an evolving journey. The son of Michael Landon, the late actor known for “Bonanza,” “Little House on the Prairie” and a conventionally wholesome all-American image, he dropped out of Loyola Marymount University when Larry Clark read a script that he had written and offered him a gig adapting what would become 1999’s “Another Day in Paradise.” Clark was fresh off the gritty indie phenomenon “Kids.” An “aggressively introverted” Landon suddenly found himself living with the director for six weeks, attending dinners with Gus Van Sant and finishing a screenplay that gave “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Badlands” a ’90s gutter-punk aura.
Around that time, a paparazzo snapped a photo of Landon, who wasn’t yet fully open about his sexuality, kissing his first boyfriend in Los Angeles. The gay offspring of a deceased Hollywood legend with Bible Belt appeal was catnip for the era’s tabloids. That Landon’s mother was a born-again Christian didn’t help. Aiming to get ahead of the story, Landon came out in the magazine The Advocate, all the while worried that doing so would jeopardize his career.
“It was a really difficult time in my life, and then you suddenly add this whole other layer of ‘And by the way, magazines are going to run stories about you,’” Landon said. “It’s a lot of pressure for someone who’s 21 years old, which is when all that went down. But you deal with it.”
“Another Day in Paradise” starred James Woods, Melanie Griffith and a young Vincent Kartheiser. It wasn’t a commercial hit, but Landon’s affiliation with Clark was enough to land him an agent and a flurry of attention. Tall and handsome with dirty-blond hair, Landon credits some of his initial success to Hollywood’s “youth obsession.” He then adapted a book by trendy photographer Lauren Greenfield, but the film never came to fruition. He also adapted the supernatural young-adult novel “Blood and Chocolate,” but the resulting movie barely reflected what he wrote. As quickly as Landon had become a hotshot, his agency dropped him.
Landon toiled for a while. He directed the popular MTV series “Making the Video,” including episodes centered on Beyoncé, Madonna and Christina Aguilera. (He called himself the “diva wrangler.”) Finally, he landed a one-two punch: 2007’s “Disturbia” (a “Rear Window”-esque adrenaline rush starring Shia LaBeouf) and 2010’s “Burning Palms.” He also overhauled an early draft of “Happy Death Day” (initially titled “Half to Death”) penned by Scott Lobdell. Several years later, having ignited a friendship with horror producer Jason Blum, he dusted off that old script, pitched it and agreed to direct it. When “Death Day” debuted at No. 1 and grossed $125.5 million worldwide, Universal Pictures — which has a lucrative development deal with Blumhouse Productions — promptly greenlit a sequel.
Last year’s “Happy Death Day 2U” widened the franchise’s focus to its peripheral characters, letting us see how the time loop affected folks who’d merely floated along the sidelines of the original. It was a difficult movie to market because meta-commentary about horror sequels doesn’t easily translate to advertisements. Nonetheless, Landon included a post-credits scene that established a premise for a third installment. But when “2U” earned significantly less money than its predecessor, Universal grew weary. “They just signaled no interest in making another one,” he said.
Now, Landon finds himself in a “guinea pig” situation. “Freaky,” another Universal/Blumhouse co-production, opened in select theaters on Nov. 13, as it was intended to before COVID-19 mangled this year’s release schedule. Movies traditionally linger in multiplexes for up to 90 days before hitting video-on-demand rental services, but Universal recently negotiated a shortened exclusivity window with AMC and Cinemark, two of the United States’ largest theater chains. As a result, “Freaky” will premiere on VOD approximately three weeks after its theatrical bow. (Representatives for Universal declined to confirm the exact date.)
“It’s a very mixed-bag experience for me because, on one hand, I wish that they circled the wagons and moved the movie off the calendar into a post-vaccine world,” Landon said. “But at the same time, I also recognize that there’s a real appetite for a movie like this right now. People want to laugh and they want to escape a little bit, and so maybe it is the right time for this.”
How much to hype the laughter raised some disagreement with Universal, Landon said. When he and Kennedy submitted the script, executives at the studio apparently told them the ending should more closely parallel the joviality of “Happy Death Day.”
“Sometimes when you have success with a certain thing, that’s the well that everybody wants to go back to,” Landon said. “The first ‘Happy Death Day’ ended on a very funny note. It was joke after joke after joke. And when you go to a test screening and a studio sits there and hears the audience reacting that way, it’s like heroin. So when we did this movie and it ends the way that it does, it’s not the kind of ending that elicits that reaction. And the studio was like, ‘But remember when you did that other thing and it was so fun?’”
“We fought a lot. It was to the point where I was like, ‘I won’t make this if you make me change it,’” he added. “Rarely am I that aggressive in my stances, because I do pride myself on being super collaborative and open to a lot of stuff. But I also know in my gut when I feel like something works and when something doesn’t. For me, the ending works because it completes the character’s journey, and that is more important to me than any big points that you get when you laugh. It’s something you can manufacture, but it’s dishonest.”
That means “Freaky” ends on a surprisingly sweet note, one that aligns with the thematic history of body-swap sagas, wherein protagonists tend to realize how disconcerting it is to be anyone but their true selves. Everyone dreams of a different life, a different mind, a different body — but do we really want it? Movies have concocted umpteen variants of this inquiry, from “Vice Versa” and “Like Father Like Son” to “Prelude to a Kiss” and “The Hot Chick.” Offshoots of the genre include “All of Me,” “Big” and “13 Going on 30,” as well as existential explorations like “Persona” and “Mulholland Drive.” In “Freaky,” instead of settling for the superficial pleasures of a slasher showdown, Landon reaches for something more profound and still manages not to sacrifice the fun.
“It’s something that happens a lot with teenagers who suffer the loss of a loved one early, of a parent: You want to fix things and make everyone feel OK,” said Landon, whose father died when he was 16. “You’re just trying to keep your world together somehow because it’s all just been blown up. That was something that I was very much in the business of, especially at that age. I wanted Millie to really reflect that. She was a person who was not living her life because she was too busy trying to make other people feel OK, especially her mother. She was unassertive and shy and afraid of everything. That was where I started. I knew where we were going to go: She was going to find her confidence. She was going to find her footing. And it was going to happen when she was in somebody else’s body. And so the rest of the movie was built out of that arc, which is not anything groundbreaking or necessarily unique. What I think makes the movie work is that it’s a very personalized version of all those things.”