Body swap movies come out all the time. Freaky Friday laid out the modern formula in 1976, and after a few dormant years, the story returned in the mid-1980s and has popped up in theaters every few years since. There was, in fact, a weird glut of five body-switching movies within eight months over fall 1987 and summer 1988: Like Father Like Son, the Italian film Da grande, Vice Versa, 18 Again!, and the biggest hit of the bunch by far, Big.
Beyond that, there were two remakes of Freaky Friday (1995 and 2003), early-1990s comedies and dramas like Switch and Prelude to a Kiss, family comedies like Wish Upon a Star (1996) and A Saintly Switch (1999), and the gross-out comedy The Change-Up in 2010. There are many more, too, American and foreign alike, but they all tend to have two things in common: they all deal with two (or more) people magically exchanging personalities, and they all use treat this premise as a gag.
Adults find themselves in the bodies of children, dealing once again with bad friends or the shock of puberty, while kids find themselves uneasily navigating adult relationships, often using the opportunity to have the kind of “adults must live like this” fun that exists in a kid’s fantasy world. And where two adults trade places, or one body shares two souls, or something similar, the characters are usually walked through some minor humiliations but ultimately jokey situations that lead to gentle life lessons and an appreciation for all they’ve been given. It’s like It’s a Wonderful Life with bathroom humor. What’s really unusual, though, isn’t that these movies come out all the time. It’s that they’re played for comedy.
How could a body-swap tale be anything other than pure horror? Big is ostensibly about a boy who temporarily becomes a man, and it focuses its attention on the (admittedly staggering) charisma of Tom Hanks to keep things as light as possible. Yet mostly forgotten in the story’s background is his character’s mother, distraught because she thinks her son has been kidnapped. And Hanks’ character’s struggle is mainly one against isolation, especially at the beginning: his biggest fear is being left alone in a bad hotel. There’s a dark, almost gruesome aspect of the story that gets brushed away by its comedy trappings — Hanks at one point provides voice-over of a letter he’s writing to his mom describing how kind his captors are; this is laid over a montage of him decorating his new loft and going to a baseball game — and it’s the same kind of creepiness that’s swept under the rug in other body swap movies, too.
If you awoke tomorrow in the body of someone else, even someone you know, you would likely lose your mind. Recognizing faces, especially our own, is a crucial part of the development of self-awareness. Babies start this process before age 2. Your identity isn’t just a collection of feelings about your worldview, but something that’s just as powerfully tied to your physical self-image. That’s me in the mirror. This is my hand, my foot, my nose. This is who I am.
Body swap movies ignore the fundamental horror that would accompany any instance of looking in the mirror and seeing someone else, and of how you might, over time, start to forget what the real you actually looks like. Some people with prosopagnosia can’t recognize their face or others, and it can lead to definite instability. (Interestingly, the only popular work of media that ever seemed to address this was NBC’s Quantum Leap, which let Sam Beckett bounce through time and into the lives of others for so long that he started to lose sense of his identity.) When you don’t have your own face, it’s anything but funny.
All of this is why one of the best body-switching movies ever made is one that intentionally plays into the horror of severing personality from body: 1998’s Fallen, a supernatural crime thriller starring Denzel Washington as a detective working a string of murders perpetrated by a demon that can move from host to host by touch.
The movie itself is pretty average: it’s clearly intended to ride in the wake left by Seven a few years earlier, but it’s often soft around the edges. It’s even got voice-over narration by Washington. Writer Nicholas Kazan sticks to basics even when they’d be better left out of a genre picture like this — if you think the lead cop isn’t going to go rogue and take this investigation into his own hands, you need to see more movies — and director Gregory Hoblit, who came up as a producer and director on TV shows like Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law, never gives the film the energy required for a big-screen thriller. In many ways, it feels as if it was made all along to be watched at home on a Saturday afternoon when you have nothing better to do. But when it hits, it hits hard.
What Fallen uses as the basis for its horror is what other body swap movies use as the basis for laughs: the total lack of control that the people involved have over their situation. Fallen’s antagonist is a demon named Azazel who, by possessing a man named Edgar Reese (Elias Koteas), committed a series of horrible murders. Washington’s Det. John Hobbes arrests Reese, who’s put to death, but Hobbes is still hounded by Azazel, who leaves Reese’s body and travels between other human hosts via skin-to-skin contact. By doing so, the demon’s able to possess strangers and have them commit more murders that mimic the ones Hobbes thought he’d ended when he got rid of Reese. Azazel’s also able to tail Hobbes, harass and harm his disabled brother, and frame Hobbes for new killings. He possesses Hobbes’s friends and family, and even, eventually, Hobbes himself.
This is the heart of the fear of all body-switching movies: that you’ll be taken over or sent away, and that you’ll have no way to fix the situation. (Spoilers coming up soon for a 16-year-old movie, if you’d like to eject.)
After he’s framed for murder, Hobbes goes on the run, hiding out in a cabin in the woods. His partner (John Goodman) shows up, possessed by Azazel, and Hobbes shoots and kills his partner in the ensuing fight. The demon escapes into Hobbes’s body, but Hobbes has been smoking a specially made cigarette laced with poison: his thinking is that he can kill himself and leave the demon with nowhere to run, since they’re all alone in the woods, and the film’s cosmology states that the demon will die if it doesn’t move to a healthy host.
Hobbes finally chokes out and dies, leaving the demon to frantically look for a new host (represented here and throughout the film by herky-jerky POV shots). And it’s here that the film pulls its final twist: the voice-over narration we’ve heard the whole time has been Azazel, in Washington’s voice, and the demon survives by possessing a stray cat. Everyone dies, the bad guy wins, and that’s the end. It’s a bleak, unforgiving resolution, but one that’s totally in line with the movie’s message: possession is beyond your control.
Body swap movies are usually comedies not because the premise is too absurd for any other genre. Movies in every genre require a suspension of disbelief, and there’s no rule saying you can only deal with certain subjects in certain ways. No, we turn them into comedies because actually following through on the premise — a child’s mind is suddenly put into an adult’s body; two friends or siblings find they’ve reversed souls — would have to mean making a horror film, or at least a far more honest and dramatic one than we’d expect. There’s no rhyme or reason to the way the magic works in these movies, and it’s only through their light touch and bouncy music that they convince us that everything is bound to work out okay in the end. Fallen, with its hapless victims and unbeatable villain, offers no such comfort. That’s pretty brave.
Daniel Carlson is the Managing Editor for Film School Rejects.