Monday, October 24, 2016

Review: Freaks of Nature (2015)

Freaks of Nature (2015)

Rated R for bloody violence and gore, pervasive language, sexual content and drug use - all involving teens

Score: 2 out of 5

Freaks of Nature boasts a fun horror/comedy premise and a great supporting cast, and on paper, it should've been a lot better than it actually was. So what went wrong with it? To put it bluntly, it never seemed to realize what its strongest qualities were. The best characters got far too little screen time and often felt wasted in their roles, the intriguing setup soon took a backseat to an alien invasion storyline that never really came together, the protagonist was an extremely generic teen movie hero, and even at its best, it felt, more than anything, like a adaptation of a Saturday Night Live sketch that they couldn't get to work as a feature film. It begins with promise, but starts running out of gas about halfway in, and while the good parts make it worth at least a Netflix viewing, it's not a film you're gonna remember after you watch it.

Our main characters are Dag (Nicholas Braun), Petra (Mackenzie Davis), and Ned (Josh Fadem), three high school students in the town of Dillford, Ohio. Dillford is a small town like any other in the Midwest, with a popular high school sports team, a meat-packing plant that employs much of the population... oh, and large communities of vampires and zombies living alongside the humans. The vampires make up the snobbish upper class, while the zombies are lowlifes living in a walled-off section of town, feasting on government brain rations and wearing shock collars to stop them from biting when they venture out; in high school social circle terms, this means that the popular kids all have fangs and pale skin and use umbrellas whenever they step out in the sun, while the druggies and burnouts all shamble around and moan about brains. Dag, Petra, and Ned are all humans, walking the halls of Dillford High side-by-side with their vampire and zombie classmates. Dag has a crush on the beautiful girl next door Lorelei (Vanessa Hudgens). Petra, desperate to fit in, finds herself turned into a vampire by the asshole Edward Cullen parody Milan (Ed Westwick). Lastly, the academic overachiever Ned decides that, between his lack of any prospects in Dillford and his dumbass parents who only care about his jock brother Chaz Jr.'s future athletic career, he has no real future, and so he decides to let a zombie girl bite him so that he can turn on, tune in, drop out, and eat brains. Their personal crises are all interrupted by the arrival of an alien spaceship, with the humans, vampires, and zombies all claiming that it's a plot by the others to get rid of them, leading to a massive melee in the streets. Dag, Petra, and Ned soon find themselves forced together, fighting to survive both an alien invasion and the mutual paranoia of their respective communities.

I'll start with what I liked the most about this film, and that is the cast. Keegan-Michael Key (of Key & Peele fame) plays a vampire teacher whose hatred for his job, expressed in a great rant in the teacher's lounge, winds up setting Ned on his path to getting himself turned into a zombie. Denis Leary is hilarious as, essentially, a small-town Donald Trump, a tacky rich guy with a ridiculous blond comb-over, a big-breasted trophy wife, a bright red sports car that's really not all that impressive if you know anything about sports cars (the Boxster is an entry-level Porsche), and a bad attitude who owns the riblet factory and thinks that this makes him hot shit. Bob Odenkirk and Joan Cusack play Dag's parents, who are all too eager to go into way too much embarrassing detail about the birds, the bees, and the mari-ju-ana. The rest of the supporting cast is a "who's who" of character actors and comedians like Pat Healy, Mae Whitman, Patton Oswalt, and even Werner Herzog as the inexplicably German-accented leader of the aliens, and they are all hilarious.

The problem is, we don't see enough of them. With the exception of Leary, they each only get one or two scenes before they're either killed off or otherwise vanish from the film, their talents mostly wasted. Had this been a sketch movie that was more about the laughs than about the plot, I would've been able to forgive this fault, but unfortunately, for long stretches the comedy takes a back seat to the central story, which just wasn't all that interesting. A big part of the problem falls at the feet of the protagonist Dag. While his actor Nicholas Braun wasn't wooden, he was most definitely lacking in the sort of charisma that would've allowed me to buy him as the hero, and as such, he did little to elevate a fairly underwritten character who's basically a collection of "handsome-but-average teenage boy" stereotypes that haven't been fresh since American Pie 2. He's easily outshined by Mackenzie Davis and Josh Fadem, whose characters Petra and Ned actually have their own character arcs that are more substantial than Dag's asinine quest to get in the pants of the hottest girl in school, only to realize that she was just using him for his weed and that he could've done far better with Petra. (On that note, Vanessa Hudgens as Lorelei is there to look sexy and do pretty much nothing else.) Petra has to deal with being pressured into becoming a vampire (i.e. having sex) by the douchebag Milan, only to learn that he didn't give a damn about her and that she's now being slut-shamed for it, while Ned's despair at his home life and his lack of opportunity leads him to just say "fuck it all". Both Davis and Fadem deliver really good performances, and in my opinion, they should've been the lead characters, with their far more interesting stories being the primary focus instead of being rendered secondary.

Between the comedy bits, we get human-on-vampire-on-zombie action and aliens running around ruining everyone's day, and I will admit, by the standards of a lightweight horror/comedy, I was impressed. The makeup on both the vampires in "vamp mode" and the zombies looked appropriately creepy, as did the blood and body parts flying around when they got into it, especially in the big three-way street melee and in a great scene that parodied one of the most famous kills from Day of the Dead. The special effects on the aliens were also really good, a mix of practical effects and CGI that the film saves for a handful of big moments and otherwise keeps just off screen, which helps to create some genuinely creepy bits when they're lurking around. They may look like ripoffs of the xenomorphs from Alien (which the film even jokes about in a deleted scene and blooper), but thanks to the way they're handled, they actually felt threatening. That said, the revelation of just why the aliens came to Dillford made me strongly question their logic. If they're here because they feed on the chemicals used to make the riblets that Dillford is famous for, then why does it take them until the climax of the movie, long after they've rounded up most of the townsfolk who could tell them where to get that chemical, to go to the riblet factory? This plot also doesn't really connect with the whole "monster mash" storyline that underlies life in the town of Dillford. It feels like they'd originally written two separate comedy scripts, one about an alien invasion and the other about humans, vampires, and zombies all going to school together, and then mashed them into one movie without thinking about how those two plots would mesh.

The Bottom Line:

Interesting ideas and a great supporting cast can't hold up a weak central story, a dull protagonist, and jokes that, while solid, are too few and far between to really save it. There's some stuff to recommend here if you have nothing better to do, but not enough for a real recommendation.

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