In Freaks of Nature, we welcome you to Dillford, where three days ago, everything was peaceful and business as usual: the vampires were at the top of the social order, the zombies were at the bottom, and the humans were getting along in the middle. But this delicate balance was ripped apart when the alien apocalypse arrived in Dillford and put an end to all the harmony. Now it’s humans vs. vampires vs. zombies in all-out, blood-sucking, brain-eating, vamp-staking mortal combat – and all of them are on the run from the aliens. —Official synopsis, as published on IMDB
How could I possibly pass up a movie with such a beautifully batshit description? Sure, there are only a handful of reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and they’re all negative, but so what? It’s not like this is the sort of thing that everyone would automatically be on board with. And anyway, considering that this is a movie with zero fanfare and a tightly limited release, this is probably some no-budget production that got by entirely on passion. That sounds amazing.
Then the film started rolling, and I was genuinely surprised by several things.
First of all, this was no indie production. This was a Black List screenplay, and it was picked up by Columbia Pictures. And I don’t mean that someone else funded this and Columbia distributed it — no, this was paid for by the good people at Sony. And then came the credits.
Keegan-Michael Key. Patton Oswalt. Vanessa Hudgens. Denis Leary. Bob Odenkirk. Joan Cusack. Rachel Harris. Mae Whitman. Ed Westwick. Werner fucking Herzog. Executive Producer Jonah Hill, who shows up for a cameo. Shit, I was just talking about how much I wanted to see more of Mackenzie Davis after her delightful breakout turn in The Martian, and here she is in a starring role!
I suddenly had no idea just what the sacramental fuck this movie even was. And even after seeing this movie, I’m still not entirely sure. To be honest, I don’t even think the filmmakers knew.
The movie starts out well enough: we see a couple of humans running for their lives as zombies and vampires fight each other in a violent burning hellscape. And then aliens come in. So far, so good. That’s exactly what was promised. Then we flash back, the first act gets started, and we see a clean and orderly world as humans, zombies, and vampires all coexist more or less peacefully and as equals.
Let me get this straight: Zombies are everywhere, vampires are everywhere, and this isn’t the apocalypse? So how did we get to this point? Where did the vampires and zombies come from? How was this status quo established? Why is everyone okay with all of this?
Never explained. Not a bit of it.
What makes it even worse is that nobody acts in a way that’s remotely credible. That might be forgivable for the zombies and vampires, since they’re inhuman monsters by nature, but that just makes it more imperative that the human characters act human. But they don’t. They act like caricatures of people. Which means that for the first half-hour of this 90-minute movie, it’s just wall-to-wall noise made by cartoonish stereotypes who aren’t the least bit sympathetic because they don’t look or act like normal people.
I can’t possibly stress enough how this kneecaps the movie right out of the gate. Because everything is over-the-top, there’s no baseline to serve as a contrast, which means that any attempt at humor is DOA. And because the dialogue and plotting are so defiantly brain-dead (if you’ll pardon the term) there’s nothing smart or clever enough to suggest any coherent point to the madness.
Oh, but here’s the crowning touch: The first act of this movie is a high school comedy. Which means that not only are the characters acting as over-the-top stereotypes, they’re acting as over-the-top stereotypes of the tired and cliched high school stereotypes that we all grew sick and annoyed with after the billionth time we saw them. And no, that wasn’t a typo: I absolutely meant to say that these characters are stereotypes of stereotypes, that’s how exaggerated they are. It’s not even a clever parody of a tired genre, it’s just everything that makes the genre tired, but the filmmakers turned it up to 11 and yanked off the knob.
And lest we forget, this is supposed to be a post-apocalyptic monster movie. The post-apocalyptic monster movie and the high school comedy are completely disparate genres that would be tricky to merge together at the best of times. And they’re sure as hell not going to mix when one of them takes up the first half-hour and the other takes up the remaining hour. If anything, that’s a recipe for a movie with insurmountable pacing issues and tonal inconsistencies.
The movie does kinda get back on track with the last two acts, as the plot narrows its focus to three characters and their attempts to survive an alien invasion. But even then, the jokes fail to land, there’s no coherent point or theme to be found, and the world-building is still wretched. To wit: We eventually learn that the zombies in this universe get smarter as they starve themselves and dumber as they eat more brains. You tell me how that’s supposed to make any sense.
Though to be perfectly clear, it’s not like the movie is completely void of merit. I do give points for ambition and effort, and the visuals alone are proof that the filmmakers were trying to make something truly great. I just couldn’t tell you what that “something” was or why anyone bothered.
Then we have the cast. Every single actor I listed above is better than this material, and the film benefits tremendously from having each and every one of them take part. Granted, Vanessa Hudgens may not be much of an actor, but she still looks she’s having fun and that’s enough to get by in this picture. As for relative newcomer Mackenzie Davis, I’m thrilled to say that even with this subpar material, she’s an effortlessly charming screen presence. Which is a great relief, considering that she’s a third of the main cast.
Unfortunately, we still have the other two main actors. Josh Fadem spends the first third as a geek stereotype too outlandish to be sympathetic, and the other two thirds as a zombie. That’s not exactly much room to show any range or charisma. As for Nicholas Braun, I’m sorry to say that he wasn’t nearly qualified enough to play our protagonist. Such an unremarkable screen presence whose line deliveries fell terribly flat, especially in that first act.
But by far the biggest failures come down to the writer and director. The screenplay was written by Oren Uziel, previously credited for an episode of the “Mortal Kombat” webseries and the script of 22 Jump Street (For the record, so much of that movie was so clearly improvised that I still refuse to believe it had a script.). As for director Robbie Pickering, his only other feature credit is some indie movie called Natural Selection.
The point I’m trying to get at here is that the filmmakers’ reach exceeded their grasp by at least several light years. This is a movie with an overwhelmingly ambitious scope, comprised of several disparate genres and tropes. And it’s not like genre mashups can’t work — just look at Detention, Attack the Block, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, or the Blood and Ice Cream trilogy. But these guys simply did not have the skill or the intelligence to pull it all together and join those lofty ranks. Not by a long shot.
Freaks of Nature suffers because the film doesn’t seem to have any idea of what it wants to be. There’s elements of horror and comedy and coming-of-age drama, and a few hints at some kind of theme, but none of them are brought together in such a way that they complement each other. And it certainly doesn’t help that the characters are all cartoonish exaggerations who are impossible to take seriously, though at least we get to see some genuinely funny actors improve slightly on the material they’re given.
Put simply, this film is like a high school chemistry classroom gone kablooey: you have to admire the ambition and curiosity of those involved, but we all might have been better off if they had stuck with what they knew and put the beakers down.