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“FREAKS OF NATURE” (Movie Review)

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Catching even genre fans off guard with its presence in theaters, FREAKS OF NATURE is in fact the vampires-meet-zombies-meet-aliens mashup filmed in 2013 as (the aptly titled) KITCHEN SINK. Now, after several nationwide-release date changes/delays, it has been abruptly retitled and dumped into token runs by Columbia Pictures (which didn’t even bother to print up a poster for the multiplex where this reviewer shared the prime opening-night show with maybe half a dozen people).

Yet KITCHEN S…er, FREAKS OF NATURE stands, if not tall, then at least with listing (i.e., zombie) posture in the long line of studio pictures bailed on by their parent companies while worse movies open every week (like, this very week, the similarly themed SCOUTS GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE). To be fair, the telltale “Additional Editing by” credit is all too justified, as some of the melee scenes are truly a hash (you really can’t tell what’s biting whom); several characters are lost track of; and there is one of the worst match cuts (or not) within a scene ever to appear in a major-studio flick. Additionally, the use of a framing device within the first 40 minutes (the picture runs 92) does not work.

FREAKSOFNATUREREVWearing its R rating proudly, KITCH…sorry, FREAKS lets its flag fly early and often with f-bombs and/or undead FX. Trouble is, with Oren Uziel’s screenplay matter-of-factly depicting the town of Dillford (“Home of the Riblet!”) as one where humans and vampires co-exist, while zombies are around too but generally ghettoized, director Robbie Pickering (the non-genre dramedy NATURAL SELECTION) is obliged to immediately jump in and elbow the ribs. These early scenes are simply strained; many a movie, music video and television commercial has made comedic hay out of vampires and zombies being integrated and domesticated, and sequences that self-consciously try for laughs don’t get them. Further, the intros of characters and their situations in life (or undeath) are cluttered.

The protagonists are all students at the local high school: Dag (Nicholas Braun) is a slightly insecure teen trying to get out of the Friend Zone with dishy neighbor Lorelei (Vanessa Hudgens); Ned (Josh Fadem) is the school brain whom everyone, including his own family, resentfully picks on; and Petra (Mackenzie Davis) is a dreamy girl whose head has been turned—as the rest of her is about to be—by vampire smoothie Milan (Ed Westwick), who attends school despite being, well, centuries old. The throwaway bits are more assured than the main action here, what with cans of Brains for zombies packaged like tuna or cat food and hectoring warnings posted at the school.

In any case, Dag, Ned and Petra are all at adolescent crossroads in terms of questioning their existences when everything is abruptly upended by an alien invasion, as large arachnids attack. This leads the various species to allow festering mistrust and bigotry out in the midst of open warfare, and the three main teens are thrown together and attempt to find refuge from the leveling chaos.

It’s at this point that the film abruptly lurches into WALKING BREAKFAST CLUB DEAD territory—and lo and behold, this turns out to be a big plus, since leads Braun, Fadem and especially Davis are winning (albeit, like every other young actor here, too old to still be playing high-schoolers). The picture calms down and settles into a nice give/take as the trio put their heads together (complicated by the fact that two of them have recently transitioned), and Uziel’s script gives them some John Hughes-esque rapport and amusing teenspeak: “That’s a plan, right?” “I mean…it’s plan-ish?”

After that midsection pause that refreshes, FREAKS OF NATURE then careens into a loopy third act wherein the hit-or-miss humor returns in force, but is at least more consistent than in the first portion. Just why these aliens have come to Earth makes for a creative gimmick to unify the warring species, and comes complete with a left-field voiceover choice for their leader.

Through it all, the zombie makeup is one of the movie’s strengths, allowing the actors underneath (including the delightful Mae Whitman, who is not billed until the end credits) to have fun within the limited range of facial and vocal expressions. (The latter, in fact, cue the picture’s biggest laugh-out-loud moments.) The visual FX for the aliens, on the other hand, are (deliberately?) second-rate, and the vampire elements have been done to…uh, death elsewhere. Overall, though, while FREAKS OF NATURE isn’t in the class of this year’s superior horror/comedies THE FINAL GIRLS and WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, it deserved better than being staked through the heart by its studio.

2.5_skull

About the author
Robert Danvers
Robert Danvers enjoys a good scare, and as such misses the old Hammer days. He is well-known in London for his food and drink expertise, and for the enchanting companions in whose company he is frequently seen. His favorite musicians include Mike d’Abo, the father of that fine thespian Olivia d’Abo, whom Mr. Danvers regrettably has yet to meet.
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