Freaks of Nature is a difficult movie to peg. It’s a horror/sci-fi comedy hybrid in which a sudden alien invasion upsets the societal balance in a small Ohio town where humans, vampires and zombies have peacefully, thought not politely co-existed for years. In reaction to the first appearance of a spaceship, the film throws to an old-fashioned spinning newspaper montage showing us the headlines of the city’s various newspapers. This results in the kind of punchline which should help you decide if this movie’s tone is really for you:
The human newspaper (Dillford Gazette): “ALIENS! Arrival Stirs up Old Tensions…Will Vampires Keep the Peace?”
The vampire newspaper (Dead Times): “UFO DESCENDS ON DILLFORD! Did the humans invite the aliens here to kill us?”
The zombie newspaper’s (The Zombie Telegraph) headline simply reads “BRAINS?!” accompanied by a picture of a zombie looking up at the spaceship with dimwitted curiosity. Unlike the other newspapers, there are almost no words whatsoever on The Zombie Telegraph beyond its title and headline.
To me, everything about that is hilarious, from the way the spinning newspaper device recalls 1950s alien invasion B-movies to the idea that this intrusion would instantly divide the town to the mere concept of a zombie newspaper. However, I am keenly aware that to some people absolutely nothing about any of that would sound amusing. In fact, Freaks of Nature is the type of movie two people could watch together, but 92 minutes later only one of them will have laughed at any of the jokes. What’s your interest level in watching a John Hughes teen movie as told by Joss Whedon if he was also heavily influenced by Shaun of the Dead, stoner comedies and, oddly, Werner Herzog?
The film actually begins with a guy and a girl running from a zombie mob and ending up at a vampire house party where a kind of supernatural gang war breaks out, leaving behind three survivors – a human, vampire and zombie – who then look up to see the spotlight of a spaceship shining down on them. We flashback from that point to several days earlier to track how those three people got there and why two of them aren’t human anymore.
Turns out, they’re all high school students from different social circles but with improbable prior histories together. Dag (the perfectly affable Nicolas Braun) is the sort-of-athlete who has a wicked fastball he can’t control under pressure and a seemingly virginal girlfriend (Vanessa Hudgens) who is neither virginal nor really his girlfriend. Petra (the always kind-of-awesome Mackenzie Davis) is a Bella Swan-esque outcast who falls for a rough facsimile of Edward Cullen (bravo to the casting and make-up department for so convincingly recreating the Robert Pattinson vampire look). Ned (Josh Fadem) is the brainy nerd who is forever in his older brother’s shadow and has a thing for a cute zombie (Mae Whitman).
They are more or less average high school students who just happen to live in a world in which vampires came out to society a long time ago (e.g., some of their teachers are centuries-old vampires) and the zombie apocalypse was dealt with. Zombies are controlled with shock collars and pacified with government-provided brain rations. Early lunch room scenes feature our lead characters discussing their social lives with friends, completely ignoring the vampires and zombies all around them. They’ve all normalized this method of existence, similar to Gareth Edwards’ post-alien invasion drama Monsters where everyone seems to ignore the alien activity going down in the backgrounds of their lives.
There is surprisingly little exposition explaining any of this to us beyond Denis Leary, as the town’s rich factory owner, briefly referencing bringing zombies to town as cheap labor. However, no grand explanation is really necessary because Freaks of Nature subscribes to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer method of telling high school stories through supernatural metaphors. In this world, the jerk who lies to a girl to sleep with her is a vampire lusting after particularly prominent neck veins. The lovable, but idiotic stoners are zombies who actually regain most of their intelligence the longer they go without eating brains. The typical cliques of a high school lunch room are more defined according to your species.
Even the eventual alien invasion section of the story is meant to work on a metaphorical level, as the film’s producer Matthew Tolmach told ShockTillYouDrop, “When you’re in high school, everything feels apocalyptic. It feels like the emotions are just going to bury you. You got dumped or you can’t sit at the table you want to sit at or you can’t go this party. It’s all just crushing.” Thus we have scenes of Petra walking through town and lamenting the extremely poor choices in her love life, almost completely oblivious to the apparent apocalypse breaking out behind her.
That doesn’t mean the film skimps on the gore, or that it prefers teen angst over horror and laughs. Dag, Petra and Ned’s character arcs are fairly basic, treading in familiar high school rite of passage territory, and once they are thrown together after the invasion their likable bonding is enough to carry the story without overshadowing the insanity and jokes, of which there are many. Plus, in addition to all of the “high school is hell” metaphors and over-the-top carnage from an all-out war between humans and non-humans, the film also utilizes a strong bench of comedy all-stars (Bob Odenkirk, Joan Cusack, Patton Oswalt, Keegan Michael Key, Dennis Leary) to steal scenes and poke fun at small town anxieties.
This is a movie in which a car salesman dad protects Dag and his girlfriend from vampires by displaying the years of slayer-training he’d conducted in secret in anticipation of this day. He is then immediately overtaken by zombies, improbably remaining conscious as they tear him apart, lamenting at one point, “They’re eating my bowling arm!” This is a movie where a zombie father and son have a climactic emotional speech entirely through pained grunts, with subtitles letting us know what they’re trying to say. This is a movie where each time we might forget that a vampire and a zombie are two of the main characters they viciously kill an innocent human because, well, that’s what comes naturally to them. I could keep listing funny parts like this, but I don’t want to spoil any more of the jokes.
The whole thing actually feels like Shaun of the Dead if it had been made by the people behind Harold & Kumar. In actuality, it was produced by the guy (Tolmach) partially response for The Amazing Spider-Man movies, and directed by a guy (Robbie Pickerling) whose only prior movie was a little-seen, mostly serious drama (Natural Selection). It began its life as a Black List script called Kitchen Sink from eventual 22 Jump Street screenwriter Oren Uziel, and Kitchen Sink is a particularly apt title, both for the way Uzile piled up so many different genres together as well as the go for broke nature of the comedy.
Genre mash-ups like this are incredibly tricky to pull of. Look no further than the respective failures of Cowboys & Aliens, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and The Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse for proof of that. Freaks of Nature goes even further with its mash-up than any of those, forever threatening its ability to hold it all together. However, similar to Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, in tone and execution it feels like it was made by real fans of genre movies, and the jokes, however crude, consistently land.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The teen angst is appropriately high school movie-ish without seeming too maudlin. The vampire/zombie gore is often hilariously staged. The metaphors are all fairly obvious, but not too to the point of distraction. The humor is decidedly low brow, and the special effects with the aliens aren’t always so special. Screw it, though. Freaks of Nature made me laugh a lot.