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Film Review: ‘Freaks of Nature’

A lifeless combination of alien invasion saga, zombie thriller, vampire romance and high-school drama.

With:
Nicholas Braun, Mackenzie Davis, Josh Fadem, Denis Leary, Ed Westwick, Vanessa Hudgens, Keegan-Michael Key, Bob Odenkirk, Joan Cusack, Chris Zylka, Ian Roberts, Rachael Harris, Mae Whitman, Patton Oswalt, Pat Healy.

Official Site: http://m.imdb.com/title/tt1817771/

Aiming to give teens everything they ostensibly like, and yet coming up with little more than a steaming pile of mash-up nonsense, “Freaks of Nature” proves a lifeless combination of alien invasion saga, zombie thriller, vampire romance and high-school drama. If that weren’t already a case of biting off more than it can chew, Robbie Pickering’s kitchen-sink film also strives to synthesize scares and laughs, though both are in short supply throughout this misbegotten attempt to satisfy virtually every genre demographic. Dumped unceremoniously into a few theaters with scant advance promotion, Sony’s horror-comedy should do truly horrifying box office business this Halloween weekend.

Oren Uziel’s screenplay must have originally had something going for it, given that the project attracted an impressive roster of comedians for its variety of bit parts, including Bob Odenkirk, Joan Cusack, Patton Oswalt, Keegan-Michael Key, Rachael Harris, Pat Healy and Denis Leary. Watching the misshapen finished product, however, it’s hard to imagine what first drew them to the film, which opens with a couple of teens fleeing unholy madness before rewinding to a calmer time at their small-town high school, where humans naturally coexist with vampires, who use sunblock to operate in daylight, and zombies, who are controlled by neck collars that quell their hunger for brains.

The reason for these supernatural circumstances aren’t elucidated at the outset of, or at any point during, “Freaks of Nature”; instead, kids lust after bloodsuckers and scoff at the walking dead just like they would with regular flesh-and-blood classmates. As a result, the film immediately starts off on uneven, mystifying footing – a situation exacerbated by the story’s fractured focus on three initially unrelated kids, each of them dealing with typical adolescent dilemmas. Baseball pitcher Dag (Nicholas Braun) pines for sexpot neighbor Lorelei (Vanessa Hudgens), who only uses him for drugs. Nerd Ned (Josh Fadem) is alienated by peers and mocked by his parents (Harris and Ian Roberts), who favor his jock brother Chaz Jr. (Chris Zylka). And Petra (Mackenzie Davis) is head-over-heels for pale-skinned vampire beau Milan (Ed Westwick), even though he’s obviously an infinitely more caddish variation on “Twilight”’s Edward Cullen.

Replete with synth-pop music and soft-focus lighting, the opening passages of “Freaks of Nature” suggest a horror-themed variation on “The Breakfast Club” or “Sixteen Candles.” Unfortunately, this ‘80s-era infatuation — which also includes a nod to Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” — soon gives way to a more generally unfocused tone once extraterrestrial invaders materialize in the sky. Rather than engendering a spirit of us-against-them togetherness, the aliens’ arrival prompts humans to act on their long-simmering hatred of vampires (and vice versa). When Ned opts to become a zombie (in order to escape feelings of humiliation and sadness) and then frees his brain-eating brethren from their penned-off local district, a multi-race battle of blood-spurting, cortex-chomping insanity ensues.

This civil war turns apocalyptic when the bulbous, two-legged aliens begin zapping residents to who-knows-where, and Dag, Ned and Petra — who’s been turned into a vampire by Milan, and then dumped by the lothario — wind up banding together against the outer-space aggressors. Before long, the three survivors are airing long-held grievances against each other, and Dag and Petra are developing their own romantic relationship. Alas, like a running thread involving the town’s infatuation with a chemical-heavy McRib-like sandwich known as the “Riblet,” this trio’s interpersonal dynamics seem so randomly introduced and developed that the film feels carelessly tossed-off.

That impression is furthered by subsequent revelations, including the fact that the aliens can’t spot humans if they’re naked (apparently they can only see inorganic material), and that zombies actually become smarter if they’re starved of brains. Drenching his R-rated material in copious amounts of exploding-vampire blood and gore, director Pickering stages one set piece after another without generating anything approaching tension. And despite enlisting A-list comedic talent for numerous peripheral roles, the film is a drearily unfunny affair whose drug- and sex-centric jokes are as insipid as its visual style is middle-of-the-road bland.

Amid such noisy inanity, which is too scattershot to manage a coherent satirical point, Parker, Davis and Fadem exude just enough functional teen angst to prevent the proceedings from devolving into intolerable tedium. Nonetheless, “Freaks of Nature’s” hodgepodge clumsiness ultimately leaves them as adrift as the rest of their more illustrious co-stars — including, during the climax, a vocal-cameoing Oscar winner who, like everyone else, should have known better than to get involved in this paranormal muddle.

Film Review: 'Freaks of Nature'

Reviewed at AMC Palisades Center 21, West Nyack, N.Y., Oct. 29, 2015. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 92 MIN.

Production: A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation, in association with L Star Capital, of a Matt Tolmach production. Produced by Matthew Tolmach. Executive producers, Ron Schmidt, Jonah Hill, Ben Waisbren. Co-producer, Kate Checchi.

Crew: Directed by Robbie Pickering. Screenplay, Oren Uziel. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Uta Briesewitz; editor, Craig Alpert; music, Fil Eisler; music supervisor, Kier Lehman; production designer, Chris L. Spellman; art director, Jann K. Engel; set decorator, Cynthia La Jeunesse; costume designer, Debra McGuire; sound (DTS/SDDS/Dolby Digital); supervising sound editor, Jussi Tegelman; re-recording mixers, Steve Pederson; special effects supervisor, John McLeod; visual effects, Eric Mancha; stunt coordinator, Jeffrey J. Dashnaw; assistant director, Brian Bettwy; second unit director, Jeffrey J. Dashnaw; casting, Allison Bader, Brandi S. Hawkins.

With: Nicholas Braun, Mackenzie Davis, Josh Fadem, Denis Leary, Ed Westwick, Vanessa Hudgens, Keegan-Michael Key, Bob Odenkirk, Joan Cusack, Chris Zylka, Ian Roberts, Rachael Harris, Mae Whitman, Patton Oswalt, Pat Healy.

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