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Freaks of Nature
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by Jay Seaver

"A little bit of everything with the good stuff just coming out ahead."
3 stars

"Freaks of Nature" was originally called "The Kitchen Sink" - some websites are listing its showtimes under that title - and neither name is great. "Freaks" is generic and not really what the movie is about; "Sink" puts the emphasis on the filmmakers' intentions to make a bizarre movie even though they're also trying to make something good. It does, in fact, go a little nuts in pursuit of its high concept, but it's also fairly funny and even fitfully clever.

It takes place in the town of Dillford, Ohio, in a world were human beings, zombies, and vampires live together in relative harmony, though there is still a fair amount of tension. Plus, regular high school stuff: Lanky Dag Parker (Nicholas Braun) has a crush on his sexy neighbor Lorelei (Vanessa Hudgens), although she mostly sees his bedroom as a convenient place to hide her weed from her parents. Petra Lane (Mackenzie Davis) is excited to go to her first vampire party with sexy bloodsucker Milan Pinache (Ed Westwick), although they may have different ideas of what "going all the way" means. Ned Mosely (Josh Fadem) is brilliant, but the only girl who pays him any attention is a zombie (Mae Whitman), and his father (Ian Roberts) is much more invested in his athletic older brother (Chris Zylka). That's a lot of teen angst, and that's before the arrival of an alien spaceship has every group thinking that the other is plotting against them.

Oren Uziel's script was apparently on the Black List of great unproduced screenplays a few years back, and what people would see in it isn't hard to discern: In the same way that a lot of high school movies are proxies for how adult social groups don't necessarily get along, Uziel amplifies that with the various types of monsters, although he never makes it so much a movie about movies that the original satirical intent is lost - heck, he's able to bring it closer to the surface this way. And while the comedy is often broad, there is occasionally something barbed underneath - the characters may be in absurd, exaggerated situations, but the teenage emotional overdrive that motivates them is recognizable and easy to empathize with.

It can be a long jump from nifty idea to good movie, though, with Uziel, director Robbie Pickering, and everyone else involved incredibly inconsistent in how they manage it. There is lavish attention to detail all over this movie, with pretty darn decent special effects for the aliens, but they're around moments that are just lazy or poorly paced (the film opens with a flash-forward to a frantic chase that makes the first act feel like treading water and doesn't make the action clearer the second time around). Its baseball-as-foreshadowing stuff is cringe-worthy, and I say that as a guy who pumps his fists whenever a movie uses baseball rather than football as a metaphor. And yet, even as it does that, the film as a whole develops a personality that is simultaneously crude and black in its comedy even as it is hopeful and good-natured in terms of what actually drives things.

I suspect a lot of that has to do with a good young cast (although one where everyone appears to be well past college graduation, let alone high school). The central trio of Nicholas Braun, Mackenzie Davis, and Josh Fadem are quite strong as a group, with Braun and Davis especially having excellent chemistry while Fadem does some quality physical comedy as Ned. Vanessa Hudgens is enjoyably goofy as Lorelei, and the adult parts are packed with funny people slotted into their comfort zones and as a result nailing their material - Denis Leary, Keegan-Michael Key, Joan Cusack & Bob Odenkirk, Patton Oswalt, and a delightful last-act cameo. Young or old, they're not always able to elevate so-so material, but they rarely miss when given something good.

There's an audaciousness and willingness to go for the weird joke that maybe makes "Freaks of Nature" a surprisingly enjoyable Halloween release, although it's probably also why it's getting the fewest screens of all the flawed monster movies that the studios are putting out this October. It's as messy as any movie that winds up throwing everything including the kitchen sink in can expect to be, but the filmmakers are at least trying to do a little more than mash genres together.

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originally posted: 10/31/15 17:55:02
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  30-Oct-2015 (R)
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