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Freaks of Nature (2015)

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freaks of natureStarring Nicholas Braun, Mackenzie Davis, Josh Fadem, Vanessa Hudgens, Denis Leary

Directed by Rob Pickering


Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (review) wasn’t the only horror comedy unceremoniously dumped into theaters this past Halloween weekend. After languishing in limbo for some time now, Sony finally decided at the last minute to roll out Freaks of Nature onto about 100 or so screens with little fanfare.

Originally titled Kitchen Sink, no doubt a reference to the “Adult Swim” anything goes nature of the premise, a better title for this unfocused genre comedy might have been Clusterfuck since that’s a more accurate description of what’s in store for viewers. Freaks of Nature hits the ground running with no setup to this world of man and monsters living side-by-side, leaving the viewer to figure out what little there is to figure out. Not that specifics matters much since the plot has that “making it up as they go along, throw something against the wall and hope it sticks” quality.

The aliens can’t see you if you’re wearing clothes. Why? Because nudity alone is supposed to be inherently funny, I suppose?

Too much of the humor consists of long-winded diatribes that confuse yelling lines with being funny and assumes just saying the most irreverent thing possible in the situation will automatically induce laughter. You can practically see the flop sweat trickling down Denis Leary’s wooly cheeks as he struggles to make his usual aggressively above-it-all attitude work with the material he’s been given.

Welcome to Dillford, Ohio. Humans, vampires, and zombies live side-by-side and attend school together as if there’s nothing really all that out of the ordinary about it. Dillford is also the home of the “riblet,” a hugely popular meat sandwich product that factors into the climax in the stupidest way possible. Stupid… and not in a good way.

Dorky baseball pitcher Dag has the hots for his sexy pothead neighbor, Lorelei, too hormonally charged to realize she only uses him as nothing more than her “weed locker” to hide her stash from her parents. Dag’s hippie parents warn him that he will soon experience a big change, a twist you will see coming from many miles away and one that takes so long to pay off, I began to wonder if they’d forgotten about it.

Dag used to be good friends with school nerd Ned until he decided he wanted to try to be cooler. Ned now finds himself a bullied loner constantly living in the shadow of his jock older brother, whose promising baseball career is all their idiot parents care about. When Ned tells his father he wants to go to college to become an engineer, Dad replies, “How many times have I told you: Nobody rides trains anymore.” That’s one of the better jokes.

Ned befriends a cute zombie girl and decides the walking dead’s perpetual numbness is what he needs to deal with his own crippling emotional pain. Even zombified, his smarts quickly make him the de facto leader of the zombies. His brainiac know-how will also be required to help save the town when aliens attack, an odd quirk of zombies in this world being that the longer they go without eating brains, the smarter they become. The rule only seems to apply to Ned, though.

Mackenzie Davis (“Halt and Catch Fire”) proves to be the movie’s standout as Petra, a Bella Swan-esque teenage girl being seduced by the hottest vampire in school. One thing Freaks of Nature gets right is the true nature of what a high school populated by vampires would really be like. They’re arrogant pricks that seduce lovelorn teenage girls and use their powers to bully mortals. Sounds about right.

Petra’s story arc can easily be construed as a metaphor for naive teenage girls falling prey to romantic advances of sexual predators that take their virtue, dump them as soon as they get what they want, and leave them with a permanent STD. Though, in this instance, the STD is vampirism. Davis is so good in her role that I kind of wish the whole movie had been a Twilight riff about her using her newfound bloodsucking powers to gain revenge against the Edward Cullen-esque vampire that preyed upon her.

When an alien mothership parks itself over the town, the humans for whatever reason instantly distrust the vampires because, I guess, they naturally assume vampires are supposed to make first contact with extraterrestrials. Beats me. Equally stupid and prejudiced, the vampires get riled up, believing the humans have somehow summoned forth the aliens to destroy their kind. The mindless zombies just want to know why their daily delivery of brain-in-a-sardine-can rations haven’t arrived. This leads to a gory three-way battle royale between the human/vampire/zombie factions that gets interrupted when the aliens decide to launch their attack.

The calamity brings together human Dag, vamp Petra, and zombie Ned, forcing them to put aside their differences and, in the case of Petra and Ned, overcome their monstrous hunger, to figure out what the aliens want and how to stop them. It’s also at this point that Freaks of Nature takes an unexpected turn into John Hughes territory and finds some actual traction. The chemistry between the three leads as they bond almost salvages what had been up until this point a messy mash-up comedy with far more misses than hits.

That goodwill gets scuttled during the simultaneously lazy and stupid climax when we learn the moronic motivations behind the alien invasion, and far too many of the jokes simply rely on someone dropping a version of the f-bomb as the punchline.

If you get Werner Herzog to provide the voice of the lead alien and random profanities are the best lines you can provide him, talk about a wasted opportunity.

Herzog isn’t alone. Bob Odenkirk and Joan Cusack are criminally wasted as Dag’s dippy parents. Patton Oswalt does another variation of the basement-dwelling, momma’s boy nerd he’s done many times before. Keegan-Michael Key plays yet another version of his high-strung schoolteacher character, except in this case he’s also a vampire and gets fewer laughs. Much of what little marketing there has been for the movie would lead you to believe Vanessa Hudgens has a larger role than she does. She’s barely in it, and when she is, all she does is look gorgeous and play stoned.

Freaks of Nature scores a few laughs here and there and occasionally threatens to turn into an actual movie, but it never lives up to the outlandishness of its own setup. If not for the strength of the three leads, I’d be able to write it off completely. Instead I can only recommend it as a mild diversion to kill some time with when it arrives on DVD/VOD, which is where it probably should have debuted to begin with.

But it’s still better than Vampires Suck. That has to count for something, right? Right?

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User Rating 2.82 (17 votes)

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The Housemaid Review – Love Makes the Ghost Grow Stronger

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Starring Nhung Kate, Jean-Michel Richaud, Kim Xuan

Written and directed by Derek Nguyen


Vietnamese horror films are something of a rarity due largely to pressure from the country’s law enforcement agencies that have warned filmmakers to steer clear of the genre in recent years. The country’s exposure to the industry is limited, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a handful of filmmakers out there that are passionate and determined to get their art out into the world. IFC Midnight has stepped up to the plate to shepherd writer/director Derek Nguyen’s period ghost thriller The Housemaid in hopes of getting it in front of American horror fans.

Aside from a few moments that delve into soap opera territory, Nguyen’s film is full of well-crafted scares and some surprisingly memorable scenes that sneak up at just the right times. For history buffs there’s also a lot of material to sink your teeth into dealing with French Colonial rule and mistreatment of the Vietnamese during the 1950’s. Abuse that, if you’re not careful, could lead to a vengeful spirit seeking atonement.

Desperate and exhausted after walking for miles, an orphaned woman named Linh (Kate) seeks refuge and employment as a housemaid at a large rubber plantation in 1953 French Indochina. Once hired, she learns of the dark history surrounding the property and how her mere presence has awakened an accursed spirit that wanders the surrounding woods and dark corners of the estate. Injured in battle, French officer Sebastien Laurent (Richaud) returns to preside over the manor and, unexpectedly, begins a dangerous love affair with Linh that stirs up an even darker evil.

Told in flashbacks, the abuse of workers reveals a long history of mistreatment that enshrouds the surrounding land in darkness and despair, providing ripe ground for a sinister spirit that continues to grow stronger. Once it’s revealed that the ghost has a long history with Laurent before her death, the reasons she begins to kill become more and more obvious as the death toll piles up. Using the real life history of indentured servants during Colonial rule, The Housemaid becomes more than just a self-contained ghost story, adding a good deal of depth to a story that could have just centered around a love triangle among Laurent, Linh, and the specter of Laurent’s dead wife.

Powered by desire to avenge tortured workers of the past and the anger fueled by seeing her husband in the embrace of a peasant girl, the apparition is frightening and eerily beautiful as she stalks her victims. One scene in particular showing her wielding an axe is the most indelible image to take away from the film, and other moments like it are what make The Housemaid a standout. The twisted sense of romance found in a suffering spirit scorned in death is the heart of the story even if the romance between the two living lovers winds up having more screen time.

The melodrama and underwhelming love scenes between Linh and Laurent are the least effective part of The Housemaid, revealing some of Nguyen’s limitations in providing dialogue and character moments that make us connect with these two characters as much as we do when the ghost is lurking around the frame. What does help to save the story is a well kept secret revealing a connection with the housemaid and the apparition.

Honestly, if this was an American genre film, the limitations seen in The Housemaid might cause more criticism, but seeing an emerging artist and his team out of Vietnam turn out a solid product like this leads me to highlight the good and champion the effort in hopes of encouraging more filmmakers to carry the flag. Ironically, the film is set for a U.S. remake in the near future.

The Housemaid hits select theaters, VOD, and digital platforms TODAY, February 16th.

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Summary

Using the real life history of indentured servants during Colonial rule, The Housemaid becomes more than just a self-contained ghost story, adding a good deal of depth to a story that could have just centered around a love triangle.

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Scorched Earth Review – Gina Carano Making Motherf**kers Pay In The Apocalypse

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Starring Gina Carano, John Hannah, Ryan Robbins

Written by Bobby Mort and Kevin Leeson

Directed by Peter Howitt


Let me preface this review by stating right off the bat that I’m a huge Gina Carano fan, and will pretty much accept her in any role that she’s put in (are you going to tell her no), regardless of the structure and plausibility behind it, and while that might make me a tad-bit biased in my opinions, just accept it as that and nothing more. Now that I’ve professed my cinematic devotion to the woman, let’s dive headlong into her latest film, Scorched Earth.

Directed by Peter Howitt, the backdrop is an apocalyptic world brought on by the imminent disaster known as global warming, and the air has become toxic to intake, generally leaving inhabitants yacking up blood and other viscous liquids after a prolonged exposure, unless you’re one of the privileged that possesses a filter lined with powdered silver. Filters of water and the precious metal are in high demand, and only true offenders in this world still drive automobiles, effectively speeding up the destruction of what’s left of the planet. Carano plays Atticus Gage, a seriously stoic and tough-as-nails bounty hunter who is responsible for taking these “criminals” down, and her travels lead her to a compound jam-packed with bounties that will have her collecting riches until the end of time…but aren’t we at the end of time already? Anyway, Gage’s main opponent here is a man by the name of Thomas Jackson (Robbins) – acting as the leader of sorts to these futuristic baddies, the situation of Gage just stepping in and taking him out becomes a bit complicated when…oh, I’m not going to pork this one up for you all – you’ve got to invest the time into it just as I did, and trust me when I tell you that the film is pretty entertaining to peep.

While Carano’s acting still needs some refining, let there be no ever-loving mistake that this woman knows how to beat the shit out of people, and for all intents and purposes this will be the thing that carries her through many a picture. There are much larger roles in the future for Gina, and she’ll more than likely take over as a very big player in the industry – hey, I’m a gambling man, and I’ve done pretty well with my powers of prognostication. With that being said, the thing that does hold this picture back is the plot itself- it’s a bit stale and not overly showy, and when I look for a villain to oppose the hero, I’m wanting someone with at least a shred of a magnetic iota, and I just couldn’t latch onto anything with Robbins’ performance – his character desperately needed an injection of “bad-assness” and it hurt in that particular instance.

In the end of it all, I’d recommend Scorched Earth to fans of directionless, slam-bang wasteland pics with a touch of unrestrained violence…plus, Gina Carano is in it, so you can’t go wrong. If you’re not a fan of any of the above, feel free to skate on along to another piece of barren territory.

  • Scorched Earth
3.0

Summary

Looking to get your butt kicked in the apocalypse with extreme prejudice? Drive on up, and allow me to introduce you to someone who’ll be more than happy to oblige.

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The Good Friend Book Review – A Slasher Story for the Facebook Generation

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Written by Marcus Sabom


I’m not usually a big fan of murder mysteries, but Marcus Sabom’s novel The Good Friend has certainly done a lot to make me reconsider my stance on the genre. Sabom, who is currently turning the book into a film, appears to have a real gift when it comes to keeping the reader on the edge of their seat

Usually, if you were told that a book contains an ensemble cast of four central characters instead of one main protagonist, you’d probably lose interest right away because we tend to connect with singular point of view characters more than we do with ensembles. However, Sabom proved me wrong in this regard, because each of the four leading women in The Good Friend were such engaging people with such real problems that I never felt like there were too many characters and plot threads to keep track of.

To give a brief overview of our four principal players, we have Sarah, who wants to be in a meaningful relationship after her asshole boyfriend dumps her, Alana, a slightly older woman stuck in a loveless marriage with a manipulative husband who tries to turn her kids against her, Megan, who has to deal with crazy stalkers, and Rita, who is traumatized by a vengeful psycho named Caleb after he attempts to belittle and humiliate her.

With this being a book set in modern times, they naturally use social media to broadcast their problems to the world. Now, we all know about the dangers of chronicling every step of our lives on social media, but Sabom takes things to a whole other level. Because after the aforementioned women post about their troubles on Faceplace (which is basically Facebook, but with a name Mark Zuckerberg can’t take legal action against), a masked killer begins to permanently put an end to their man problems. Whoever the knife-wielding psycho is, he’s clearly a mutual friend of all the women, because he obviously looks at their posts.

One of the only male characters in The Good Friend who wasn’t a complete asshole was Detective Jack Miller, a cop investigating the case of the misandrous serial killer. Miller is described as occasional leaning towards antinatalism, the belief that people should stop reproducing because the human race should not continue to exist. I’ve also always believed that human beings should stop reproducing because we are beyond saving, so I’m glad that Sabom was able to tap into an area that deserves far more open discussion rather than being a social taboo.

The book itself is just under three-hundred pages in length and uses relatively large text, so most readers will probably get through the whole thing in about three days. Whilst the prose was certainly easy to digest, there were a number of errors and typos that would be painfully obstructive to most of us, the most obvious being that it confuses the phrase ‘couldn’t care less’ with ‘could care less’, which, as you know, means the exact opposite.

However, if you’re looking for a easy to digest murder mystery that will keep you guessing until the very end, The Good Friend is certainly an ideal recommendation. At the very least, the book should teach you not to make negative posts about people on Facebook or other social media sties, because a knife-wielding killer might be looking at your status.

  • The Good Friend
4.0

Summary

An easy to digest slasher story that will keep you guessing until the very end, The Good Friend serves as a perfect reminder of the darker side of social media.

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