FREAKS OF NATURE film review, plus POLAR BOREALIS—a new semiprozine!

Figure 1 - Water Bear

Figure 1 – Water Bear

Okay, this isn’t the “freak of nature” I was referring to in the title (Figure 1). Some people (I’m one of them) think this creature, called a “water bear,” is kinda cute. No, I’m talking about a 2015 movie, Freaks of Nature,  that I really, really wanted to like. I mean, it’s a movie with the talented likes of Keegan-Michael Key (Mad TV), Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul), Joan Cusack (Addams Family Values), Patton Oswalt (Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), Vanessa Hudgens (High School Musical), and Denis Leary (Rescue Me) in it. And a number of people I’ve never heard of (not that that is so rare), but who obviously have chops. And the screenplay was written by Oren Uziel, who wrote 22 Jump Street (not that I’ve seen that one). My point is—there were a lot of talents working in and on this movie, so why was it so bloody flat?

Figure 2 - Freaks of Nature poster

Figure 2 – Freaks of Nature poster

 

The movie opens on the outskirts of the fictional town of Dillford, Ohio—“The Home of the Riblet” (the town sign features a drawing of an anthropomorphized riblet), and we see a highway into town (at night) and a water tower. Moments later, we hear multiple screams and see a giant explosion behind a screen of trees; our protagonist, Dag Parker (Nicholas Braun) and a young woman, Lorelei (Hudgens) are running hand in hand towards the camera in front of an angry mob of… vampires?… and screaming nonstop. They run off the road to a nearby house and make their way inside, where they slam and lock the front door—while the narrator (Dag) explains that the pursuing mob is made up of his neighbours. Once inside, the couple finds they have locked themselves in with a mob of hungry zombies, who shuffle towards them, crying out for brains, just as the vampires burst through the door and windows. Just as it seems that all is lost, a flaming police car bursts through the front of the house, crushing most of the mob of vampires and zombies, until the survivors (Dag, a vampire girl and a zombie) are surprised by a bright beam of light from… an alien spaceship! How could a movie that starts like this be anything but totally cool?

Well, it is anything but, actually. I was originally going to trash this film big time, after watching it, but a couple of days’ reflection has tempered my ire, so I’m just going to degrade it a bit. Now, I’m reviewing this film as an SF/F buff, not as an older guy who “just doesn’t get it” when he sees a movie full of poop jokes, juvenile sex jokes or genital jokes. (By the way, this film does have more than a few of the above, but that’s not what bothers me.) There are a number of clever jokes and set pieces—for example, the usual high-school bullying gets an extra boost because Dillford High is home to three kinds of students (and teachers, I’m guessing, but we only see two kinds of those): humans, vampires, and zombies. The vampires, because of their speed and strength, are extra bad when they do bully—for example when one bullies Ned (Josh Fadem), the smartest kid in school. The zombie students all wear collars with LEDs, which are supposed to shock them when they attempt to eat other students’ brains.

Key plays a vampire high-school teacher (Mr. Keller) who’s been at the school for 97 years, and he’s not enjoying himself—someone always forgets to refill the coffee pots full of blood, or eats all the donuts—plus he never gets a return “vink” (vampire wink) on his online dating site, so he uses his position to try to knock down Ned’s ambitions. Milan Pinache (Ed Westwick) is a vampire student who’s trying to get into Petra’s (Mackenzie Davis’s) pants… er, veins. Leary’s character (Rick Wilson) is an asshat, who started the riblet plant which is the biggest thing in town—and he torments Dag, who’s the Dillford Wolves’ baseball team’s star pitcher, by constantly reminding him that he (Wilson) fired Dag’s mother from her job at the plant. Cusack and Odenkirk are the human, stoned, hippie parents of Dag Parker. All this soap-opera-ish stuff comes to a boil when aliens invade the town and start possibly eating people and making them disappear; at the same time, Mr. Keller decides the humans brought the aliens to dispose of the vamps, and he wants to lead a counter-crusade. The humans, led by Ned’s parents, want to have a counter-counter-attack, and… well, you get the idea.

So much of the movie seems contrived (Really? A movie about vampires, zombies and aliens contrived?) just to be setup for jokes, which ultimately don’t work. For example, why don’t the vampires burn up in sunlight? There’s a scene where one character—I won’t provide spoilers, though I was initially going to—who, after being converted to a vamp, starts burning when the morning comes. And the zombies make no sense; it appears that if they eat brains—which is all they want to eat—they lose what little intellect they have, so why are they in high school at all? And late in the movie, when the alien leader starts talking, it talks in the voice of a well-known director. Why? I dunno. As I said, this movie is just not very good, and doesn’t even really utilize the considerable talents of—to name just a few—Key, Odenkirk and Oswalt. Leary, however, (I don’t know the man personally, but I’m guessing he’s being typecast here) is always good as an egotistical asshat. Give this one a miss.

Figure 3 - Polar Borealis #1

Figure 3 – Polar Borealis #1

Now, for all you SF/F lovers, I have a new, free semipro magazine for you to try out. Did I mention it’s FREE? My fellow Amazing Stories columnist, R. Graeme Cameron (otherwise known locally as “The Graeme”), has put together a new magazine, which is available for free online. It’s in PDF format, and it’s called (as if the picture in Figure 3 didn’t give it away) Polar Borealis. (It doesn’t have its own website, yet, so to get there, go to http://www.obirmagazine.ca and click on  Polar Borealis.) Now, I might be accused of something, so in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll tell you that this issue has a short-short story of mine in it. But before I get to talking about the contents, I must also tell you something of interest to all you writers out there: Graeme pays for stories, poems and artwork! No, he doesn’t pay SFWA rates—that’s why it’s called a “semi-pro”zine, but he pays more than most fanzines do! Actually, most fanzines don’t pay anything. I did once or twice, when I published short fiction in my fanzine New Venture, back in the seventies, by Avram Davidson (The Enquiries of Doctor Eszterhazy) and Gus Hasford (The Short-Timers—the book that became the movie Full Metal Jacket by Stanley Kubrick), but Graeme is aiming at a full-fledged semi-pro status instead of a “mere” fanzine. He pays on acceptance and reserves slots every issue for “unpublished” authors. I’m not sure what his frequency is, yet, but time will tell.

The first issue has an editorial, explaining what the magazine is, and telling what its genesis was; there are are eleven stories, including mine, of which one is a reprint—a story by Robert J. Sawyer—which was published in the anthology Futureshocks, edited by Lou Anders, from ROC, ten years ago. The authors included are (in no particular order, including alphabetical): Flora Zo Zenthoefer, T.G. Shepherd, Karl Johanson, Rissa Johnson, R. Graeme Cameron, Craig Russell, Christel Bodenbender, Casey June Wolf, Kelly Ng, Steve Fahnestalk (me!), and Robert J. Sawyer. I will refrain from commenting on the worth of the stories in this issue as, if I said something good you’d take it with a grain or two of sodium chloride; if I were to make any kind of disparaging remark, you might think it was sour grapes. But I liked them, overall.

I’m not qualified to judge the poetry, either… I used to write quite a bit of it, but gave it up years ago. I do like what I read here; there are poems by Eileen Kernaghan, Rhea Rose, and Rissa Johnson. Both Kernaghan and Rose are accomplished authors in their own right, but I’m not familiar with Johnson’s work. There’s also a transcription of a panel, with commentary by Graeme, from a writers’ conference on Vancouver’s Granville Island in 1988, with Spider Robinson, Judith Merril and William Gibson. Since I know/knew all three writers pretty well, reading it was like watching a videotape. I could see them reading their works and hear their voices (I could even see Spider’s battery-powered ashtray, held together with electrical tape… he has long since quit smoking tobacco. It made me miss Judy Merril, who was a strong, forceful person in her own right and, as far as I’m concerned, a terrific writer.) And there is (see Figure 3) a cover by Jean-Pierre Normand and spot illos and cartoons by Taral Wayne and the Beautiful and Talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk, as well as an “about our contributors” section. Altogether a good effort, I’d say!

I’d love to hear your comments on this week’s column, whether you comment here, or on my Facebook page, or in the several Facebook groups where I publish a link to this column. I might not agree with your comments, but they’re all welcome. Please don’t think you have to agree with me to post a comment, either. My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other columnists. See you next week!

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