Whatever aspect of the film industry you’re in, you’re in because you love it. It could be the creation of creatures, the set design, or the costumes that lured you in or maybe it’s crafting the stories performed, being the performer, or directing the performances. Whatever it is, you’re there because it calls to you. First-time feature director Jim Ojala (Deadgirl and TRON: Legacy) clearly understands this pull after nearly twenty years as an F/X technician, make-up artist, writer, actor, and director, who, with the help of a Kickstarter campaign, brought his vision of horror to life in the form of eco-thriller Strange Nature, a horrific tale inspired by real events. One of the dangers of having so much experience and so much to say, however, is creating a final product uneven in its focus and intent. So while there’s some great strength in several areas of Strange Nature, it just can’t pull itself together into a whole tale.
Mother and son duo Kim Sweet and Brody (Lisa Sheridan and Jonah Beres) leave their L.A. home for Duluth, Minnesota, to help take care of Chuck (Bruce Bohne), Kim’s dad, before his upcoming surgery. While Brody settles into his new routine, Kim keeps herself occupied investigating the unusual appearance of mutated frogs appearing around Chuck’s property. With assistance from the local elementary school’s science teacher, Trent Douglas (Faust Checho), Kim suspects that local organic pesticide provider American Patriot Chemicals (APC) has something in their products that’s mutating the frogs. For several reasons, including Kim not having any evidence connecting APC to the occurrences and the priority of several missing persons cases, no one’s interested in helping her. That is, until more than just the frogs begin to mutate, but by then, it may be too late.
Unfortunately, what doesn’t work with Strange Nature significantly outweighs what does. The editing struggles to create flow, often using hard cuts to jump from the Sweet family to other characters in the story and back. The intent is to highlight events or introduce new characters – such as several mysterious murders in Minnesota or characters reacting to exposition – but the sudden sharp switch inserts a disjointed sensation into the narrative, jarring the audience from one scene to another. As the audience goes deeper into the mysteries of Strange Nature, the frequency of the jumps disrupts the natural narrative flow. When the story focuses on the Sweets and uses their journey to introduce characters, Nature is a strong, compelling experience, but all the harsh cut away hurt the story even though they advance it, weakening the narrative. Combined with a distinct lack of chronology to events or jumping around with what the film considers science, Nature unintentionally instills a persistent frustration.
Compounding matters, the story isn’t sure if it wants to be follow the true crime or body horror genre and its apprehension becomes more and more pronounced as the narrative progresses. Perhaps because of her father’s illness, perhaps because of her own personal issues, Kim takes on the issue of the mutations with a furious passion. One of the better things about Nature is how patient it is to build toward the particularly nasty elements of the story, except that because it can’t decide on its genre, the reveals are far less shocking and evocative. Gratefully, the F/X and make-up work in Nature are incredibly convincing of their horrific nature. Whether it’s the appliance actor/stunt coordinator David Mattey wears as Joseph, neighbor to the Sweets, a man with an unknown facial deformity that terrifies the Duluth locals, the fairly realistic monster baby, or the flesh that pulls off a rapidly decomposing body, Nature’s got the visual goods when it unleashes the horror. Strange Nature’s genre indecision, however, undercuts the effectiveness of each of these, and other moments, because, with each new scientific explanation or revelation, it’s not a horror brought on from tension, shock, or surprise, but confirmation of the truth Strange Nature spends its entire run time warning the Sweets family – and therefore the audience – is coming. Interestingly, the bulk of Nature feels like director Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich, which saw a similarly driven single mother take on a powerful company responsible for damaging her community. For what it’s worth, Sheridan is absolutely convincing as both the distraught, concerned mother and gun-wielding protector; yet, because Nature can’t decide which version of the story takes point, all Sheridan as Kim can do is react.
Despite some interesting ideas and solid performances from the lead cast, Strange Nature can’t commit to the type of film it wants to be. Does it want to tell a story based on reality or dive head-first into pure science-fiction? Is the monster a mutation or is it man? Either way, a choice should be made because the overall of Strange Nature is hurt by its split focus. As a “true story,” there’s some compelling notions the narrative explores that goes off the rails due to the outlandish science. As a body horror tale, the F/X work is strong, but the inclusion is rushed and offers no real payoff for the audience. It’s no small feat what writer/director Jim Ojala’s undertaken to create his vision, and it’s a shame that the final product does not bear the fruit of it.
Available on DVD and digital now. For information on Strange Nature and where it can be seen theatrical, check out the official website.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.