Ron Carlson and Arch Stanton
James Remar as Martin Nakos
Sherilyn Fenn as Dr. Hannah Lindval
Ray Wise as Victor Clobirch
Ron Carlson as Brooking
Graham Greene as Buffalo
Named as one of this year’s “8 Horror Films to Die For”, Unnatural comes to us from director Hank Braxtan (director behind last year’s very fun Chemical Peel). He’s back to his old tricks with this new film, and putting a mismatched group of hapless folks into an enclosed space and an inescapable situation. This time, instead of a microscopic flesh-eating chemical spill, we have an over-sized flesh-eating bear!
Fashion photographer Brooking (the adorably cocky Ron Carlson) takes his long-suffering assistant DeLana (Stephanie Hodes) and two mindlessly bitchy models, Quincy (Allegra Carpenter) and his girlfriend Ella (Ivana Korab) into some remote part of Alaska to shoot some out-of-the-ordinary footage. They stay in a well-equipped lodge run by Martin Nakos (Dexter’s “father” James Remar) and his group. Coincidentally, at the same time, a Frankenstein’d polar bear escapes the testing facility run by Victor Clobirch (Ray Wise – appearing in two clever scenes which bookend the film) and Dr. Hanna Lindval (Twin Peak’s Sherilyn Fenn), wreaking havoc at every turn.
Now… there are two ways to look at this film, which is why I’m providing a solid 3 rating. If you harken back to the days of American International and the over-the-top crap-classics like Frogs,Squirm and Empire of the Ants – and indeed the 1976 “revolt of nature” flick Grizzly (director Braxtan sites this as an inspiration), you’ll sit back, have a great time and enjoy the mindlessness.
If you go into this film expecting common sense, a solid lead character and supporting personalities to root for, you’ll come away feeling empty.
Performance-wise, Unnatural is fine. You’ve got several talented veterans, including Oscar-nominee for Dances with Wolves, Graham Greene. There are no bad performances (although I didn’t care for the specific work of Q’orianka Kilcher – of Terence Malick’s The New World – as Lily – one of Martin’s co-horts in the lodge), but not a lot of standouts either. Sadly, it’s not the screen vets who most grabbed my attention with their work, it was relative newcomer Allegra Carpenter as model Quincy. Sure, her character (like so many of them in the film) makes poor choices, but when the going gets rough, specifically directly prior to her death scene (it’s in no way a spoiler, if you don’t see it coming, open your eyes), she delivers the goods. Her terror, tears and tangled-blonde hair are real. So kudos to Ms. Carpenter for providing a much needed dash of reality.
High praise for the production values on Unnatural. On a meager $3 million, they’ve done wonders. Its look is crisp, clear and professional. The cast and crew shot in Alaska during sub-zero temperatures, and all of the backgrounds, lighting and atmosphere are truly beautiful. Why, the opening sequence as our cocky tourists fly into this backwoods nether-region, is breath-taking. You’ve set the stage nicely… and with the aforementioned opening cameo from Wise – convincing the viewers of this corporate video that his company Clobirch is doing good environmental work – well, we’re off to a good start.
In addition, the gore effects are well done, and the magic of the special effects team, Amalgamated Dynamics, are pleasing – considering the creature was the result of mostly practical effects. It’s refreshing and gives the film that “old school” nostalgia, further pushing that “we’re here to have fun” vibe.
But reaching into the pages of the script, there are problems. Sure, Brooking as the butt-wipe, useless photographer has some great one-liners, and you love to hate him, but even a film like this needs someone to root for. There is no real central character. We don’t get to know anyone, and therefore we feel nothing as the characters are offed, one by one. Perhaps this connection was not intended, and we’re meant to just enjoy the chasing and gore and mindless death. Problem is, we’re never given proper guidance from the script or the direction. Are we just supposed to laugh and enjoy, or are we meant to get on board with someone’s journey? Despite many good things about Unnatural, the overall mood is unclear and improperly established.
Let’s be fair. Braxtan didn’t write this film, so comparing it to his previous feature, Chemical Peelmay not be kind. I really liked that film, but it also had characters with personal histories as well as deep connections with one another. Put these personalities into that powder-keg scenario, and watch those lovely fireworks. In Unnatural, we get some promising small sparks, but they never truly ignite.
As for scares, there are plenty of “boo” moments to keep you entertained, but again – without sympathy for those on the other end of the bear claws (we ain’t talking pastries here), the jumps are vapid and unsatisfying.
So my final thoughts are two-fold. Grab a beer, a tub of popcorn and turn up the surround. Go in expecting a ‘70s/’80s “nature fights back” throwback and you’ll have a good time.
Go in expecting a more emotionally resonant and moving experience? Mmmm… you’ll be left wanting.