It’s that time of year again! Time to celebrate the Resurrection with a weeklong plunge into all things zombie! Here’s the history: In 2008, Dr. Girlfriend and I decided to spend a week or so each year marathoning through zombie films that we’d never seen before and I would blog short reviews. And simple as that, the Easter Zombie Movie Marathon was born.
For last night’s Easter Zombie Movie Marathon selections, we chose to stick to the year 2015, which gave us an odd mix of super-serious, with the Danish end-of-the-world film, What We Become, and the super-goofy, with the humans/vampires/zombies vs aliens flick, Freaks of Nature.
What We Become is the first feature film from Danish writer/director Bo Mikkelsen after twenty years of making shorts (and one hour-long documentary in 2006). I’m really very torn about what to say about this film. It’s impeccably shot, with strong performances from everyone involved, and there’s an attempt to present the breakdown of morality that could occur when faced with apocalyptic situations. However, it’s all so familiar.
It’s like Mikkelsen watched a bunch of serious takes on the zombie apocalypse and distilled out the commonalities to such an extent that What We Become loses any sense of individuality. Is that the thematic point? If so, the film suffers from the medium becoming the message.
The film focuses on a family living in the cozy little suburb of Sorgenfri. There are block cookouts with what I can only imagine are fantastic beers on tap. Everybody is friendly and even if you don’t know someone personally, you’re always willing to help out a neighbor. It’s almost too damn perfect, really. There’s no intrigue. No hidden secrets. It’s the exact opposite of a Stephen King suburb.
A new family has moved in across the street from our heroes (none of whom have last names, apparently) and the hot teenage son immediately falls for the new-in-town hot teenage daughter. There’s also a neighbor who loves to hunt and has a hot younger girlfriend with a fondness for public display of affection. There’s a lot of good setup as mom Pernille (Mille Dinesen) is annoyed at always playing bad cop, while dad Dino (Troels Lyby) is a perennial goof, distracted by just about everything and nowhere near ready for what’s to come.
His passivity is central to the real themes of the film and part of the dual meanings of the title is focused on his transformation. Unfortunately, it’s never really explored beyond one scene and ultimately feels like an idea that was intended to be fleshed out in a longer piece, but the film only clocks in at about 85 minutes so by the time he changes, the credits roll.
There’s teen romance as Gustav (Benjamin Engell) and Sonja (Marie Hammer Boda) hook up, but that doesn’t really have time or space to go anywhere either. Before anything can really develop, there’s a strange outbreak and the government moves in, quarantining the town and generally doing what faceless government goons do in all of these movies.
What We Become is a slow burn with what could be a really strong payoff. When the action really starts about an hour in – let me repeat that, AN HOUR INTO AN 85 MINUTE MOVIE – we finally see our first zombie (up until that point, this could have very easily just been a plague movie, instead) for real and up close, not shambling around in the dark, and things get intense very quickly.
And then it’s over with your traditional bleak ending that could have been written by an algorithm.
My main problem here is that the film is so well-made, particularly the last 20 minutes, that Mikkelsen could have really put together something special, but instead opted out. I would hazard a guess that it was all about budgeting. That first hour does everything humanly possible to establish the world of the story without breaking the bank. And as it’s the first post-apocalyptic zombie movie made in Denmark, perhaps it’s a way of testing the waters for something bigger to come.
I hope so because Mikkelsen clearly knows his way around the basics of this type of story. Now I’d like to see him push outside of that comfort zone. Somebody write this man a check!
Freaks of Nature, on the other hand, has no hesitation whatsoever about throwing as many crazy ideas as possible against the wall and seeing what sticks. Unfortunately, here, that means we get an imaginative core concept (never explained, by the way) that allows for a fairly vanilla story to play out.
Back in 2011, it was announced that Jonah Hill was in talks to make his directorial debut with a film called The Kitchen Sink – a script that was a top choice from the 2010 Black List. A year later, though, Robbie Pickering was signed to direct, instead and over the following year a lot of names started getting attached to the project: Nicholas Braun (10 Things I Hate About You), Chris Zylka (Flash Thompson from The Amazing Spider-Man), Vanessa Hudgens (High School Musical, Spring Breakers), Ed Westwick (Gossip Girl) and Denis Leary (you know who he is). The comedy cred was established by announcing the casting of Patton Oswalt, Bob Odenkirk, Joan Cusack, and Keegan-Michael Key. Finally, Mackenzie Davis joined the cast (although her real breakout would come later with the beautiful episode “San Junipero” of Black Mirror).
There’s even a cameo by one of my favorite actors, Pat Healy.
So the cast was solid and the script got high marks. The director wasn’t as high-profile as originally hoped, but he was still a known quantity of high quality. Then they made the film (with a title change), and who would have thought that a concept like a high school comedy set in a town where zombies, vampires, and humans co-exist and come together to battle an alien invasion would fall on its face?
The original release date was supposed to be January 9, 2015, but that got bumped back to September 4, 2015, and then got bumped back to October 30, 2015 – but that would be a limited release. That’s never good news.
The film finally made it to home video in February 2016, after similarly-themed zombie films Cooties (December 2015) and Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (January 2016). Compared to these films, it definitely falls square in the middle, as Cooties was a lot of fun and Scouts Guide was borderline unwatchable (actually not borderline, as I tried to watch it and quit after about 10 minutes).
And that, my friends, is more interesting than this film really is. It’s well-made, but everything is so on-the-nose that it’s boring. It’s not awful, and it does have its moments, particularly in the final half, when our main trio of heroes are trying to escape the chaos of a town turned against itself AND an alien invasion, but even there, too often the film falls back on clichés and tired plot devices we’ve seen a million time before.
The bigger names are allowed to ham it up in the mistaken notion that more and louder is funnier, and Patton Oswalt had the only improv moments that made me laugh out loud. When the funniest part of your script is making a character admit that they shit their pants in public as a means of proving they’re not aliens in disguise, something needs to be looked at. I’m not sure how this made the Black List.
There’s a guest-voice-appearance at the climax of the film that was also a treat, but possibly only because of the voice. But I guess even one of the greatest documentary filmmakers in the world has gotta eat.
In the end, Freaks of Nature is moderately enjoyable. There are a few laughs sprinkled here and there, and the use of the zombie concept is actually pretty nicely done, with a new twist to the genre that I highly approve of.
Neither this film nor What We Become are films that I’ll probably ever watch again, but they’re not horrible and both are definitely worth a look.