I’m a big fan of both creature features and movies about oversized animals attacking hapless humans. When those two subgenres are combined, it sounds like an instant recipe for a film that will appeal to me. Although I have a few issues with director Hank Braxtan’s Unnatural, it pressed more of my happy buttons than my jaded ones and I had a fun time with it.
Unnatural, one of this year’s “8 Films to Die For” series, opens with an impassioned sounding voiceover about the reality of global climate change and the damage it is doing to our planet and the animals. (If, like me, you don’t necessarily want a heavy-handed message in your creature features and prefer good old-fashioned 1950s B-movie approaches to science, not to worry.) Our narrator turns out to be Victor Clobirch, head of Clobirch Industries, “Here today forging an eco-friendly frontier, in search of a safer tomorrow.” Clobirch is played by Ray Wise, who I think is a fine actor, but I had a small problem here because this opening instantly reminded me of his appearances on the comedy series Tim and Eric Awesome Show! Great Job! as a pitchman for a Business Hugs videotape series.
Clobirch Industries has a research facility somewhere in remote Alaska, thankfully close enough to the only lodge within 100 miles for action to happen. The scientists at this facility have been trying to genetically modify a bear (“How?” is a question that I will leave for viewers to find out; “Why?” is a question that viewers will probably wonder about after the ending credits roll) that kills a couple of the researchers and then escapes. Escaping ahead of it is a terrified Dr. Hannah Lindval, played by Sherilyn Fenn. Yes, that’s right: within the first 6 minutes of Unnatural, we get two Twin Peaks alumni in Wise and Fenn. The film had me there.
Meanwhile, fashion photographer Brooking (Ron Carlson, who also cowrote the screenplay with Arch Stanton), his assistant, and two models land in a small plane to check in at the aforementioned lodge, planning to do a photo shoot using furs and bikinis. The Black Rabbit Lodge is owned by Martin Nakos (James Remar), who is assisted by two Athabaskan friends. Screenwriters Carlson and Stanton waste no time in setting up Brooking as a dictatorial, racist jerk, AKA future monster food, and Nakos as the wise, close-to-nature leader type, AKA potential monster food. Characterization is not a strong point in Unnatural; the spoiled city folk out of their element and the hardy locals are little more than stereotypes, and Dr. Lindval as the evil scientist with something to hide is more of the same. Still, Nakos and his friends do give us some characters with whom to sympathize and pull for.
With a cabin full of prospective creature chow and a huge, angry, DNA-tweaked bear on the loose, you can easily guess what ensues. Let me make it clear that no reinvention of the wheel happens with Unnatural. If you’ve seen any science fiction or horror movies with an isolated group of people, cut off from contacting help and under attack from a large beast, you’re already familiar with the plot. If you’ve seen a few of these flicks in which an evil corporate entity is behind the beastie, you’re even more familiar with it. If you are still interested because you have a soft spot for watching films in which all of the above happens, you’ll probably want to give this flick a viewing.
The acting ranges from a bit on the overdone side – Ron Carlson, for example, is guilty of this – to a bit reserved, with several shades between. James Remar gives a nice turn as the hero, but his speech about Maneater, the legendary giant beast of the forest, only makes you remember how great Robert Shaw’s monologue in Jaws (1975) about surviving in the ocean after the Indianapolis went down truly is. The dialogue in Unnatural could use more sharpening and fewer corny lines; the script may be at fault somewhat for making some performances on the lackluster side.
Director Hank Braxtan shows that he is capable of building and maintaining suspense throughout, and the cinematography is fine, with enough snowy landscape to make you turn up the heater a bit. The practical creature effects are handled cleverly, using the classic style of not showing your monster too early, then revealing it in small parts. The budget obviously wasn’t huge for Unnatural, and Braxtan and his effects crew wisely keep their critter at a distance or behind trees until revealing it more closely in the third act. I thought what we saw of the genetically modified bear was pretty cool, reminding me especially of some monster heads from a couple of well-respected seventies and eighties films (I’m avoiding spoilers).
Unnatural does the basic thing that I want when I watch a movie of this type: it entertained me and held my attention throughout. If you need answers as to why certain things happen, this film will frustrate you. Sure, I am left with several questions that will never be explained, but that’s a small price to pay for an hour-and-a-half of creature feature fun. Please don’t think I’m giving the movie a pass on its genre alone; I demand more quality than made-for-SyFy movies typically offer and I’ve seen my share of monster movies this year alone that failed to impress me (Stung springs to mind, for example). Despite its flaws, there is enough meat here to provide an enjoyable watch.
Unnatural: (3.5 / 5) if you’re a fan of old-school creature features with practical effects
Unnatural: (2.5 / 5) if you don’t suffer B-movie shortcomings lightly