Vampires and zombies and aliens, all in the same movie, matter-of-factly having a John Hughes coming-of-age event in the midst of blood-spurting gore. That was the pitch for Freaks of Nature, this week’s new horror comedy hitting just in time for Halloween goodness. However, it was way back in early 2014 when I actually got to visit the set of the film, back when it was still called Kitchen Sink. Looking at that pitch, you can likely see why they’d call it that – throwing everything into it but the kitchen sink and all – but you can also understand why a hard-R splatterfest probably shouldn’t be named after a harmless plumbing fixture.
“This movie is really fucked up and weird,” said director Robbie Pickering, on the day way back when he was still in production and a handful of movie journalists got to glimpse the filming of a zombie attack that happens early in the film. Screenwriter Oren Uziel referred to it as “The Breakfast Club” with monsters.
“I’m someone who, growing up, would put a tape recorder next to The Breakfast Club and would listen to it through headphones,” Uziel said. “I loved it. For me, it was ‘how do we make that world of awkwardness in high school and kids getting along, and layer on top of it the metaphor of vampires and zombies and that sort of thing?'”
The answer to that question was apparently the decision to treat the existence of supernatural death creatures as matter-of-factly as possible, in the small midwestern town of Dillford, Ohio. Vampires exist, everyone accepts it (but doesn’t necessarily like it), and they’re the cool goth kids in high school. Zombies also exist, but they’re more like stoners. Humans are caught in the middle. And then aliens show up and throw everything into chaos. However, they weren’t too keen on talking about the ‘alien’ part of the equation back then. Everyone considered it a huge spoiler, but hey, there it is, in big bloody letters in the red-band trailer you can see somewehere around this particular paragraph.
“There are some good scares in this,” says Nicholas Braun, who plays the lead human, Dag. “It’s hard to tell which genre is at the forefront. Is it a comedy, or is it a drama about teens trying to find themselves and their place, is it a horror movie, is it sci-fi? There’s a lot. I guess the title works.” The title was still Kitchen Sink at that point. We discussed that, didn’t we?
Anyway, Dag is your average attractive young high school boy, middle of the pack baseball player, who finds himself forced to team up with a couple of classmates he’s wronged – Petra (Mackenzie Davis) and Ned (Josh Fadem) – to deal with the alien madness.
“He wants to be the hero guy,” Braun explains, “but in the first five minutes of the movie, just blows it and has to confront this apocalypse attack with two people who were trying to kill him and who he has terrible history with. With Petra, he hooked up with in a laundry room – or didn’t, but said that he did back in sixth grade. One of those ‘seven minutes in heaven’ kind of experiences. Walked out and called himself The Titty Whisperer and ruined her whole social career and made her seem like a slut. Then Josh’s character, Ned, we were best buddies all throughout childhood, but then at that breaking point around 7th grade, I went with the cool crowd and left him in the dust. And those are the people I have to band together with to save the town.”
Davis describes her character as having a “Lydia Deets from Beetlejuice” quality. “She’s an outcast in high school, she runs with a goth crowd. The vampires are the highest social order, and she’s trying to get into that crowd by dating the highest of the highest vampire to find a place to just be protected in high school and run with the cool kids, so she can be shielded from the many injustices she’s had to suffer. So she starts out just trying to find some footing in the world, then she gets bitten by a vampire and turned, and then cast aside – much in the way of losing your virginity and somebody dumping you the morning afterwards. The movie is her journey into accepting herself through saving the world.”
Fadem, meanwhile, describes Ned as the quintessential socially-awkward nerd. “High school is rough, he doesn’t have any friends. He’s the smartest kid in school, but the teachers don’t really care and he’s kind of the oddball in his family, and they don’t really get him. The metaphor of rough, high school teen life, when you think ‘oh, this is going to be forever!’ So he decides to check out and become a zombie. He convinces a zombie to bite him and then he becomes a zombie. [In this world] it could be the equivalent of suicide, or just becoming a druggie. The zombies eat brains, they’re kind of addicted to brains, so every time he has brains, he gets super stoned and high.”
He also describes the film as “a John Hughes/John Landis sort of comedy, but with a production feel of 80s Spielberg horror, like Goonies, or Back to the Future, or Gremlins, or Explorers.” And he should know, as he went deep into research for whatever movies he could find that even remotely related to playing a monster, and came back with a laundry list: “Bride of Frankenstein, Griffin Dunne in American Werewolf in London, or Return of the Living Dead, where there are talking zombies, I watched that movie that came out earlier this year, Warm Bodies, because there’s talking zombies in that. There’s not a lot of talking zombie movies. I watched My Boyfriend’s Back directed by Bob Balaban. I watched Dead Heat. Dead Heat was a revelation. Dead Heat, they’re not trying to do anything. He’s just like ‘I’m dead!’ That’s one way to play it. I did watch this one movie – this small budget British zombie movie called Colin. I just saw it at a video store. It’s rare, no one has seen it. It hardly has any dialogue in it. It’s a weird zombie movie, and those actors were good playing zombies. I watched the Kenneth Branagh Frankenstein, just to see how De Niro plays a monster. Young Frankenstein.”
You read correctly – someone actually watched Dead Heat, starring Treat Williams and Joe Piscopo.
Davis didn’t go quite that far. “I was doing all this vampire research before the movie, folkloric research and then movie research and reading Anne Rice books, but the vampire thing just seems incidental. It’s more about a teenage girl trying to feel at home in her skin and survive high school than anything else, though we live in a crazy world where high school is populated with supernatural beings.”
She was thrilled, though, at the chance to do things like a particularly gruesome scene involving biting into someone’s jugular and getting some blood spray going, revealing a pretty macabre set of interests along the way. “I’m very interested in gore in all elements of my life. Have you ever been to the Museum of Death, on Hollywood across the street from the Toyota Dealership? It’s the best thing in LA. It’s wonderful. Whatever your interest is in death or gore or the inner workings of the body, it’s nice to go to someplace and just go ‘oh, this is a couple that just loves something and found something together to unite them, and they built this beautiful place that’s just a collection of all the things that they love.’ It’s really cool. The first room you go into is serial killer memorabilia, like cards that Gacy made. The second room is hangings, and then it’s like funerals and cannibals, and then cult killings, then taxidermy. It’s just the greatest. You can’t believe it exists.”
The supporting cast is also very notably populated with comedy stars – Bob Odenkirk, Joan Cusack, Keegan Michael-Key, Patton Oswalt, Ian Roberts, and Denis Leary. “We have all these weird levels,” Pickering explains. “New York stand-up scene, UCB scene, Groundlings, Second City – all these stratas of people who are comedy legends to me, and an awesome stable of great actors like Joan Cusack. I can’t complain.”
Vanessa Hudgens was also a surprise to him. “I wasn’t prepared for how funny she would be, and how intelligent she is and how malleable she is as an actress. She’s really funny in the movie.”
Davis was thrilled with how the established stars were egoless and game to play in this world. “Bob Odenkirk and Joan Cusack play Dag’s parents. They just had an extended scene where they just rolled the cameras and let them improv for, like, 40 minutes. It was the funniest – like I hope a lot of my scenes get cut so they can just have this extended sequence of Bob and Joan talking about smoking weed together.”
SPOILER ALERT: There’s even a secret cameo fromWerner Herzog, if you can believe it. Everyone was careful not to spoil it, but they were also very excited about it. “I’m going to go ahead and take credit for it,” Fadem boasts. “It was my idea. I kept saying ‘they should get him to do that,’ and then they were like ‘yeah, yeah, that would be funny,’ but I kept saying it, and then finally they asked him and he said ‘Yes, I will do this. This will be fun.'” END SPOILERS.
Leary, however, almost wasn’t in the film – just because Uziel’s original script had a specific bit of wackiness that didn’t make Pickering’s final cut. “There’s a character played by Denis Leary that was initially to be played by Don Johnson – to BE Don Johnson. Nash Bridges played a central role in the plot. The cancellation of Nash Bridges was sort of what kicked everything off. It’s the best, right? Well, not to Robbie!”
Even though it’s been more than a year after we spoke, and the film has been retitled and is getting a very limited release, Pickering had no complaints about the project. “I can’t be one of those whiny guys who’s like ‘oh, I did a studio movie and they didn’t let me do what I want.’ It’s warts and all. It’s fucking crazy and out there. We went for it. It’s hard R, people blowing up, people getting chainsawed in half, great blood gags. The comedy really works well with the gore. How can I complain when the three people at the center are kind of unknowns? I just got to cast the best people for the roles. Even in the indie world, I’m well accustomed to the shit about how much everybody is worth and all that crap. I got to cast the movie how I wanted it.”
Freaks of Nature is in theaters now. Go and see if it makes you laugh, cry, squirm or freak out.