In his first time directing a feature length movie, special effects and makeup artist James Ojala goes high concept. His feature film debut, Strange Nature, was released in September of 2018. It appeared on VOD and disc (including being seen by this reviewer at Walmart). This low budget nature/environmental horror film received enough press that it was reviewed by the Los Angeles Times (and favorably, too).
Forty-something single mom Kim Sweet (Lisa Sheridan: The 4400 TV series) and her young son, Brody (Jonah Beres: Stephanie 2017), return to the family home in a small Minnesota farming community, where her father, Chuck (played by character actor Bruce Bohne from Fargo (1996)), is terminally ill. As they settle into daily life, they discover that the local lake is filled with deformed frogs. At first, this appears to be nothing more than a curiosity. However, more malformed frogs are discovered in additional ponds. Kim takes it upon herself to discover the cause. Unfortunately for her, she is hindered by a scandal that occurred in her twenties which has followed her ever since.
Essentially, Strange Nature would have fit in perfectly back in the 1970s when giant alligators, killer bees, and even murderous rabbits were roaming the drive-in scene. Much like those films, this movie tries to take itself quite seriously, but it also winks at the audience when horror character actors such as John Hennigan (Dave Made A Maze 2017) and Tiffany Shepis (Tales of Halloween 2015) make appearances. But the main thing that clearly places Strange Nature into the midnight movie is its tropes. These include rednecks, inbreeding, mutated animals, point-of-view killings, and even a grotesque infant.
And yet, in no way does Strange Nature play out as a trash film. For a good portion of the first half of the movie, it’s more a human interest story with melodrama. Once the character development is complete – although in some ways, a bit slow – Kim’s budding relationship with a local middle school biology teacher Trent (Faust Checho: Proxy 2013) is sincere, and we learn more about her own troubled past in a general manner. However, those looking for the promised monsters of the movie poster will be a bit disappointed at first.
At the halfway point when the movie begins to focus more on Kim’s horrific discoveries, she unearths what we the audience already knows: she’s at ground zero of an environmental disaster and the dam is about to break. Chuck’s dog gives birth to puppies that don’t look anything like puppies. Organic farming products may themselves be leaking into the local water. And when Trent puts together the fact that altered snail parasites are eaten by and infect frogs and then proceed to go right up the food chain, you know everyone is in trouble. And could Chuck’s illness be directly related to the same?
Strange Nature may drag a bit, and it does juggle a lot of side plots, but horror fans will rejoice in the last thirty minutes of the film. Oddly, this may put off others who were enjoying its melodrama and mystery. Strange Nature is a horror film through and through, yet its mixed tone may cause consternation for many. As a result, its varied narrative weakens both the viewing experience and whatever message that was being presented. All in all, Strange Nature is a serviceable if not solid debut for Director James Ojala.
Strange Nature is currently available on DVD and on VOD.