Movie Review: The Mutants comes to Duluth in “Strange Nature”

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In Hollywood they call it “runaway production.”

But here in the “Rest of the States” we call it making movies that look like America, on location, movies with a hint of “local color.”

“Strange Nature” is a not-at-all-terrible low-budget horror pick about pesticide-driven mutations popping up in the Great Lakes, in Duluth, Minnesota.

We almost never see thrillers, or films of any sort, set in “Doo-LOOT.”

This ripped-from-the-headlines nightmare was written and directed by Duluth native James “Jim” Ojala, a sometime director/widely-credited makeup artist and effects specialist who has worked on scads of TV shows (“True Blood,” “The Core”) and movies such as “Hellboy II” and “John Dies at the End.”

So we know to expect the effects to be pretty good — gurgling bleed-outs after animal attacks, spurting blood from shotgun blasts and stabbings.

The six-legged frogs are passable, the two-headed/four-faced wolves a bit less so. Both  crop up after “American Patriot” chemicals starts selling its “organic” fertilizer to the simple happy natives.

The hole in the middle of “Strange Nature” is the hour in the middle of the thing that doesn’t require effects. It’s pretty boring.

Lisa Sheridan (TV’s “Invasion”) is Kim Sweet, the hometown girl who left to become a pop star, only to not have that work out so well. She’s coming back to the town she once mocked to take care of her ailing Dad (Bruce Bohne). She’s still got her looks, her blue hair and her collection of shorts and fishnet stockings. She’s also got a tweenage son (Jonah Beres).

“If we hate it we will find a way to leave,” she reassures young Brody. Sure she will.

But upon arrival at the end of summer, teens are disappearing — on nature hikes, swimming.

And the one hike that doesn’t lose any kids comes back with six-legged frogs. Kim, having a kid and a sick father, all of them living on a lake, is concerned.

Her kid’s science teacher (Faust Checho) has the beginnings of an explanation. “Frogs literally soak up their environment.”

It’s just that Kim’s the wrong person to sound the alarm. The town feels used by her and up where the winters are long the grudges are longer.

“We’re not giving you any attention,” the local newspaper grumps. The mayor (Stephen Tobolowsky) is of the same mind, and not prone to causing “a premature panic.”

“You’ve found some deformed frogs, that’s it?”

Kim, whose language tends toward LA colorful, loses it.

“God, you’re like some MOVIE mayor!”

But as devoured deer and missing people pile up, as deformed frogs prefigure deformed puppies and then birth defects among the local babies, panic sets in. And who do they focus on? The disfigured father across the lake and his Elephant Man forehead daughter.

The superstitious rednecks don’t suspect anything chemical, especially with the name “American Patriot” on the front of it. Wrestler/actor John Hennigan plays their ringleader.

“Let’s put them out of their misery. Some things aren’t meant to be!”

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As TV news finally wises up to the threat and gawking tourists show up with “Minnesota — Land of 10,000 Freaks” t-shirts (Man, I’ve got to get me one of those.), the blood starts to flow and this slow-footed creature-feature finally finds its footing.

Ojala opens his film with clips of news reports (“Nightline” with Ted Koppel vintage) about frogs as “canaries in the coal mine” of our environment, and makes no secret of who his villains are — corrupt, shortsighted chemical companies and the unthinking, short-cut taking farmers and small town Red State types who trust them.

Sheridan makes a feisty, if not quite fiery enough heroine. Tobolowsky’s here for comic effect. And Henningan underscores the point that more wrestlers should look for work as heavies — bad guys.

It’s a C-movie, pretty much start to finish. And once Ojala gets his sermons about the environment out of the way and gets down to business, he’s got a movie gore goofballs TROMA Films would be proud to distribute.

It’s just that middle hour that hamstrings “Strange Nature” and mutes whatever novelty a move about mutations in Minnesota might have had.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Lisa Sheridan, Stephen Tobolowsky, John Hennigan, , Tiffany Shepis

Credits: Written and directed by James Ojala. An ITN release.

Running time: 1:39

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