Man versus nature is a very popular genre, generating quite a few films ranging from such classics as Jaws to simply fun films like Lake Placid, but then we have the subgenre that deals with man and science mucking around and creating aberrations that will literally bite humanity in the ass. In 1978 director Joe Dante gave us the delightful horror flick Piranha, where scientist altered those razor teethed little buggers resulting in the death toll at a local summer camp to take a sudden steep incline, and now fast forward to 2016 and director Hank Braxton gives us Unnatural (aka Maneater) a film that gives us a story from that same subgenre but with production values that would make the average Roger Corman film look big budgeted.
What kind of monster movie can you make with just $3 million dollars? Well aside from some independent found footage movies there are not too many examples of good films with that low of a budget, certainly not ones that are filmed in the harsh climes of Alaska and whose plot centers around a genetically altered polar bear, and thus this film is pretty hamstrung from the get-go. If we take the way-back machine to the year 1975 we see that Universal and Steven Spielberg spent around $7 million dollars to get their killer shark movie into theaters, which in today’s dollars would be about $32 million, and despite the mechanical shark never working properly, and shooting at sea being a nightmare Spielberg never foresaw, the talent behind and in front of the camera led to the creation one of the greatest movies ever made. This would not be the case with Braxton’s Unnatural as this insanely low budgeted film, saddled with a terrible script and some of the worst supporting actors ever gathered, was doomed from the outset.
The plot of Unnatural, and I’m using the term “plot” very loosely here, is that a supposedly benevolent corporation run by Victor Clobirch (Ray Wise) is working to ensure that animals of our world will survive the ravages of global warming, and just how will the Clobirch Corporation ensure the safety of mankind and prevent the extinction of the endangered wildlife?
As this is an on-the-cheap movie about a rouge genetically altered polar eating a bunch of people you may also guess correctly that we are not going to be burdened with a lot of scientific explanations dealing with the whys and wherefores of this polar bear’s particular modifications, and you’d be right again. This movie is more interested in giving us endless pov shots from the “bear” as it chases people across the snow landscape than it is about crafting even the remotest plausible story. Now if we look back at the 1999 film Bats, starring Lou Diamond Phillips as a sheriff facing off against a colony of genetically altered bats, Phillips asked why the scientist (played wonderfully by Bob Gunton) had altered bats so that they would be smarter, larger and more violent than normal bats, and the response he got was, “I’m a scientist, that’s what we do!” That hilarious and meta moment allowed the film to forgo any need to explain the ridiculous “science” of the movie, while in the case of Unnatural I’m assuming they didn’t even have the budget to be self-aware.
And just who is on the menu for this creature feature? Two barely named scientists are brutally murdered by the bear while their cohort Dr. Hanna Lindval (Sherilyn Fenn) escapes the snowbound lab in one of the company trucks, only to crash into a snowbank a little while later. This is so she can eventually stumble across the other group of soon to be entrees at a local lodge. Black Rabbit Lodge is owned and operator by Martin Nakos (James Remar), who is assisted by a couple Athabaskan friends (Gregory Cruz and Q’orianka Kilcher) and a ham radio operator named Buffalo (Graham Greene), and visiting the lodge out of season is fashion photographer Brooking (Ron Carlson), two models (Ivana Korab and Allegra Carpenter) and his camera assistant (Stephanie Hodes). We don’t get much characterization out of any of these people; Nakos is the gruff and easy going boss while Brooking is a racist and overall dick, while the rest of the cast barely get anytime to make an impact before they are eaten.
Running at just over 85 minutes one can’t expect much character development but when your plot is this thin you’re in big trouble, so in most case the filmmakers would then rely on their kickass monster to comes in to save the day. Sadly that is far from the case here as the monster on display is subpar at the best of times, and what is truly surprising is that the creature was created by effects house Amalgamated Dynamics who had worked on such films as Tremors, Jumanji, and the 2017 version of Stephen King’s It, yet in this film we get a lame polar bear puppet head, one gives the word puppet a bad name, and then there are the occasional moments of some dude in a bear suit that are seriously embarrassing and practically rival the crappy bear costume that appeared on The Secrets of Isis.
I can sympathize with how hard it must be to create a believable monster polar bear on what was basically a shoestring budget, but when you are making a monster movie at some point you are going to have to show the audience what they paid their five bucks to see, instead we get interminable shaky-cam shots and endless dark scenes that are all in service of hiding how terrible the creature looks. I can excuse a lot of things from a crappy monster movie, there is a lot working against them, but I will not forgive a film that doesn’t have the balls to at least give us one fucking clear shot of the beast.
I’m fond of James Remar, Graham Greene and Ray Wise so I can at least be happy that they all got paychecks out of this thing, but as a monster movie fan I was more than slightly pissed off after watching this glacial paced and poorly shot outing, and don’t get me started on the tacked on “environmental message” aspect of the film which was about as lame and insulting as what we got from Steven Seagal’s On Deadly Ground, and that is not a film you should be emulating. If this was supposed to be a satire they needed the Ray Wise character to be more than a two minute bookend and given us something more than “City folk are assholes” and “Climate change is bad” drivel. Overall this picture is dull creature feature that is guilty of barely featuring a creature.
One of the greatest crimes a movie of this type can be guilty of is that of boring the audience, and if there was a movie court director Hank Braxton would be sentenced to ten years of watching this unintelligible mess.