WARNING: This story contains imagery that may be disturbing for some audiences. Reader and researcher discretion is advised.
One of the perks of working part time at a local T.V. station is that it keeps me up to date on new media. Like Albert and Otto, for example, a wonderfully dark little video game for all you Playdead fans out there. It was during one of my morning shifts that I heard about a special showing of a new horror movie by Duluth filmmaker, Jim Ojala. I immensely enjoyed this exciting and poignant creature feature, after which I got to meet the director himself. A really nice guy, with a great skill and passion for the art of horror-based make-up and special effects. I stayed long into the post-show party, to the point where I had less than four hours to sleep before work by the time I got home. I really try not to make a habit of such nights, but the experience was well worth the exhaustion I felt later. After all, how often does one get to meet a real live six-legged frog named Bud?
Kim Sweet was once on top of the music world as the hottest pop sensation. Now, years later, years older, and years wiser, she wants nothing more than to put that part of her life behind her. She and her 11-year-son, Brody, move from L.A. to the rural outskirts of Duluth, Minnesota to live with her cancer-ridden father, Chuck. But coping with the less-than-clean living conditions of their new home becomes the least of her problems upon arrival. One teen after another goes missing in the woods without a trace. Even more bizarre, frogs with missing or multiple limbs begin cropping up in disturbingly high numbers on the fringes of the local ponds. Kim suspects pesticide pollution is to blame, but she receives little help from neighbors or the press, who believe her claims of an environmental threat are nothing more than a desperate publicity stunt to revive her long-dead music career. Worse yet, what begins as simply dirty and unattractive becomes deadly when the mutations begin to effect humans and other species dangerously high on the food chain, spreading paranoia just as lethal throughout the close-knit community. Faced with freakish and insanely bloodthirsty predators and violently xenophobic locals, Kim is determined to protect her family and what little worth living for she has left, no matter the cost.
You remember what they say about truth and fiction, right? Well, here’s an epitome of that adage if I ever saw one. In August 1995, frogs with physical deformities of varying severity were discovered in a pond in Henderson, Minnesota. By the following year, similar sightings were being reported from as far away as Canada and in as many as thirty-five U.S. states. Wildlife researchers and environmental scientists from numerous organizations were called in to investigate, including the University of Minnesota, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the National Wildlife Health Center, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency. But despite their best efforts, a conclusive explanation behind the deformities was never found. Funding officially stopped in July 2001, and as of 2020, the ecological mystery remains unsolved.
TRENT: (To his science class.) You’re into superheroes. Amphibious mutant ninjas and all that. Right? Well, how do you think that can happen in real life? (The kids raise their hands.) Benny?
BENNY: Toxic waste!
TRENT: Well, that’s always a possibility. (Pointing out the frogs on his desk.) These extremely deformed frogs were recently found nearby. Pollution, parasites, pesticides, even UV rays have all been culprits in the past. We will attempt to determine what this cause may be. Sound like fun? It will be.
I wasn’t familiar with Ojala’s name before seeing his feature-length directorial debut, but I quickly learned his prior filmography is nothing to sneeze at. As a make-up artist and/or special effects technician, some well-known movies that he’s worked on include Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV (2000); House of the Dead 2 (2005); Lady in the Water (2006); X-Men: The Last Stand (2006); Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008); Where the Wild Things Are (2009); Tron: Legacy (2010); and Thor (2011).
Needless to say, the subject matter here was right up his alley. Besides his masterful use of hair-raising puppets and delightfully gruesome practical effects, from the aforementioned frogs to two-faced wolves to humans young and old with severe facial deformities, Ojala consulted numerous ecologists investigating the real-life mutation phenomenon in Minnesota, even obtaining live mutant frogs to feature alongside the fake ones. Ojala’s sincere effort to make the environmental and biological science as concrete and believable as possible really helps to make the film’s plot points, as well as its real-world implications, all the more disturbing.
TRENT: (As he and Kim observe a frog with an extra limb.) There is a normal deformity rate among amphibians but if there are more, say if it goes above 2%, it can be cause for alarm. There’s actually reports of deformed frogs being found upstate a while back.
KIM: (Surprised.) Really?
KIM: How many?
TRENT: (Shaking his head.) Not a ton but enough to get noticed.
KIM: Well, what causes it?
TRENT: (Chuckles.) Nobody really knows. It’s something in the water. You know, the problem is they’re not as cute as dolphins, so nobody seems to care. (Sympathetically to the frog.) Huh, buddy?
[. . .]
TRENT: You know, for now I would concentrate on how many more deformed frogs you can find on your property and look for signs of pollution.
KIM: Like fast food wrappers or chemicals?
TRENT: (Smiling.) Chemicals.
KIM: (Shrugging.) But since this kind of thing only happens to animals that live near the water, we’re good.
TRENT: (Seriously.) Kim, we are animals that live near the water.
I did have one fear going into this movie that had nothing to do with monsters. I was really afraid Strange Nature would end up being little more than a ninety-minute visual tour of landmarks and attractions I’ve seen and lived with for years with a scary creature or two sprinkled in. I was beyond thankful for how Ojala instead makes his hometown its own character that helps drive the plot without wrecking the pacing or sacrificing the story. As scenically beautiful and historically rich as the city of Duluth is, my personal experiences as a writer seeking out book publishers in said city have left me frustrated by how little opportunity there is to express stories and artistic ideas unrelated to the location or subject of Duluth simply because it’s not economically viable. With these memories in mind I was particularly intrigued at the way Duluth’s heavy reliance on tourism was addressed in a certain scene, which features out-of-town visitors in T-shirts depicting crudely drawn mutant animals with the caption “Minnesota: Land of 10,000 Freaks!” screaming at the top. It felt at once ironic and somewhat amusing to see the film’s residents, after news of the deformities gets out, bemoaning the loss of tourists even as they attract well-paying, albeit more boorish thrill-seekers by the bus load.
KIM: (Walks into the bar for work; gets blinded by a guy taking a picture in her face.) Hey! What, what’s with the pictures?
SNAPSHOT TOURIST: I was just taking a picture of that pregnant lady over there. (Indicates the unnerved woman behind Kim and smirks.) Might be one of them monster babies.
KIM: What? (Sees his “Land of 10,000 Freaks” T-shirt and shoves him away, indignant.) Get out of here!
CATHY: (To Kim from behind the bar counter, irritated.) Christ, Kim. You can’t be pulling that kind of stuff with the tourists. They spend a lot of money in here.
KIM: Yeah, but did you see his shirt?
CATHY: Oh, I know, I know. They’re everywhere.
[. . .]
CATHY: Well, it’s not going away. I mean, everybody’s leaving. And the whole town might get quarantined. (With increasing amazement.) And the crazy thing is all these tourists keep coming in here. (Observing the numerous customers in the “10,000 Freaks” T-shirts.)
KIM: (With equal amazement.) Yeah, checking out more than the fall leaves, huh?
Interestingly, and incidentally, the idea that I may have just insulted someone in my north shore audience brings me to our leading lady. To begin with, I find Kim a very fun and gutsy character. She may have become a practical, down-to-earth mother since retiring from the music scene, but that doesn’t stop her inner rebel teenager from shining through. With her blue-tipped highlights, grungy clothes, and “take no crap” attitude, you could say that time’s changed her from “pop” to “punk.”
KIM: (To Brody, in the car.) Look, I know this move is . . . not your jam, but once your grandpa has his surgery and he’s feeling better, we can leave.
BRODY: (Bored and unconvinced.) We’re broke. How can we leave?
KIM: If we hate it, we will find a way to leave.
BRODY: What if only I hate it?
KIM: (With a playful lack of sympathy.) Well, I guess you’ll have to suck it.
But this outward self-confidence hides a deep personal wound that threatens to re-open as she tries to readjust to life in her hometown. In a horror movie featuring hideously misshapen beasts, Kim is a fascinating example of how one doesn’t always have to look like a monster to be treated like one. It’s revealed early on that, at the height of her popularity, Kim had arrogantly slandered Duluth and its people—a mistake she has regretted ever since. It is out of genuine concern that she tries to warn her fellow Duluthians of the danger they are in, but to her shame and dismay she discovers many of them still carry a grudge, one they aren’t afraid to rub in her face and that she fears could follow and define her the rest of her life.
KIM: (Digging out research papers and photos out of her bag.) Okay, I’ve been finding these deformed frogs, see? On my dad’s property and farms around there.
NEWSPAPER RECEPTIONIST: (Coldly cutting her off.) I know who you are. We’re not giving you any attention.
KIM: (Put out.) Look, I don’t want attention for me, I--
NEWSPAPER RECEPTIONIST: (Interrupting again.) War, bad economy, no jobs, missing kids, (contemptuously handing Kim a newspaper with the headline, “Every Parent’s Nightmare.”) That’s what people care about. (Goes on irately.) I was at your going-away party fundraiser. I donated twenty dollars. Remember that? And now you want us to put you back in the spotlight?
KIM: (Flustered.) No, I . . . Look, see, this girl? (Points to the missing girl in the paper.) She’s the one who found the deformed frogs!
NEWSPAPER RECEPTIONIST: (Sarcastically.) Oh, what a coincidence. I guess you think I just fell off the turnip truck.
KIM: (Frustrated.) Can you just do your job, you know? Like, just pick up the phone and call somebody who’s not a bitter old gash!
NEWSPAPER RECEPTIONIST: (Obligingly picks up the phone.) Security?
KIM: (Gives up; picks up her papers and leaves.)
NEWSPAPER RECEPTIONIST: And get a haircut!
KIM: (Gives her the middle finger.)
KIM: (Hears her old music video playing in the living room; goes in to find Chuck watching it.) Dad, can you, can you turn that off?
CHUCK: (Enthusiastically.) Oh, but it’s so great though. I’m so proud of you. (Waves a hand around at her vinyl and CD on the table.) That’s why I kept all this stuff.
KIM: (Getting increasingly agitated.) Yeah, just . . . Can you turn it off please?
CHUCK: (Excited.) Wait, wait, wait. This is my favorite part.
KIM: (As the peppy music gets louder.) I know but it’s just . . . (Finally loses her temper; snatches the remote, turns off the T.V., and throws the remote at him.) I can’t f***ing watch that s***! (Calms down, but is still tense.) I don’t want that to be who I am.
CHUCK: (Cautiously.) Alright. Who do you want to be?
KIM: (Distressed.) I don’t know. Just not a f*** up.
The way I see Ojala’s portrayal, the detrimental judgements afflicted on those going against the so-called norm through no fault of their own, whether due to a birth defect or a single but incalculable mistake, aren’t very different from abusive comments made by racists. Anyone deemed “other” by the majority can be, and sadly is, subject to ridicule, violence, and so much worse. What we fail to realize all too often is, because so very few take the time to listen and learn and empathize, it is not only the judged who ultimately risk meeting a terrible end.
Movies about animals mutating into monstrous abominations because of human carelessness toward Mother Nature are a dime a dozen, as are those about outcasts in turmoil struggling to find their true place in the world. It’s really refreshing to see a movie not only blend the two tropes together seamlessly, but do so in such an exciting, meaningful, and significant manner, particularly in a real-life town little known and seldom highlighted in the medium of cinema. With excellent social commentary on pollution and the fragile relationship between humans and both nature and each other, Strange Nature is a unique indie horror film that gives the term “lake effect” a whole new, twisted meaning.
Credits: All images, audio, and links belong to their respective owners; no copyright infringement is intended.
“The Call” — Briand Morrison and Roxann Berglund
“Don’t Look” – Silent Partner
“Anxiety - Madness Paranoia” by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/) Source: https://incompetech.com/music/royalty-free/index.html?isrc=USUAN1100328 Artist: http://incompetech.com/ /
All other sound clips are from Strange Nature (produced by Jim Ojala, Beth Meadows, Jessica Bergren, and Jeff Miller; distributed by ITN Films).
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