Inside After Dark Films’ “UNNATURAL” Selection, With Exclusive ClipFearful Features,Movies/TV,News Camilla Jackson
Man vs. nature is a venerable subgenre that has pitted humans against sharks, dogs, spiders and many other species. Hank Braxtan’s UNNATURAL, part of the After Dark Films collection debuting today in theaters and on DVD and digital HD, delves into the previously unchartered world of the ferocious polar bear.
In UNNATURAL, one of After Dark’s 8 Films to Die For, this is one mammal with a major chip on its shoulder. It has been forced out of its home due to global warming and, due to genetic engineering, possesses an intellect far more advanced than that of its furry counterparts—a deadly combination resulting in horrific situation. Shot on location in Fairbanks, Alaska and boasting an impressive cast including James Remar, Graham Greene, Sherilyn Fenn and Ray Wise, the film was written by Ron Carlson, who also produced and co-stars.
The action centers on an Alaskan fishing lodge under the responsible hand of experienced hunter Martin Nakos (Remar) that serves as a temporary dwelling for obnoxious, ignorant fashion photographer Brooking (Carlson) and the models (Ivana Korab, Allegra Carpenter) he’s brought up for a bikini shoot. Things take a turn for the worse when a nearby facility that genetically manipulates polar bears loses one of its largest and most astute inmates, resulting in a series of violent attacks (one seen in the exclusive clip below).
Carlson explains how the combination of people, predator and sub-freezing climes came together in UNNATURAL. “I did a draft of the script with a polar bear hunting in the summer, which would have been unnatural. But we location-scouted in Alaska during the winter, and I got a feel for how beautiful it is. It was the location that drove the story. I saw polar bears on that trip; they’re the most carnivorous animals on the planet and can swim 200 miles in the ocean a day. I’m surprised there hasn’t been another horror movie featuring one.”
At the time of that conception, Carlson had seen Braxtan’s 2014 environmental shocker CHEMICAL PEEL, and felt he would be a good collaborator to not only brainstorm the concept, but ultimately direct. It was Braxtan who concocted the idea of climate change forcing the bears south, with the dubious scientific corporation attempting to genetically modify the beasts so they could survive in a new ecosystem. This element appealed strongly to Remar (pictured below): “It’s not just an ordinary slash-’em-up, put-as-much-blood-on-the-snow-as-you-can kind of film. It’s got some intelligence, as well as being apropos of the time. It has a real social consciousness. People are going to think about global warming and what’s going on in our environment when they watch this. It is not beyond the realm of possibility. It’s horror but also has an element of science fiction, which has always been a favorite of mine.”
Both Carlson and Braxtan tend to veer toward the comedic side of horror, but Carlson saw the potential for a more serious stab at the genre. “A perfect Mother Nature genre film is JAWS,” he says. “In my mind, that’s an intense drama that happens to have a shark in it, which is an approach this idea lent itself to.” And while Braxtan initially intended to gear the movie toward the humorous side, he eventually realized that a more serious tack was the right one. “In an early draft it was much funnier, but as the script took shape, I knew it had to have more of a JAWS or ALIEN type of execution. I felt like if you saw the monster too much, even if it was a great monster, it wold lose its luster and wouldn’t be scary or cool.”
Complementing this less in-your-face use of its “monster,” the film employs an old-school approach in its use of an entirely practical bear. “Ron and I were on the same page when it came to that,” Braxtan says. “Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen some great CGI, but there is just something about animatronics. When people watch these movies, they know the mockups aren’t real, but they like them. They just accept them.”
The filmmakers enlisted the help of special FX company Amalgamated Dynamics, the team behind the critters in TREMORS, the ALIEN sequels and more, to create the bear. Its driver bore a pedigree that had Braxtan salivating with creature-feature nostalgia. “The bear was operated by Jamie Hall—the nephew of Kevin Peter Hall, who played the Predator,” the director says. “I was completely geeking out.”
Enhancing the classic look of the ravenous beast was the use of camera equipment popular with auteurs such as Quentin Tarantino “I really wanted to go with an old-school approach,” Braxtan notes. “It’s like a slasher film with a bear in it, and a lot of stalking people in the woods, so I thought, let’s shoot it like it’s 1975. We used cool vintage Kowa anamorphic lenses, and tried to do absolutely everything in camera. I would never compare myself to Stanley Kubrick, but I definitely tried to emulate him. I like to give things air, so you can see all the characters, and only go in close when you really need to see something. A lot of films have constant close-ups, and I’m not saying that’s wrong, because it’s art. You could shoot the whole movie upside down if you wanted to, and I’m sure somebody would love it [laughs].”
Although the shoot was to take place in below-freezing conditions, many of the crew still underestimated how harsh it would be; it wasn’t until after the first day that a number of them purchased more robust gear. Yet despite one shoot day occurring in merciless 40-below temperatures, and others taking place on a huge frozen river with temperatures averaging 20 below, everyone remained professional. “Nobody complained,” Braxtan recalls. “They were real troupers about it. When we shot the scene with the girls in their bikinis, we did the best we could to keep them warm. We had a warming tent and propane heaters everywhere, and had them covered with as much clothing as possible between takes. They would only be exposed to the cold for about a minute and a half.”
Nonetheless, the environment that was so appropriate for the film’s dramatic goals also posed obstacles to Braxtan realizing his vision. “The shoot was 21 days, which was not a lot, and I can honestly say that the cold temperatures ate up probably three days of that. I like to set up shots, and for things to be cinematic. There were locations that just wouldn’t allow for it. We had to go handheld for a good portion and there was a lot of compromise due to weather and terrain.”
With Carlson being so close to the project, it was something of a blessing for Braxtan that he also acted in one of the prominent roles (pictured above with Carpenter and Korab). “We had a lot of people read for Brooking, but none of them really brought the right attitude,” the director says. “Even when I was reading the script, I said, ‘Ron, this is you. You could totally nail this.’ I also wanted him to do it because as director, I needed him busy. He was producing this movie with this young guy directing who had really only done one other thing that had come out, and he was probably a bit nervous about it. I couldn’t blame him, so I strategically pushed him toward that role as much as I could because a) I knew he’d be great at it and b) I knew it would keep him off my ass!”
Reuniting TWIN PEAKS alumni Fenn and Wise, and having the opportunity to act alongside Fenn, was a highlight for Carlson. “I had produced a movie that Ray Wise was in the sizzle reel for, so I had already developed a relationship with him,” Carlson explains. “When this script went out, Sherilyn expressed interest and came in and read for it. We already had Ray in mind for Victor Clobirch, but hadn’t reached out to him yet. It’s fun to see them together in the film, and being a huge fan of David Lynch as well as Sherilyn, it was great for me. Starring opposite her, I was initially a little nervous, but I had already been on set for a week by the time we did our first scene together and had a solid grasp on the character by that stage.”
When it came to directing such notable talents, Braxtan felt an expected amount of trepidation. “I was super-excited, but obviously I was nervous. I’d never directed anyone that big before. These were people who have been around for decades, and done things I really respect and grew up with. I thought, ‘What the hell am I going to tell them to do?’ ”
According to Remar, Braxtan delivered in all areas. “Hank is a very understated guy,” the actors says, “and I had to kind of egg him on, and as I did, he really stepped up to the plate. He’s technically very proficient and is surprisingly witty, and as we all got to know each other a little better, his wit and his confidence in how the piece should be directed started to assert themselves much more profoundly. For a guy who was pretty much a first-time director, he handled himself remarkably well, and I would be thrilled to work with him again. I hope we do a sequel.”
Having grown up on creature features, Remar has a nostalgic fondness for the genre. “That stuff was fascinating to me. Talking about unseen menaces—the original THE THING was a terrifying movie, and it was just people taking shelter from the freezing cold with something pounding on the walls outside. It was terrifying, and we have elements of that in UNNATURAL.”