Thursday, October 11, 2012

Halloween Havoc: TICKS (1993)

I'm not sure what the process is for deciding which movies have sequels and which don't. Oh, sure, it's got something to do with returns and receipts and rentals and all that, but some times I think it's got more to do with a podiatrist in Akron who has discovered his kids flipping out over a rental tape and thinks that maybe investing in a sequel to MANNEQUIN (1987) would be a lot more fun than simply investing in an IRA. Hell, you might even get to hang out with Kim Cattrall too! Shhhhhh! Nobody tell him that it's Kristy Swanson who signed on after Kim bailed out.

In typical cheap '80s/'90s horror movie fashion, a group of ethnically diverse delinquent "teens" are packed on a bus for the Inner-City Wilderness Project. The Project is a social welfare organization headed up by counselors Holly (Rosalind Allen) and Charles (Peter Scolari), who decide that the best plan of action is to show up to a filthy, dilapidated cabin in the woods without an agenda, or really any sort of plan other than to get some sexy time between the sheets while the kids, like, do stuff. DIE!! Oh, wait, sorry, this isn't slasher movie, everybody relax. The kids include, Tyler (Seth Green, already a TV veteran at this point) is suffering from an anxiety disorder caused by the abandonment of his father; Panic (Alfonso Ribeiro) is the cliched angry black kid who explains his nickname saying "they call me Panic, cause I never do!" Oh, wait, I get it. It's like calling a fat guy "Skinny" or Tommy Lister "Tiny". There's the token loudmouth Latino, a mute Asian girl, a prissy rich girl (Ami Dolenz who went on to WITCHBOARD 2, PUMPKIN HEAD II and the fourth sequel in the SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT series), etc. But who cares about a few cheap cliches anyway? The movie isn't called INTELLECTUAL YOUTHS TAKE A WOODLAND HOLIDAY, it's called TICKS, dammit!

Looks like Mike Rowe has seen better days
Little do they know that they are in the territory of cashcroppers; violent ganja farmers who not only will kill off the local sheriff but will allow Clint Howard (as Jarvis) to run their horticultural ops. These ops include using a new chemical compound to increase the growth and potency of the cannabaceae. Unfortunately for, well, everyone in the movie, the machine that delivers this compound to the plants is malfunctioning and drips the potent brew all over some tick larvae. Once at the cabin the kids start finding out that ill-prepared camping trips suck. Not only are there giant, gooey larva pods everywhere, but a sleazy local, named Sir (Barry Lynch), who is totally untrustworthy, not because he won't say his name, but because he hangs out with an inbred hick, Jerry (Michael Medeiros), and wears a cravat. Can't trust a man in a cravat.

It isn't too long before the infestation begins, starting with Jarvis (whose immediate reaction to having giant ticks burrow into his flesh is to grab a revolver and start shooting) and Panic's dog, Brutus. After a giant tick pops out of Brutus and runs around the vet's operating room, we are on like Donkey Kong! Giant mutant ticks pop out and scuttle after kids like Clive Barker on a bender. Interestingly, while we are told that normal ticks are immune to squashing, these mutant ticks squash just fine with blood, goo and guts squirting out at the drop of a shoe. Better still, when they come in contact with fire, they explode like giant, bloody popcorn kernals. The other thing we learned is that tick venom causes wild hallucinations which leads to a few interesting moments that could easily be expanded upon in a sequel. The finale is the predictable, but no less entertaining NIGHT OF THE LIVING TICKS scenario where everyone, including Sir and Jerry are holed up in the cabin. There's a nice plot device in which the sharecroppers accidentally start a forest fire, while attacking an infested kid, which drives all of the ticks toward the cabin. No spoilers, but the show stopper (that has a kindred element in both SYNGENOR and the greatest cockroach movie ever, 1988s THE NEST) is nothing short of a wet, chunky and spectacular mess of monster madness.

Made during an era where even cheap horror movies (this one ran about $2 million, so not totally cheap) can play out with plenty of gooey effects and cheap cliches without being obnoxious and self-aware. This is really what makes the film fun. It teeters on the brink of being routine, but punches it up with volumes of latex effects, a fast pace and the short, but totally inspired performance of Clint Howard, who utters his famous line "I'm in-feeeeeested!" Tony Randel, famously associated working as director on what is unquestionably the best HELLRAISER sequel, HELLRAISER: HELLBOUND (1988) and very debatably the best AMITYVILLE HORROR sequel, AMITYVILLE: IT'S ABOUT TIME (1992), here does more than a serviceable job directing the action. Matter of fact, it's got some really nice camerawork from tick POV shots to interesting framing choices that take this out of the standard woodland dead teen flick. In one scene he actually conveys a sense that something is out there by shooting a simple transition shot of the van driving down the road from behind a tire, so that the tire's empty center frames the van. A simple panning shot of a van driving down a road has been a throwaway since the genre was invented. It's kind of admirable to see that extra bit of effort being made on what is essentially a giant insect movie. Too bad he really didn't do much in the years that followed, maybe it had something to do with the painfully missed opportunity that was the live action adaptation of FIST OF THE NORTH STAR (1995).

No, not gonna do the traditional Fango "splitting headache" crack

In addition to Randel, TICKS has a surprising amount of recognizable names attached to the project. Screenwriter Brent V. Friedman wrote one of our favorite sequels, SYNGENOR (1988), parts of the anthology film H.P. LOVECRAFT'S NECRONOMICON and, err, MORTAL KOMBAT: ANNIHILATION (1997). The producers are no less than veterans Gary Schmoeller (brother of David) and Brian Yuzna (the man who put the final nail in Herbert West's coffin). Ok, I see your eyes start glassing-over, just one more. The effects are from Doug Beswick who started out with the infamous FLESH GORDON (1973) and went on to a gobsmacking number of instantly recognizable films including THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980), TERMINATOR (1984), ALIENS (1986), EVIL DEAD II (1987) A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3 (1987) and even CABIN BOY (1994).

While I can't find the numbers, I think it's safe to say that TICKS became a very successful low-budget film. It has a surprising amount of popularity here in the US and overseas, where it's been released multiple times under multiple titles, including INFESTED and, errm, the slightly less catchy, C2. I can't seem to find any legal issues regarding a sequel, and I can't help but wonder, in an age where anything that made a buck got a one, why didn't we get TICKS 2: JARVIS' REVENGE? If that ever happens (and it should), I'll be first in line.

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