• Nick Karner

Ticks (1993)

“I’M INFESTED!!!!”

A meme and gif-worthy moment that gives me all the right feels. Cult actor and national treasure Clint Howard, in an extreme close-up and covered in grotesque make-up, screams at the top of his lungs this Brent V. Friedman-penned line. Along with his cute little hamster, Howard is the first victim of those bloodsucking freaks also known as ticks. I’m a dog lover (if you’ve seen this movie, you know I was pissed about one particular scene), so I know a thing or two about ticks. One of my more idiotic dogs got loose once and ran around for a few hours. We got her back to the house and I found a tick that had literally grown to the width of a nickel, feasting on her puppy blood. THEY. ARE. AWFUL. So I was ready to watch them get the fuck smashed out of them. Ticks (1993) did not disappoint. 

This movie is brutally 90’s. There’s an awful mish-mash of clothing styles, from grunge and gangsta to 90210 hip and white trash stereotype. We get a racial cornucopia of troubled teens (because we might look different, but we’re all the same!) who are being dragged out to the woods by Tom Hanks’ former Bosom Buddy Charles (Peter Scolari) and Holly (Rosalind Allen) to get in touch with nature and hey, maybe even learn a little something on the way. It sounds stupid because it is. This is not the opening of the movie. Oh no, director Tony Randel, employing the same enthusiasm for gooey effects he brought to Hellbound: Hellraiser II, starts the film in the way all mutation movies begin. With a careless accident. 


Credits appear over fabulous close-ups of machinery, whirring and churning. For what? We don’t know yet. All I know is that Brian Yuzna’s name pops up, so you know some wild shit is about to go down. We find out later that the green goo pumping through the machines is steroids that Howard uses to bulk up his marijuana crops. It plops down on some kind of pod or cocoon and quickly mutates the ticks inside, who breed like guppies and quickly spread far and wide. 

Tyler (Seth Green, looking even younger than he normally does) had a traumatic experience in the woods when he was a kid. His dad got drunk and left him and somehow that’s Seth’s problem, not his father’s. The irony is that a real child plays young Tyler, but chop off Seth’s hair and throw some jammies on him, he could probably pass for a ten-year old. After his dad drops him off at a seriously shady location and drives away, presumably to go drink with a loaded hand gun pointed at his temple, Tyler has a weird moment of vertigo and a flashback. Will this come back and have any relevance to the plot? Not on your life. Suddenly, goddamn Carlton from Fresh Prince (Alfonso Ribeiro) shows up looking like he just stepped out of a D.A.R.E. commercial. He’s got shades, a basketball, and a switchblade. He’s acting all hard, but his “fight the power” routine doesn’t seem to bother Tyler too much. Even his “ferocious” dog can’t rattle Tyler, who seems non-plussed. We find out Alfonso is “Panic,” another troubled teen who has already been involved with this organization but apparently it didn’t take so he’s back for more. Speaking of back for more, I thought there was genuine sexual chemistry between Panic and Holly. Charles needs to watch his ass. By the way, Ribeiro would work with Seth Green again when he appeared on Robot Chicken for the amazing Beastmaster the Musical sketch. “These claws of miiiiinnne…dig into you as I make love to you!”

These teens may as well be wearing placards with their character traits printed on them because they talk way too much and practically announce who and what they are. There’s Dee Dee (Ami Dolenz, the spoiled brat), Rome (Ray Oriel, her bad boy boyfriend who, of course, was in Colors and Blood In, Blood Out), Melissa (Virginya Keehne (I’m not confident about the spelling of either of those), plays Charles’ daughter who hates her stepmother Holly), and finally Kelly (Dina Dayrit, a non-speaking rape victim whose backstory is never explored so making it rape seems unnecessarily sensationalist. Like, what’s a terrible thing that we don’t have to address? Rape? Sure! Ugh.). Off they go to become one with nature. 

Howard uses the prototype for his Ice Cream Man (1995) voice as he investigates the death of his hamster. We get our first glimpse of the creepy crawlies and they do not disappoint. They’ve got a real crab-like look about them and they’re fast. Really fast. A great bit involves Howard testing a bear trap moments earlier and when he’s startled by a mutated tick, he steps in it and then has a pod dropped on his head. We presume it’s curtains for him, but Clint Howard has to suffer a bit longer for our amusement. 


The kids make a pit stop in a small town where there’s a fabulous poster pronouncing “Marihuana: The Assassin of Youth” hanging on a bulletin board. We’re introduced to twin sleazebags Sir (Barry Lynch) and Jerry (Michael Medeiros). You know Sir is the sophisticated one because he has an ascot and constantly combs his hair. He looks like Gary Busey-lite. Sadly, this role was supposed to be played by Yuzna stock player David Gale, who would have brought some authority and elegance to the role. Jerry is his loyal manservant with rotted teeth and a thing for young girls. 

The rundown cabin contributes to the kids’ relative indifference to discovering a huge, pulsating pod in one of the rooms. Tyler and Melissa take a stroll and she finds a weird combo pod/tick on her back. The movie gets a little meta for a moment when they report the incident to the group and Tyler says: “Adults don’t believe the kids.” The first real proof they get is when Panic’s dog wanders off and is attacked by a tick. In general, I don’t care if a character is killed in a horror movie, as long as they don’t hurt the fucking dog. When Panic discovers his dog Brutus, the effect is well-done as the pup convulses violently, the tick having burrowed itself inside of him. 

At this point, it’s important to acknowledge the excellent effects work supervised by Doug Beswick, who also came up with the idea for this movie in the first place. There’s an obvious confidence in these little monsters design so they're shown front and center scurrying about. They’re nice and squiggly, with a delightful crunch and squish when smashed under a boot. Watch the film with headphones and you’ll appreciate the squishy sound effects. The bloody wounds caused by the ticks are also nice and gory, with legendary effects group KNB working the second unit crew. Beswick has an astonishing resume that’s too long to list, but he’s worked on Aliens, Darkman, Beetlejuice, and my personal favorite, the stop motion effects for Evil Dead II


Back to poor Clint Howard, who now has ticks crawling under his skin. He decides to pull a Kingdom of the Spiders (1977) and shoots himself, though not in the hand but in the leg this time. It’s not going to get any better for him. His real-life dad, Rance Howard, playing the sheriff, pops over to the campground to check out the dog. He also inquires about Howard, but I wish the dialogue had been, “Have you seen my weird-looking, less successful, non-Academy Award-winning son anywhere?”

Charles and Tyler bring Brutus to the vet and Panic runs off. The veterinarian (Judy Jean Burns) is very smart and throws out an interesting tidbit that tick bites can inject a hallucinogen. By the way, I’ve never been invited back to the operating room of a vet’s office. You know they shouldn’t be back there. What if one of them throws up? But, never mind. There’s a fun gag where she tries to take a blood sample but the blood is sucked back out of the syringe before a tick emerges from the dog’s carcass. Seeing the very life-like tick in bright light is satisfying. The vet holding a fish net is also a nice touch. There’s a fun game of cat-and-mouse until it’s finally identified as a tick and smooshed.

 

While Kelly and Melissa go fishing and discover the body of the sheriff, Sir and Jerry ambush Panic, who’s decided to make his way back to camp. Just prior to this, he got bitten by a tick and decides to down some steroids he pilfered from another camper’s bag. Although it’s not directly addressed, this will be important later. The Sir/Jerry attack is another scene that is way more harsh than it needs to be. We get it. These guys are bad and bad people are also racist. You also presume they are homophobic as well, but the “F” word is thrown around more than once. Panic escapes but gets shot, which again, a bit much. A gas can is shot and blows up, causing a fire that forces the ticks toward the cabin. 

The hallucinogen aspect of the tick bites is a great chance for Randel to indulge in some flights of fancy. Dee Dee gets bit and she sees the fabulous visage of Clint Howard screaming in her face. Panic flashes to life in the inner city. Sir and Jerry are attacked later. Sir doesn’t seem that affected, but Jerry has an amazing hallucination that Sir is the dead sheriff, whom they killed and dumped earlier, firing a shotgun at his head. 


They all end up at the cabin, where Sir and Jerry stupidly try to take control of the situation. They’re worried about being found out as the dope rustlers they are, but I don’t think any of these people care. Panic somehow makes his way back to the cabin and his gunshot wound is discovered, implicating Sir and Jerry. Out of all the troubled teens, the only one who dies is the black guy. Unbelievable and honestly, not even necessary. My advice? Have it be Clint Howard. I assumed Clint Howard was dead after that first scene, but he keeps showing up throughout the movie. I think it would be fun and hilarious to have Clint running around while the other action is taking place. He finally arrives at the cabin for the finale. It turns out that Panic eating those steroids was not a good idea, because a giant tick emerges from his body in an awesome display of practical effects. This is great, but why not make it Clint Howard? Why couldn’t he have been the carrier of the king (or queen?) of the ticks?  He’s the first victim, save for the hamster. I expected at least Dee Dee and maybe Rome to get killed, but Panic is actually a good character, thanks to Ribeiro’s natural likeability. 


Sir blows away Charles’ leg, which he doesn’t seem that upset about even though his leg is literally shredded. Jerry retrieves the van but thanks to some more tick bites and a handy hallucination, he drives right through the front door. Now remember, this is a movie. Unless we’re going with a genuinely hopeless and apocalyptic ending like the aforementioned Kingdom of the Spiders, you know at least most of these people are going to make it out alive. I would argue that this is an impossible situation once the front of the cabin is smashed through. There is now a gaping hole in the wall. The ticks are fast and bloodthirsty little beasts. To me, it’s over. These people would be dead. D.E.D. dead. This isn’t like Squirm (1976) where the worms could easily be waded through. Yes, that movie cheats and the worms literally possess a guy to force more terror into the movie, but it still stands to reason that a worm attack is not a big deal. 

The giant tick attacks Sir, whose death is sadly mostly off-screen. This is unfortunate because he’s the most deserving of a horrible death and I would love to have seen him get sucked dry. I’ve seen that kind of effect in other films like The Blob (1988) where the skin gets sucked inward. The ticks are afraid of fire, so the group lights up a broom or two and make their way to the van. In fact, the ticks seem to have gun powder brains because they literally explode rather than burn up at contact with fire. Again, really unlikely that all of them could make it, especially Charles with a shredded leg, but they speed away in the van. Big tick explodes, complete with a fireball effect coming right at the screen. Someone carefully left a trail of gasoline leading to the propane tank because the flames rush right toward it and the cabin, which looks very much like a miniature, blows its roof off. They dump the van and a little stowaway drops down from the bottom, Cape Fear-style. 


We don’t rent a movie like Ticks to experience a penetrating look into the lives of troubled teens. We watch Ticks to see giant ticks attack and, on that promise, the movie delivers big time. The effects really are above-average for a direct-to-video release. The problem with Brent V. Friedman’s screenplay is that it has ideas that don’t go anywhere. The main characters have personal problems but none of that factors in to the problems at hand. Friedman is a prolific writer, dipping his toes in animation (Star Wars: The Clone Wars), television (creator of Dark Skies), video games (Halo 4), and a vast array of B-movies including two PreHysteria! sequels and a film ironically called Hellbound (1994) that has no connection to Randel’s own Hellbound. Although I can’t say for sure if this is his doing, he’s also technically responsible for the infamous Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997) line, “Too bad you...will die!” His best work is probably still his screenplay for The Resurrected (1993), Dan O’Bannon’s compromised and re-cut Lovecraft adaptation that still manages to be a decent film. 


Ticks is mercifully short and, pointless and shallow characters aside, moves at a fast clip with a great climax. It reinforces a very simple fact. If you go into the woods in a horror movie, you will die. Or, at least have several traumatic experiences. But at least you’re not a troubled teen anymore, right? …right?