Written by: Brent V. Friedman
Directed by: Tony Randel
Starring: Seth Green, Alfonso Ribeiro, and Clint Howard
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
We’re now (somehow) two decades removed from the 80s, a decade whose horror legacy will be invariably tied to slasher flicks for the rest of time. While it wasn’t the first decade that horror got messy and gory, it’s the one that feels most defined by its splatter output, much of which was confined to the slasher genre as filmmakers devised a multitude of ways to mutilate the human body.
However, the most ingenuous splatter was actually reserved for the decades various updates of an old 50s staple: the creature feature, where the likes of Carpenter and Cronenberg crafted genuinely unsettling body horror. Relatively speaking, movies like The Fly, The Thing, and The Blob were blips on the radar, and their numbers only continued to dwindle into the 90s, so Ticks feels like a double throwback. Not only does it feel like it could have been inspired by a 50s bug flick, but its splattery focus also marks it as a successor to its 80s predecessors.
It’s an especially dopey riff on the theme, though, and I mean that quite literally. When a bunch of troubled inner city kids take off on a woodsy retreat, they encounter a bunch of giant ticks that have been mutated by the steroids employed by local weed farmers, a concept that represents a nigh-perfect fusion of the 80s’ preoccupation with mutagenic ooze and pot. Amongst this riff-raff of faux hooliganism is Tyler (Seth Green), who bands together with his fellow cast-offs and misfits to survive against the oversized insects.
Ticks is delightfully unassuming junk; whereas Carpenter and Cronenberg further elevated material that was already great and imbued with seriousness, Ticks enthusiastically wallows in its Z-grade schlock. It’s primarily an effects show that exists as one of KNB’s best demo reels, which is really saying a lot. Somehow, the effects make ticks into a formidable creature as they skitter about and wreak havoc. They’re also prone to bursting forth from gross, gelatinous sacks and spattering all over the victims; eventually, they burrow into their bodies before bursting back out. Between their appearance and that M.O., the title creatures recall Alien. There’s even a scene where some of the characters are frantically trying to find a tick flittering around a lab, which obviously echoes one of the more famous scenes in that film. To its credit, Ticks is a better Alien flick than Alien Resurrection.
Also to its credit is Tony Randel’s relatively restrained direction. Instead of spilling blood and guts all over the starting gate, he allows the film to build to its more elaborate effects sequence and teases out the gross, parasitic body horror at work. First, a dog begins to exhibit strange behavior before mysteriously killing over; before long, some of the humans become afflicted with bizarre growths. As an added bonus, you even get to witness the agonizing death of one of the locals (90s B-movie MVP Clint Howard) who stumbles upon the ticks and proceeds to slowly fall apart as the ticks eat him from within. In the grand body count tradition, Howard does little more than die, but he does so in spectacular, screen-chewing fashion. If his demise were the film’s high point, Ticks would be pretty solid, but it’s nothing compared to the grand guignol climax, where Randel completely lifts the curtain on a staggering display of body-rending that recalls the fleeting, gory glory that even an otherwise unremarkable creature feature could manage.
Which is not to sell Ticks too short; however, it crawled straight onto video shelves for good reason. Aside from the effects, the film can only boast a certain wackiness that may or may not be intentional. In retrospect, it seems like the whole movie was a casting director’s idea of a joke. I mean, Seth Green is a bit of a stretch as a troubled, inner-city L.A. kid, but that pales in comparison to the other acting coup. Upon being unceremoniously dumped off by his dad, Green’s character encounters a thuggish guy (complete with gaudy shades and Hammer pants to remind you this was the 90s) who bullies him into a high-stakes game of basketball. He’s pretty convincing until he removes his shades and reveals himself to be Alfonso Ribeiro, at which point you realize our hero is being terrorized by Carlton.
Like the rest of the kids, these two eventually turn out to be better than their reputations would suggest, especially compared to the others, all of whom fall into the typical clichés: the beefy meathead, the oblivious valley girl, the mute, obviously troubled girl. Arguably, the worst of the bunch is the daughter of the guy who organized the trip; she often mouths off to her dad and obviously has issues of her own—not that the movie is particularly concerned with sorting out any of the character drama. Because the premise is so thin, the script attempts to introduce even more drama when a couple of rednecks also start to cause trouble, as if a bunch of mutant bugs wasn’t enough bad news. The more the merrier, though, especially in this case since ignorant hicks being torn apart by ticks is always a welcome sight.
Ticks mostly hits the right buttons in that respect; there’s hardly a serious bone in its body, but it’s also completely earnest at the same time. This was still a few years before Scream, so these aren’t a bunch of smart-asses who know they’re stuck in a horror movie; however, even the more genuine moments (such as Ribeiro’s weepy fountain of emotion) are still kind of riotous, so Ticks really treads that fine line of well-intentioned and unknowing silliness. It’s difficult to deny its sheer entertainment factor, though; between the grapefruit-sized bodily deformations and the impressive creature effects, Ticks is an old-fashioned monster movie done up in 90s digs. Also known as Infested, the film has grown a bit obscure during the digital age since it was only recently released on DVD and Blu-ray, which is something I never expected to say. Olive Films did the honors, and, while it doesn’t feature the most impressive high definition presentation to grace the format, the widescreen transfer and soundtrack are solid; they also tossed in an audio commentary with Randel and Howard, too, so it’s not a completely bare bones affair. I won’t say that they don’t make ‘em like they used to, but Ticks is certainly a reminder that they don’t make ‘em like this very often anymore: gooey, gory, and completely fun. Buy it!
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