Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Return of the Killer Tomatoes

(PG, New World Pictures, 98 mins., theatrical release date: Apr. 22, 1988)

Remember when Fox Kids managed to crank out botched animated series based on the strangest choices of movies? In the early 1990s, there was a 13-episode run for Little Shop of Horrors, in which Audrey II was defanged and rechristened "Junior" alongside teenage variants on Seymour and Audrey. Once that wilted on the vine, Wes Craven's inaugural adaptation of DC's Swamp Thing begat both the live action program on the USA Network (former home of the Toxic Crusaders!) as well as Fox's Saturday Morning spin-off which lasted a paltry five episodes. Actually, Fox Kids' Swamp Thing probably hewed closer to the spirit of Jim Wynorski's The Return of Swamp Thing rather than Craven's 1982 film, notorious for its international version which unshackled Adrienne Barbeau's bosom.

But the one which managed to outlast all of them was adapted from a movie nobody ever expected to be revived, even for children. And I include the Toxic Avenger saga in the mix. That was about an eco-friendly superhero (think Captain Planet with elephantitis squeezed into a tutu) on the most basic of levels; although the films were incredibly debased, they could plausibly be toned way down for possible "Toxic Tots." Instead, the genesis for this ne plus ultra of schlock cinema kiddie adaptations came from an episode of Muppet Babies ("The Weirdo Zone"), which made a sight gag out of 1978's Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! was widely dismissed as a overworked attempt at sending up monster movies, reveling in its own ineptness but hardly as funny as any random segment from The Kentucky Fried Movie. That reputation still exists, but in the VHS boom such sins were completely forgiven and it got celebrated as a proto-Airplane! despite the fact that Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker's embryonic Kentucky Fried Movie existed a year before, and remains the funnier movie to this day. A lot of people felt Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! was merely cynical in its openly amateurish satire, with a ratio higher in the misses than in the hits.

It garnered its expected cult following just the same, and when that aforementioned Muppet Babies installment achieved surprisingly high ratings, New World Television sent the word to their film distribution wing and Four Square Productions was enticed to make a sequel on a $2,000,000 budget. The result was Return of the Killer Tomatoes, which became the nerve center for the revived Attack of the Killer Tomatoes franchise to come, from the Fox show to the NES video game (although an 8-bit Sinclair version was developed in 1986) to a succession of further sequels and re-releases of the '78 film, including a "Director's Cut" vidcassette from Disney!

I'm here not to squash Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! but instead shine a grow light onto Return of the Killer Tomatoes, which endures for better reasons than its predecessor and recently got the red carpet treatment from Arrow Video. Whereas Attack! labored witlessly to spin its cheap conceit into a kitsch ruby, this time creative partners John De Bello, Costa Dillon and James Stephen "Rock" Peace settle more into a pleasantly silly groove worthy of, say, Killer Klowns from Outer Space minus the Chiodos. The mostly unfamiliar cast includes one obvious standout (we'll get to him) and is tarted up by someone who knows how to play to the lowbrow material the right way. And several of the jokes actually manage to seem good enough to have really inspired future movies which I also like.

Framed within a mock-public access late show in which the host (Michael Villani as Bob Downs) advertizes a call-up contest to win a "Pot o' Gold" worth $9.22, Return of the Killer Tomatoes cheerfully preempts itself at the beginning and several times during the movie proper, which picks up in the aftermath of the Great Tomato War. Having foiled a corrupt politician as well as leading the do-or-die charge during the Battle of San Diego Stadium, Lt. Wilbur Finletter (Peace) is now a pizzeria owner who works around the government ban on marinara by any means necessary, from mayonnaise to peanut butter to boysenberry sauce. He employs his nephew Chad (Anthony Starke), who makes a fateful delivery to the house of Professor Gangreen (John Astin), the mad…er, angry scientist committed to breeding a new strain of ferocious fruit by genetically evolving them into human form through toxic waste and a 25-cent Seeburg jukebox with no pesky 45s of "Puberty Love" (Alex Winter must have taken note when he made Freaked).

Chad, however, experiences said emotion when Gangreen's assistant Tara (Karen Mistal) greets him, unaware that she as well as the commandos guarding the lair evolved from the Finletter family foe. Tara isn't the kind of girl you take home to uncle, especially if yours flashbacks an entire five-minute montage whenever the Red Menace is invoked, but before you can say "nice stems," Chad gets beet-cheeks even though the reception is both unrequited and hostile. He returns to the shop to create his banana-and-Raisinets signature pie, but Tara has fled from Gangreen's with a neglected mutant tomato, F.T., in tow and delivers herself to Chad.

Can Chad learn to love a literal hot tomato? Will Gangreen and his sidekick Igor (Olympic swimming champ Steve Lundquist), a blonde bohunk with dreams of anchorman glory (watch out for the Ted Baxter degree and Diane Sawyer cut-out in his bedroom), steal Tara away from Chad and facilitate the breakout of a double-crossing archenemy of Uncle Wilbur? Which lucky lady shall win a date with Rob Lowe? And is Wilbur ever going to get rid of that dumb parachute?!

Nobody was jumping off New York's Golden Gate Bridge to know the answers, but that doesn't make Return of the Killer Tomatoes an overripe failure. Maybe because the 1980s were the salad days of ZAZ, "Weird Al" Yankovic, The Dead Milkmen, and Savage Steve Holland, but John De Bello has made tremendous strides compared to the undemanding humor of the original. Oh, it's still sophomoric and senseless enough to honor its lineage, but the energy level is cranked up and there is more follow-through in both premise and parody.

The biggest surprise is the influx of legitimately amusing running gags, from the self-explanatory skin flick "Big Breasted Girls Go to the Beach and Take Their Tops Off" teased at the intro to Igor's wildest wish to host the nightly news (his KIGR van is a garbage truck) to the ipecac-friendly menu items at Finletter's Pizza to the undeniable show-stopper, a fourth-wall obliteration as riotous as the "Spaceballs: The Video" premiere which cuts shameless product placement deeper than Wayne's World and challenges the generic inventory out front in Repo Man. If George Clooney sees his participation here as a Secret Shame, that's only because there is an alternate universe where his character of horny schemer Matt is Clooney's life, pitching Subway sandwiches, Geico insurance and Honey Nut Cheerios to save his bacon project after project.

On the contrary, this is the best vehicle for Facts of Life-period Clooney (no contest when the competition includes Return to Horror High and the unfinished Grizzly II: The Concert), as it is he who sets the sponsorship lampoon into motion and commits so hilariously to it. Even for a stock character of the era, Clooney demonstrated potential which would serve him well once the Coens harnessed his comic abilities. It's every bit as infectious as watching the more seasoned John Astin dramatize his maniacal archetype to the highest hilt, a precedent which helps loosen up the proceedings so that even the central lovebirds have their opportunities to land a decent joke. The absurdly alluring Karen Mistal, who'd go on to play Cake Lase in Savage Steve Holland's New Adventures of Beans Baxter, is alternately sensual, spacey and subservient, a Weird Science-caliber dream girl in extremis ("I cook 815 international dishes, perform 637 sexual acts [and] use all the popular home appliances").

With black-market tomato smugglers ("the real Acapulco Red"), a Sinatra-style "love theme" suitable for toaster shopping and punching mimes, Miami Vice and Mr. Potato Head jokes, and "master of disguise" Sam Smith (Frank Davis) instigating the first and best ever barroom brawl located within a pizzeria, Return of the Killer Tomatoes is a welcome reversal of fortune compared to its predecessor. The conventions Lampshaded in this film are more flexible in regards to self-aware sarcasm, from a rejiggered theme song calling attention to its own prefab development to a romantic hero who gets heartsick over produce, hallucinating "giant zucchinis and man-eating artichokes."

Sadly, Crest wouldn't go on to manufacture tomato toothpaste despite the valiant efforts of George Clooney, who instead shilled the Bat Credit Card to our eternal damnation.

In a healthier show of interest, Arrow Video picks up the slack from prior distributors Anchor Bay, who never bothered to correct their bare-bones, full-frame DVD release in the time we knew them. Arrow's BD transfer, a 2k scan from a 35mm interpositive, places it in the proper 1.85:1 theatrical format and buffers the film to its proper 80s movie sheen. The LPCM 2.0 track allowed me enough fidelity to understand the theme song's processed-vocal lyrics, which accounts for something. Extras aren't as copious here as they were for Vamp or Slugs, but director John De Bello's audio commentary and lead actor Anthony Starke's video interview are comprehensive and entertaining. "It's okay for you to drool."

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