Welcome to Freaks of Nature, a monthly column devoted to creature features of all shapes and sizes. This includes eco-horrors, kaijū, cryptids, and everything else in between. If a film features a beast who strikes terror in the heart of man, I’ll be there, bestiary in hand and ready to bask in all that monster glory.
We tend to think monsters have to be bigger than life, but so often, the most horrible creatures lurking in our world are really no bigger than a bread box. This is the case with the obscure-yet-beloved critter feature Ticks; an early-’90s spectacle of pest panic, practical effects wizardry, gooey gore, and good ol’ hicksploitation.
The scariest infestations are the ones you don’t see, but thanks to some toxic run-off from a backwoods marijuana farm, the tiny namesakes of Ticks are about to get a growth spurt. Long before any of this happened on screen, associate producer and special-effects supervisor Doug Beswick’s concept was in development hell for roughly two decades before it went into production. In that time, the ticks’ design had been drastically altered from a “cartoony” appearance (Fangoria #123). The original plot of two couples in the woods battling the overgrown bugs was ditched, as well.
With a modest budget of roughly $2 million, Republic Pictures and producers Jack F. Murphy, Gary Schmoeller, and Brian Yuzna all needed a writer who could rewrite the script to their liking. This is where Brent V. Friedman comes in; his reworking “was designed to maximize” the budget. For instance, the revised story ensured there was only a set number of actors throughout, and there were really only two major locations in the entire film. This made the entire shoot not only easier but also more economical for director Tony Randel and his crew. With the script cleaned up and the budget worked out, shooting finally began in Big Bear Lake, California.
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The new story revolves around a wildness excursion gone horribly wrong; social worker Holly (Rosalind Allen) and her boyfriend Charles (Peter Scolari) take inner-city youths out to a cabin in the woods. What they all don’t know is a nearby and rustic marijuana farm is using chemical steroids to increase its product’s size. And as a result of their contamination of the environment around them, the bumpkins in charge accidentally breed a new kind of super tick. These buggers, now the size of large rats, roam the forest in search of their next meal.
As luck would have it, the voracious ticks don’t have to go too far when looking for some warm bodies and sustenance. Holly‘s crew is a bunch of sitting ducks as the parasites start to attack from all sides. The trouble doesn’t stop there as the two remaining pot farmers then show up and take the visitors hostage inside their own cabin, even as an army of ravenous ticks waits outside.
Unlike other similar bug horrors, the arachnoid antagonists at the heart of Ticks are a triple threat. They don’t merely kill with venom like spiders or draw blood like mosquitoes; the eponymous predators feed on and incubate themselves inside of their prey, as well as deposit an hallucinogenic agent in their victims’ bloodstreams. Basically: one bite from these skittering spongers and you’ll be as high as a kite. This fact leads to some nightmarish moments for the young characters Panic (Alfonso Ribeiro) and Dee Dee (Ami Dolenz).
As with other movies, Ticks endured additional shooting to punch up the story. This included the addition of Clint Howard as one of the agricultural potheads who meets an untimely end. He only had to work for one day but also did not appear in any scenes with his father Rance, who plays Sheriff Parker. Rather, Clint spent most of his time in makeup and prosthetics. After coming into contact with the creepy crawlies, Clint’s character’s face swells up and starts to throb as something sinister festers beneath the skin. Dee Dee was intended to trip out and see a random half-man-half-tick monster when she was really looking at her boyfriend Rome (Ray Oriel), but instead, she now sees Clint’s Jarvis again after their first encounter. His unforgettable and anguished line of “I’m infested!” — possibly the inspiration for the movie’s alternate title of Infested in the U.S. — is repeated with gusto. One thing Randel didn’t augment was the body count; after Hellbound: Hellraiser II, he had become “soft in [his] old age.” He wanted this movie to be more like ’50s creature features where very few characters actually die.
Nineties movies had this trend of writing stories about empathetic adults reaching out to at-risk city kids and sometimes taking them away from their troubles in the concrete jungles. With horror, however, that hospitality is met with even more trauma. A then-16-year-old Seth Green plays Tyler, a teen who is frightened of open spaces; hardened Panic (Ribeiro) is afraid life on the streets is finally going to catch up to him; the timid Kelly (Dina Dayrit) is recovering from a sexual assault with help from Holly; Charles‘ daughter may finally accept her father’s new girlfriend. The marijuana element can be interpreted as an anti-drug message, but no one in this movie is even thinking of getting stoned with the hundreds of ticks looking to feast. To one’s surprise, though, the movie never quite breaks into “after-school special” territory considering these subplots aren’t dwelled on. After all, there’s a bigger threat on the horizon.
The decade was a turbulent time for horror from a production standpoint. Bigger studios were now in the game, but getting a movie like Ticks into theaters proved too difficult. In the end, it was sent straight to video along with other genre flicks later deemed hidden gems. Even so, Randel’s movie has enjoyed cult film status over the years. Its popularity may be due to the astounding, if not disgusting, stop-motion and practical effects that hold up amazingly well even today. Or, it may very well be because the movie is just plain, unadulterated fun with a lot of bite to it.
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