Of the many, varied projects (and I do mean varied) that sprang from the tireless funding of Brian Yunza during that horror-starved period known as the early 90’s, one of the best was a mostly forgotten killer bug movie, Ticks. Some may argue that it wasn’t exactly a tough list to top as the output included such things as underfunded, live-action Anime adaptations, wacked-out H.P. Lovecraft anthologies and some curiously unnecessary sequels to Children Of The Corn and Silent Night, Deadly Night, but then, pickings where crazy slim back then so you basically took what you were given.
On the other hand, if you are presented with a movie called Ticks, you can’t help but go in with certain expectations in mind and to give the devil its due, you can’t say that it doesn’t deliver all the squishy, icky mayhem you’d expect from an enterprise featuring the burrowing little buggers.
Chronically nervous Tyler Burns is being sent by his father on a trip with an inner-city wilderness project to get troubled urban youths to embrace nature that also includes the aggressive Darrel Lumley, the pneumatic couple of Dee Dee and Rome and the quiet Kelly. Run by the well meaning duo of Holly and Charles (and Charles’ grumpy daughter Melissa), the group hop into their van and head off into the woods while their charges grumble about the inevitable lack of cable and other amenities – but unbeknownst to them, they are about to get a run in with nature that is literally going to suck.
You see, thanks to the use of steroids by rustic drug farmers to enhance the growth of their marijuana crops, the run off has made a local breed of tick each grow to the size of Mike Tyson’s fists and their first order of business to royally fuck up scuzzy, backwoods, weed growing entrepreneur Jarvis Tanner.
As the kids attempt to negotiate their green surroundings and the adults struggle to keep them out of mischief (using lots of gasoline to start a campfire), we’re soon introduced to a couple more unsavory characters involved in the Mary Jane business in the ridiculously skeevy form of the seemingly cultured Sir (Barry Lynch acting like the ghost of David Gale has possessed his brother, Richard) and the unfeasibly redneck Jerry who use their fox and cat con man act from Pinocchio to simultaneously charm and unnerve anyone who crosses their path.
Events start to converge when the ticks kill Darrel’s dog Brutus and he leaves camp with the intention of heading back to the big city but he not only crosses paths with some enlarged bugs, but he stumbles onto Sir and Jerry’s operation who deal with the youth with a brutal mixture of fists and gunshot wounds that inadvertently start a forrest fire. Meanwhile, Dee Dee gets a dose of highly hallucinogenic tick venom after finding Jarvis’ drug farm (can none of these guys hide their drug lairs properly?) and the fire drives the blood bloated bugs and Sir and Jerry towards the camp where the kids are staying. But the most dangerous thing of all is what might be stiring within the tick infested Darrel, who has been pumping his body full of steroids to aid him to get help despite his many injuries. It’s time to gape in horror at the size of his big tick.
When compared to other, big bug movies, Ticks, rather fittingly, has managed to burrow in somewhere in the middle. Far more energetic and gruesome than most of the goofy 70’s fare as The Giant Spider Invasion and way more likable than the vast majority of disposable trash turned out by either Syfy or The Asylum, Ticks’ grungy aesthetic still gives it a small scale feeling compared to stuff like Arachnophia. However, working in the film’s favour is that it’s picked a particularly nasty example of nature to super-size – sure spiders are creepy with their fangs and webs but there’s something profoundly disturbing about a bug that borrows into your skin to suck your blood and whose head can detach and even burrow further if you don’t remove it in the correct way. That’s a cue for director Tony Randel (Hellbound: Hellraiser II) to exploit the cringe-worthy habits of the vicious little insects as much as his tight budget will allow. For our sins we get to enjoy frequent genre whipping boy Clint Howard get treated like a sleeping bag by the perilous parasites and countless scenes of the bugs bursting like bloody popcorn when introduced to their own personal Kryptonite – but the undoubted star of the show is the result of poor Darrel’s body being chock full of steroids and ticks which causes a super-tick the size of a dinner table to erupt from his body like it’s shrugging off a gruesome onesie shaped like Calton Banks from The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air.
The cast is amazingly 90’s, with the aforementioned Alfonso Ribeiro (Calton) strutting his stuff in spectacularly baggy trousers and an overcoat (does he not know know what the woods are?), while a jarringly young Seth Green sports a pair of ginger curtains so voluminous his hair could almost legally count as a golf umbrella. Elsewhere, other familiar faces such as bafflingly top billed Ami Dolenz (daughter of Mickey from The Monkees and a veteran of other 90’s “classics” as Witchboard 2 and Pumpkinhead II) and SeaQuest DSV’s Rosalind Allen all contribute to the predictably uneven performances.
However, as mid as it may be, you can tell that Ticks is actually trying despite some weird storytelling tactics (we are filled in on the drug former’s modus operandi by a hilariously random radio broadcast from BBC news that sounds like it was beamed out in 1947), puts some effort in while trying to build a sense of scale. The multiple, conflicting plot threads of killer bug, forrest fire and eccentric criminal means that the pace is fairly brisk (if a little chaotic) and while the good guys are a snapshot of every 90’s teen stereotype you’ve ever seen, none of them are actually unlikeable. The effects show some impressive levels of TLC too, with nicely passable models filling in for an shots of the forest burning or an exploding cabin and the film even stretching as far as to include some actual stop motion to make the ticks extra zippy (courtesy of legendary effects man Doug Beswick who also concocted the plot). Of course the true star of the show is the full sized mega-tick that erupts awesomely from Darrel’s carcass and is a truly impressive sight for a low budget bug hunt born of limited means.
Dodgy details aside (Charles gets a melon sized hole blown into the back of his thigh by a close-level shotgun blast which the movie amusingly treats as a mere flesh wound), this typically lively Brain Yunza production has just enough gooey effects and exploitation value to know what makes you… tick.