Sunday, August 21, 2016

Recommendations :: Another Highly Digestible Two-Punch Combo from Arrow Video: Wayne Berwick's Microwave Massacre (1983) and John De Bello's Return of the Killer Tomatoes (1988)

Is it a horror film that thinks it’s a comedy? Or is it a comedy that thinks it’s a horror film? You be the judge as a hen-pecked husband’s already volatile home-life is suddenly made worse when his shrewish wife, May (Claire Ginsberg), purchases an industrial-size microwave oven for their suburban home; all in a terribly misguided effort to add a little gourmet-style class to their meals – now with only half the prep-time. And while Donald (Jackie Vernon) would be happy with just a bologna and beans, he is constantly presented with culinary nightmares that he stubbornly refuses to eat, which always results in a nasty argument, which ultimately results in Donald going over the edge and murdering his wife when one of these kerfuffles gets out of hand.

To hide the body, Donald chops it up into more manageable portions, wraps them in aluminum foil, and stores them in the freezer. From there, life seems to go a lot better for the liberated Donald, who unwittingly cooks up a chunk of his wife for a midnight snack but likes the taste of her so much, he quickly finishes her off (except for the head) and is soon on a comical killing spree to constantly replenish his stores and re-stock his fridge, which is compounded when all of Donald’s co-workers get addicted to sharing his sack-lunches and demand more of that scrumptious mystery meat.

Considering when it was made, people walking into Microwave Massacre (1983) expecting some kind of slasher movie will be way off the mark. And those out looking for a comedy, which this technically is, should be warned we aren’t exactly in the Zucker brothers territory either. No, this film is more akin to the blunt head-trauma comedy of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978) in that it plays the genre conventions its aping straight but amps them up to ludicrous speed. Not all the gags work, but a surprising number do. My absolute favorite bit is how the bread used to gag Donald’s sister-in-law (Sarah Alt), who’s trussed up in the closet because he refuses to eat her, convinced she’d taste awful, keeps getting moldier and moldier each time we check back in on her. And it still makes me laugh that Frosty the Snowman (Vernon) later played a cannibalistic serial killer. Apparently, the producers wanted to get Rodney Dangerfield but he proved well out of their price range after Caddyshack (1980) hit big. It was no big loss as Vernon acquits himself quite admirably.

I remember trying to watch Microwave Massacre back in the 1980s during the halcyon days of VHS rentals, drawn to it in the horror aisle at the Video Kingdom by that magnificent Midnight Video box-art. Alas, the tape was so used and abused and filled with so many crinkles I feared for my VCRs life and gave up barley ten minutes in before the heads were totally fried. Our rental outlet had several other Midnight Videos but the only on that ever played worth a damn was The Wizard of Gore (1970). This was also around the same time my family got a microwave, a big old Amana Radar Range, which weighed a ton and hummed at sterilization levels whenever engaged; and I remember having to mark and remember the hot-spots to cook things properly or you'd wind up with something still frozen on one end and molten on the other, just patiently waiting for that depresurizing first bite.

Anyhoo, glad I finally caught up to it as there’s lots to enjoy if you take the film on its own demented terms and are properly prepared for a heaping helping of borscht and corn. It also helps that Arrow Video has once more put together one helluva package making it all go down smoother. The film is restored and looks great, perhaps too great, and maybe could’ve used a few nostalgic crinkles and vid-rolls. There’s a wonderful making-of feature, My Microwave Massacre, which gives an oral history on the making of the film by those involved, director Wayne Berwick, writer Craig Muckler, and actor Loren Schein, and topped off with a delightful commentary by Muckler moderated by Mike Trustino filled with all kinds of insights on the lengthy production and the several years journey to find a distributor. Recommended for those with stern constitutions, but not responsible for any indigestion the film may cause.

And speaking of those Killer Tomatoes, Arrow Video also has a pretty spiffy package for the sequel to that wonderfully gonzo goof of a film, Return of the Killer Tomatoes (1988). Set (and released) ten years after The Great Tomato War ended, the fruit that thinks it’s a vegetable has been outlawed in the United States ever since, which makes it hard for war hero, Wilbur Finletter (Steve Peace), to make a living running a pizza parlor. (He was that idiot with the deployed parachute.) Luckily, with the help of his nephew, Chad (Anthony Starke), and his bestest bud, Matt (George Clooney), they kit-bash together some non-tomato based pies to keep the business going. Meanwhile, a mad scientist named Dr. Gangreen (John Astin) is determined to start another tomato uprising. But unlike before, where music proved the revolution's downfall, Gangreen uses mood music to transform tomatoes into gun-toting human replicant commandos. (And they called him mad at the academy.*pfeh*)

Now, one of these more *ahem* curvy replicants gets tired of being bullied by her boss and defects to the other side, where she falls for Chad, who quickly gets to the truth behind Tara's (Karen Mistal) weird behavior and strange little pet – essentially a tomato Mogwai only it isn’t articulated at all, unless being tossed around is considered articulate. Anyways, Chad and Matt eventually uncover Gangreen’s scheme to break Jim Richardson (Rick Rockwell), the instigator of the first Tomato War, out of prison, and install him as president once he’s overthrown the country, which leaves it to Chad, Matt, Tara and Finletter, who gets the surviving members of his old crew back together, including master of disguise, Sam “Anybody Got Any Ketchup” Smith (Gary Smith), to once more oppose this dastardly onslaught of killer produce and splat them for good.

I freely admit I am a huge fan of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, a film I genuinely enjoy and find kind of ingenious on many levels. Return of the Killer Tomatoes is a ton of fun, with a great performance from Astin, and a lot of clever fourth-wall breaking, with some hilarious pot-shots at filmmaking and product placement, but it doesn’t quite reach the levels of absurdity as its predecessor, which is why it’s mostly and unjustly known as an early “embarrassing” role for Clooney, though he has nothing to be embarrassed about, here. Believe me he’s been in a lot worse than this. 

The Arrow disc includes a solid commentary with the man behind it all, John De Bello, and a lengthy interview with Anthony Starke, who recounts the production and how much fun the shoot was. There’s also a spiffily illustrated collector’s booklet by critic James Oliver. Again, a lot of fun to be had if your head is the right place. And if nothing else, it has got me itching to finally do a digital upgrade on the original and finally retire that old and worn out VHS tape.

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