For the many ill-wishers out there, the most disappointing thing about M. Night Shyamalan’s environmental thriller “The Happening” wasn’t that it was a failure, but that it wasn’t a spectacular failure. Critics went in with their long knives out, only to leave shrugging that they’ve seen worse. Having made $59 million in theaters, it’s not even the box office bomb some expected after “Lady in the Water.” All in all, “The Happening” is actually pretty successful, considering it’s a serious horror film about trees… that kill! In honor of that dubious designation, here’s a look at the spotty history of films about murderous botanic life that have preceded it.
Film: Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! (1978)
Directed by John De Bello
M.O.: Produce that, for no apparent reason, become massive and murderous.
De Bello’s broad comedy mocked B-movie conventions while bearing its reported $90,000 budget like a badge of honor. The effects are wretched you can famously see the wheels on one tomato as it attacks a woman in a parking lot, and the sole seeming expense, a helicopter crash, was a genuine accident that was then included in the film, the characters blaming it on an unseen “kamikaze tomato.” The plot is ridiculous why do the tomatoes attack? Why is their great weakness what it is? How do they make that grumbling noise? Do they have vocal chords? The jokes are terrible Sam Smith, the African-American expert in disguise, dresses as Hitler, at which point another character, meeting him, shrieks “My GOD! It’s Adolf Hitler!” and attacks him. And it’s all great fun — enough that it spawned three sequels, in which the tomatoes returned, struck back and ate France, as well as an animated series and a planned remake from Kent Nichols and Douglas Sarine, the creators of “Ask a Ninja.”
Fun fact! George Clooney appears in 1988 sequel “Return of the Killer Tomatoes” it’s one of his earliest film roles.
Film: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Directed by Philip Kaufman
M.O.: Space pods that spawn perfect, emotion-free duplicates of humans they then take out.
There’s speculation as to the true nature of the alien pod people who invade via space spores in each of the three film adaptations of Jack Finney’s 1955 novel “The Body Snatchers” (four if you count Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2007 “The Invasion,” but why would you do that?), but its Kaufman’s 1978 version, starring Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams and Jeff Goldblum, that makes the flora connection most explicit. The body snatchers first appear to Earth’s populace by way of beautiful, parasitic flowers that spring up all over San Francisco don’t you want to just take one home and put it on your bedside table? While it’s the idea of those close to you people being quietly replaced by emotionless doubles that’s made “The Body Snatchers” such an enduringly creepy story and a cinematic favorite, there’s something powerfully offputting about “Invasion”‘s steathily deadly blossoms. As Veronica Cartwright’s character points out, “Why not a space flower? Why do we always expect metal ships?”
Fun fact! Kevin McCarthy, the star of the 1956 version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” has a cameo appearance as a man ranting about aliens in the street. Apparently, 20-plus years later, people still weren’t believing him.
Film: Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989)
Directed by Kazuki Omori
M.O.: Giant mutant rosebush with tentacles, teeth.
The seventeenth Godzilla film provides what may be the strangest opponent the iconic lizard has ever faced: a plant monster fashioned by a grieving scientist from a combination of Godzilla DNA, rose DNA and the DNA of his own dead daughter. It sounds bizarre, but Biollante is, as kaiju go, both impressive after an uninspiring initial encounter in which she appears to be a large, toothy rose, she returns as one of the series’ better-looking monsters, with a giant lizard head and tentacles with their own mouths and, well, poignant, arriving to fight Godzilla just in time to save Osaka, with her tragic origin story and plaintive, dolphin-like cry. Check out the final battle between the two monsters on YouTube.
Fun fact! Fans speculate that Biollante’s spores may have birthed SpaceGodzilla, but this has never been confirmed by Toho.
Film: The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)
Directed by Roger Corman
M.O.: Butterwort/Venus Flytrap hybrid with a taste for human flesh, sass.
In an attempt to save his job at a bedraggled florist’s shop, Seymour Krelboyne brings out the plant he bred by combining two carnivorous species. Given its parentage, no one can really blame poor Audrey Jr. (named for Seymour’s crush and coworker, Audrey Fulquard) for craving more than Miracle-Gro. Seymour starts off by nursing Audrey Jr. on his own blood, and moves on to feeding the plant, who grows alarmingly large, the bodies of people he’s accidentally murdered. There’s an oppressive mother, Jack Nicholson in one of his earliest film roles as a masochistic dental patient, and of course, Audrey Jr.’s acquired, mysterious ability to speak. Voiced by Charles B. Griffith, who also wrote the screenplay, the plant’s refrain is one of “Feeeeee meeee!”, though he’s also happy to suggest when someone’s plump enough to look tasty, leading Mel Welles’ Gravis Mushnik to observe “We not only got a talking plant, we got one that makes with smart cracks.”
Fun fact! Principal photography on the film was shot in two days and one night using sets leftover from another production.
Film: The Ruins (2008)
Directed by Carter Smith
M.O.: Sentient YucatÃ¡n plant life with the ability to mimic cell phone noises and burrow into flesh.
Based on a bleak-as-all-hell horror novel by Scott Smith, the writer responsible for “A Simple Plan” (and the Academy Award-nominated screenwriter behind both adaptations), “The Ruins” is the extreme end of that growing “Hostel”/”Turistas” subgenre of films embodying America’s suspicions that everyone else in the world would like to violently kill us in this case, even the local plant life. But no matter how you pitch it, a tale of killer vines is always going to be a tough sell, and “The Ruins” seemed to have trouble overcoming its own premise at the box office, despite the involvement of considerable talent like Smith, indie princess Jena Malone and “My Blueberry Nights” DP Darius Khondji. What never came across in the marketing is how unerringly bad things go for “The Ruins” travelers amputations, under-skin vine invasions and self-mutilation made the film dark enough to measure up against the likes of stripped-down gorefests like “Wolf Creek,” and made its cutthroat creepers villains to be reckoned with.
Fun (spoilery) fact! While the body count is high in the film, given the scarcity of characters, it’s higher in the book everyone dies.
Irradiated mushrooms of doom
Film: Matango (1963)
Directed by Ishiro Honda
M.O.: People who’ve been transformed into mushrooms. Or… mushrooms who’ve become people-like?
Dubbed into English and released on American TV as “Attack of the Mushroom People,” this cult classic looks at what happens to the crew and passengers of a shipwrecked yacht stranded on a foggy island. Another vessel that’s run aground there is abandoned, but covered with a strange fungus and filled with equipment indicating it was used in studies involving that ol’ bugaboo of tokusatsu eiga, radiation! There are mushrooms everywhere, something the captain warns everyone off from eating because of poison, but with food supplies scarce, they’re awfully tempting. Seems the crew of the older ship wasn’t so careful they start turning up as lumpy, threatening figures in the night, and before long the shipwrecked start succumbing to the fungal allure, themselves transforming into, well, walking mushrooms. The dub deliberately cheeses the film up, but it’s odd and dark enough, with an unexpected ending, that its disturbing tone shines through Tokyo Shock’s 2005 DVD release offers the original Japanese audio.
Fun fact! This film is actually based on a short story by an English writer, William Hope Hodgson “The Voice in the Night.”
[Photos: “The Happening,” Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, 2008; “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!”, NAI Entertainment, 1978; “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” United Artists, 1978; “Godzilla vs. Biollante,” Dimension Films, 1992; ; “The Little Shop of Horrors,” The Filmgroup, 1960; “The Ruins,” DreamWorks SKG, 2008, “Matango,” Toho Company, 1963]