Honey, Where’s the Weed-B-Gone? – By Philip Smolen

“Intelligence in plants and vegetables is an old story Mr. Scott; older even than the animal arrogance that has overlooked it.”

– Botanist Dr. Stern to Reporter Ned Scott in 1951’s “The Thing from Another World”

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When the seasonal equinox turns to spring, I, like millions of other dashing suburbanites, turn my attention to my lawn, shrubs, and garden. I rake, prune, fertilize, and plant, all in an effort to make my home a little greener and prettier. But there’s a destructive side to my gardening adventures. I also weed, rip up, and destroy all those members of the phylum “Plantae” that displease me.

Do we ever really consider the importance of plants to our existence? Without these marvels of evolution scrubbing our air of poisonous carbon dioxide and producing oxygen, humans would have a much rougher go of it on this planet. Mostly, we treat them as a nuisance. We spray weed killer indiscriminately, uproot entire forests for lumber for our homes, and generally treat our chlorophyll-based friends as third tier citizens.

So it’s no great surprise that producers and screenwriters have taken the opportunity to dream up scenarios where plant-based life forms strike back at us. Plant monsters can sometimes occupy a portion of the “Lost World” movie (See “The Land Unknown” [1957] and “The Lost World” [1960]). In these movies, the heroine usually stumbles into a giant man-eating plant’s clutches, and has to be rescued by the hero, who then gives a brief soliloquy about how the plant life in this region has undergone some sort of fantastic evolutionary process. Killer plants can also be a standard part of the “Jungle Thriller” film.

While the first killer plant movie was Universal’s “The Spider Woman Strikes Back” (1946), the most famous killer plant in movie history is probably James Arness in “The Thing from Another World” (1951). Described as an “intellectual carrot”, Arness’s alien is still one of the screen’s great monsters. However, while described as a vegetable, this alien looks and behaves like a mammal. He walks upright, has hands and feet, and has the physical capabilities of a human. Another famous plant monster is “Audrey” the carnivorous plant from Roger Corman’s “Little Shop of Horrors” (1960). In the film, schlemiel Seymour Krelboined (Jonathan Haze) finds an unusual plant that grows into a huge man-eating monster. Here, the monster can’t move and is dependent on Seymour for its nourishment (“Feed me!”). Witty and surprisingly sophisticated, “Little Shop of Horrors” remains a monster plant movie favorite.

But there have been many other films that featured a chlorophyll-based villain. So here’s a look at a few films where the main nemesis turns out to be either a plant or a plant-animal hybrid.

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1. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (Allied Artists, 1956) – Director: Don Siegel

When local physician Miles Bennett (Kevin McCarthy) returns to his sleepy hometown of Santa Mira, he is besieged by patients who report that their loved ones are not their loved ones at all, but imposters. At first, Miles shrugs this off as mild hysteria from the stressful times people live in. Then, several days later while romancing his old flame Becky Driscoll (gorgeous Dana Wynter) at the home of friends Jack and Teddy Belicec (King Donovan and Carolyn Jones), the foursome are horrified to discover huge seedpods in Jack’s shed. One of the monstrosities opens up, revealing a human form that slowly starts to take Jack’s shape while he naps in a chair. By time the local authorities arrive, the body is gone and the group has no evidence to support their wild claims. Then, Miles learns that the pods are everywhere in Santa Mira and everyone has been replaced. The pod people act human, but lack one basic trait – they are emotionless automatons. They can’t feel, love, hate, or care for one another. Miles and Becky run for their lives, and to Miles’s horror, his beloved Becky falls victim to the pods. Miles is left alone, screaming like a lunatic, trying to warn the world of the pending invasion by unemotional pods.

With each passing year Don Siegel’s classic becomes more and more important. We see ourselves growing colder and harsher. We now derive a lot of our entertainment from shows where people are humiliated. How much closer are we to the pods? Siegel’s terrifying movie of an invasion by seeds from outer space continues to remind us of the importance of being human. This film takes likeable characters and thrusts them into a world of horror that’s more dreadful than most people could ever imagine. For Siegel, and screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring, the horror is not in being replaced with a lookalike, but that humans will choose to be replaced so willingly. When main villain Daniel Kaufman (Larry Gates) tell Miles of how great it is not to carry the emotional baggage of humanity, one can almost believe it. There are great performances here including McCarthy, Wynter, Donovan and Gates. Siegel expertly crafts scenes of sheer terror as the last remaining humans try desperately to survive in a world where they are no longer needed. Remade in 1978, 1993, and 2008 (each reflecting the anxiety of the times), “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” remains an impressive classic sci-fi film. Fifty-five years after its release, it speaks louder to us now than ever before.

Quotable Movie Line: “At first glance everything looked the same. It wasn’t. Something evil had taken possession of the town.”

2. FROM HELL IT CAME (Allied Artists, 1957) – Director: Dan Milner

On a South Pacific island, members of an international scientific team (Tod Andrews, John McNamara, and Tina Carver) try to treat the local natives for various diseases, while checking for radiation that has drifted to the island from recent atomic tests. However, the tribe’s chief Maranka (Baynes Barron) and witch doctor Tano (Robert Swan) will have none of this, and keep their people in a grip of fear. When Kimo (Gregg Palmer) disobeys them and seeks the American’s help for his sick father, Tano and Maranka poison Kimo’s father and blame Kimo for his death. When Kimo’s wife Kory (Suzanne Ridgway) lies and testifies against Kimo, he is put to death with a ceremonial dagger that is driven into his heart. Kimo is buried upright in a coffin. However, before he dies, Kimo swears revenge on all of those who betrayed him. Several days later, a strange stump begins to grow out of Kimo’s grave. The stump has a fearsome evil visage and sports the same ceremonial dagger that Kimo was killed with. The Americans dig up the stump (which the natives call a “Tabanga”). It slowly withers on the laboratory table until Carver injects it with a special serum she’s been working on. Sure enough, the Tabanga revives and goes on a killing spree, first killing Kory, and then going after Tano and Maranka. Can the scientists find a way to destroy this hellish creature before it wipes everyone out?

Ah! Can you smell that? It’s a chunk of refined processed movie cheese that could only have been made in the 1950s. “From Hell it Came” is one of the most ridiculous sci-fi movies of the decade. It’s right up there with “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman” (1958) and “Plan 9 from Outer Space” (1958). The screenplay is a mishmash of standard atomic monster movie, old fashioned revenge thriller, and voodoo horror. It seems that screenwriters Richard Bernstein, Dan Milner, and Jack Milner just threw in whatever they could think of to get their monster tale going. It makes absolutely no sense. You never know if Kimo is the “Tabanga”, or if it’s his sprit that inhabits the creature. The Americans are all a bunch of dopes that don’t even stop to think if they should dig up the stump and treat it. This film was made on the cheap and it shows. The creature costume, built by the legendary Don Post studios (following a design by low budget effects artist Paul Blaisdell), is too stiff and immovable to instill anything but laughter in a movie audience. It’s so immobile that when the creature throws Kory into a pit of quicksand, the actress has to push herself away from the edge of the pool to make it look like she’s going to drown. It might have helped if the film featured shots of the monster stalking its victims in the dark. That might have given the film a nightmarish quality. But, instead, all of the attacks occur in daylight which reveal the costume’s shortcomings. “From Hell it Came” can’t be defended on any level, except as a cheese classic. There, it stands pretty much on its own.

Quotable Movie Line: “I know what. Why don’t we psychoanalyze the monster? Maybe its mother was scared by an oak tree!”

3. DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (Allied Artists, 1963) – Directors: Steve Sekely and Freddie Francis (uncredited)

Skipper Bill Masen (Howard Keel) has a problem. He’s just had an eye operation in London, and his doctor won’t take the bandages off until tomorrow. That means he’s going to be one of the few people in the world who will not be able to witness the incredible meteor shower that’s happening. Bill’s upset, but not upset as most of the other people in the world, who go blind after witnessing the event. It turns out that Bill is one of the lucky people left in the world who can see. When he wakes up the next day, he can’t believe the destruction that’s happened. At a train station he rescues a young girl named Susan (Janina Faye). Together, they try to find a way to get to a rescue station that hasn’t been destroyed. But their journey is complicated by a dangerous new species of carnivorous plant called Triffids that have been sprouting, growing, and uprooting themselves in search for food. It turns out that their favorite food is man. So as Bill and Susan traverse across Europe, they have to watch out for roving bands of Triffids, who seem to be everywhere. Meanwhile, in an old English Lighthouse that’s located on an isolated island, alcoholic scientist Tom Goodwin (Kieron Moore) and his wife Karen (Janette Scott) desperately try to find a way to destroy these horrible new monsters.

Based on a famous novel by John Wyndham, “Day of the Triffids” is bifurcated. There are two central stories to be told here, so the film constantly cuts back and forth between Bill and Susan and Tom and Karen. This defuses the film’s energy and drive. There are some nice set pieces, and the early scenes of Howard Keel walking around a destroyed London are eerie and atmospheric (you can almost see where director Danny Boyle got his idea for the first part of his zombie film “28 Days” (2002). The scenes with Keiron Moore and Janette Scott trapped in the claustrophobic lighthouse are good too, but because the film keeps cutting back to the other main characters, it becomes frustrating and annoying. The actors are pretty good here (reportedly Keel hated his dialogue so much he rewrote most of it), with Moore taking top honors as the alcoholic scientist who learns to care again. The Triffids themselves are decent monsters for a 1960s sci-fi film. They look a little too fake, but effects man Wally Veevers does a good job of covering up their shortcomings by adding in some nice matte paintings of rows and rows of Triffids. Remade twice, “Day of the Triffids” has some good things going for it, but the constant cutting back and forth damages the film, and keeps it from becoming a classic.

Quotable Movie Line: “You’re probably one of the few people left in London who can still see this morning. I don’t envy you. I don’t think I’d care to see the things you’re likely to see.”

4. SWAMP THING (Embassy, 1982) – Director: Wes Craven

In the deep swamps of the American South, devoted scientist Dr. Alec Holland (Ray Wise) works with his sister and a small government team to unlock the secrets of local plant life. A new member of the team, Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau) enters the compound just as Holland succeeds in distilling a new genetic plant serum that could hold untold benefits for mankind. But as he celebrates, the compound is besieged by soldiers who are led by Holland’s bitter enemy, Arcane (Louis Jordan). Holland’s new serum accidentally sets him on fire, and he plunges into the swamp. Cable flees with Holland’s notes, and is pursued by Arcane’s men. But just as they are about to capture her, a monstrous humanoid/beast emerges from the swamp to protect her. Cable realizes that this strange amalgam of human and plant is Holland himself. He has become the Swamp Thing, a creature of great strength, power, and intelligence. Together, Cable and the Swamp Thing are determined to bring the megalomaniac Arcane down.

Watching “Swamp Thing” in 1982 at a local New Jersey theater was a great treat. I went in not expecting much and came out thrilled. This was the first film from legendary director Wes Craven where he stretched his directorial wings. This was his first full out fantasy and it shocked me how well he directed it, despite a very low budget. Craven directs confidently, and generates a great fairy tale atmosphere. The film is also surprisingly tender and moving, and Barbeau, Wise, and stunt man Dick Durock (in the monster costume) do a wonderful job of bringing humanity to their characters. Durock is especially good. You can feel his pain as he tries to understand what’s happened to him. Louis Jordan is also a treat as Arcane, the evil sophisticated madman. He chews up the scenery and makes a great villain. The swamp also makes an excellent setting, with shapes and shadows that really add to the film’s creepiness. The film is only let down by the shabbiness of the monster costumes. Bill Munns (who specialized in creating effects for low budget films) is credited with creating the costumes. His effects budget was really small, so the camera betrays the costume’s cheapness, especially the furry dragon that Arcane morphs into at the end. I keep thinking that if only Munns was able to have a slightly larger budget for the effects, “Swamp Thing” would have been a very special comic book adaptation. As it stands, it’s a fun film, but it’s damaged by the cheapness of the title creature.

Quotable Movie Line: “Holland had great talent, but talent does only what it can. Genius does what it must. It is master of man, absolute!”

5. GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE (Toho, 1989) – Director: Kazuki Omari

Japan is still reeling from the recent revival and attack by Godzilla. Though the monster has fallen into a volcano, he is still on everyone’s mind. An American cleanup crew (working for a secret American firm) finds cells from Godzilla, but the team is killed, and the cells stolen by a spy working for a shadowy Middle Eastern state. Then a famous research scientist Dr. Shirigami (Koji Takahashi) agrees to work for this country and help them use the cells from Godzilla. However, American agents bomb the scientist’s lab, killing his daughter. Five years later, the bitter scientist agrees to help Japan develop anti-nuclear bacteria using some Godzilla cells. However, Shirigami instead creates a monstrous hybrid plant that’s made of the bacteria, Godzilla cells, and his daughter’s DNA! He calls the plant “Biollante”. Meanwhile Japan is blackmailed by the secret American company, and the volcano that houses Godzilla is blown up. The big G rises up and heads straight to the lake where Biollante lives. Can a titanic battle between a giant plant and a giant dinosaur be prevented? If not, what can Japan do to save itself?

After the successful restart of the Godzilla franchise in 1984/85, Toho had no luck getting any American film company to release “Godzilla vs. Biollante.” Instead, the film came out in the US on video in 1992, just as other entries in the series were being released. It’s not surprising that this film had no US screenings as it’s one of the most confusing entries in the series. This film has just about everything going for it. You’ve got two giant monsters, spies, psychics who communicate with Godzilla, double-crossing secret agents, and Americans who want to destroy Japan! It’s certainly not boring, but as you can imagine, none of this blends too well for an American film audience. Just as you think you’ve got it all figured out, director Kazuki Omari throws in another side bar to the film. This subterfuge takes up so much time that Godzilla doesn’t even make an appearance until the film is nearly an hour old! I don’t know about you, but what I like in a Godzilla film are the scenes of the monster stomping around (although to be honest, watching them in this film made me a little uneasy, because of the recent tragedy in Japan). There’s very little stomping around here, and that’s disappointing. While Biollante makes an unusual villain, it only makes two appearances. You need to get the feeling that the monster Godzilla faces is as much an unstoppable force as he is. Biollante just sits there waiting for Godzilla to show up! Some of the scenes with Biollante are somber and poetic, but for me, that’s not enough for a Godzilla film. “Godzilla vs Biollante” is a big G film that leaves me wanting more. And that makes it a disappointment in my book.

Quotable Movie Line: “If research goes on the way it is, genetic technology is sure to produce a monster far worse than Godzilla.”

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Of course there are many more entries in the killer plant series (see below), but these five films each add something different to the sci-fi film compendium. They’re not all successful, but they represent a good cross-section from this serviceable sub-genre.

More Films with Killer Plants

1. The Angry Red Planet (1959)
2. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978)
3. The Guardian (1990)
4. The Happening (2008)
5. Konga (1961)
6. The Little Shop of Horrors (musical remake, [1986])
7. The Lost Continent (1968)
8. Man-Eater of Hydra (1966)
9. The Navy vs the Night Monsters (1965)
10. Please Don’t Eat My Mother (1972)
11. Return of the Swamp Thing (1989)
12. Return of the Killer Tomatoes (1988)
13. Seeds of Evil (1974)
14. The Unknown Terror (1957)
15. Voodoo Island (1957)
16. The Woman Eater (1959)

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Selected Bibliography

Galbraith, Stuart IV. Japanese Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc, 1994.
Palmer, Randy. Paul Blaisdell, Monster Maker. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc. 1997.
Schoell, William. Creature Features. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc. 2008.
Senn, Bryan and Johnson, John. Fantastic Cinema Subject Guide. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc. 1992.
Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties (The 21st Century Edition). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc. 2010.

 

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