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page created: 10/15/03

The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

Throwing Tomatoes

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

As any connoisseur of bad cinema can tell you, there are "bad" movies and then there are BAD movies. It's virtually impossible to explain to anyone who doesn't understand why people waste their time watching something they know in advance is going to be horrible but simply put, not all turkeys are created equal. Basically, there seems to be an inverse proportion between a bad movie's budget and how big a cult it's able to develop.

On one end of the spectrum, you have your low-to-no budget flicks. I think we're all familiar with these. These are the sort of movies where the budget is about equal to a couple packs of chewing gum and a box of paper clips and the director may well have found a better use for his money by spending it on those items. This is the domain of the Ed Woods, the Al Adamsons, and the Andy Milligans. These movies are easy to love because the passion and energy the cast and crew put into these things is palpable, even when the talent is not. With movies like these, it seems a miracle that the film even got loaded into the camera correctly. These filmmakers may have tried and failed but by God they tried their damndest! And failed spectacularly!

At the other extreme are would-be blockbusters with big names, big budgets and, more often than not, big egos. If the low-budget movies are often loved more than their accomplishments merit, their big-budget brethren can be reviled more than their offenses deserve. In cases like these, it feels unforgivable that so much talent and money should be wasted on a product so inferior. Every so often a hearty soul will speak up in defense of one of these stinkers, but they're usually shouted down before anything like a cult is given a chance to grow. Something like Plan 9 From Outer Space can play at a revival house to a packed and appreciative crowd, but you won't see the same thing happening with say, The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Every so often a big-budget misfire will develop a low-budget-style cult. Showgirls is an obvious example and I even know folks who will admit to being unable to turn away from Howard the Duck. But in these instances, the movies are so completely out of whack with anything even remotely resembling a regular motion picture, all the audience can do is sit there dumbfounded and mutter, "What were they thinking?"

There is, however, one thing that both the low and big budget fiasco shares in common. Seemingly overnight, they become known as Bad Movies. And once a movie is tagged that way, it's all over. It will never ever be known as anything other than a Bad Movie. For example:

"Hey look. Ishtar's on."

"Oh, man. That's a Bad Movie."

"Have you seen it?"

"Well, no, but it's a Bad Movie."

For the record, I happen to think that Ishtar is not that bad a movie. It's a dumb comedy, sure, but I got more laughs out of it than I got out of Adam Sandler's Mr. Deeds, that's for sure. The point is that once a movie becomes known as a Bad Movie, it's well nigh unto impossible to see it as anything but. The only reason to watch it at all is to see how bad it really is. If you can sit down to watch Gigli with an open mind and not ready to prejudge it as a Bad Movie, then I want you on my jury if I'm ever arrested for murdering Bill Hunt because he decided to be funny and send me Gigli to review.

That said, let's take a look at two Bad Movies recently released to DVD. One is a classic low-budget Bad Movie, frequently named one of the worst movies ever made (high praise indeed). The other belongs to that more elite school of Bad Movies, the big budget schlock-a-thon where nothing goes right.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes: Special Collector's Edition

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Attack of the Killer Tomatoes
Special Collector's Edition - 1978 (2003) - Four Square (Rhino)

Film Rating: C+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C-/C/B+

Specs and Features:

83 mins, PG, full frame (1.33:1), custom packaging, single-sided, dual-layered, audio commentary (with director/co-writer John DeBello, actor/co-writer Steve Peace and creator Costa Dillon), Tomato Mode viewing option, 7 featurettes (Legacy of a Legend, Crash & Burn, Famous Fowl, Killer Tomatomania, Where Are They Now?, We Told You So! and Slated for Success), theatrical trailer, 2 radio spots, 3 deleted scenes with commentary, production design gallery, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes Super-8 film with optional commentary, Gone with the Babusuland Super-8 film with commentary, sing-along segments, Tomato Trivia, Killer Stuff gallery, animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (15 chapters), languages: English (DD 2.0), subtitles: none

My first exposure to the splendor and majesty of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes came, as I'm sure it did for a lot of people, in Harry and Michael Medved's book The Golden Turkey Awards. AKT was nominated for Worst Vegetable Movie, an honor it lost to the probably more-deserving Attack of the Mushroom People. Nevertheless, AKT stuck in my head and I quickly tracked it down. After watching it, I was surprised and a little disappointed to discover that this was a movie that was trying to be bad. Director John DeBello and his partners in crime had made an affectionate parody of the giant monster movies of the 1950's. In my mind, this should have disqualified it from consideration in the Golden Turkey Awards. To be a truly Bad Movie, the filmmakers need to genuinely believe that somebody somewhere is going to be frightened by the titular creatures, be they Killer Tomatoes, Mushroom People, or Giant Leeches. In AKT, that's not even a consideration.

Now of course it's possible for a comedy to be a Bad Movie, but that would simply mean that the movie just wasn't funny. And while Attack of the Killer Tomatoes isn't a parody in the same league as Young Frankenstein, it is often a lot funnier than it probably should be. The opening credits and theme song? Pretty funny. The poorly dubbed Japanese scientist? Pretty funny. The inexplicably popular "Puberty Love" song? Very funny. Sure, it goes on way too long and a lot of the jokes fall flat but on the whole, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes is charming and easy to take. It's as stupid a movie as you're ever likely to see but sometimes there's nothing wrong with a little stupidity. If Airplane! (which AKT actually predates) is the MAD Magazine of movie comedies, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes is Cracked. The way I see it, any movie that ends with hundreds of oddballs (including the San Diego Chicken!) smooshing a parking lot full of tomatoes with their feet at least has its heart in the right place.

One big reason that Attack of the Killer Tomatoes is still considered a Bad Movie seems to be simply because it was a Cheap Movie. While filming, the production garnered a little notoriety due to a helicopter accident involving the movie's biggest star, Jack Riley (if you're asking who the hell is Jack Riley right now, you're probably too young to remember the old Bob Newhart Show. Trust me, he was very funny on it). Nobody was seriously hurt in the crash and, like any good guerilla filmmaker, DeBello used the footage of the chopper going down in the finished movie. For some, this kind of thing makes AKT a Bad Movie. Personally, I think it's ingenious. The crash remains a highlight of the film, made even funnier by the fact that it seems so totally arbitrary.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes has been brought to DVD by those pop culture archeologists over at Rhino in two forms: a bare-bones edition for the merely curious and a full-fledged collector's edition in a custom box for the true Tomato lover. The video has been cropped to full-frame only, which is unfortunate but when you realize that most people probably saw this on TV in the first place, it could almost be considered its original theatrical ratio. Regardless, AKT is hardly a great-looking movie and it doesn't appear that too much visual information has been lost. The transfer is adequate, capturing the puke greens and baby blues of the 70's sets, locations and wardrobes in all their hideous glory. There are a few trouble spots, most often when heavy patterns emerge on walls or jackets but for the most part, it'll do. Sound quality is about the same, meaning it's not really that great but it gets the job done. No doubt if this disc had been in Anchor Bay's hands, we'd all be singing along to a DTS 6.1 remix of "Puberty Love". That would have been amusing for about 20 seconds. If nothing else, the mono track provided by Rhino never lets you forget you're watching a low-budget 70's flick.

For the special collector's edition, Rhino has put together a collection of extras worthy of any cult movie. Kicking things off is an audio commentary by the three guys who came up with all this nonsense: director John DeBello, actor Steve "Rock" Peace, and Costa Dillon, whose idea it was in the first place and seemingly did everything else on the project (all three are credited with the screenplay). This is a fun, laid-back track with plenty of amusing low-budget horror stories. None of them take themselves or the movie too seriously and are completely at ease with the fact that whatever fame it may have is thanks to its reputation as one of the worst movies of all time.

Also included on the disc is a "Tomato Mode" enhanced viewing option. You know the drill. Little icons appear from time to time and pressing "enter" takes you out of the movie and into a variety of clips, interviews, and the like. Sometimes you're taken to a corresponding scene in the original 8mm version of AKT, which is included in its entirety elsewhere. Other bonuses are only accessible in "Tomato Mode", including a few random comments from John Astin, who starred in every Killer Tomato movie except for this one.

Any questions about AKT that may be unanswered after all this are surely addressed in the half a dozen or so featurettes on the disc. Legacy of a Legend is a basic overview of all things Tomato. Crash & Burn goes into detail about the aforementioned helicopter accident and includes local news footage of the incident and clips of Johnny Carson interviewing Jack Riley on The Tonight Show. Where Are They Now? is pretty self-explanatory, though its done in such a tongue-in-cheek style you're not really sure what to believe (yes, Steve Peace really did turn to politics after Attack of the Killer Tomatoes…hey, if Schwarzenegger can become governor, then Wilbur Finletter can be a senator). And Slated for Success shows us whatever happened to the slate girl on AKT. Necessary information? Nope, but kind of amusing anyway.

On the negative half of the equation are a handful of gag featurettes that are neither informative nor particularly funny. Famous Fowl turns the spotlight on the San Diego Chicken for a couple of minutes but does nothing to explain how he turned up in the movie. Killer Tomatomania feels like something that would run on E!, as a fabulous babe correspondent (who admits she's never even seen AKT) and some dude in a tomato costume annoy people outside of the Hollywood and Highland complex in LA. Finally, We Told You So! attempts to show how Attack of the Killer Tomatoes is in fact an H.G. Wells-ish piece of prophetic science fiction. Hardy-har-har.

Rounding out this overstuffed tomato is a pair of 8mm films from the creators of AKT. The original Attack of the Killer Tomatoes short film is here with an optional commentary by DeBello, Peace, and Dillon. We also get to see Gone with the Babusuland, a short version of the proposed feature-length epic Do They Accept Traveler's Checks in Babusuland. Commentary runs on this one whether you want it to or not, but since it's a silent film, it doesn't interfere all that much. Three brief deleted scenes from AKT are here, also with mandatory commentary by John DeBello. You also get the theatrical trailer, two radio spots, a gag "Production Design" gallery, sing-along segments for the AKT tunes, a gallery of props and other stuff, and a pointless trivia game. The game isn't really much of a game, since it isn't interactive and doesn't tell you anything that isn't found elsewhere on the disc. Finally, there's a couple of Easter Eggs (Easter Tomatoes?) hidden for your viewing pleasure, one of which features my old buddy Lloyd "President of Troma Studios and creator of the Toxic Avenger" Kaufman.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes isn't a great movie. Hell, I don't think it's even a great Bad Movie. But it has a rabid fan base (and you know who you are) that should be more than satisfied with this package. If you're a "Weird Al" fan, you'll probably get a kick and half out of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.


Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

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2003 (2003) - Warner Bros/Castle Rock/Village Roadshow (Warner Bros.)

Film Rating: D

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/A-/C

Specs and Features:

134 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, Snapper packaging, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 57:21 in chapter 16), 3 featurettes (DreamWriter: An Interview with Stephen King, DreamMakers: A Journey Through the Production and DreamWeavers: The Visual Effects of Dreamcatcher), 4 lifted scenes, original ending, teaser trailer, cast and crew, DVD-ROM features, animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (37 chapters), languages: English and French (DD 5.1), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, Closed Captioned

On the other hand, I don't know who or what you'd have to be a fan of to get even one-eighth of a kick out of Lawrence Kasdan's Dreamcatcher, based on the novel by Stephen King. King is no stranger to Bad Movie territory. In their quest to bring every syllable King has ever written to the screen, filmmakers have botched the job a lot more often than they've gotten it right. Even King himself has churned out a Bad Stephen King Movie, the hopelessly ridiculous Maximum Overdrive. But most Bad King Movies have a solid foundation made entirely of cheese. Children of the Corn, The Lawnmower Man, Creepshow 2. None of these are good movies but at least they're bad in a goofy, low-budget kind of way. Now that King is being taken seriously as a novelist, we've seen the rise of something far more frightening than anything to slither out of his imagination: the pretentious and ponderous Bad Stephen King Movie. While pieces of this new creature have been lurking around for awhile now, everything first truly came together in Scott Hicks' tedious Hearts in Atlantis. Dreamcatcher is the next step in its evolution.

While Dreamcatcher is in fact one of the few King books I haven't read, I have been assured that the novel is much, much better than the adaptation. The basic story is this. Four friends form an unbreakable bond when, as boys, they come to the rescue of a mentally challenged kid named Duddits. Somehow, Duddits gives them a psychic bond and a few additional goodies, like the ability to read minds and create a swirly vortex thing in the air that points out lost keys, children, and what have you. Think Stand by Me meets The Fantastic Four. The kids grow up and become Thomas Jane, Jason Lee, Damian Lewis, and Timothy Olyphant. Lewis is hit by a car and almost dies. After he recuperates, the four buddies head up to their hunting cabin in the middle of Nowhere, Maine. And that's when the craziness starts, involving Alien-like space monsters that blast out your ass, creepy signs of a virulently contagious virus, and a highly classified military group led by the certifiably nuts Morgan Freeman whose job it is to contain this whole thing. Think The Stand meets The Tommyknockers.

For a little while, Dreamcatcher almost fools you into thinking it might salvage itself into kind of a neat little movie. There are individual moments of weirdness, including the rescue of a lost hunter and a mass exodus of animals the hell out of the E.T.-infested forest that, if they had been combined and resolved properly, would have been downright nifty. It reminded me ever so briefly of one of those John Wyndham adaptations like Village of the Damned or The Day of the Triffids, in which a number of creepy but seemingly unrelated incidents come together to form a potentially apocalyptic scenario. And I'd like to think that maybe that could have happened with Dreamcatcher in someone else's hands.

Unfortunately, Dreamcatcher was in Lawrence Kasdan's hands and much of the movie's failure rests squarely on his shoulders. Kasdan makes no effort to disguise the flashback sequences' thematic similarity to Stand by Me. In fact, the only real difference is the quality of the child actors involved. Imagine if instead of casting kids like River Phoenix and Wil Wheaton, Rob Reiner had just grabbed the first four kids he saw on the street. And despite his credits as a screenwriter on such thrill rides as Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back, Kasdan seems to have no idea how to approach a horror movie. The film is chockful of plot holes and logical inconsistencies. If the four guys share a psychic link, how come they don't immediately know when one of them has been slaughtered by an alien? In the entire history of Bad Choices Made by Future Monster Victims, there are few stupider than Jason Lee's decision to risk his life for an out-of-reach toothpick. And the less said about the thrilling conclusion, the better.

While Dreamcatcher is every inch a Bad Stephen King Movie, it's a fairly decent DVD. It looks terrific, even though the predominant color scheme is white, a difficult shade to capture digitally. The widescreen picture is anamorphically enhanced and the image has a nice clarity of detail to it. The sound is equally impressive, with monster hisses and helicopter invasions swirling around dramatically.

The extras are just OK, primarily consisting of a trio of featurettes. Stephen King himself talks about the novel and the circumstances surrounding its writing in DreamWriter, the most interesting of the three. Clocking in at a little over seven minutes, it's not particularly in-depth but its worth checking out for King fans. DreamMakers interviews Kasdan and the crew, while DreamWeavers focuses on the visual effects. Both of these latter two featurettes serve to try to convince us that the movie we've just suffered through is actually pretty good. They do not succeed in reaching that objective.

Apart from these, the only other substantial extra is a series of "lifted" scenes. I guess they're not called "deleted" scenes so that we won't wonder why the rest of the movie wasn't just deleted as well. None of these add a single iota of interesting material to the finished film, except for a gag scene that at least proves that Thomas Jane, Donnie Wahlberg, and Tom Sizemore have a sense of humor. The original ending is also included and it's only marginally stupider than the one they ended up with. Rounding things out are the teaser trailer (which prophetically ends with Freeman intoning, "I'll show you things you wish you'd never seen") and a page of cast and crew information.

There are a lot of reasons why filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and David Cronenberg never stray too far from the horror genre but one of the biggest is simply that they understand it and they're good at it. Far too often, "respectable" directors fall flat on their face when they try to get their hands dirty in the genre. Kenneth Branagh couldn't make a go of it with his version of Frankenstein. Stephen Frears failed miserably with his Jekyll-and-Hyde variation, Mary Reilly. And now Lawrence Kasdan joins the crew with one of the worst Stephen King adaptations to date. Filmmakers everywhere, I beseech you. If you're going to make a Bad King Movie, make it fast and make it cheap. I would much rather chuckle through 90 minutes of Maximum Overdrive than sleep through two-plus hours of Dreamcatcher any day of the week.

Adam Jahnke

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

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