For centuries, homicides have used chemicals produced by plants to work on their victims. Even the common names of some plants, such as poison hemlock and deadly nightshade, are dead signs that they are fatal florals.
Hollywood has, of course, used plant poisons for lethal purposes since its inception, but, as I noted in my previous column, movies sometimes go one or more steps beyond with plants playing an active role. in the aggression of humans. The results are often – unsurprisingly – stupid.
But a series of films have actually embraced this silliness and even scored a minor point or two in popular film history.
“Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!” (1978), directed by John DeBello and written by DeBello, Costa Dillon and Stephen Peace, was clearly inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” of 1963 – unlikely, usually harmless creatures, attacking humans in large numbers without apparent reason.
Loaded with heavy parodies of film tropes, political figures and advertising practices as well as thoughtless and less well-rendered musical numbers, it had some really funny moments and hit theaters two years before “Airplane!” elevated the parody film to classic status.
(The screenplay for “Airplane!” Was written years earlier, however, by David Zucker, Jim Abraham and Jerry Zucker, and their hilarious “The Kentucky Fried Movie” of separate comedy sketches parodying movies and commercials was released. in 1977.)
The filmmakers of “Killer Tomatoes” never intended to make a sequel. But a 1986 episode of the “Muppet Babies” TV series included a reference to their original film and generated enough interest that New World Films approached them for a sequel.
“The return of the killer tomatoes!” (1988) was a commercial success, gave George Clooney one of his first lead roles, and made product placement a real subplot in its own right.
It also introduced the mad scientist, Professor Mortimer Gangreen, played by John Astin, who created the tomatoes in a plan to control the world.
Two other sequels, “Killer Tomatoes Strike Back!” (1990) and “Killer tomatoes eat France!” (1991), went straight to the video. By the end of the series, the titular monsters had gone from real fruit that bounced and chattered to much larger plastic shapes with faces (including teeth) that spoke English. An animated television series, “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” (1990-91), softened the characters, violence and humor to appeal more to children.
Unintentional stupidity was nonetheless monopolized by killer tree films such as “The Navy Versus the Night Monsters” (1966), “Island of the Doomed”, also known as “Maneater of Hydra” (1967) and the British “The Eating Woman” (1958). Even when the terrible trees could wander, as in “Night Monsters”, they were still obviously guys in tree costumes waving their arms to represent gripping branches.
The notion of such man-eating trees apparently stems from a 19th century newspaper hoax, but the related idea of trees that could club someone to death has provided us with some heroic 21st century movie trees.
The first is Whomping Willow, which I guess has a technically neutral purpose and mostly stays in the background of “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”.
The Willow, however, is notable for being the only heavy movie (of any sort) to be represented by an actual tree – a 400-year-old beech – albeit with some CGI tinkering.
And the old beech was a celebrity in his own right long before JK Rowling came to write his magic novels.
The royal beech, as it was called, was at the center of the 1866 battle of Berkhamsted Common in Hertfordshire, England, a pivotal event in the history of preserving the rights of common spaces for the people rather than for the upper classes.
(In truth, it was more about tearing down 2 miles of illegal iron fences than a real battle.)
Unfortunately, in 2015, a gale split the beech in two (perhaps nature cancels it out to appear as a willow tree or in horticultural appropriation?).
But the ambulatory tree with the highest movie body count is actually a very popular bona fide good guy, namely Groot from the Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers movies. And not only does he talk, but he also has many toys inspired by him.
Note: I included “Attack of the Mushroom People” in my previous column on Killer Plants, but a renowned biologist I know pointed out to me that fungi are in a completely different biological kingdom from plants.
Well I guess all I can say is ‘tomayto, tomahto’ – which doesn’t really apply but at least fits into the rest of this column.