From Here To Obscurity: The Crawlers

PLEASE NOTE: The movies reviewed in From Here to Obscurity have either never been given an official VHS or DVD release, have been released on VHS but are long out of print and very hard to find, or are readily available in some form but have generally gone unnoticed by most of the general public.

With today being Arbor Day, the day where we celebrate our friend the tree, I thought what better time to look back upon one of the greatest tree-themed horror movies of all time. Then I changed my mind and decided to do a retrospective on of one of the worst movies ever made that just happens to be based around the concept of mutated, radioactive, killer tree roots. Yes, you read that last part correctly. The trees themselves don’t do the killing, their roots do. The movie I speak of is 1990’s The Crawlers, which can easily lay claim to be the first, and most likely last, horror movie ever made about killer mutant tree roots. I can safely say that this movie has absolutely, positively no redeeming values whatsoever other than the disbelief you will experience upon realizing that you are watching a movie based entirely around the concept of people getting killed by tree roots.

Despite having been produced in 1990, The Crawlers looks and feels like the kind of cheap regional production that would have made the rounds on the local drive-in circuit back in the 1970s when nonsensical ecological horror movies such as this were in vogue. A crooked nuclear power plant manager has been illegally dumping nuclear waste in the forest outside of a backwoods Alaskan town. The radiation has thus been seeping into the soil where it got lapped up by the tree roots. This has caused the roots to detach from their trees, grow and elongate, and begin prowling the woods like wormy tendrils looking for hapless victims to trip, drag, lash, strangle, and just generally coil around. They really could have called this movie The Hosers because the killer tree roots look like disguised garden hoses that are being whipped around and thrown at the actors from off camera. It’s kind of hard for a movie monster to be scary when its primary attribute is an ability to flail about.

Our protagonists are an ex-boyfriend and girlfriend couple that broke up when she moved away to the big city in search of a better life rather than living in a hick Alaskan town where people actually complain a lot about it being too hot. She’s returning home for a visit and you have to wonder why the movie even bothered to include the stuff about their having broken up because the moment they meet up again they immediately begin running around behaving like characters from Return to Two Moon Junction. At least until they discover a corpse in the woods.

They run to the town sheriff to tell him of the body they found in the woods but he’ll have nothing of it because what they don’t know is that he’s in the back pocket of the crooked nuclear power plant manager. The evil sheriff helps to cover up the deaths by sending the Crawler victim corpses to the power plant where the evil plant manager just happens to have an evil biologist on staff to reveal that the mutant roots feed on animal cells and leave behind high amounts of radiation in the victim’s corpse. This is visualized by the body on the slab having its face made up too look like it’s covered in green burn marks.

Enter a drunken technician at the power plant who looks as if he could be the brother of the Zap Rowsdower character from the movie The Final Sacrifice seen on “MST3K”. He has uncovered the truth about the illegal dumping and it’s irradiating the forest’s trees. Like any good whistleblower he confronts the person at the center of the corruption, informing him of what he knows and how he’s going to use it to bring him down. The evil plant manager responds by bringing in two thugs that he apparently keeps on call at all times leading to a power jogging foot race through the plant that then turns into a prolonged car chase where they reach maximum speeds of 45 mph. Unable to shake the hitmen with his Gran Turismo driving skills, the whistleblower inexplicably pulls off the road and runs screaming into the woods to hide behind a tree. Fortunately, the goons follow only to end up getting killed by the killer tree roots. No explanation as to why the roots chose to completely ignore the man watching all this happen from just a few feet away, but it’s okay because they still end up killing him during the third act.

A short while later, an investigative reporter that bares a disturbing resemblance to Anthony Edwards ala Revenge of the Nerds shows up to uncover the truth about his grandfather’s death, as he was one of the first to fall victim to the tree roots and the whereabouts of his remains are in question.

All the protagonists eventually unite and attempt to warn the disbelieving townspeople while the panicky evil plant manager screams at the evil sheriff over the phone to do away with the troublemakers, and along the way we get numerous moments of zen such as:

Continuity errors that would make Ed Wood proud as day turns to night and back again in the course of a single scene.

All of the actors seem to have learned how to act by studying the voice work of badly dubbed chop sockey flicks. I can’t say with 100% certainty but a couple characters sounded as if their voices were dubbed in by somebody else and those someone’s spoke with the kind of deep voice with lots of pauses just like you’d hear in a badly dubbed chop sockey flick. Other actors clearly seem to be reading their lines from a cue card off screen.

No shortage of scenes featuring people wandering around the woods for a variety of reasons and lots of scenes of cars driving about. If you love movies featuring plenty of scenes of cars pulling up and driving away then this is your kind of flick.

The movie features what may be a record amount of foot-level camerawork as we’re constantly given the Crawlers point of view, which would all well and good if they actually had eyes. How these things see or find their way around is never delved into. They also possess impeccable timing, as they almost always seem to find just the right moment to sneak up on somebody.

Male characters keep congregating to the home of the town tramp but instead of having sex it seems like she just sits on the bed in a negligee smoking a cigarette while they ramble on about their personal problems.

The whistleblower gets arrested by the evil sheriff but manages to escape by simply picking the lock on his cell door and walking out unscathed.

It turns out that even mutated tree roots know what phone lines are and have enough sense to take them out.

The evil sheriff’s plan to kill off the good guys is thwarted when the Crawlers show up just in the nick of time. He ends up getting a tree root up through the roof of his mouth and out the eye socket. This brief moment of gore appears to be the only reason for the film’s R-rating.

The protagonists finally confront the evil plant manager in his office where he first confesses his sins and then turns right around claiming they can’t prove any of it before finally whipping out a handgun and casually blowing his brains out. This is the most nonchalant suicide scene I’ve ever seen on film.

It all culminates in the less than thrilling climax that begins with the whistleblower in a helicopter discovering the location of the secret nuclear waste dump, which turned out to be fairly easy to spot, probably because it was the only giant dirt mound in the forest with yellow rodeo barrels sticking out of it. They land and the Crawlers waste no time finishing him off. The helicopter pilot attempts to get the hell out there but the roots pull a Jaws 2 on him and down the chopper in a fiery explosion. This scene provides us with the movie’s only real highlight, and rather fitting that it only appears for a split second, as we see what is obviously a diorama featuring the kind of toy helicopter one could buy from a dollar store being pulled down by clay-looking tentacles. Take a good look at that picture and keep in mind that a movie made in the 1990’s with special effects like that was actually released on video by a major motion picture corporation like Columbia Tri-Star.

Fortunately, the doomed helicopter pilot was resourceful enough to fire off a flare before meeting his maker to let everyone know the location of the dumpsite. Having had enough, the townspeople put together a horticultural lynch mob armed only with shovels and hoes, climb into their ratty old pick-up trucks, and drive out to the nuclear dumpsite to dig up the barrels that caused all this trouble. And that’s exactly what they proceed to do, dig up leaky drums of nuclear waste without benefit of biohazard suits or any other form of protection that would safeguard them from the ill effects of handling nuclear materials.

The tree roots attack in mass and the town tramp makes a noble sacrifice to save a child in peril. With the town tramp gone, things begin looking bleak for the human race, but just as all hope appears lost the EPA shows up with a battalion of bulldozers. In a sequence that splices footage of real bulldozers in action with that of Tonka toy bulldozers in action, the dumpsite is dredged up and somehow for reasons nobody ever bothers to explain this destroys the killer tree roots.

But the movie needs to have an open ending to set up a future sequel so fast-forward six months to Christmas where the now very pregnant heroine screams in terror as the roots to her dumpy-looking Christmas tree suddenly spurt out. The end. It’s been about 15 years since The Crawlers was released and still no sequel. I think we’re safe.

I’d be willing to bet if The Crawlers had ever been featured on “Mystery Science Theater 3000” it would have been the worst episode ever because instead of firing off sarcastic quips, they’d have been stunned into slack jawed silence by what they were witnessing. The Crawlers treats basic human intelligence and those watching that possess it with all the respect of an Abu Ghraib prisoner.

Finally, a few strange but true factoids about this strange but true motion picture.

Bizarro Crawlers Factoid #1: The Crawlers was originally going to be released under the title Troll 3 despite the fact that it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with trolls.

Bizarro Crawlers Factoid #2: The director’s name in the credits is “Martin Newlin”, but that was actually a pseudonym for Italian director Fabrizio Laurenti, whose previous entry in the horror genre was the 1988 David Hasselhoff/Linda Blair crapfest Witchery.

Bizarro Crawlers Factoid #3: The costume designer for the film – that very notion alone is bizarre enough because everyone’s wardrobe looks like stuff one could find at the local Goodwill – was Laura Gemser, who is best known for having played the title role in a string of Emmanuelle movies back in the Seventies.

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