Trees/The Root of All Evil (2000/2004)

Starring Kevin McCauley, Philip Gardiner, Peter Randazzo, Mary Ann Nilan, Brandi Lynn Coppock, Ron Palillo

Directed by Michael V. Pleckaitis

Two years ago I picked up a DVD of a motion picture with an utterly outlandish premise that I knew I had to see for myself. It also didn’t hurt that the film had a little positive word of mouth going for it too. That was Trees, a virtual point-by-point comedic retelling of Jaws, only about a man-eating tree terrorizing the woods of a small New England community. You read that correctly; a man-eating tree. A “Great White Pine” to be more specific. Trust me; it gets even crazier.

All’s quiet in the small Vermont town of Hazelville as Memorial Day approaches until a string of mysterious deaths begin plaguing forest ranger Mark Cody. As hikers and campers turn up dead, Cody struggles to figure out what’s behind the murders while the Mayor looks to keep the deaths hush-hush, afraid it will affect tourism on the town’s biggest money-making day of the year. Botanist Max Cooper arrives and determines them to have been victims of the dreaded “Great White Pine.” After the Mayor refuses to close the woods and tragedy ensues on Memorial Day, Cody hires grizzled lumberjack Squint to hunt down and kill the voracious tree leading to Cody, Cooper, and Squint venturing out into the woods in Squint’s old beat-up pick-up truck for a final showdown with the monster tree.

I know the concept sounds ridiculously bad, but believe me when I tell you it somehow works. Don’t ask me to explain how because I can’t – it just does and one must see it for oneself to truly appreciate the lunacy of it. Trees is either a work of demented genius or just plain demented. It’s certainly is a niche film; one that will elicit either much amusement or tremendous amounts of head scratching, mostly depending on how familiar you are with and how much fondness you have for the Spielberg masterpiece. It’s never really laugh out loud funny so much as it is just giddy fun witnessing familiar scenes and lines of dialogue from Jaws twisted and recreated to fit a tale about a voracious killer tree. Troma tried doing a similar style film back in the 80s with Blades (killer lawnmower stalks a golf course), but Trees pulls it off much better by being more subtle with the humor and not feeling compelled to wink at the audience, a few sight gags and the actor playing Squint who can’t seem to control his hamminess not withstanding.

The only real negative working against Trees is the miniscule budget on which it was made. This really doesn’t pose much of a problem given the nature of the film, but when the Great White Pine finally appears onscreen during the finale it just looks like an ordinary, artificial Christmas tree (undecorated) being shaken at the actors and seeing it is a bit of a letdown after spending the whole movie building up the mystique of the “Great White Pine.” Heck, it isn’t even white. But then again, everyone usually complains that the shark in Jaws looked fake anyway, right?

Four years later, Brain Damage Films has picked up Trees and re-released it on a double feature DVD with the film’s even loonier new sequel The Root of All Evil. While the follow-up does feature many elements of the plot to Jaws 2, this one doesn’t adhere as strictly to that film’s plot as the original did. This is probably a good idea when you consider that Jaws 2 wasn’t nearly as memorable as the original.

On thing that has definitely been changed and improved upon for this sequel are the killer trees themselves. The Root of All Evil was made on a greater budget than its predecessor – though still a low budget production -boasting a swarm of computer generated tree creatures, and they truly are creatures now as they scuttle around on their tree roots like hyperactive crustaceans, flail their branch tendrils about, and view the world in a neon green and white vision via their glowing eyes. No, the CGI tends to be a bit more cartoony than realistic but that really seems irrelevant given the comedic and cartoony nature of the creatures and the film itself. I couldn’t help but notice a Man-Thing quality to their redesign, assuming Man-Thing was reinvented as a crab-like pine tree thingy.

It’s one year after the events of Trees, Cody now suffers from such a severe tree phobia that he experiences crippling (or should I say comedic) flashbacks whenever he lays eyes on a pine tree to the point of losing bladder control and flipping out at a children’s Christmas pageant where he rushes the stage, tackles the artificial Christmas tree that’s part of the set, and proceeds to beat the living hell out of it much to the horror of everyone looking on.

Adding to Cody’s troubles, Hazelville has just opened a brand new ski resort owned by dorky multimillionaire Dougie Styles (Ron Palillo, best remembered for playing Horshack on “Welcome Back, Kotter” but last seen getting the snot beaten out of him by “Saved By The Bell”‘s Screech on Fox’s execrable “Celebrity Boxing”), who also just happens to be old Mrs. Cody’s high school crush and he’s more than willing to pick up where they left off. A running joke throughout the film has Cody constantly coming across his wife and Dougie seemingly growing more and more “chummy” each time.

Botanist Max Cooper now goes around warning about the dangers of “Pinus Strobus,” the rare species of flesh hungry killer tree that he claims is spreading across America’s forests. He believes that the National Forestry Service (NFS) is involved with genetically altering trees leading to the birth of this new carnivorous species, most notably the dreaded “Great White Pine.” Other scientists and botanical experts scoff at him because the killer tree is regarded with as much skepticism as the existence of Sasquatch. This is clearly a difference from the first film where killer trees were treated as a well known occurrence to the point that someone could just run around screaming “Tree!” and people would immediately flee in terror. This time around it’s treated by the general populace as more of an urban legend.

Meanwhile, poachers have stolen some trees from an NFS quarantine zone and are secretly selling them as Christmas trees in Hazelville. Soon afterwards, some hunters are attacked and killed while sitting around their campfire. They even snapped a blurry photo of their inhuman attack before dying just as was done at the beginning of Jaws 2.

Cooper returns to Hazelville after a prominent Senator is killed while skiing on the slopes. He and Cody suspect he was a victim of a tree attack since his body was found covered in pine needles despite no trees in the vicinity but a pair of shady NFS agents arrive and takeover the investigation while still insisting it was just an accident.

It all builds up to the Christmas Eve climax in which the trees go on a total rampage throughout town (Think Eight Legged Freaks but with mutant Christmas trees running amok) while a posse of lumberjacks armed with axes and chainsaws foolishly decide to take the fight to them and Cooper and Cody plot a way to defeat the trees once and for all. Just when you think it can’t get any goofier, the last 10 minutes goes completely off the deep end as a 30-foot half-tree/half-termite monster manifests itself.

Along the way we also get Squint’s ghost, sap poisoning, government conspiracies, a sexy NFS agent, bodysnatching trees, dialogue along the lines of “Have you ever tried to outrun a 70-foot tall screaming mahogany monolith with branches the wingspan of a 747?”, a genetically altered super acorn called “The Seed of Destruction,” a theme song worthy of Dr. Demento, and an Empire Strikes Back-style finale setting up a third film. There’s an awful lot of silliness abound in this flick and you really have to be devoid of a sense of humor to not find yourself quite amused by the wackiness of it all.

The film does suffer from some serious lulls in the action during the middle section leading up to the climactic rampage, and some brief but truly awful attempts at humor involving Dougie’s blind daughter and two very unfunny wisecrackers trapped on a ski lift. Still, The Root of All Evil is fun little film that deserves a look from those looking for a truly offbeat monster comedy with some genuinely funny moments.

Both films have an Attack of the Killer Tomatoes quality to them although much more subdued, which may ultimately prove to be the reason why neither Trees nor The Root of All Evil may ever fully achieve a more widely known cult status. I do hope that third and final installment is made because I’d love to see where all this absurdity is going. And if they plan to continue inserting elements of the Jaws sequels then I expect the next Trees sequel to be shot in 3-D. Or not.

One final thing I want to address, and I really hate to end this review for two movies I’m quite fond of on a sour note but this is something that really irked me. At the top of the front box art for these films printed in big type is the line, “From the producers of Predator Island.” Uh, is this supposed to be an enticement? I’ve seen “From the producers of Congo” slapped on a box before and while I laughed it off given the dubious nature of that film, at least Congo was a widely released motion picture that did gross money at the box office. Predator Island is just a little known, little seen stinker taking up a single slot on the shelf at Blockbuster. My point is that it really irks me when distributors slap a line like that in a prominent place on the box/poster art when it doesn’t mean a damn thing to anyone and just comes across like some misguided form of bragging. Unless the film is well known, an established hit, or has attained an established cult following, it means absolutely nothing and may actually prove to be a turn off.

3 out of 5

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