Deep in the California back country, a redneck, drug-dealing, Rube Goldberg Device aficionado cultivates his illicit crops with a vast system of pulleys and engines. To describe the device as overly complicated would hardly do it justice. It even manages to find a use for its owner’s pet gerbil. Unfortunately the homemade agricultural steroid that redneck Rube Goldberg whipped up in his cabin is leaking, and transforming the deer ticks that infest the whole area into giant (well for ticks at least, they are still smaller than an average house-cat) bloodthirsty monsters. It isn’t long before these modern promethei turn on their creator and destroy him too. They have a little help from redneck Rube Goldberg’s own shortcomings though. Despite his brilliance at engineering, chemistry, and botany; Redneck Rube Goldberg is seriously lacking in one particular regard: tidiness. While his personal hygiene goes a long way towards explaining why he’s living alone in a shack, it’s his housekeeping, or lack thereof for which is his downfall here. You see, in addition to the dust, food, and equipment that he leaves lying all over the place, redneck Rube Goldberg has stupidly left a bear-trap lying in the middle of his floor. As soon as the ticks attack he managed to step in it. Thus incapacitated, it isn’t long before the giant ticks are burrowing into his body and laying eggs in his chest.
We then turn our attention to a group of teens hanging out in a rickety old cabin in the middle of deserted wasteland. No, they aren’t camp counselors, nor have they gone up to the woods for a weekend of drunken debauchery. Rather, they are a group of troubled teens whose parents have shipped them off to the countryside for a week of wilderness therapy. In order of ascending probable lifespan we have: Panic, an *ahem* urban youth who divides his time between petty crime and spouting loathsome approximations of hip-hop slang. Next are spoiled bitch Dee-Dee and her wrong side of the tracks boyfriend Rome, who are operating a combined IQ that still somewhere in the double digits. Next there is Kelly, an apparently mute girl who is far and away the most excited about the trip. Rounding out the group are the adults leading the expedition: Holly and Dan, and Dan’s daughter Melissa. The fact that Holly and Dan are apparently dating is something Melissa plainly resents almost as much as spending most of her summer vacation in the woods. Finally, there is our protagonist Tyler Burns, who unlike the other kids has not been sent on the retreat because of any behavioral problem. Instead he is there to confront head-on a crippling fear of all things arboraceous.
Reading the above description and armed with the knowledge that this is a B-horror movie from sometime after 1973, you would expect that many if not most of these characters were not long for this world. I too made your mistake, and fully expected Panic, Dee-Dee, Rome and Kelly to be tick food by the end of the 2nd act. Yet when I glanced at the clock I found I was over an hour into the movie with not a single onscreen fatality. But what about redneck Rube Goldberg? I mentioned that ticks devoured him, surely that counts. As it turns I was wrong with that assumption as well. In addition to being a cunning inventor and a savvy businessman this hick is also damn near un-killable. Despite having his leg mangled in a bear trap, a whole colony of squirrel-sized bugs living under his skin, and a number of self-inflicted gunshot wounds, redneck Rube Goldberg refuses to die. He limps on, bursting at the seams with ticks almost until the movie’s end. Thus, the only casualty of the tick attacks by the end of the first hour is Panic’s dog.
Panic takes the death of his dog hard, and ditches the rest of the wilderness therapy group and attempts to hoof it back to L.A. This turns out to be an even worse idea than it sounds. For one thing the woods are now crawling with mutant ticks, for another the adults who are in charge of his safety are not particularly concerned with the missing kid. Dan, rather than scouring the woods for the missing boy, assumes he’ll turn up eventually and heads to the local vet with Tyler to find out what happened to Panic’s dog. The vet is initially baffled as to what could have killed the dog, noting with the subdued surprise of a trained professional the dog’s total absence of blood. Her professional demeanor vanishes when she yanks a tick the size of a tarantula out of the dog’s stomach. In her shock the tick bolts and the three humans spend the next couple of minutes doing their best housewife from Tom and Jerry impressions: shrieking and trying desperately to kill the scurrying menace. The vet finally succeeds and does the monster in. She takes her time examining the corpses and concludes that as a byproduct of it’s rapid growth the poison of the tick has become a potent hallucinogenic. Panic finds that out first hand when a tick bites him and he begins to dream that he’s in some scummy alley in LA instead of out in the forest.
Panic is about to learn that there are worse creatures in the forest than mutated deer ticks. Jerry and Sir, two of the most loathsome caricatures of southerners I’ve ever seen committed to film (which is odd because this movie is set in California), are looking to keep any suspicious lawmen or teenagers away from the pot plantation. Whether they are partners with Redneck Rube Goldberg or a rival gang looking to muscle in on his territory is never explained. We do know that they have killed the sheriff already, and when they catch sight of Panic they immediately assume he’s a drug dealer from LA after their crops. The ensuing struggle between Panic and Jerry proves that not only was Redneck Rube Goldberg super-humanly tough, so is every character in this movie. That Panic would shrug off several blows to the head is par for course in Hollywood movies, what’s more surprising is Jerry’s reaction to being stabbed in the leg with his own knife. He’s back on his feet in moments, as if the gaping wound has only managed to annoy him slightly. By the end of the fight Panic will be stabbed, beaten, burned, shot, and bitten by ticks. You would think that finally, we have our first fatality, but you would be wrong. Panic is evidently a distant descendant of Rasputin because he not only survives but also manages to hike back to the cabin, albeit with a little help from the steroids he stole from Rome earlier.
In all the fighting Jerry and Sir triggered a booby trap on Redneck Rube Goldberg’s pot plantation, which started a forest fire. The blaze sends both them and the ticks running right for the cabin just as Dan and Tyler return to begin evacuating the kids. Panic arrives just after them; only to die after incriminating the two misplaced southerners. Sir is quick to turn his gun on teenagers and their chaperones, and looks like he’s in control of the situation. The only problem is that there are a couple thousand mutated Ticks outside, blocking the way to the van, and the mother of all Ticks is presently gestating inside of Panic’s chest.
There is a central absurdity in the final siege scene that is made especially jarring because it contradicts one of Ticks’ best moments. When the kids first arrive in the cabin Tyler finds a cluster of tick eggs that they promptly dispose off without asking about their abnormal size. The camera then passes into the walls of the cabin, revealing dozens of other clusters growing and pulsating, hidden among the insulation and wiring. The extended shot conveys a sense of invasive pollution, a feeling that is familiar to anyone who’s had to deal with a vermin infestation in their home. However, this fact is completely ignore in the climax, the ticks are on the outside the people on the inside. The eggs shown in the beginning have either not hatched or, more likely been forgotten by the filmmakers. If you’re not going to make use of a great little chill like insects hiding in the wall then why bother to have it in there at all?
Of course, that is assuming that Ticks is aiming to scare its audience, a proposition that I am not willing to agree with without reservations. You see, while it is nominally a horror film following horror film conventions and making use of horror film stock characters, Ticks is not overly interest in delivering scares. Moral scolds and doddering old critics frequently assert that modern movies aim only to gross-out not to terrify. This criticism can be safely disregarded when aimed at something like The Thing or Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but with Ticks I think they have it right on the head. Consider the constant close-ups of squished bugs, the repeated shots of the veterinarian dissecting the tick in her office, the lingering shots of the puss oozing out of a pieced egg sack. Each time these shots are only interrupted by reactions shots of the grossed out characters. We have found in Ticks the movie equivalent of a traveling sideshow or the kid in your elementary school that would eat worms in exchange for pocket change.
Given the modest goals that Ticks gives for itself, it cannot help but be successful. Though personally I don’t see any reason why the film shouldn’t have a gratuitous shower scene or ill-advised skinny-dipping expedition. I’ll admit to being slightly galled when Katie and Melissa say they’re going fishing and then do exactly that. No wet tee shirts, no playful splash-fights in the shallows, just baiting hooks and casting lines. However the absence of this does not diminish the film much, even in the eyes of a hoary old pervert like myself. The low body count would up being more of an asset than I expected, if only for the reason that it kept me on my toes (Rome and Dee-Dee are going to have sex in the woods, and they take a break to poke around a mysterious shack? Well, so much for those two… Wait, they survived?). The bugs themselves are very impressive looking props, and are made all the more stomach churning by their size. A giant tick ravaging Tokyo might impress, or even terrify but I doubt it could disgust the way these spider-sized ticks do. Their size allows them to keep the innate grossness of small, scurrying creatures while still being genuine threats when in a vast swarm.