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One Man Went to Mow


One of the horror movies that I always wanted to write but probably never will because I’m now a bitter old man, crouched in a darkened room endlessly reliving my few brief moments of youthful glory while silently weeping for promise unfulfilled and the callous mockery of cruel fate, was called War with the Lawnmowers. Now that’s an opening sentence!

      It would have been a low-budget, blackly humorous sci-fi-horror romp riffing on The Terminator and suchlike cyber-apocalypse scenarios.  My thinking ran thus. If artificial intelligence becomes a reality, has anybody thought what we might actually do with it? The world is full of machines but most of them simply don’t need to be intelligent. What is a sentient washing machine going to do? Pre-wash, wash, rinse, second wash, second rinse, spin. That’s not much of a life, whatever The Jetsons tried to tell us. No, it seems to me that there’s only one household gadget that would really benefit from the development of AI – and that’s the lawnmower.

      On all but the flattest, most rectangular lawn, a lawnmower needs to be adaptable and aware of its surroundings. It needs to know where the edges of the lawn are, and whether beyond that lies flower bed, paving or pond. It needs to be able to negotiate birdbaths and trees, and to be able to locate, identify and remove foreign objects: toys, clothes pegs, stones, more toys, inattentive guinea pigs. And it needs to be able to spot those rogue blades of grass which lie down on the mower’s approach then spring back up again, and furthermore to sneak back up on them and snip their arrogant little stalks. Intelligent lawnmowers – they’re the future.

      But what if those lawnmowers get it into their circuit boards that they’re being used, just the slaves of garden-owning bags of flesh? What if the lawnmowers revolt? Well then we’re in deep shit because lawnmowers – especially high-tech, cybernetic lawnmowers from the future in low-budget, blackly humorous sci-fi-horror romps – come equipped with all manner of blades, scythes, snippers and similar ultra-sharp and dangerous weapons of grass destruction. If they get it into their cybernetic minds to wage war against humanity, things are going to get very nasty and extremely bloody. War with the washing machines we could cope with, but the lawnmowers would conquer the planet and eventually reduce humanity to a few sparse groups of survivors, struggling to avoid the whirling blades of doom. It would be a whole new take on the post-apocalyptic subgenre: Armageddon with neatly trimmed edges. Ooh, and some of them can hover too. I only just thought of that.

      One of the reasons I wanted to write War with the Lawnmowers was because there is actually a surprisingly extensive subgenre of horror movies featuring lawnmowers. No, really. For example, although it’s a long time since I’ve watched it, I retain a great fondness for Frank Henenlotter’s terrific 1990 cult classic Frankenhooker, in which a young inventor’s attempt at a remote-control lawnmower goes haywire and slices his girlfriend into chunks. Stitching her back together and applying the old spark of life, he finds that she takes to plying the oldest profession and topping it off with some gruesome murders.

      Back in 1992, when Peter Jackson still made awesome OTT low-budget horror movies instead of self-indulgent, bloated epics about goblins and fairies, he gave us Braindead (retitled Dead-Alive in the States to avoid confusion with Adam Simon’s Brain Dead) and probably the most famous lawnmower horror scene of all. Our hero Lionel (Timothy Balme) ploughs his way through a room full of zombies using a small lawnmower as both weapon and shield. Braindead is rumoured to have used more fake blood than any other film in history up to that point and this sequence certainly contributed to that record. Wildly inventive, this is three minutes of gory, blood-soaked, hilarious mayhem culminating in a half-zombie perched atop the upturned mower with Lionel cowering underneath desperately trying to restart it.

      Much less funny – no really, desperately unfunny - is Wacko, a 1982 attempt by legendary schlockmeister Greydon Clark to ride the post-Airplane craze for crazy genre parodies that weren’t anywhere near as good as Airplane. Julia Duffy stars as Mary, a student at Alfred Hitchcock High School whose Halloween prom date is named Norman Bates. See how funny that is? Norman Bates. Geddit? Like in Psycho. Whatever. Thirteen years earlier, Mary saw her older sister slaughtered by a maniac wearing a pumpkin mask and wielding a lawnmower. Stella Stevens is Mary’s Mom, George Kennedy is her pervy Dad and she has a younger brother named Damien who has a 666 birthmark on his head. Meanwhile at school the Lawnmower Killer is striking again and it’s up to the local detective to work out who is behind the mask. On top of which the big game is coming up between the Hitchcock Birds and the De Palma Knives, with science teacher Dr Moreau improving the home team’s chances by giving them an elixir which turns the football players into beastmen.

      If all that sounds desperately unentertaining, it is. Wacko is one of those films that thinks just referencing something from another picture is inherently funny without having to actually add a joke of any sort. But hey, the Wayans Brothers have built a career on such things. Also in the cast are shock comedian Andrew Dice Clay and squeaky cute voice-over queen E G Daily. And you know, terrible though it is, Wacko has a nostalgic charm for me and I have been known to voluntarily watch it. Maybe it’s just the lawnmower.

      Most lawnmower horrors do go for the comedic aspects, whether successfully or not, but there are serious ones as well. I’ve not seen Scott Derrickson’s 2012 feature Sinister but it got good reviews. Ethan Hawke stars as a father whose family is endangered by an ancient demon which forces children to kill their families and film themselves doing it. Or something. The plot is triggered by the discovery of a load of old 8mm home movies, each depicting a gruesome murder – and one of these is the infamous ‘lawnmower scene’, a night-time POV shot from a ride-on mower which ends with a horrific jump-scare when the headlights briefly illuminate a small child on the grass ahead of, then under, the mower. Like most of what I’m describing here, you can find this scene online.

      For something a little lighter, try Sleepaway Camp 3: Teenage Wasteland which you know is gonna be good because it’s directed by a guy named Michael Simpson. Bruce Springsteen’s sister Pamela returns as psychopathic Angela Baker in this 1989 follow-up to the 1988 sequel to the 1983 original. Lily, one of the camp counsellors, is persuaded (for reasons which aren’t clear in the clip I watched on YouTube) to put on a blindfold before being led through the woods by Angela, who is posing as another girl on account of having slaughtered everyone last year in the same place. On reaching the hole in the ground where the campers toss their garbage bags (very eco-friendly), Angela pushes Lily in among the binbags and then proceeds to shovel earth slowly on top of her while her victim struggles ineffectually to extricate herself from a situation which clearly isn’t actually difficult to get out of. Next thing we know, the whole garbage-pit is filled in, leaving only Lily’s head above ground, and Little Miss The Boss heads towards her with a lawnmower…

      For all its deadliness, a lawnmower is an unwieldy weapon and so sometimes it’s easier to simply remove the blades and use those, as I believe happens in Sling Blade. Mind, that’s not possible with a flymo which relies on little plastic blades that would have difficulty cutting soft cheese if they weren’t whirling round at 800rpm. Also, most of the mowers featured in horror movies tend to be of the petrol-driven variety because the obvious flaw in chasing someone with an electric lawnmower is that they can easily escape you by simply standing further away than your extension cord can reach.

      The Final Destination was the confusingly titled fourth instalment in the Final Destination franchise, released in 2009 inbetween the more conventionally monickered Final Destination 3 and Final Destination 5. As one of the characters steps out of a beauty salon, a passing ride-on mower hits a pebble which flies up at a high angle and enormous speed, plunging straight through the victim’s right eye, shattering the orb and embedding itself in her frontal lobe, killing her instantly in a hideous manner. Straight into the eye. What are the chances of that? (Well, given that it’s a Final Destination sequel, I suppose the odds were actually pretty good…)

      There are plenty more examples. M Night Shyamalan’s 2008 entry in his ‘Who keeps employing this man?’ CV, The Happening, is some nonsense about a ‘neurotoxin’ which causes those exposed to it to try and commit suicide (a bit like most M Night Shyamalan movies). Kooky Zooey Deschanel (met her on the Hitchhiker’s Guide movie: cute but kooky) and Mark Wahlberg (who could star in the best film in the world and it still wouldn’t atone for Planet of the Apes) lead the cast in this film of which the best that can be said is at least it’s not The Village. I mention it here because one scene features somebody deliberately lying down in front of a lawnmower (one of those big ones used for mowing parks and sports grounds; obviously a little garden mower would just bounce off a person without the force of a crazed maniac behind it).

      In contrast to Wahlberg (and indeed, Shyamalamadingdong), Fred Dekker could make the worst film in the world and it wouldn’t stop him being a cinematic genius because he also made The Monster Squad. Actually, he did make the worst film in the world, didn’t he? It was called RoboCop 3. But before either of those, his debut feature was Night of the Creeps in 1986, an absolutely terrific tale of high school students terrorised by zombies animated by space slugs which had remained frozen since landing on Planet Earth in 1959 – all right! The use of a lawnmower as a weapon at one point may well have influenced Peter Jackson, assuming Creeps ever had a release in New Zealand.

      A film almost as bad as Wacko, of which I am equally inexplicably fond, is Maximum Overdrive, legendary for being (a) the only film ever directed by Stephen King and (b) directed by Stephen King when he was completely out of his gourd, hence its awfulness. Nevertheless, we must mention it here because among all the possessed trucks and possessed cars there is a possessed lawnmower which chases a young boy on a bicycle. The boy that is, not the mower. How would a lawnmower ride a bicycle? Come on, that’s suspending my disbelief just a little too far. But for a real, honest-to-goodness lawnmower-as-monster film, where are you going to turn? Why, to Tromaville of course!

      In researching this month’s Blog I was absolutely delighted to discover the existence of Blades, a 1989 pick-up by Uncle Lloydy, directed by Thomas R Rondinella who had graduated from editing classics like Girls School Screamers and Lust for Freedom. Set on a golf course, Blades pitches its characters against a demonically possessed mower and I could never sum it up better than the Troma blurb: ‘Happy Gilmore meets Maniac in this gore-filled swing at one of the most popular sports today, golf. A game of hooks, slices…and slaughter!!! More evil than anything you can imagine, this monster lawn-mower is mauling more than the grass! The golfers on the fairway are all fair games as they try to make it to the 19th hole. Blades, the teed off, wide radius, possessed power tool, on a killing spree that will leave even duffers “handicapped”!’

      All of which leaves me no room to discuss the deadly lawnmower movie that actually inspired me to write this. Mind, it also leaves me no room to discuss the awful Lawnmower Man so, you know, silver linings and all that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of 'Bride of Frankenstein' Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time, but he promises to have it finished soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.