Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is its own, wondrous, magnificent thing.
There are still some times when the communal spirit of moviegoing thrives, and one such occasion was this past Monday night during that evening’s centerpiece screening at Cinepocalypse, the genre film festival currently unspooling at Chicago’s famed Music Box Theater. Not only was the place packed, there was an electricity in the air amongst those in attendance that lasted from the moment they entered the place until after it was all over. Were they watching the unveiling of a work with a premise so strange and outrageous that it practically begged to be seen? Were they revisiting an old classic that was being revived for the night and presented in glorious 35mm as it was meant to be seen? In this particular case, they were doing both by bearing witness to a special presentation of the 1994 cult oddity “Tammy and the T-Rex” in an alternative version so bizarre and seemingly unlikely that not even fans of the film—such people do exist—had even suspected existed until it was announced a few weeks ago. As one of those in the crowd, I can attest that seeing "Tammy" at Cinepocalypse was one of the more singular moviegoing experiences that I can recall attending and, judging by the reaction of the crowd, I was not the only one who felt that way.
For those of you who had better things to do in the mid-'90s than scour the lower racks at local video stores, “Tammy and the T-Rex” was a film that was clearly launched into production to cash in on the renewed cinematic interest in dinosaurs following the release of “Jurassic Park” the previous year, though in a manner so deliberately insane it made “Carnosaur” seem staid and logical by comparison. As the film opens, ordinary high schooler Michael (the late Paul Walker in one of his very first big-screen roles) is meeting up with his girlfriend, Tammy (Denise Richards in one of her very first big-screen roles) after cheerleading practice. Sadly, their rendezvous is interrupted by the arrival of Billy (George Pilgrim), Tammy’s jealous, violent and psychotic ex-boyfriend, and his gang. A fight breaks out between Billy and Michael, and though the cops break it up, Billy swears revenge. Later that night, Billy and his gang attack Michael again, this time beating him and abandoning him in the middle of a conveniently located wildlife park where he is savaged by a lion and rushed to the hospital in a coma.
Meanwhile, the brilliant but deranged Dr. Wachenstein (Terry Kiser) and his sex-bomb assistant Helga (Ellen Dubin) are observing his latest and greatest creation—a robotic Tyrannosaurus Rex controlled by a computer. For reasons that are never made entirely clear, the doctor now plans to put a human brain inside of it so that the robot may gain a consciousness and the brain will enjoy immortality. Wachenstein and his minions spirits the still-comatose Michael away and indeed successfully transplant the brain. Soon afterwards, the now-dinosaurized Michael escapes from their clutches and, having successfully retained all of his memories, goes off to get revenge on his tormentors and, more importantly, reunite with Tammy. She catches on surprisingly quick to what has happened and, with the aid of her flamboyantly gay best friend (Theo Forsett), searches for a more appropriate body to house Michael’s brain while trying to hide him from the clutches of the local cops and Wachenstein.
In the version of "Tammy" that saw a release, a number of scenes look as if they are about to get gruesome, only to awkwardly cut away from potential bloodshed in the manner of a bad television edit. As it turns out, that is exactly what happened—several minutes of gory footage, including a brain surgery sequence straight out of “Re-Animator” and Michael squashing, disemboweling and tearing the heads off of his oppressors, were evidently shot for the film and then removed in order to get a more lenient rating. Thanks to the efforts of Cinepocalypse and the Academy Film Archive, it was this previously unknown version that screened for the very first time on Monday night, sending what was already one of the craziest movies ever made to new levels of insanity.
At this point, you are probably wondering what kind of madman could have possibly dreamed up the likes of “Tammy and the T-Rex.” That would be director and co-writer Stewart Raffill, a director whose filmography is, to say the least, unusual. He started off his career making low-budget adventures involving people struggling to deal with the forces of nature—things like “The Adventures of the Wilderness Family” (1975), “Across the Great Divide” (1976) and “The Sea Gypsies” (1979). In 1981, he made “High Risk,” a very impressive action comedy about a group of friends from the suburbs who fly to Colombia to rob the safe of a drug lord and find that getting out alive will prove to be an even bigger challenge and followed that up a couple of years later with the interesting-is-uneven sci-fi/time-travel thriller “The Philadelphia Experiment.”
The cinema of Stewart Raffill then took a hard turn to the crazy. There was, for example, “The Ice Pirates” (1984) a futuristic spoof of pirate movies set in a future where the most valuable commodity is water and the dashing Robert Urich finds himself dealing with any number of strange entities including—I kid you not—space herpes. Next was perhaps his most (in)famous movie to date, “Mac and Me,” in which an especially shameless ripoff of “E.T.” combined with exceptionally blatant plugs for Coca-Cola and McDonalds in mind-boggling ways that would eventually inspire one of the strange cult followings in cinema history. After that came the comparatively staid “Mannequin: On the Move” (1991) and then, at long last, “Tammy and the T-Rex.” While Raffill will never be mistaken for one of the great filmmakers of his era, film buffs with a taste for the weird should have a certain admiration for the man and his output.
So is "Tammy" any good? No—at least not by any conventional definition of the word. The story is so borderline perverse that you get the sense that Raffill saw “Howard the Duck” (perhaps one of the very few films it can be even remotely compared to), picked up on that exceptionally crazy scene in which Lea Thompson jokingly pretends to seduce her anthropomorphic duck friend, and decided to expand on that notion for an entire film. The special effects are junky even by the standards of low-budget “Jurassic Park” ripoffs of the time. While watching it, I found myself thinking that the mechanical dinosaur was so unconvincing that Raffill must have decided to flat-out make it a robot and while doing research afterwards (yes, research), I discovered that was actually more or less the case.
The performances across the board somehow manage to come across as both one-note and wildly over the top—having infamously played a stiff in the two “Weekend at Bernies,” Terry Kiser seems to be making up for lost time with a wild turn as the mad scientist that almost needs to be seen to be believed. As for the two stars-to-be, Walker is pleasant and innocuous but not on screen long enough to make an impression, while Richards—who would go on to do better work in the likes of “Starship Troopers,” “Wild Things” and “Drop Dead Gorgeous”—has little to do here but look beautiful and unfazed in the face of situations that might have permanently fazed most actresses of note.
Made in a slightly less self-conscious era, “Tammy and the T-Rex” is not necessarily trying to be “bad” per se—though I cannot imagine anyone who had high hopes for it after a day or so of shooting—and it is all the more entertaining for it. The crowd, many of whom presumably never saw it before, certainly embraced the utter silliness of the concept—though they rightfully booed the homophobic jokes involving the best friend character that were dated even back in 1994—and those who actually were familiar with the film seemed equally amazed with the proceedings thanks to the inclusion of the crazy amounts of blood and guts at key points. Most of all, the movie, for all of its cinematic sins (and they are legion) is the kind of film you will not easily forget after seeing it.
As the screening of “Tammy and the T-Rex” was being introduced, it was announced that this was the first and most likely last time this rare 35mm print would be screened in public. Not to worry, a 4K restoration is planned for later this year, which may include some theatrical play before eventually landing on Blu-ray. In regards to the latter, I would implore whoever is putting together that disc to spend whatever is necessary to get Denise Richards to do a commentary track. I have no idea what her attitude towards the film is these days, but if she has even a slight sense of humor regarding it, I have the feeling that such a thing could be almost as unforgettable as the movie itself.
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