Trucks (1997) -*½
I realized a good, long time ago that I was the only person in the world who had a single kind word to say about Maximum Overdrive. Okay— fair enough. It is an awfully dopey movie when you get right down to it, and even I, its sole defender, have always mostly related to it with a species of affection that is generally reserved for retarded children or especially stupid, but sweet-tempered, dogs. So the existence of Trucks raises two questions. First, why in Vishnu’s name would anybody want to invest the time, money, and effort to remake so universally despised a movie as Maximum Overdrive? And second, how in Vishnu’s name is it possible that the resulting film could end up falling so far short of the already very undemanding standard set by the original?
The filmmakers start committing serious missteps more or less immediately. After a dishearteningly stupid prologue— in which a beat-up old pickup truck belonging to the old man who runs the local junk yard comes to life and runs over its owner while he takes a bath— comes the first real indication of the scale of the suckmare ahead. Screenwriter Brian Taggert has attempted to provide a single, concrete reason for bringing all of the characters to the same place at the same time: the town of Lunar, New Mexico, is not far away from the legendary Area 51, and hometown girl Hope (Brenda Bakke, from Hardbodies 2 and Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight) has been possessed by the Entrepreneurial Spirit to go into business leading UFO-hunting camping trips! Her friend Ray (Timothy Busfield, probably best remembered for playing Arnold Poindexter in the Revenge of the Nerds movies)— who has just recently moved into town with his teenage son, Logan (Brendan Fletcher, of Freddy vs. Jason and Ginger Snaps: Unleashed)— also seems to have some sort of role in Hope’s scam, though I’ll be damned if I can figure out what it is. The campers who have signed up for Hope’s inaugural venture are quite a crew. We’ve got Jack (Jay Brazeau, from Disturbing Behavior and It), a fat old hippy who will apparently believe anything, so long as it is sufficiently illogical; Thad (Roman Podhora), formerly an Air Force helicopter pilot and currently an asshole; and Abby (Amy Stewart), Thad’s teenage daughter and probably the best argument for birth control I’ve ever heard. Also along for the ride are a thoroughly obnoxious couple named Brad and June Yeager (Jonathan Barrett, of Escape from Mars and The Clown at Midnight, and Sharon Bajer, of nothing worth mentioning). The Yeagers arrive late, so Ray has to greet them while Hope is busy driving the rest of the bunch to the nearest Wal Mart for a last-minute supply run. I don’t envy Ray one little bit.
Of course, I envy Hope even less. Not only is she stuck with three insufferable fools to Ray’s two, she also has a chance meeting on the ride back with that murderous pickup truck from the first scene. And even worse, Hope’s bunch also attracts the attention of an 18-wheeler that had earlier lured its driver to his death in the deep freeze of its refrigerated trailer. Meanwhile, a bit further outside of Lunar, another truck— this one full of some toxic chemical or other— comes alive and sacrifices itself (and its driver) for the good of the cause by driving into the transformer station serving several little pissant desert towns. This not only knocks out the power to Lunar and the neighboring locales, it also causes the entire area to be closed off from contact with the outside world while the authorities struggle to deal with the spilled chemicals and toxic smoke from the burning wreck. When news of this reaches Ray, he goes charging off down the road, fearing for Hope’s safety; his mind isn’t exactly put at ease by the knowledge that she has spent her afternoon dodging trucks instead of poison gas clouds.
Now the helpful broadcasts of PSNN, the Plot-Specific News Network, have been consistently recommending that everybody stay indoors until the chemical spill situation is taken care of, so all of the characters converge on the truck stop owned by Ray, and operated by his dad’s old army buddy, George (Victor Cowie, another actor whose resume bears the scars of Escape from Mars, and of Lost in the Barrens II: The Curse of the Viking Grave, as well!). Okay, so given that this is a movie about killer trucks, can you think of a single hiding place that could possibly be any worse? No, neither can I, and our suspicions are confirmed in short order, when that homicidal refrigerator truck shows up in the parking lot and incites diesel-powered mutiny. The trucks surround the place, charging anyone who dares to come outside. Ray, Hope, George, Thad, Jack, and a pair of idiot truck drivers are trapped in the main restaurant building, while Logan, Abby, and the Yeagers are pinned down in one of the overnight rental cabins on the other side of the parking lot. One of the truckers gets himself run over when he tries to escape, Brad Yeager proves his unfitness to survive by repairing the pickup in the cabin’s garage (who the hell ever heard of a cabin with a garage?) when he knows goddamn well that the truck stop is under siege from vengeful automobiles, the two kids get themselves trapped in a drainage pipe while making a break for the restaurant, and Ray discovers that he inexplicably wields a limited amount of authority over the killer trucks— enough to make them release Logan and Abby, for example. We are also laden with a metric shitload of character exposition, revealing, among other things, that Thad used to work at Area 51, that Ray fled to Lunar to escape city life after his wife became a collateral casualty of a drive-by shooting in Detroit, and that George and Jack had been on opposite sides of the famous Penn State riot (doh!).
While all that’s going on, it is revealed that the “infection” is spreading, and that trucks are coming alive to kick human ass all over the place. It is in this portion of the film that the only two scenes that make Trucks remotely worth watching occur. First, an unnamed mailman makes his delivery to a toy shop in one of the nearby towns, where his activities awaken a radio-controlled toy dump truck. (Actually, I believe this particular variation on the dump truck theme is technically known as a hauler— it’s the non-street legal, heavy-duty kind that one generally sees only at places like gravel pits and strip-mining operations.) In a sequence that had me and my friends rapt in awed disbelief, this toy truck smashes through the window of the toy shop door and attacks the mailman! And you know what? It fucking kills him!!!! Really! But we haven’t seen anything yet, for at the same time, two men from the EPA, or some such organization, are speeding along toward the site of the chemical spill to clean it up (just two men to clean up a tanker truck’s worth of toxic sludge?!), and their vehicle is— that’s right— a truck. A half-ton panel van, as a matter of fact. The driver stops the van when they reach the burning transformer station, and his partner goes to the back of the vehicle to don his protective clothing. (I feel compelled at this point to say a few words about the anti-contamination suits the EPA has foisted on these poor bastards. First of all, they are quite clearly put together out of white plastic garbage bags. Second, their “visors” are really nothing but sheets of opaque black PVC affixed to the front of the hoods!) Thus begins a top contender for the title of “Stupidest Horror Movie Scene of 1997.” (And considering how stupid the average horror flick was that year, that’s really saying something!) While the one EPA guy is getting dressed, the van predictably joins the ranks of the living, but instead of merely backing over its operators (that would be too easy), it turns on the pumps that fill up the contamination suits’ air tanks. For some reason, this has the effect of inflating the driver’s suit, which is still hanging on its hook in the back of the van, and this inflated suit lets itself down from the hook, picks up an axe (why is there an axe in the van?!?!), and chops the two men up like a slasher movie psychopath!!!! Words fail me.
After something like that, there doesn’t really seem to be a whole lot of point in going into the rest of the film, does there? Suffice it to say that a few more of the characters are run over by trucks, the trucks force Ray and company to pump gas for them (none of the characters thinks to poison the trucks by filling their tanks with gasoline instead of diesel fuel, despite the fact that Taggert’s script specifically calls attention to the incompatibility of the two fuels), and most of the characters are finally successful in breaking free of their mechanical captors, though they get separated into two groups while doing so. The machines get the last laugh, though, when the helicopter that lands to save Ray, Hope, and Logan from the leader of the trucks turns out not to be piloted by Thad after all, at which point Trucks doesn’t so much end as stop dead in its tracks.
You know, it just occurred to me that practically every movie I’ve seen that was made in 1997 was complete and utter shit. In fact, Trucks is actually one of the better films I’ve watched from that year! And while I still can’t offer any explanation of why this flick exists in the first place, I do have a couple of thoughts that might explain how it could be this much worse even than Maximum Overdrive. To begin with, whereas Maximum Overdrive was a medium-budget theatrical-release Hollywood movie, Trucks was shot for Canadian television, and was released direct to video stateside after having a couple shots of explicit gore (I’m guessing they were the ones attendant on the mailman’s demise) added for the sake of a profitability-boosting R-rating. Pretty much the entire cast and crew are TV people first and foremost, and none of them ever lets you imagine otherwise. Director Chris Thompson has done nothing but television work, and he unsurprisingly helms Trucks in the characteristic 90’s movie-of-the-week style. (Think Beast, Storm of the Century, or any of those dreadful celestial calamity jobs that came out within weeks of Armageddon and Deep Impact.) But most of the blame here lies with Brian Taggert’s script. This is somewhat depressing, because Taggert wrote 1983’s brilliant Of Unknown Origin, but I can’t say it comes as a shock. The fact is Taggert hasn’t written anything of merit since 1983. Among the more notable way-stations on his downhill journey to Trucks were the completely unnecessary belated sequels Poltergeist III and The Omen IV: The Awakening, the latter of which was also made for TV. You know what the sick thing is? Now I really want to see Maximum Overdrive again...