Twister’s Revenge! (1987) -**½
It’s easy to scoff at the idea of pop culture studies as an academic discipline, especially if you spent your years in school focusing (as I did) on old-fashioned hardcore nerd shit like history and biology. We shouldn’t do it, though. Popular culture is called “popular” for a reason; it’s the water we all swim in, and even its stupidest, most trivial aspects may reveal or illustrate something important about us and our societies if we examine them closely enough. For instance, I think it means something that the 70’s had custom vans, while the 80’s had monster trucks. Both crazes had as their foundation the same basic process— transforming what was designed to be a work vehicle into a totemic expression of masculine power fantasies— and both appealed to essentially the same constituency of working-class automotive enthusiasts. But consider the differences between van customization and monster trucking. The former was an expensive hobby, no doubt, but not so much that an ordinary person with a halfway-decent job couldn’t take a stab at it. The base vehicles were still relatively cheap in the 70’s, especially if you bought one used. Off-the-shelf parts existed to perform all but the most radical and exotic modifications, and the standard automotive toolkit would generally suffice. The necessary skills could be acquired via high school vocational courses or handed down informally from experienced customizers to their novice friends. And because most custom jobs were street legal, showing off the finished product was no trouble. Chances were there was an impromptu van show going on in the parking lot of your local youth hangout on any given weekend night. To make a monster truck, on the other hand, requires an immense investment: specially fabricated parts, exotic tools and workshop facilities, a place to store the thing and a separate heavy-lift vehicle to haul it around, and probably a dozen other forms of overhead that I haven’t thought of. For such a project to work, either you’d have to be very rich yourself, or you’d have to attract outside investors. Either way, monster trucking makes no sense unless you aim to turn a profit on it, which introduces a whole new set of considerations. What it boils down to is this: the custom van craze was democratic, participatory, and amateur (in the original sense of doing something purely for the love of it); monster truck mania was elitist, spectator-oriented, and profit-driven. And really, isn’t that the difference between the 70’s and the 80’s in a nutshell?
Similarly indicative of broader trends are the handfuls of exploitation movies that were made to cash in on each fad. Vansploitation was largely a subgenre of teen sex comedy, for which the 70’s were a boom time. And like teen sex comedies generally, most vansploitation movies were about harmlessly rebellious young people outwitting the stodgy authority figures bent on stopping them from having a good time, and if they can be said to have anything as lofty as a perspective, theirs is a celebration of hedonism and personal liberty (as conceived of by horny, pot-smoking adolescents). The monster truck movies seem to be about something else altogether. I say “seem” because I’ve only seen two of the things thus far, but it’s striking that both of those were vigilante revenge films, a genre as quintessentially 80’s as teen sex comedies were quintessentially 70’s. Rolling Vengeance is the serious take on the subject— or as serious, anyway, as it’s possible to be when the vigilante’s weapon of choice is a monster truck with a humongous auger drill mounted under the front bumper. Twister’s Revenge! is more lighthearted. Indeed, its tone almost exactly matches that of the roughly contemporary Saturday morning cartoon miniseries, “Bigfoot and the Muscle Machines”— except that the villains on that show were scarier, and their evil plan was better thought out.
Oh— and I should also mention that Twister’s Revenge! is simultaneously a “Knight Rider” rip-off! Its KITT counterpart is Mr. Twister, the sentient, computerized monster truck designed and built by country-girl super-genius Sherry (Meredith Orr) and driven (to the extent that it needs a driver) by her fiance, Dave (Blood Harvest’s Dean West). The $200,000 it cost to create this mechanical wonder was put up by Sherry’s rich daddy (Don Paul), even though he disapproves of her coupling with a guy who makes his living driving back and forth over piles of wrecked cars at county fairs across the Midwest. Mr. Twister is a big hit everywhere Dave and Sherry take it, and their success has not gone unnoticed. In particular, three ambitious, unscrupulous imbeciles— Kelly (David Alan Smith), Dutch (Jay Gjernes), and Bear (R. Richardson Lukas)— would like to get their hands on the intelligent truck. When their various efforts to steal it come consistently to naught, Kelly gets it into his head to extort control of Mr. Twister instead. To that end, the three miscreants kidnap Sherry and hold her for ransom in an abandoned mineshaft, rigged for no very sensible reason with an enormous time bomb made of blasting caps. Sherry’s father’s instinct is to acquiesce at once to their demands, but Dave and Mr. Twister have other ideas.
You remember what I said, in my review of Monster a Go-Go, about bill Rebane having a commitment to production value that was otherwise almost unheard of among filmmakers at his level? Well, Twister’s Revenge! shows that that remained true even as late as 1987, when the business model that carried Rebane to something resembling success in the 70’s had become all but untenable. It’s not just that there’s a real, live monster truck in it, much bigger and more impressive than the comparatively modest conversion used for Rolling Vengeance, or that Mr. Twister is shown flattening whole junkyards’ worth of old cars throughout the film. Twister’s Revenge! is equally profligate with the destruction of rural Wisconsin real estate, crushing or blowing up entire houses on at least three occasions. And as if that weren’t enough, the climax pits Mr. Twister against an almost fully functional M60A3 main battle tank! How the hell did Rebane pull this off in the late 80’s, in Wisconsin, without any studio backing? I mean, there are independent Hollywood action movies that don’t try half as hard.
You’d have to know who Bill Rebane is, or at least understand the circumstances in which Twister’s Revenge! was created, to appreciate all that, though. No expert knowledge is required to spot the other main form of weirdness on display in this movie, the demented mismatch between tone and subject matter. The very idea of a funny vigilante revenge film is bizarre. I hasten to emphasize that Twister’s Revenge! is not a parody of Death Wish wannabes, but rather a Death Wish wannabe that is also a comedy. It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one. The jokes here don’t come from any effort to poke fun at the conventions of the genre— they’re just jokes, like the ones in such better-known action-comedies as Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run are just jokes. The rest of the film’s tonal characteristics may be summed up most concisely by pointing to its PG rating. Twister’s Revenge! is a hard PG, probably equivalent to PG-13 by 2013 standards, but it’s still remarkably mild in comparison to the typical 80’s revenge picture. There’s no death, no rape, no serious injury, and the ending is an unambiguously happy one. Yet Twister’s Revenge! consists largely of set-pieces in which any or all of the aforementioned nastiness should be happening to somebody. There’s a tremendous amount of gunplay in this movie, but no one ever gets shot. Mr. Twister repeatedly drives over buildings in which the villains are taking shelter, but does Kelly, Dutch, and Bear no worse damage than torn clothes or mussed hair. Even a running battle in the center of town between a tank and a monster truck causes no human casualties of any kind. As all that probably implies, everyone in Twister’s Revenge! possesses the absurd resilience of Wile E. Coyote, displayed most vividly whenever one of the baddies emerges from an engulfing explosion soot-blackened and disheveled, but otherwise unharmed. I suppose I must have seen the like of it before somewhere (don’t Jackie Gleason’s travails in Smokey and the Bandit 3 have a bit of that “cartoon violence in live action” quality?), but not often and not recently.
Unfortunately, Twister’s Revenge! is a little less entertaining than it could have been, mainly because what passes for its plot is so directionless and diffuse. Some of you might have guessed that story is not the movie’s strong suit just from the fact that I spent but a single paragraph on synopsis in this review. Ultimately, Twister’s Revenge! is about three dumb rednecks failing to commit grand theft auto, in such a way that the official protagonists don’t even have to take conscious action to thwart them for the first half of the film. And even after Kelly and his boys abduct Sherry, the defining feature of Dave and Mr. Twister’s counterattack is a strange lack of urgency about actually getting her back. It’s almost as if the script had originally been written to a much darker tone, with Sherry dying in the second act instead of being kidnapped. Perhaps that’s exactly what happened, too, or perhaps Twister’s Revenge! is merely a case of cargo-cult filmmaking, with Rebane and his collaborators going mechanically through the motions of a standard vigilante revenge plot, and giving no thought to the reasons behind those stock maneuvers. Either way, the heroes’ failure to stay on target translates into a similar failure on the movie’s part.