Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Film Appreciation - The Monster That Ate the World


Cody Hamman whips up a storm of Film Appreciation for the 1996 TV movie Tornado!

Tornado! is the sort of movie that is known these days as a mockbuster - a lower budgeted movie purposely made to be similar to a big budget blockbuster that's being released around the same time. In 1996, it might have just been called a cash-in or a rip-off. "Mockbuster" sounds much nicer.

Directed by TV movie veteran Noel Nosseck from a script by John Logan (who has gone on to be nominated for Academy Awards multiple times, write two James Bond movies (Skyfall and Spectre), and create Penny Dreadful, among other impressive credits), Tornado! aired on Fox on May 7, 1996, just three days before Twister reached theatres... and at its core, Tornado! is the same movie as Twister. Both movies are about storm chasers risking their lives to put their scientific machines in the path of tornadoes. One just happened to be a modestly budgeted TV movie and the other was one of the biggest movies of '96. I was hyped for both, and watched Tornado! on TV that Tuesday in May of '96 before I saw Twister the following weekend.

I grew up terrified of tornadoes. I was afraid of thunderstorms because I was certain any thunderstorm could turn into a tornado at any moment. The summer months I spent in Ohio and Indiana were plagued by tornado watches and warnings, and those stormy days were so scary to me that I still have clear memories from childhood of sitting in an empty bathtub in my grandma's basement - the safest spot in the place - while waiting out tornado warnings, and of a particularly frightening time when I was at the amusement park Cedar Point on a day when the area was struck by multiple tornadoes. I'm thankful to have never seen a tornado in person, but I have certainly been in the general vicinity of them. The fear I felt of the real natural events made me very curious to see these tornado movies in '96.

I was also hyped to watch Tornado! because it stars Bruce Campbell of the Evil Dead franchise.

Tornado! starts with text on screen informing us that an increase in global warming has caused existing weather patterns becoming more severe. We're getting stronger hurricanes, worse floods, longer droughts, and devastating tornadoes. The story is set in "tornado alley" in Texas, where storm chaser Jake Thorne (Campbell) is working with meteorologist Dr. Joe Branson (Ernie Hudson), who has designed a device called P.A.T.T.I. (Portable Analyzer of Technical Tornado Information) that he intends to set in the path of a tornado so it can gather data that could be used to detect tornadoes earlier - just like the Dorothy and D.O.T. 3 devices in Twister. Since Branson has spent years putting together P.A.T.T.I. with money loaned to him from a science foundation, a representative of that foundation has come down to Texas in hopes of seeing a field test. That representative is Shannon Sturges as Samantha Callen, and while you might expect the character to be a total pain, she quickly makes herself part of Thorne and Branson's team - which includes college kid Oliver (Aaron Ibicki); storm chaser Tex (Bo Eason); Tex's girlfriend Mattie (Carrie Boren); Zeena (Juli Erickson), calling in information from fifty miles away; and Jake's grandfather Ephram Thorne (L.Q. Jones). Samantha also starts throwing out a stream of groan-inducing wisecracks as she interactions with this bunch, and yes, of course, she becomes Jake's love interest. Weatherman Richie Cochran (Charles Homet) thinks he's Jake's rival, but he doesn't stand a chance with Samantha.

Campbell is as good and likeable as ever in the role of Jake; he's not as cool or funny as Ash from Evil Dead, of course, but he's a good lead in his own right. Campbell had a solid supporting cast here as well. Sturges holds her own while bouncing dialogue back and forth with him, and it's always nice to see Hudson and Jones in action. Jones' Ephram has a dark history with tornadoes, he's basically the film's equivalent to Dr. Loomis from Halloween or Quint from Jaws (and therefore Captain Ahab from Moby Dick), going on a rant about a tornado, the monster that ate his world, being "God's blind fury" and having "a devil's heart and a dead soul".

The tornado chasing team is based out of an old farmhouse that looks just like the house of horrors from Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, which was itself the mirror image of the house from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, so I can't watch this movie without my mind being filled with thoughts of Leatherface and family. Although it looks like the house from TCM: The Next Generation, it might not be the exact same house, even though Tornado! and that film were both filmed in the Austin, Texas area. There are several houses that look like that in the area, because these were mail order kit houses, all built from the same design.

Tornado! is short (83 minutes) and simple, and exactly what you'd expect from a TV equivalent to Twister. It's not quite as exciting as the blockbuster version of the story and the effects aren't as dazzling, but the writing, directing, and cast worked together to make this one of the better TV movies of its time.

I loved both Tornado! and Twister when I first saw them as a 12 year old, and was so into both these films that I was inspired to spend a chunk of that summer writing my own stories about tornado chasers. I don't remember much about those stories, but I know it was a trilogy titled Cyclone, it was about a group of people chasing storms in Texas, and I couldn't resist dropping Texas Chainsaw Massacre references in there.

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