That's the thing about trees... they're silent like the night! They don't make a noise... they just stand there.
In September of 1999, three student filmmakers went in the woods near Thomaston, Connecticut to shoot a film. A year-and-a-half later, their footage can be found at Blockbuster Video. "Trees" is the name of the sophomore offering from Pioneer Motion Pictures, a production company formed by Andrew Genhard, Michael Pleckaitis, and Bill Minervino while they were still students at South Connecticut State University. While the title might conjure up images of a "The Blair Witch Project", "Trees" actually parodies an even more eminent classic-- "Jaws".
Everyone out of the woods!
From the opening scene, fans of Steven Spielberg's breakthrough film will instantly recognize the painstaking effort that writer/director Michael Pleckaitis has gone to in order to recontextualize "Jaws". The setting is the camping grounds near the resort town of Hazelville. In the middle of a picnic, a young woman (Erin Reynolds) runs off into the woods with a drunk male admirer in tow. After her intoxicated beau passes out, the young woman disappears into the forest, never to be seen alive again.
This was no lawnmower accident!
The mysterious disappearance prompts an investigation by forest ranger Mark Cody (Kevin McCauley), who finds the young woman's partially masticated body and is convinced that it is the handiwork of a tree (apparently, tree attacks are rare but not beyond the realm of the impossibility). Of course, with the Memorial Day holiday weekend quickly approaching, Mayor Swindell of Hazelville (Raymond Michaud) has concerns on how news of a killer tree on the loose will affect their lucrative tourism industry, and has the coroner attribute the woman's death to a 'lawnmower accident'.
We tell them there's a killer tree on the loose, and you've got pandemonium on Memorial Day!
To help track down the coniferous killer, Cody brings in acclaimed botanist Max Cooper (Philip Gardiner) of the New York Botanical Institute, who identifies the culprit as being a Great White Pine, a killing machine that has essentially remained unchanged for millennia. Also joining in the hunt is a grizzled lumberjack named Squint (Peter Randazzo), and together, the three men head into the woods to put an end to the Great White Pine's reign of terror.
Jim, if you open up those campgrounds on Memorial Day, well, it's like opening up a buffet, for chrissakes!
Be forewarned-- most of the humor found in "Trees" is referential, as many of the scenes take their cue from "Jaws", only taken to the nth-degree of absurdity in a universe where killer trees are an established phenomenon. The deadpan approach to the material employed by Pleckaitis often reminded me of the Troma classic "Monster in the Closet"-the situations may end up being pretty silly, but for the characters, it's deadly serious business.
Apparently, a great white pine has staked its claim to the woods around Hazelville.
Very few stones in "Jaws" are left unturned, such as Cody trying to find 'campgrounds closed' signs (only to learn that there aren't any), Cody and Cooper digging through the digestive system of a freshly-killed tree (which is used for the obligatory "Blair Witch" reference), Squint's disturbing account of how his platoon was wiped out by a pack of voracious trees in Vietnam, and Cooper's use of a steel cage to lure the Great White Pine into the open. However, not all the references are tied to "Jaws", such as the jab at "Raiders of the Lost Ark" that astute viewers will catch. And in terms of the actors chosen, McCauley, Gardiner, and Randazzo do pretty decent jobs in conveying the mannerisms of Roy Schneider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw of "Jaws".
A cage won't work with that tree!
Unfortunately, this dedication to parodying the details of "Jaws" is also the film's greatest shortcoming. Unless you are well versed in the film it parodies, most of the humor in "Trees" will be lost on you, as the majority of the gags do not stand up well on their own. With a running time of approximately ninety minutes, I also found the film to be a little on the long side, and had it been tightened up, perhaps into a short film (such as "George Lucas in Love") or as an 'extended trailer', the impact would have been much greater. Director Pleckaitis agrees with me on this point, and he has assured me that this will be addressed in the next installments of the "Trees" trilogy, "Trees II: The Root of All Evil" and "Trees III: The Search for Cody".
Didn't they say on TV they caught the tree?
Finally, having been shot entirely on digital video, the technical aspects of the production are surprisingly polished compared to other recent DV feature film productions I have seen (such as "Surveillance"), with crisp cinematography, good use of natural lighting, and clear sound recording. The film's music, scored by Tom Destephano, however, vacillates between paying appropriate homage to the 'du-dum du-dum du-dum' of John Williams' original "Jaws" score and something akin to elevator music that would seem more at home in "Oklahoma!"
A 'tree-mendous effort', "Trees" is what I would dub a 'silly grin' movie that might be considered required viewing for rabid "Jaws" fans. It isn't laugh-out-loud hilarious, but it should ensure that you will crack a smile on a fairly regular basis, interspersed with the occasional guffaw. If you rent this at your local Blockbuster (which should be hitting the shelves sometime in May), it might be prudent to rent "Jaws" also, which would make a good primer and help you better appreciate this 'tree-bute' to Steven Spielberg.
You're gonna need a bigger axe.