Tammy, the T-Rex, and the Question of What Is a Bad Movie

You probably never saw Tammy and the T-Rex. The 1994 film stars an infant Denise Richards and a fetal Paul Walker as high school star-crossed sweethearts; he loves her, she loves him, but her psychotic ex-boyfriend refuses to let anyone get close to her. The ex beats up Paul Walker and dumps him in a wild animal park, where he gets mauled by a lion. While recovering in the hospital, Walker catches the eye of a mad scientist who has a scheme to achieve immortality by putting human brains in robots. His test case, of course: a giant animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex. Poor Paul Walker gets his brain cut out and put into the T-Rex and from there things get even weirder.

If you did see Tammy and the T-Rex you likely saw the PG-13 version, but director Stewart Rafill (of the classic The Ice Pirates) actually shot a hard R movie, which was unseen by American audiences until recently. It has been playing fests and midnight screenings, and it played in Los Angeles at Beyond Fest last night. Having heard much buzz about this super gory version of what was released as a twee PG-13 teen comedy, I had to go check it out. 

The movie is quite gory. And full of F-bombs; I’m actually more curious how the PG-13 cut handles the steady stream of profanity that runs through the film. There’s some offensive humor to be found, but I think a 1994 movie could have comfortably maintained a PG-13 while also containing juvenile homophobic jokes (someone actually makes a “don’t bend over” joke while in the presence of the film’s gay best friend (he’s also black and also wearing African garb, making him the ultimate marginalized sidekick)). But it’s the splatter that really stands out – heads get squashed and blood geysers out of eyeballs, there’s a truly graphic brain transplant that includes a muscleman vomiting all over himself, the T-Rex rips off heads and disembowels a few people. Blood sprays in Costco quantities in this cut of the film. 

The movie is also terrible, although not really in a way I enjoy. But the crowd last night – and, to my understanding crowds all over these great United States of ours – have been eating this R-rated cut up, having rollicking reactions to the film. I have to assume, based on the kind of reactions the movie was getting last night, that a lot of this was about the film being “so bad it’s good,” but here’s the thing about Tammy and the T-Rex (or, as the R-rated cut is called, Tanny and the Teenage T-Rex (and yes, it’s Tanny)) – people were laughing at comedic beats. They were never laughing at a serious moment, because this movie has no serious moments.

Here’s the origin of the film: Rafill got a call from a guy who told him that he had access to an animatronic T-Rex that was in transit. It would be available for ten days. The guy figured this would be a good chance to make a dinosaur movie, and so he brought in Rafill, who had worked similar seat of his pants ‘magic’ on Mac and Me and Mannequin II: On the Move, to figure out what this movie could look like. According to the Q&A before the screening Rafill basically wrote the script in a couple of weekends during shooting. 

Rafill had no illusions about what he was doing. This wasn’t his opportunity to make a statement, to approach an idea he had long considered, to come at a genre in a new way. This was a payday, and he knew the whole thing was ridiculous… so he made something ridiculous. At its heart, Tammy and the T-Rex is a spoof of teenage handicapped weepies; in the straight version Paul Walker, who is a football star in the film, would have his neck broken and be in an iron lung while Denise Richards cries at his side. But they didn’t have an iron lung for ten days, they had a T-Rex, and so this movie was born. 

Again, it’s bad, but it’s not bad in the way a film like The Room or After Last Season or even Mac and Me are. Those films are, in their own ways, playing it straight. Even Mac and Me, while ludicrous, is a fairly straight ahead attempt to rip off ET; Rafill isn’t doing a bit with that movie (although I think his absurdist sensibilities shine through. I guess 2019 is when we begin looking at the auterial qualities of the guy who directed Bad Girl Island), and he doesn’t always do bits in his films. He directed the very straight-ahead The Philadelphia Experiment, about which I have fond memories that I do not wish to challenge with a rewatch. 

Anyway, the movie is terrible, but it’s terrible in the way it cheaply goes for broad jokes and dumb payoffs. The T-Rex is trash, and clearly not meant to be seen in daylight for such extended periods of time. The robot has minimal range, and so it can go through a repertoire of movements in the course of one scene, only to keep repeating them in the same scene. The robot’s legs don’t seem to move much, and so it needs to keep getting placed on things (in a climactic barn showdown it is standing on two bales of hay), and Rafill never tries to hide this. He features it, in fact. 

Even the movie’s most outlandish stuff – Tammy and the T-Rex seem to get physical offscreen – is played for laughs. This movie is just a comedy, no scene in this film is serious, no scene in this film creates stakes (the idea that the boyfriend gets mauled in a wild animal park is ludicrous, and clearly intended to keep the movie from ever getting remotely serious), and there’s almost no emotional element to the whole thing. It’s pure spoof.

That’s not my cup of tea! I like a bad movie that doesn’t know it’s bad. That is the epitome of “so bad it’s good” to me, even though I hate that concept. But here’s the thing: if this comedy is making people in late night screenings laugh uproariously at all its jokes… doesn’t that just mean the movie works? Traditional bad movies work on the audience in a way the filmmaker didn’t intend; this is why Tommy Wiseau leaning into the comedy aspect of The Room is kind of pathetic to me. Ed Wood didn’t intend Plan 9 From Outer Space to be ridiculous, it just worked out that way. It’s the magic of the movie. 

But Rafill intended Tammy and the T-Rex to be ridiculous. So when audiences laugh at this movie… they’re doing what he intended. This creates a weird Catch-22: even though the movie is bad, because it works on an audience it’s not really a “bad movie” in the Golden Turkey Awards sense of the phrase. It’s just “good” in an objective sense (ie, it achieves its goals), and that’s kind of no fun… especially when the jokes are as broad and trite and dumb as they are in Tammy and the T-Rex.

There is one thing about this movie that approaches classic “so bad it’s good” territory, and that’s Denise Richards’ performance. She’s next level, really going above and beyond in scenes and whether or not she knows the score, she’s playing it straighter than straight. There’s not a wink or a nod in her performance (Paul Walker, meanwhile, is quite clear he’s in a shitty teen comedy), and she’s playing her role as if she were in a real weepie. It’s wild seeing her act opposite Theo Forsett as the impossibly swishy best friend, because he’s going so broad and she’s playing so straight. She’s in an entirely different movie from anyone else, and I would argue that she’s actually doing it right; everybody in this film is being hammy and stupid, and she’s just acting, and that makes all the spoofiness of it land better. If Tammy and the T-Rex is notable for anything, it’s notable for perhaps being the only film in history in which Denise Richards gives the best, most grounded performance.

Tammy and the T-Rex reminds me a lot of Nicolas Cage’s career; he used to make weird acting choices because he felt them, but for the past few years he seems to be making weird acting choices because he gets good feedback on them. But that feedback is based on the ridiculousness of his choices, which become less contextually ridiculous when everybody knows that these are the kinds of choices he makes. The joke previously was that his style was unexpected, maybe even out of place in a movie, but now that it’s expected I just can’t find it funny. A lot of other people do, and God bless them and I wish I could enjoy late-period Nic Cage movies the way they do because they seem very happy and I am often suffering during these films, so I’m not saying I’m better than anyone. I just have this problem where I need my fun bad things to be earnest.