The Wonderful Weirdness of Tammy & the T-Rex

In the months following the release of Steven Spielberg’s world-conquering Jurassic Park, British director Stewart Raffill received a deeply unusual phone call. A man with a ‘life-sized’ animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex and a million dollars wanted to make a movie. No script. No story ideas. And a miniscule time window: three weeks. Against all odds, Raffill made it happen. The result? One of the most charmingly kooky cult films of the 1990s, one that happened to feature two stars at the beginning of their respective careers; Denise Richards and Paul Walker.

In suburban LA, two teenagers, Tammy (Denise Richards) and Michael (Paul Walker) are in love. But Tammy’s ex – school bully Billy (George Pilgrim) – isn’t so keen on Michael, so conspires for him to be mauled to death by a nearby lion (yes). But nobody expects what happens next. Opportunist mad scientist Dr. Wachenstein (Terry Kiser) steals Michael’s body for a dastardly experiment; transplanting his comatose brain into said animatronic T-Rex. The operation is a success! Michael is resurrected in robotic dinosaur form, and agitated enough to go on a blood-thirsty rampage of revenge… and to reunite with the cheerleader he adores.

It’s often derided as a piece of offbeat trash, but considering the extreme constraints of production, Tammy & the T-Rex is something of an improbable marvel. Together with Gary Brockette, Raffill broke the story, assembled a witty, tongue-in-cheek script, found a full cast and all the locations they needed and were ready to get to work. The aforementioned animatronic T-Rex was only available for a week before it was headed for a theme park in Texas. Shooting in and around LA close to his home, Raffill rushed through his bright and bonkers sci-fi comedy, replete with ridiculous, over-the-top gore effects. Effects that would ultimately meet the cutting room floor.

Without the director’s consultation or consent, Tammy & the T-Rex was trimmed down from an R-rated doolally bloodbath in the vein of a Brian Zuzna or Frank Henenlotter flick to a family friendly PG movie. It quickly disappeared into direct-to-video obscurity, and it’s only really been since the advent of internet forums that the film has gained any kind of reputation – helped no end by the restoration of the original effects scenes. Championed by US distributing label Vinegar Syndrome, the restored version now arrives on UK soil via the 101 imprint.

There are wonderfully incredulous and bizarrely heartfelt moments to Tammy & the T-Rex that only add to its charm. Richards – in essentially her first significant role and eager to please – puts her all into the silly conceit, bringing herself to tears when she is comically reunited with Michael in T-Rex form. The sincerity is adorable, above and beyond the snark of so much post-modern ‘ironic’ viewing.

Still, key to the movie’s success is how aware it is of it’s own craziness. The script is genuinely funny, presenting a string of ludicrous characters and outrageous little moments. A scene in which T-Rex Michael uses a payphone is glorious; the coup de gras being the moment afterward where the dinosaur thinks to check the coin slot for change. Later on, the sheer silliness of Tammy and her gay Black friend Byron (Theo Forsett) holding up cadavers as possible new hosts for Michael as he looks on from the back of a horsebox comes off so goofy that its almost impossible to view it as anything other than the purest good-natured gold.

The aforementioned Forsett is also emblematic of how relatively ahead of his time Raffill was in terms of casting, favouring a diverse range of actors from different backgrounds. Such choices guilelessly arose from an earnestly inclusive instinct on Raffill’s part to make the movie seem as vibrant as possible. Forsett wasn’t gay, so his full commitment to the part – especially in the social arena of 1993/1994 – isn’t to be sniffed at either. He’s a great and memorable supporting player.

Nobody could’ve guessed the careers ahead of the film’s leads, however. Compared to her later young-and-entitled-Republican roles (which I love!), Richards is shockingly sweet and innocent. She’s even noticeably coy-and-cagey when it comes to the half-hearted raunch of Tammy‘s totally nutty coda. A far cry from the teen sexpot persona we’d later see in Wild Things. Walker, meanwhile, carries his scenes with similarly inexperienced, dopy openness. Watching it back now is a reminder of what a charismatic presence we’ve since lost, sadly.

What makes Tammy & the T-Rex so unique is that it can straddle the worlds of the video nasty and the teen rom-com and stare you down while doing so. The early ’90s were a wildly unfocused time for horror, fantasy and sci-fi B-movies, as the glut of successful titles from the ’80s left uncertainties over where to go next. Indies were getting (slightly) bigger budgets and moving into the mainstream.  In this floundering sprawl you’ll find plenty of oddballs and abject failures. Tammy is different though. A schizoid indulgence that is so much fun it encourages repeat visits, with just enough naffness (it gets its own title and lead character’s name wrong!) to sate those who’ve worn their copy of The Room of all its mirth. 

It’s a campy, lovingly-scrambled-together party movie and thankfully its now widely available again. We just need to get to a place where we can have those parties again…

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