So once again we have survived.

The Lawnmower Man

I know you guys probly already have huge parties planned, but in case you’re in a part of the world that doesn’t celebrate, today is the 25th anniversary of STEPHEN KING’S THE LAWNMOWER MAN. And in March of 1994 we’ll be able to celebrate the anniversary of THE LAWNMOWER MAN, after King’s lawsuit made New Line Cinema remove his name from it.

(Weird detail from an Entertainment Weekly article at the time: King “hired a team of private investigators to check out video-store copies in five cities” to prove they were violating an injunction against using his name. Did he worry if he brought in four tapes from four cities New Line would say “Nah, it’s only the copies in those four cities, the rest of the ones we made don’t say Stephen King”?)

The short story takes place entirely at the home of Harold Parkette as he tries to get his lawn mowed. The movie opens in a high tech laboratory, with a chimp playing a virtual reality shooting game, then escaping the facility wearing a Robocop type visor that helps him steal a security guard’s gun and tells him when he’s successfully killed people with it. That’s some artistic license right there.

King was right. The movie has very little to do with the short story from his Night Shift collection that it claims to be based on. Director Brett Leonard (THE DEAD PIT, SIEGFRID & ROY: THE MAGIC BOX) was hired to adapt, but he didn’t see much of a movie there, and wanted to do something about virtual reality. So he figured out how to fit a tiny chunk of something vaguely related to the short story in the middle of this completely unrelated cyberthriller from back when the prefix cyber was first catching on.

The lab is secretly being manipulated by The Shop, the nefarious paranormal-exploiting organization of King’s FIRESTARTER (not in the short story). They have not been respectful of their pioneering virtual reality scientist Dr. Lawrence Angelo (Pierce Brosnan, three years before GOLDENEYE), who did not want his ideas to be used to militarize chimps. He thought it would help with Alzheimers and aid human communication, whatever that means.

The Parkette family are in the movie, but they’re Dr. Angelo’s neighbors. Harold (stuntman Ray Lykins) is the abusive father of Peter (Austin O’Brien, LAST ACTION HERO). Peter is good friends with Jobe (Jeff Fahey, DARKMAN III: DIE DARKMAN DIE), the mentally challenged man from the landscaping company who brings him comic books whenever he comes over to mow the lawn. (It seems weird to me that he’s been over enough to develop the best pals relationship they seem to have. How fast does that fuckin grass grow?)

Landscaping boss Terry (the great Geoffrey Lewis [EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE, DOUBLE IMPACT], doing an Irish accent for some reason) is really nice to Jobe, but Terry’s brother Father Francis (Jeremy Slate [BORN LOSERS, TRUE GRIT] in his last movie) torments him. Jobe (who looks like Simple Jack from TROPIC THUNDER) lives in a shack next to the church, and Father Francis comes over and yells at him about picky judgmental religious shit so he can whip his bare back with a belt. Terry is sad when he comes over and sees that his brother has had Jobe doing penances all night, but he’s excited to see that “You finished Big Red!”, his custom hot rod of a lawnmower.

The town looks like nostalgic old time Americana – Jobe spends much of his time at a gas station folksily called Harley’s Gas ‘Er Up – but I think it’s supposed to take place in the future. The opening text says that “By the turn of the millenium [sic] a technology known as VIRTUAL REALITY will be in widespread use.” Although VR does not seem to be in widespread use in the movie I suspect that this was meant to indicate that it takes place 8 or 9 years into the future when the movie came out. One hint is the boardroom where “The Director” (Dean Norris, LETHAL WEAPON 2, HARD TO KILL, TOTAL RECALL, T2, FULL ECLIPSE, MONEY TRAIN, STARSHIP TROOPERS, GET THE GRINGO) talks to his lackey (Mark Bringelson, DOLLMAN, DEAD MAN, SOLDIER) in the form of a giant closeup of his face on a giant screen. On the director’s commentary Leonard says it’s an homage to Kubrick, but it looks like Max Headroom to me.

Dr. Angelo is forced to do experiments at his house, not because they’re too dangerous to be funded, but because they’re not evil enough for The Shop. This basically means he lives in his basement relaxing in a VR chair or smoking and drinking bourbon when not luring in the neighbor kid and the lawnmower man to test out video games.

He figures out he can use VR programs, combined with “smart drugs” (the #2 topic in circa-1992 Mondo Magazine after VR), to teach Jobe. It goes really well and he sneaks him into the Shop lab to get the better equipment. Not only does Jobe become de-challenged, he starts taking care of his hair and getting buff and walking around shirtless with jeans and a western belt buckle to the point that his lawn client Marnie (Jenny Wright, NEAR DARK) is super hot for him and invites him in to teach him sex. That goes so well that Jobe brings her to the lab to experience VR sex in the movie’s weirdest and most famous scene.

So, they put on these bodysuits and get in gyrospheres and spin around and their melty metallic avatars straddle and kiss and melt together and turn into a dragonfly and when they separate she’s stuck in crudely animated goo and gets upset but he laughs and, uh… morphs into a, uh… I have no idea what this is.

And he spits some kind of digital blood or something onto her and she almost dies but he apologizes. I guess in VR you need a safe word.

By the way, it’s never really addressed if the suits are, you know, stimulating their or parts, or even where his boner goes inside there, or that VR would have to be planned and programmed by somebody, that you couldn’t just turn yourself into whatever you want. In this movie it’s less a program and more like psychedelic dreams that flow out of you into the type of shiny ugly shit that was all you could really do with computer animation back then. (In my opinion this style has not aged as well as the TRON animation ten years earlier. Or JOHNNY MNEMONIC three years later.)

I guess maybe this could be explained by the fact that some guy from The Shop switched out Jobe’s drugs, and now he has telepathic powers. Maybe he can program new animation with his mind, the way he can open doors and stuff. Also he’s starting to go crazy, so 2/3 or more into the movie, he goes on his telepathic rampage against people who were mean to him before he turned cyber. He goes after this bully guy from the gas station (John Laughlin, THE HILLS HAVE EYES PART II) and SCANNERSes him in the funniest way. A goofy image of his avatar’s face with pushmower mouth comes out of his eyes and then an animation shows us that he, uh, mentally mows the guy’s brain?

And then we finally get to Peter’s asshole dad paying the piper. Harold is in a tank top drinking Budweiser with his workboots kicked up watching WWF and all the sudden Big Red explodes through the door and chases him around, chewing up the carpet and furniture and then flying off the porch at him, apparently mowing him to shreds, as represented by lawnmower-POV-shot cutting to black.

This whole time Jobe stands outside in his glowing Tron suit CARRIE-ing the thing to life, so I guess this 2 minute scene is supposed to represent the short story, where Harold is surprised to hire a lawnmowing service where the mower drives around by itself. The memorable part of that though was the titleistical lawnmower man crawling around naked eating the grass and the chopped up mole it ran over and stuff. I didn’t catch if he was telepathic or not, I guess I was distracted. But in the story it’s revealed that the lawnmower man has cloven feet and some customers get mowed as a ritualistic sacrifice to the owner of the landscaping company, the mythological figure Pan. Sadly, Pan is not in the movie. Why couldn’t they at least have had Geoffrey Lewis playing a flute?

Since this is the godfather of cyberthrillers (not to be confused with the THE GODFATHER of cyberthrillers) of course he has to try to become a being of pure information. He does this by going into virtual reality and then fighting with virtual Dr. Angelo and pushing a bunch of animated buttons and stuff. Due to his upbringing in the shack he crucifies cyberBrosnan on an animated cross and sees himself as a resurrected God. His plan is to oh who am I fooling I have no idea what his plan it is but it involves the cyber. Just like GHOST IN THE MACHINE and TRON LEGACY he figures out how to turn pixels into physical matter, which in my opinion is not supported by science. But it does allow for this part where cops fire guns at the giant floating head of a limited edition gold plated REVENGE OF THE SITH action figure:

Why the hell wouldn’t Stephen King want his name on that shit?

* * *

Side note: Mike de Luca – the eventual head of production at New Line Cinema, but I think he was still working his way up the ladder at that point – had, back in 1985, written a more faithful adaptation of the story for a low budget short film.

That version’s director Jim Gonis went on to work at Playboy, it seems, and didn’t direct again. But cinematographer Ethan Reiff became a successful screenwriter who wrote MEN OF WAR and TALES FROM THE CRYPT: DEMON KNIGHT, and has a story credit on KUNG FU PANDA, among other things.

* * *

STEPHEN KING’S THE LAWNMOWER MAN WRITTEN AND FULLY AUTHORIZED BY STEPHEN KING NO TAKEBACKS was a completely ridiculous movie at the time and has of course been made much more ridiculous as its ideas about the future have not panned out. I’m not clear why VR is supposed to evolve brains and make people smart, and in the 25 years since I haven’t ever heard that mentioned as a possible use.

I guess we can give it this, though: there was a good 15+ years when it seemed like virtual reality had been a dumb idea that came and went, and now all the sudden it’s here again. It’s clear that computer graphics (done in the same year that T2 really kickstarted the age of CGI) were not even close to being ready to support the technology in any half-way reasonable way. It was like trying to do Halo or whatever on an old Atari. Now it might work.

In 1993, Leonard had some better looking computer animation in the Peter Gabriel video “Kiss That Frog.”

And he got to explore the intersection between humanity and technology a couple more times. In 1993 he directed the Billy Idol video “Shock to the System” from his album Cyberpunk. It has some cool effects of Billy turning into a cyborg.

He used VR again in 1995’s VIRTUOSITY, which was… arguably a little better than THE LAWNMOWER MAN? Yeah, I guess I’d argue that. Not very forcefully, though. And 2005’s FEED I haven’t seen but the plot summary on IMDb begins with the phrase “A cybercrime investigator…”

Anyway, happy silver anniversary Cyberjobe, you shiny golden computer god.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
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30 Responses to “The Lawnmower Man”

  1. So did you watch the directors cut, which runs 40 minutes longer (but is still shitty) or the theatrical version?

    Fun fact: Peter Gabriel’s KISS THE FROG is actually about a guy, trying to consider his girl to suck his dick.

  2. I, for some reason, saw this in the theatre with my dad and brother when I was twelve. The CG was actually really impressive at the time, especially considering how B-grade the rest of the movie feels, but by the time the DVD hit, it looked ancient. LAWNMOWER MAN has one of the worst sequels ever (titled BEYOND CYBERSPACE theatrically, and then JOBE’S WAR on video), but I still have some affection for this one. Happy 25th!

  3. THE LAWNMOWER MAN is that one short story I fucking hate. King is usually good with creating interesting short stories, like that one with the dude trapped on an island with nothing but cocaine and ends up feeding himself his own body parts, while using the cocaine as painkillers. But this short story was just tedious. The film I find in hindsight way more interesting with its interest in, at the time. futuristic Virtual Reality concept. Did you know videogames are bad for you?

    Now, VR today looks not only costwise a lot less intimidating, and as concept a bit less abstract as 3D engines are so well dveloped nowadays.

  4. flyingguillotine

    March 6th, 2017 at 11:11 am

    Rumors have it that De Luca is on the short list in consideration for the new head of Paramount.

    I saw this in the theater. It came out during a low period for American horror in general, and King adaptations in particular (see also: GRAVEYARD SHIFT, SLEEPWALKERS, etc.) I spent the entire movie wondering what VR Flowers for Algernon had to do with a short story about a satyr who eats grass. Both tangentially involve a lawnmower, and I suppose that’s the reason this random story element is given top billing in the title.

  5. Vern, did you like the movie? It´s not all that clear.

  6. I’ve mentioned it on here before, but I think Lawnmower Man is actually way ahead of its time – but surprisingly in the script department and not the VFX one. It really does feel like a JJ Abrams-style homage/love letter/reboot to King – even though it doesn’t resemble the titular short story very much, the “new” story surrounding it is very, very King-influenced, with evil government agents (literally straight out of Firestarter), asshole bullies and corrupt religious-types pushing childlike powered people too far (Carrie), and abusive dads who sit around watching wrestling in their undershirts getting their just desserts (Dolores Claiborne, Silver Bullet, probably a lot of other King works). You can also throw in the “unassuming small town hides unseen drama” of Salem’s Lot and “dorky protagonist gets dangerously drunk with power” from Christine too in there while you’re at it. I remember joking about how little this had to do with King at the time, but if they “adapted” a story like this today, I feel we wouldn’t bat an eyelash. So basically I can understand why King sued them to take his name off, but a) if you had to stretch the short story into a feature-length film, this isn’t a bad way to do it, and b) has King SEEN “Stephen King’s Graveyard Shift”? My God, you figured if he had to take his name off any movie in his oeuvre…..

    Also: Like many a young boy, I was totally taken with Jenny Wright in this movie. She’s not in it very much and isn’t your typical “classical” beauty, but there was something pretty appealing about her brazen sexuality when you’re 13. And yes, I hope Vern reviews the sequel- I just saw it recently and it’s mind-bogglingly terrible, one of the strangest and most inept movies ever to get an actual theatrical release. It needs to be seen to be believed.

  7. Nabroleon Dynamite

    March 6th, 2017 at 4:18 pm

    FEED is a must see, B (and by B, I mean V)!

  8. I remember when this one was released and they really pushed both the Stephen King connection and it’s wicked-awesome-cool-CGI. Naturally I was looking real forward to it but no one took me to see it in theaters so I had to wait for week 1 of the VHS release. Even back then when I really didn’t know any better, I knew this one wasn’t good and was pretty dumb. At least friends and I got to make a whole bunch of LAWNMOWER MAN jokes when the Nintendo VirtuaBoy came out.

    As bad as the movie is, the tie-in video game is far worse. Doesn’t do the dated-as-all-get-out visuals of the movie justice. At least the JOHNNY MNEMONIC game was funny.

    As far as VR coming back, as I said in the GHOST IN THE MACHINE thread. I’m doubtful it will stay as I don’t know a single person who gives a damn about VR other than the game journalists. I’m not good at predicting things though.

    I actually did get to see the sequel in theaters and it is amazing for all the wrong reasons. First of which that it got made and released theatrically.

  9. I feel like Leonard tried to shoehorn VR into Hideaway as well. The movie Leonard trades King for Koontz, and where Jeff Goldblum is sort of a psychic and can see crappy paintings or something? I don’t remember much except Alicia Silverstone was in it, and afterwards I had to take what I considered the longest pee ever afterwards, and somebody applauded afterwards.

    Anyway, I always had a soft spot for Lawnmower Man, but part 2 was complete ass that made no sense whatsoever. Which made me kinda love it more.

  10. winchester: I had a hearty laugh at your pee story. Thanks for that!

  11. There is so much I don’t remember about this movie, despite having an odd affection for it. All I recall is something about bees and using a bunch of CyberJobe samples in a techno mix I made. They worked really well with The Prodigy.

  12. geoffreyjar : Anytime!

    (said like the Predator imitating Bill Duke)

  13. FUN FACT: Grant Morrison wrote an unproduced screenplay for LAWNMOWER MAN 3: LAWNMOWER LAND (omg that title!!) about kids who learn that they’re living in a virtual reality simulation.

    And this person’s passion for LM2 makes me want to watch it again. I agree with their distaste for “ironic appreciation” of movies…

    https://letterboxd.com/ucrazyutaraptor/film/lawnmower-man-2-beyond-cyberspace/

  14. Back during the actual turn of the millennium I used to read a video game magazine called Electronic Gaming Monthly that was sort of obsessed with this movie, they were always throwing out references to THE LAWNMOWER MAN in a jokey way, kind of poking fun at the early 90s idea that virtual reality was what video games would have been like by that point.

    They even had an article once devoted to what they thought the future of video games would be like, their best guess was holograms, not something you strapped to your head, so it’s funny of course that VR headsets have made a comeback.

  15. I used to have a theory that every movie is somebody’s favorite movie, except for Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace/Job’s War.

    Not sure that theory still holds up. Like I don’t think Collateral Beauty or The Bye Bye Man is anyone’s favorite movie, even of some people are kind to them.

  16. I’m sure there is some “So bad it’s good” dumbass, who loves LM2.

  17. Gee, was it really 25 years ago when me and two friends skipped school, sucked down a blunt in the parking lot, then witnessed this masterpiece? It seems like only yesterday…

    I do remember that like most matinees, the five other members of the audience were in on the senior discount, and during the “brain mowing” scene pictured above, one of them were roused long enough to declare “this picture is STUPID!” before going back to his own virtual reality known as slumber.

    Another personal note: I actually wrote for EGM briefly during turn of the millennium, and while I was not the Lawnmower Man writer, I can attest that he was pretty much an idiot. Every time he made mention, he was certain it was the most irreverent, hilarious reference ever conceived, and was absolutely confounded as to why the producers of the Daily Show weren’t leaving him six voicemails a day in attempts to snag such a vital comedic mind.

  18. I’m sure there is some “So bad it’s good” dumbass, who loves LM2

    And they probably have a podcast…

  19. Lovecraft In Brooklyn

    March 7th, 2017 at 7:58 pm

    “FUN FACT: Grant Morrison wrote an unproduced screenplay for LAWNMOWER MAN 3: LAWNMOWER LAND (omg that title!!) about kids who learn that they’re living in a virtual reality simulation.”

    Huh, I love Grant Morrison, and when I was a kid I had a copy of SFX magazine that talked about Lawnmower Man and Terminator 2… loved Lawnmower Man’s SFX, would love to just be pure CGI brainwaves, and that VR sex stuff is cool. And the ending is sweet… meanwhile I read the Stephen King story and barely remember it.

  20. jojo = WHAT? You wrote for EGM!? This is blowing my mind, who are you exactly if you don’t mind my asking and who exactly was the LAWNMOWER MAN referencer?

    I understand you might be uncomfortable naming names but come on, who besides me is gonna care? I want you to know how important that magazine was for me as a teen, it’s an honor to communicate with someone who wrote for it, though you do say “briefly”, are you Greg Stewart perhaps?

    I still have all my old issues and still read them pretty frequently, I actually think I know an article that might parse who the guy who kept referencing the LAWNMOWER MAN was.

  21. CJ, Jojo, maybe a defender but not their favorite movie of all time. Not this one.

    Also CJ and JoJo would make a great band. You guys should hook up.

  22. Dammit Fred, I thought I found the ONE place on the Internet where I didn’t have to deal with shipping!

  23. I understand you might be uncomfortable naming names

    That’s putting it mildly. Besides, it was a long time ago so there’s a very real possibility of naming the wrong name…
    Also, I was never on staff at EGM, just a freelancer (for it, and a bunch of other Ziff pubs)

    Also CJ and JoJo would make a great band

    There was already the mighty KC & Jojo — an offshoot of R&B powerhouse quartet Jodeci

  24. CJ I appreciate the hell out of LM2. Going from Fahey to Frewer was kind of genius cause he was the right kinda manic for a Jobe who is further gone.

  25. I still think the last shot of the movie is great and should have been the ending of a much better film.

  26. To my knowledge THE LAWNMOWER MAN was the first of the 1990s “cyber” movies/shows. There weren’t any right before it that I know of, but right after it there are tons – VIRTUOSITY, WILD PALMS, REBOOT, JOHNNY MNEMONIC, STRANGE DAYS, GHOST IN THE MACHINE etc. right up to THE MATRIX. I’m not saying LM inspired those – clearly this stuff was in the air and LM was just the first one out of the gate.

    Back in 1993 in my area there was a city-wide interactive-media exhibit spanning several different venues. One of these was a couple of virtual reality stations set up in a gymnasium – they set up a couple of those gyroscope things like in LAWNMOWER MAN, which you get strapped into and you rotate around while wearing 3D goggles and seeing POV animation flying down a CGI tunnel while stuff flies past you (a skull, an axe, etc). This “ride” was only about 10 minutes, but the wait to get onto it was at least an hour or two because the queue was so long.

    Why did VR and computer-world concepts suddenly explode in the early-to-mid-90s? Some of these movies (like HACKERS and THE NET) are clearly responding to the emerging popularity of the actual Internet, but the earlier stuff like THE LAWNMOWER MAN seems to be merely excited by the concept. I know people were reading William Gibson in the 1980s and early 1990s, so maybe this is one of those things where it took mainstream Hollywood a few extra years to catch on.

    But then, there was a burst of VR movies in the early 1980s (BRAINSTORM, TRON, VIDEODROME, DREAMSCAPE). So maybe a better question is why it went away for a while before coming back in the 1990s. Maybe there was a temporary loss of faith in techno-optimism after the video game crash of ’83, the 1986 Challenger explosion, etc. and that it took a while for the concept’s popularity to recover.

    I looked up “virtual reality” on Wikipedia to try and learn about the history of this concept, and was amused to see the View-Master being suggested as one of the early entries in the genre.

  27. Oops, there was a 1990 movie called CIRCUITRY MAN that I’ve never seen but apparently has some mind-jacking or something in it. So maybe LM wasn’t the first of its decade. First big one, maybe. But CM apparently has Vernon Wells in it, which sounds like a plus.

  28. I loved this review.

    One thing that struck me was I had a pretty vivid memory of seeing this with a kid I went to high school with, not really knowing what to make of it and then playing the then new Super Nintendo for the rest of the night.

    And that was that. Good or bad, there’s really no denying this was a really weird ass movie. A b-flick trying to art house? I think? Based on a Stephen King story but not really? Weird trippy Minds Eye animation, occasional gory deaths and about as convoluted a plot as you can get.

    And to myself and my friend it was…just another movie. Not the best, but not bad enough to really give much thought. Just another weird flick in many that we saw.

    I think these days a movie like this would raise a few more eyebrows!!!

    Hey Curt, you should see CIRCUTRY MAN. I remember seeing it around the same time (a time I think of as the FILM THREAT era right before the big indie boom) and remember thinking it was a pretty strange movie.

  29. Oh…and I don’t think there are too many people who don’t immediately think of LAWNMOWER MAN whenever they see Jeff Fahey in something!

  30. The Lawnmower Man Blu-ray Release Detailed! - Dread Central

    The Lawnmower Man Blu-ray Release Detailed!

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