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TCM Underground - April 2019
Remind Me

The Lawnmower Man

In 1975, one year after his debut novel Carrie, Stephen King published his short story "The Lawnmower Man" in Cavalier magazine and used it in 1978 as a key entry in his much-loved anthology, Night Shift. That collection became a rich source for short films by student and other fledgling filmmakers that could be licensed from the author for one dollar. These "Dollar Babies" included stories like "Children of the Corn," "The Mangler," "The Woman in the Room" and "The Boogeyman" all going before the cameras on some form or another. "The Lawnmower Man," a peculiar and haunting little vignette, charts the macabre consequences when a yardwork-phobic man named Harold Parkette enlists a lawnmowing service and gets far more than he anticipated. The tale was eventually adapted into a 1987 Dollar Baby short film that marked the screenwriting debut of future In the Mouth of Madness (1994) screenwriter and New Line president of production Michael De Luca.

Then things took a bizarre turn. A year before a 27-year-old De Luca started running the production ship at New Line, the studio released The Lawnmower Man in 1992, initially as Stephen King's The Lawnmower Man until the author protested via two rounds in court that the film bore no similarity to his work. Apart from one scene of Jobe Smith (Jeff Fahey) mowing a lawn and a death by lawnmower, King was correct since the project did indeed come from an unrelated screenplay entitled Cyber God written by the film's director, Brett Leonard, and producer Gimel Everett. In fact, Leonard would continue to be associated with computer-generated effects and virtual reality throughout his career, most notably with the film Virtuosity (1995) and a string of IMAX, music video and interactive experiential projects.

While the film largely deviates from the source material, its array of groundbreaking computer-generated effects works in its favor. Though it may not dazzle so much now but were the subject of much chatter upon the film's release and became an early exemplar of virtual reality. The depiction of an entirely digital realm mirrored a similar craze on home video for the abstract CGI favorite The Mind's Eye (1990), so much so that the raw computerized material for this film was later integrated into a sequel released at the end of 1992, Beyond the Mind's Eye. The computerized effects for the feature were the handiwork of Angel Studios, a California-based video game developer who later became absorbed into Rockstar Games as one of its subsidiaries, Rock San Diego, which spawned the popular Red Dead Redemption game.

A significant box office success, the film is essentially an updated Frankenstein story with Dr. Lawrence Angelo (Pierce Brosnan) using the intellectually stunted and abused yardman Jobe Smith (Jeff Fahey) in a virtual reality experiment to increase his mental faculties. The process is a success, but Jobe also acquires formidable powers that soon pose a threat to everyone around him. The film's popularity would go on to inspire two video games and a sequel, Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace (1996). The standard theatrical version running 103 minutes was issued on VHS and laserdisc, but viewers also had the option of an unrated director's cut that expanded the film tremendously to 141 minutes with entire subplots and extensive character development reinstated. Fans still debate which one is preferable, citing the theatrical cut as a tighter and more focused work while others find the director's cut more coherent and fully realized. Either way, its popularity continues to endure with its influence still felt in such mind-expanding techno science fiction films as Lucy (2014).

By Nathaniel Thompson