Western Film WTF: Pet Shop (1994)


Aliens come to earth dressed as cowboys and open a pet store in a complicated scheme to kidnap children.


1994's "Pet Shop" is an oddity from the era of direct-to-video films, which produced an awful lot of oddities. In fact, one of the film's producer's, Charles Band, was responsible for a shocking amount of vaguely exploitative, super-low-budget videos with his company Full Moon Features, many of which are fondly remembered by those of us who lived through the era.

There were the Dollman movies, in which  Tim Thomerson is a very small cop with a very powerful gun, the Trancers movies in which Tim Thomerson is a future cop who travels back in time by possessing the body of an ancestor, and the Puppet Master series, a series about murderous dolls, which didn't have Tim Thomerson in any of them, which feels like a waste of a Thomerson.

Band also released family films under a similarly named label, Moonbeam, and "Pet Shop" was among them. These films typically addressed fantastic or supernatural subjects, like Full Moon did, but without the gore and with a great deal of dopey humor. Because the films were typically made by people who were relatively new to the industry, and because, as far as I can tell, they were assembled quickly and without overmuch concern for quality, they also tend to be rougher and weirder than what you find elsewhere.

And so we have "Pet Shop," a movie in which two space aliens come to earth dressed in movie cowboy clothes and speaking movie cowboy slang, which we watch they try to memorize from a book. They take over a pet shop an use it for a convoluted plan to kidnap children, which is undermined by a little girl who just moved to town because her parents are in the witness protection program.

So, not your typical plotting. I suspect the film was made in an attempt to piggyback on the success of "Gremlins." despite that film already being a decade old when this was released, because both involve pets that transform if arcane rules aren't obeyed. As an example, a puppy turns into a puppet that resembles the sort of shoddy animation animals that used to play banjo at children's pizza restaurants.

Unlike in "Gremlins," the pets don't turn evil. No, they're just bait for the cowboys, played by Jane Morris and Jeff Michalski, a married couple who are both products of Chicago's Second City improv school, and are delightfully weird. They seem to have dressed as cowboys under the mistaken impression that this would be how everybody dresses, and seem to have learned cowboy English thinking that was how humans would speak, but they really take to it — all of their dialogue sounds like the sort of thing Sheriff Woody Pride says when you pull the string on his back.

The adult cast is generally enjoyable, if hammy: The family in witness protection features Terry Kiser and Joanne Baron as parents, and Kiser is best-known as the titular corpse in "Weekend at Bernies," while Baron has done simply a million films being loud and ethnic. They're well cast, as their primary direction seems to have been to be as noisily New York as possible, so they spend the film screaming and belittle each other like sitcom versions of Jake and Vickie LaMotta.

But the performances and the storyline, as daffy as they may be, take a backseat to occasionally inspired directoral flourishes. As an example, when our lamming family first comes to town, every single person they pass is slumped down along the road, seated at bus stops or in front of flagpoles, all looking like they just spontaneously had given up on life.

The family moves into a nondescript rambler, and Baron takes to redecorating it with a vengeance. She starts with stuff they brought from New York, including an enormous and hilarious portrait of the family, but then suddenly seems to make the same decision the space aliens made: If she's going to be in the West, she's going to go with a cowboy theme.

Somehow, over the course of a few days, she turns her house into a suburban version of the Ponderosa, with an enormous plastic horse in the front lawn, wagon wheel fences, and the entire house repainted to look like a barn. She herself starts wearing a costume that would have looked at home on the stage of The Grand Ole Oprey, and, while the film doesn't show it, I wouldn't be surprised if she were secretly learning phrases from a cowboy dictionary.

This all happens in the background, uncommented on and unnoticed until the end. The reveal is genuinely funny, but, to tell the truth, I think I would have liked the film even more if it had just told the story of her redecorating her house.


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