In the ‘80s Beverly D’Angelo was best known for playing Ellen Griswold, the long-suffering wife of accident-prone family patriarch Clark in the National Lampoon’s Vacation movies — and that's still what she's best known for today. As Ellen, D’Angelo embodied one of the prime examples of a character type that’s all too common on film and in sitcoms immemorial: The hot wife to an average-looking leading man who provides most of the comedy, getting into antics left and right as his put-upon other half tut-tuts disapprovingly.
It’s a boring character type, and one that doesn’t allow D’Angelo to play to her ultimate strength: pretending to be a pterodactyl.
Sadly enough, D’Angelo has only been able to spread her leathery wings and share her God-given gift of head-bobbing and b-caw!!!ing in one film: Pterodactyl Woman from Beverly Hills, a 1997 satire with special effects out of 1986 and a plot right out of 2500, the year by which (one hopes) society has achieved true, lasting actualization and movies about bored suburban housewives who turn into dinosaurs are as common as middling prestige biopics are today. I only wish that cryogenic technology is perfected soon enough for Meryl Streep to take advantage.
Pterodactyl Woman’s Pixie looks, at first, like another boring wife role for D’Angelo. Ice-blonde and immaculately coiffed, she raises two teenagers and goes to art society meetings while her paleontologist husband, Dick (Brad Wilson) embarks on excavations that end with him ticking off a Native-American Irishman played by Blade Runner’s Jon Brion. It’s Pixie, however, who gets hexed, and the effect is more or less immediate. Things start out small, with Pixie asking her best friend if she ever wanted to “spread her wings and fly?” and escalate in short order to her claiming she can talk to whales and getting real, real emotional about a plate of scrambled eggs. That’s in the first 20 minutes. By the 32-minute mark, she’s devouring a live carp in a supermarket as a horrified Dame Edna (comedian Barry Humphries in a cameo) looks on and her son tries to deflect from his mother’s obvious mental breakdown with some not-so-light racism (“She’s into Oriental cultures in a big way!”). Ten minutes later, and she's here:
Yes, friends. The Pterodactyl Woman from Beverly Hills has breasts, a six-pack, and honestly a pretty good eyeshadow game. Not sure how she manages that with claws instead of fingers — just one of the many mysteries that Pterodactyl Woman chooses to leave opaque.
However you think “underappreciated housewife with a lub of a husband and two highly annoying children turns into a pterodactyl at night” is going to end up, surprise, it doesn’t — unless you’re trying to extrapolate the plot of this movie while high on shrooms, which would probably put you in about the same headspace as writer/director Philippe Mora when he wrote the thing. (D’Angelo, in addition to starring, served as an associate producer. She knew this was her film and wanted to shepherd it to its best possible form.)
Finding herself suddenly blessed with the intelligence of a human, the strength of a dinosaur, and the ability to fly, Pixie doesn’t do the things you might expect her to, like shrug off the shackles of her humdrum existence and eat her husband. Or eat her kids. (Do pterodactyls eat their kids?) Or go all I-am-dino-woman-hear-me-roar and eat someone. Or even, really, fly — the first night she fully transforms, she goes out and is spotted by a military pilot who proceeds to have a borderline mental breakdown, but you don’t actually see any of that, presumably because the budget for this film was however many nickels Mora could fit in a Pringles can. What Pterodactyl Woman from Beverly Hills is lacking in actual action, it makes up for with a scene where Beverly D’Angelo goes dino during an aerobics session:
And another one that morphs into this. Yes, I'm sorry, I buried the lede: Pterodactyl Woman from Beverly Hills has a musical number.
The best and/or worst thing about Pterodactyl Woman from Beverly Hills is that it takes its premise — bored housewife tormented by pressure to be “perfect 24 hours a day” turns into a dinosaur, affording her the unique opportunity to Mess S*** Up on an epic scale — and proceeds to do absolutely nothing with it. It’s just not Pixie. Everyone else in Pixie’s life, upon finding that every night she becomes a pterodactyl, just rolls with it. “Sure, it’s a little weird that my wife has morphed into a long-extinct species, but it’s not like we won’t still bang” thinks husband Dick. If you’re thinking that this movie could not possibly go so weird as to have Pixie become pregnant with a pterodactyl after having sex in half-human/half-pterodactyl form, congratulations! It actually goes much weirder. There’s a time portal involved. Just to spell it out: Pixie’s dino baby is sent back in time to when it will, ultimately, prove the missing link that caused dinosaurs to eventually evolve into humans. Which I’m pretty sure they didn’t? But it doesn’t make any less sense than anything else in this movie. Anyway, it was all a dream.
Is Pterodactyl Woman from Beverly Hills a failed satire of yuppie California culture, using Pixie’s sudden animal instincts to (poorly, not really) critique the absent-minded superficiality of her and her social set? Is it typically gore-heavy production company Troma Entertainment's attempt at light family comedy, in the vein of Harry and the Hendersons? At its core, it is all of these things and none of them, but most of all: It is a movie where Beverly D’Angelo finally, finally got to pretend to be a dinosaur and get paid for it.