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Six of Troma’s slate of mockuhorror/slasherjoke films are now busting out on DVD, giving JAKE WILSON an opportunity to examine Troma and its special sense of sinema – and how it is finding its way into the mainstream.

A current slogan for Troma Studios - the independent US schlock outfit that gave the world Surf Nazis Must Die, Chopper Chicks In Zombie Town, and the infamous Toxic Avenger series - claims that their productions are 'Movies For The Future.' I hate to say it, but it's looking more and more like they could be right. If you want evidence of how the Troma touch is invading the mainstream, check out any one of Hollywood's recent wave of 'gross-out' comedies - such as last month's top box-office hit, Scary Movie. As I mentioned when I reviewed the film on this site, this is the one where a gay guy gets killed by having an erect penis thrust through his skull.

"the Troma formula"

There's also the bimbo slut who's so annoying she keeps on bitching and whining even after she's been decapitated. Very Troma. As is the scene in Me Myself And Irene where Jim Carrey's thumb gets shot off - though in a Troma film it would have been at least his whole arm. What does the Troma formula consist of? In a nutshell: absurdly bloody violence, shameless soft porn, cheerfully shoddy production values, and a breathtaking lack of conviction on the acting and scripting level. The most important element is the last - the assumption that audiences will accept anything, no matter how dumb or offensive, as long as it's framed as a campy, ironic joke.

Without exception, the Troma films I've seen are spoofs rather than genuine horror movies, something that sets them definitively apart from earlier 'exploitation' movie producers. In a sense, Troma simulates being an exploitation film studio - just as Lars Von Trier simulates the art movies of the '50s and '60s in such films as The Idiots and Breaking The Waves. It's this arch self-consciousness that aligns Troma with much current mainstream filmmaking.

As a proudly marginal, lowbrow film production house, Troma has been equally influential on many sections of the independent or 'alternative' film scene (here and overseas). For filmmakers working without large budgets or trained actors, one of the easiest genres to tackle is undoubtedly what critic J. Hoberman has called 'the ironic spectacle' - the kind of B-movie parody where lame special effects and wooden performances are part of the fun. Many of the features at the recent Melbourne Underground Film Festival were in the Troma vein - and the Arena cable TV channel even ran a short film contest last year where the prizes included a trip to Troma's headquarters in New York. (Ed: urbancinefile.com.au supplied its editor as a judge…) Included in the package was a chance to meet Mr Troma himself - studio funder Lloyd Kaufman, who's co-written and directed most of their best-known works.

"the revenge of the nerds"

Kaufman shows up in person to provide introductions and commentary for the release of six Troma classics on DVD in 'director's cut' versions (released at the end of October 2000). Kaufman appears in these as a manic, balding little guy in a suit, who chortles and bugs his eyes at the camera: clearly he's himself some kind of frustrated performer - a would-be Rodney Dangerfield or (as one of his actors suggests) a low-rent Mel Brooks. This again suggests that Troma's real roots are less in horror than in the (often overtly or implicitly Jewish) comedy of geeky resentment: in more ways than one, their films are all about the revenge of the nerds.

Even the Toxic Avenger himself started off as a drooling janitor named Melvin Furd, before an encounter with toxic chemicals transformed him into a mutant superhero (played, incidentally, by a completely different actor). The sympathy for grotesque underdog heroes seems meant to mirror the supposed underdog status of the studio itself, which is presumably what Kaufman is getting at when he refers to 'Toxie' as a 'hero for the little guy' - though it's hard to get a handle on the 'politically incorrect' politics of a movie that ridicules both bodybuilders and obese people, and condemns environmental pollution while endorsing ultra-violent vigilante justice.

Before you rent or buy the director's cut of The Toxic Avenger (one of the two new DVD titles I've previewed) be warned: it was the first film Troma made, back in 1983, and as filmmaking it's strictly amateur night. The staging is primitive, the jokes are awful, and the acting is on the level of furniture commercials that screen on late-night TV. A lot of the budget must have gone into the gory special effects, which mainly involve Toxie killing his enemies using unlikely household objects: mops, washing machines, gym equipment... It's the kind of film where as soon as you see donuts being cooked in a diner, you know right away that someone's hands are going to be plunged into boiling fat.

"greater cultural credibility"

Fifteen years later, with Tromeo And Juliet ('Troma's Most Successful Film Ever!' made in 1998) the technique has improved a bit, and there's a sense that Kaufman is striving for greater cultural credibility, both by borrowing a classic source (Romeo & Juliet via Baz Luhrmann's 1997 movie with Leonardo de Caprio) and by trying to tap more directly into what's deemed to be hip 90s youth culture (body piercing, appearances by 'alternative' rock stars).

The result is a hodgepodge of tones and styles, partly because the filmmakers haven't really figured out how to update Shakespeare's plot (jokes about tattoos and vibrators co-exist oddly with priests and arranged marriages) and partly because the attempts at hipness are continually frustrated by corny jokes and artless pornography. Paradoxically, a protracted lesbian sex scene winds up proving the film's basic squareness - it's so obviously the work of a leering male director wowed by the thought of two girls getting it on.

Needless to say, there's no male gay sex and relatively little male nudity - though, in keeping with the freefloating nastiness that fuels most Troma productions, there are a lot of creepy references to incest and parental abuse.

Most of what Tromeo And Juliet is trying to do is done more successfully in Gregg Araki's movies, particularly Nowhere (1997) which was released straight-to-video in Australia, and which follows the exploits of a bunch of angst-ridden, arty, pansexual teenagers in a similarly self-parodic comic-book style. Araki is a very unusual filmmaker in that he manages to strike all kinds of trendy poses without being irritating. It helps that he has an intelligent, distinctive sense of film style - and that you can never tell where the parody stops and the posing starts.

"an exploitation filmmaker aspiring to some form of respectability"

What has Araki got that Kaufman hasn't? You could answer this in terms of cultural status, and say that Kaufman is an exploitation filmmaker aspiring to some form of respectability, while Araki is a sophisticated artist who plays with exploitation techniques. Or you could note that Araki is a pioneer of New Queer Cinema, while Troma's output - like, in varying ways, the work of the Farrelly Brothers, the South Park creators, Von Trier, or Harmony Korine - falls into the awkward, perhaps impossible category of heterosexual camp.

I don't mean to suggest that gay sexuality is inherently subversive, nor that queer filmmakers have any automatic advantage when it comes to satire (if anything, the many terrible gay films made recently suggest the reverse). Nonetheless, it's true of Kaufman and the other filmmakers listed above that the more they show themselves to be fascinated with the monstrous and perverse, the more desperately they cling to some semblance of normal, straight, male desire - while striving to reassure us and themselves that all this freaky, kinky stuff is just for laughs. And that, ultimately, could be the problem with Troma and their many imitators - who often hold out the promise of a walk on the filmic wild side while falling well short of the dangers and pleasures of a truly radical cinema.


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Tromeo & Juliet


Toxic Avenger 1


Toxic Avenger 2


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