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Wednesday, Oct 10, 2007


As an idea, it wasn’t very original. Filmmakers had been updating Shakespeare since the Bard’s plays first appeared. Even as far back as their first staged productions, directors and theater companies have been meddling with the Masters’ hollowed words and characters. So when Troma employee James Gunn proposed an updating of the playwright’s classic tale of star crossed lovers, it wasn’t something novel. Heck, West Side Story had done it in the ‘50s, and it was and still is considered a classic. As a notion, turning Romeo and Juliet into a punk rock pierced body part projection of the Manhattan Independent Film Company’s aesthetic, seemed quite normal. Besides, director Lloyd Kaufman relished the idea. Long a proponent of cinema as art, he saw the subject as a perfect realization of all his lofty ambitions.


Over the previous 25 years, Troma had developed a myopic reputation as a gross-out gore enterprise. Thanks to Kaufman, its chief spokesman, president, and guiding creative force, the company had grown from the maker of mindless sex farces (The First Turn On, Squeeze Play) and distributor of genre/horror oriented fare (Mother’s Day) to a recognized industry icon. But with 1985’s The Toxic Avenger, Kaufman created a character that instantly connected with everyone, including outsider audiences. Utilizing the still in its infancy home theater marketplace to widen the fanbase, Troma was soon turning out product with provocative names like The Class of Nuke ‘Em High, Troma’s War, and Sgt. Kabukiman, N.Y.P.D. The formula for each film was strategically similar – find an outrageous situation, pile on the blood and female breasts, and deliver a clever combination of old fashioned exploitation and new fangled VCR fodder.


No one expected the newly minted Tromeo and Juliet to be any different. Though the company had ridden the Avenger‘s coattails (and receipts) through a couple of sequels, and had found financially beneficial homes for a myriad of languishing, unknown films, the late ‘80s and early ‘90s had not been the company’s most inventive time. Fans started complaining over recycled content, uninspired approaches, and the lack of any real significant social value. For many, Troma was becoming the Mad Magazine of moviemaking. It was okay to love them as a kid, but once your cinematic adolescence arrived, you’d gladly trade your Toxie treasure for a far more meaningful fright film experience. Besides, VHS was a dying format. Something called DVD was on the horizon. Hoping to hold its marketplace, Gunn’s version of Shakespeare’s seminal story was greenlit.


The result was Independent FILM‘s last hurrah, the final gasp in the pre-digital discussion of celluloid as the saving grace of cinema’s stalwart ideals. The camcorder production had been part of the movie mix since the late ‘80s. There were even individuals like William Wegman who experimented with the medium as far back as the early ‘70s. But film, actual FILM, was still considered the main motion picture pathway. More could be done with lighting and design, and editing was easier than on clumsy, easily creased magnetic tape. But logistics argued for the handheld camera, and its ability to radicalize the realities of a location. No longer were long set ups necessary, complicated even further by technically trained crews. Digital defined the very essence of the practical point and shoot ideal. With a Super VHS in hand, you were your own cinematographer and your own studio.


Inherently, Troma understood this. Porn had replaced film with video, and most of the industry was looking at the viability of the technology. But Kaufman is a kind of convoluted craftsman. Though his films may stink of the frequent fart joke mentality they employ, his philosophy has always centered on the artist, and their art. Raised on the filmic revolution of the ‘50s and ‘60s, he made his mark in movies during the equally tumultuous era of the ‘70s. For him, a VHS would never replace a reel of well-shot film – and he would use Tromeo and Juliet to prove that. Though most of the company’s recent output had been seen as cheap and uninspired, and the Bard viewed as box office poison (this was before Baz Luhrmann’s hyper-stylized rip off, by the way) Gunn’s script was so special that, as long as it was given a proper professional production, something special would result.


As a scribe, James Gunn was untested. Today he is known as the mind behind such blockbuster offerings as Scooby-Doo, the Dawn of the Dead remake, and his own homage to the horror films of the ‘80s, Slither. Yet back then, he was a hungry young film fan desperate to get in on the industry’s ground floor. Tromeo and Juliet would announce his arrival in a truly spectacular way. Setting his story in the crime-ridden streets of a maleficent Manhattan, his warring clans (the Capulets and the Ques) involved in pornography and perversion, Gunn fed directly into the tried and true Troma system. He made sure to add plenty of sex, a few surreal stabs at standard scares (including the first act arrival of a ‘penis monster’) and a healthy dose of boldfaced bloodletting. Yet amongst all the tattoos and East Village eccentricity, scattered among the lesbian scenes and overdone fight sequences, Gunn snuck something into this film that few Troma entries had before – heart.


Indeed, Tromeo and Juliet is a very emotional movie, made even more effective by the work of its incredible cast. In the leads, Will Keenan and Jane Jensen find the perfect balance between satire and seriousness, actually getting us to care about this couple’s future. Even more shocking, Kaufman surrounds the pair with equally adept performers like Debbie Rochon, Sean Gunn, Stephen Blackeheart and Bill Beckwith. Together, they form a company of pseudo Shakespearean proportions, delivering Gunn’s adept dialogue with passion and panache. Even better, the script’s narrative drive finds smart, clever ways of incorporating some of the Bard’s actual lines into the conversations. As a matter of fact, Gunn was so successful in establishing the affection between the lovers that when the original ending was screened (following the classic, the pair commit suicide) test audiences demanded a paramours’ reprieve.


Even more importantly, Tromeo and Juliet argued for the continued viability of film as a means of independent expression. Indeed, the most crucial aspect of outsider cinema is its connection to the hobbled Hollywood hackwork it so desperately battles against. Video, and the current trend toward digital, sets up a clear delineation between itself and celluloid. It purposefully plays on the homemade sense of its construction, supposedly bringing the audience closer to the content. As a result, however, it also distances itself from the medium being mimicked, and this means the message looses a lot of its impact. Film, because of its cinematic synchronicity, argues ideas with images. With it, you don’t have to worry about tape’s obvious disparities. A Troma film and a Tinsel Town title are on equal aesthetic footing.


This is why Tromeo and Juliet represents the Independent film world’s last viable gasp. Sure, Troma continued to use celluloid (Terror Firmer, the soon to be released Poultrygeist) to realize its aims, but there was something far more substantive about what Kaufman created out of Gunn’s inventive ideas than any eventual projects. In combination, they forged a happy medium between the company’s previous perversion and the gravitas of Shakespeare’s subject. While some may scoff at the notion of a company accountable for so many mediocre and misguided movies as the last bastion of good old fashioned art, one viewing of Tromeo and Juliet should appease all concerns. It wasn’t the most original idea ever conceived. The end result, however, is one of Independent film’s brightest moments.


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Tuesday, Oct 9, 2007


Okay, it’s time to admit it. You’re addicted to dung. You know what we mean. Garbage. Junk. Refuse. The kind of generic popcorn movie fluff that Hollywood passes off as art each and every week of the year. As a matter of fact, you’ve been mainlining the mainstream for so long that you know longer have the arterial constitution to tell good from god awful. At this point in your problem, you’re more or less gone, given over to lackluster gross out comedies, anemic thrillers, overripe melodramas, and the same old “I hate my life” indie angst fests. Even the typical tame horror romp finds a way to get your gooseflesh perky. In fact, if you’re not experiencing the non-acting abominations that are Robin Williams and Jennifer Aniston, you’re not sure it’s actually a movie you’re mooning over.


Well guess what – it’s time for an intervention – TROMA style. As the leading purveyor of pure art in the entirety of modern motion picture making, founder Lloyd Kaufman and his merry band of product purchases have come up with a dozen definitive films that, when experienced, will work better than a trip to rehab and/or a featured video on TMZ combined. It will get you out of the shame cycle, correct your bass ackward crap aesthetic issues, and release you from the grip of baby blood drinking studio suits. Here’s a warning, however. It will not be easy. The sights you see and the stories you experience will not be some cookie cutter committee claptrap marginalized for maximum demographic delight. No, these are real films by real filmmakers, and their clarity may put you off – at first. 


But if you stick with it, give it time, and follow these rigorous rules of celluloid self-examination, you might just find that your compulsion is curable. Heck, you may even discover that you prefer a good dose of unnecessary sadistic bloodletting or undead neck nibbling to the latest Saw installment. Just remember – these are not official Troma helmed productions we’re talking about. The power of those bad boys is too great for the fragile first timer. Instead, these are the company-approved offerings that best illustrate their big picture dynamic. Once you’ve survived these samplings, a date with everyone’s favorite mutant mop boy is just a relapse away.  Let’s begin with:


Step 1: Give Up the Self-Destructive Streak (Suicide, 2001)


Armchair psychiatrists would argue that the main reason people gravitate toward Tinsel Town’s trash is that they have some manner of indirect death wish. Well, if you want to see individuals with a much greater desire to end it all than you will ever have, try this intriguing German mock doc. Using a handheld POV to support a premise where people sign up on the internet to have their title acts filmed, we get one of those “is it or isn’t it real” presentations that will have audiences arguing for days afterward. Even better, it will begin the cleansing and curative process.


Step 2:  Acknowledge the Devil’s Hold on Cinema (Screamplay (1985)


While blame is never healthy (we are trying to take responsibility for ourselves, remember), one must never forget the role the mangoat plays in keeping us hooked on hackwork. An excellent example of this paradigm arrives in the form of this writing as reprobate satire. When a screen scribe’s imagination becomes so vivid that the crimes he imagines become real, no one in the business called show is safe. And the best part is – this is one wickedly witty work, proof that not all scripts are culled by committee scat. Outsider auteur George Kuchar is even part of the cast.


Step 3: Give Up Drugs (Meat Weed Madness 2006)


At this point, you’re well beyond a simple negative pronouncement. In fact, it’s painfully obvious that just saying “No” would do very little except exercise your vocal chords. What you require, instead, is a healthy dose of demented tough love – and this surreal Southern Gothic is just the demented dime bag you require. Here, a group of gals stumble upon the Bullpocky Plantation and its title herb – a plant cultivated from human flesh! One toke and you’re not only over the line, you’re high on your own supply and ready to bogart the soul out of someone.


Step 4: Take a Vow of Chastity (Killer Condom 1996)


It’s a fact – sex will only screw you up. Unfocused fornication and purposeless petting will merely lead to heartache, body issues, and suffering. Don’t believe it – then check out this Teutonic treat about a prophylactic that preys on people. When Detectice Mackaroni discovers a rash of missing “member” cases, he stakes out a seedy motel in hopes of finding some answers. Turns out, there’s a randy rubber on the loose, looking to stop illicit physical contact once and for all.  While Christians can call for abstinence and liberals long for education, this is one solution that’s also ribbed (for her pleasure).


Step 5: Avoid a Life of Crime (Wiseguys vs. Zombies 2003)


Everyone thinks that gangsters are so cool, and with Hollywood glamorizing their murder for hire mythos, it’s hard to tell the felonies for the Sicilian family trees. But one screening of this Cosa Nostra corpse grinding will cure you of even the most lingering Sopranos sympathies. Two hit men, delivering bodies and bottles to a connection in Miami, wind up face to face with bloodthirsty remnants of the undead. And these are the kind of flesh fiends who can’t be bribed with irrefutable offers. It’s enough to make those geared toward goombah’s choke on their cabbagool!

Step 6: Try Alternative Foods (Meat for Satan’s Icebox 2004)


Speaking of inedible vittles, one of the best ways toward self-help and aesthetic purification is the toxin purging properties of a new diet. Sadly, almost every life altering culinary amalgamation has been forwarded by a baneful buck hungry business, from organic to raw. Leave it to this ignominious indie effort to offer stripper sirloin as the latest answer to what’s for dinner. That’s right – Soylent Green is not the only human-based hunger hinderer anymore. With Satan himself working as a homespun homosapien pitchfork man, there’ll be plenty to go around.

 


Step 7: Recognize the Inherent Evil in Youth (The Children 1981)


Of course, everyone knows that kids are craven. They’re about the wickedest little buggers this side of Nazis and roughed collies. So keeping away from the wee ones is always warranted. But what if you find yourself slipping, influenced unfavorably by a cherubic face or a tongue-heavy “thpeech patuwn”? Just remember – hiding behind that cute façade could be a radioactive monster ready to hug you into an early grave. At least, that’s what this beloved low budget fright flick tells us. Leave it to cinema to make progeny even more precarious.


Step 8: Recognize the Inherent Evil of the Stage (Bloodsucking Freaks 1976)


They say that movie is illusion, but that’s only partly true. Theater is much more existence mocking since it uses the inherent connectivity of a live event to foster a fictional, usually melodramatic methodology. So in order to keep such Great White Way wants to a bare minimum, rehabbers might want to check out this gore soaked creepshow classic. Centering on Sardu and his supposedly “fake” torture show, there’s enough amateur brain surgery, little person perversion, and garroted gals to swear you off the smell of greasepaint and the roar of the crowd forever.

Step 9: Reconcile that Life is Chaotic and Episodic (Dumpster Baby 2000)


Here’s another truism: existence if futile - or if not fruitless, at the very least fractured. Seemingly random events can add up to one Helluva karmic cock-up and you may never ever recognize said fact. Indeed, what you require is a celluloid guide, a movie that makes the seemingly senselessness line up and have meaning. This tale of a rejected infant and the Prague like predicament of the effect it has on everyone around it will surely solidify your grip on human happenstance. After all, if a dada-esque excursion into the obscure can come out legible, your world can too.


Step 10: Never Forget that War is Hell (Combat Shock 1986)


Combat produces a two-fold trial for the average vet. First, there is the atrocity of battle, the spilling of blood, the loss of individual life. Then there is the aftermath – the broken government promises, the unattended internal scaring, the lack of sympathy and support from the ungrateful society around you. It’s a situation all too familiar to Frankie Dunlan in this intense urban nightmare. Destitute and desperate, with a family to feed and no prospects in sight, our hero simply sinks into a cesspool of his own bad luck. Proof that all pointless police actions are deadly in many different ways.

 


Step 11: Understand that there are People Much Worse Off than You (Luther the Geek 1990)


Remember when you mother convinced you to eat your greens by telling you that people in far off, invisible lands had it so much tougher than you. Well, your guardian could have looked closer to home for more powerful illustrations of elder acquiescence. As a young boy, our title character saw a group of men taunting a real life sideshow oddity. Years later, this newly crowned psycho killer somehow manages to gain parole. He decides to do a little freak showcasing on anyone who’s available. So the next time you sing your sob story, this caustic cautionary tale will hopefully dull the despair.

Step 12: When in Doubt, Blame Cannibalistic Extraterrestrials (Flesh Eaters from Outer Space  1998)


Of course, after all these substantive steps, after reflection and tons of therapeutic screams, you may still feel a little flummoxed. Have no fear – ET is here. That’s right, if you can’t gain control of your habit, if you still hanker for a hunk of blockbuster cheese, if you can’t help but wonder what Michael Bay is up to next, then explain away your malady as the byproduct of an abduction. And what better example of outer space madness can one choose than this Warren F. Disbrow classic. Revolving around a bloodthirsty crater critter who piggybacks onto a returning US astronaut, it’s the perfect personal pass. It’s also the only way Troma can treat the torment.


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Monday, Oct 8, 2007


They’re noted for their insanity onscreen – blood and body parts flying across the frame with reckless abandon, while gyno-Americans explore each others’ naughty, naked nether regions. As toilet humor cascades across the speakers and monsters make mayhem among a cast of literal unknowns, subtext and closeted intelligence fill in the often glaring gaps. It’s like anarchy whittled down into art, the language of film spoken outloud by idiot savants and translated by terrorists. Let’s face it – it wouldn’t be a Troma movie without some spatter, some slaughter, and some satire. It’s been the independent film company’s modus operandi since a mild mannered mop boy named Melvin transformed into the Toxic Avenger.


So it probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that there’s an equal amount of chaos going on behind the scenes. What might shock you is how eager Troma is to share these motion picture meltdowns with its loyal fanbase – and the rest of the world. Long before DVD became known for its context including benefice, founder Lloyd Kaufman and his various apprentice associates where using their productions as a proving ground. It wasn’t a matter of survival of the fittest. In many ways, they were reverse Darwinists – survival of the sickest. Indeed, it takes someone with a strong creative constitution and nerves frayed to the point of numbness to make it through one of these Bataan Death March experiences.


Want proof? Well, then look no further than the four documentaries created by the company to support the films Terror Firmer (Farts of Darkness), Citizen Toxie (Apocalypse Soon), Tales from the Crapper (When Reshoots Go Wrong), and their annual trek to France’s famed film festival (All The Love You Cannes). Differing in both tone and dimension from your standard digital EPKs, we are tossed directly into the maelstrom that is Troma movie making, from Kaufman’s occasional demagoguery to the blatant incompetence of his cast and crew. Collected all together on the definitive DVD box set, Make Your Own Damn Movie, we witness how logistics, personalities, and blatant incompetence conspire to undermine the best laid plans of indie horror mavens.



Farts of Darkness sets up the standard Troma paradox – big budget outsider idealism helmed by untested cast and crew. With Kaufman as ringleader, we get a surreal circus of party hearty goof offs, well intentioned egotists, and legitimate technical talent. In the beginning, the goal is always the same. As a matter of fact, we learn the Troma creed as part of this delicious documentary. Like the Ten Commandments for the tattooed and pierced, the mandates revolve around making a good movie, hurting no one, and being fair to everyone involved. Naturally, such tenets are almost instantly ignored as participants learn of the lack of craft services, the ungodly hours, and the occasional need to defecate in a plastic bag.


Terror Firmer, a fictionalized take-off based on the book version of Make Your Own Damn Movie (by Kaufman, Trent Haaga, and Adam Jahnke) revolved around a film crew making an epic in Manhattan. Unbeknownst to everyone involved, a psycho killer is stalking the set. Believe it or not, this is the least of the film’s potential problems. After all, it’s being directed by a blind man (Kaufman essays the role of sightless auteur Larry Benjamin), and a seedy love triangle between production assistant Jennifer and her diametrically opposed paramours threatens to undermine everything. Naturally, when the murderer makes his presence known, everyone bands together to defend their territory and finish the film. Extreme arterial spray and flatulence ensues.


The madness of independent moviemaking in all its cinema vérité glory is the best way to describe Farts. It’s a backstage melodrama overloaded with logistical nightmares, inconsistent planning, and body wasting work. While it’s commendable that Kaufman wants to collaborate with so many untested young people, it’s clear that, in many cases, responsibility is not a skill earned in film school. Many of these overzealous wannabes are only involved to get high, grab ass, and add a Troma title to their otherwise weak resume. Even the people who’ve been with Kaufman over the long haul tend to let him down once the pressure is on. Unlike the standard Hollywood Making-of which offers up nothing but bragging and “aren’t we great” accolades, Farts of Darkness shows the warts and all reality of trying to make a movie. It should be mandatory viewing for every basement dwelling geek who argues that they could create something more substantial than Kaufman and clan. Such a statement can only come from a lack of perspective – and actual participation.



Things only get worse in Apocalypse Soon. After 11 years without another installment, Kaufman decided to relaunch the Toxic Avenger franchise with a new effort – Citizen Toxie. Rumor had it that the film was also a financial necessity – the company was facing tough economic issues, and hoped that going back to the iconic classic character would right the solvency ship. The storyline was like an amalgamation of everything Troma stood for. Our lovable nuclear mutant must defend a school for special kids from the notorious Diaper Mafia. After an explosion creates a dimensional tear in the fabric of the cosmos, our hero finds himself flung into the parallel universe of Amortville. In the meantime, his evil twin from another realm – the Noxious Offender takes over Tromaville. It’s up to Sgt. Kabukiman, NYPD to gather together a team of superheroes to save the day, as well as everyone’s favorite irradiated champion.


Clearly a case of ambition overriding ability, Citizen Toxie would end up being a noble failure, at least commercially and critically. For fans, the film stands as a wonderful overview of the entire Troma mythology – especially when the loony league of justice including Mad Cow Boy, Dolphin Man, Mastor Bator, and The Vibrator all show up. Yet from the very beginning of Apocalypse Now, we can see that personalities and other individual issues constantly unite to undo Kaufman’s goals. First and foremost, the actor hired to play Toxie goes from ‘lucky to have a job’ to problematic prima donna in the span of a couple of hours. Worse, the crew is incapable of taking matters seriously. Abusing Troma’s “learn by example” ideal of education, we come to understand a lot about young cinema wannabes. Most are slovenly slackers who get pissy for no valid reason. Many feel that, at a certain point, hard work is no longer their forte. And a few will mutiny over the dumbest, most ridiculous ideas (like the rumor of lead paint at a location).


Pulling it all together becomes a task of Herculean proportions, and the stress takes its toll on Kaufman. In these days when every famous face wants to be loved (or at least respected) and studios cringe at any kind of negative publicity, Troma wears these filmmaking fiascos on their sloppy, scattered sleeves. It’s almost as if, having survived such a taxing ordeal, and watching the results get little or no respect, Kaufman carts out his dirty laundry and shouts “See? See what we put ourselves through for you fans? Huh? HUH???” While not quite so demonstrative, the message remains crystal clear – art like this doesn’t come fully formed out of the ether, stitched together by cherubs and given a glossy patina by enchanted leprechauns. Instead, Kaufman is like a potter throwing film out of feces. And his hands are almost never clean.



Of course, he’s the first one everyone comes crawling to when things go painfully awry. Case in point – Tales from the Crapper. Taking advantage of the digital explosion, Troma hired a producer named India Allen to oversee the creation of two separate direct to DV-R films featuring manufactured sex kitten Julie Strain. Working in LA, Kaufman was unaware of any problems initially. The two movies – one about a shape-shifting, bloodthirsty alien man-eater and the other centering on vampire strippers – were completed, and sent to the company for approval. When Troma finally saw what they had (and what they had paid for) they went ballistic. Basic moviemaking concepts like characterization, storytelling, and continuity were thrown on the window. In their place was scene after scene of unsalvageable material, most of it shot in a manner that rendered everything almost unwatchable.


How Kaufman and company saved this artistic abortion forms the basis for When Reshoots Go Wrong, a lesser if still effective behind the scenes exposé. Looking tired and dejected, the director offers a first person tour of the carnage, presenting Troma’s side of the story and taking Ms. Allen to task at every opportunity. For those who’ve seen the finished DVD product, it’s not hard to envision what Kaufman is complaining about.  During the documentary, Lloyd frequently holds the camera on himself. He’s not the same chipper chappy we’re used to. Instead, he’s all too serious. He talks about how hard it was to work with the material and how unhappy he was with some of the post-production circumstances. We then get to see more interns acting atrociously. Experiencing the usually giddy Troma chief in grim businessman mode is amazing. Gone is the jovial jokester. In its place is a man struggling to stay sane.


Of course, many could argue that much of this is Kaufman’s own fault. If he didn’t run such a loosey goosey ship, if he didn’t rely on unproven volunteers to do what professionals take decades to perfect, if he simply sat down and connected with his crews instead of disappearing to locations around the globe to cameo in other people’s productions (under the guise of supporting independent art), he might not have so many mishaps. But even when he takes precaution and prepares diligently for his annual trip to Cannes (for the film expo element of the festival), a few inebriated bad apples will spoil the company’s already marginalized name. It’s something we witness firsthand in All The Love You Cannes.



Starting off like an instructional video, this full length feature finds Lloyd narrating, giving us a basic idea about how things work at the famed French institution. He highlights the way movies are packaged and sold, and the necessity of generating any and as much publicity as possible. Without hype, international buyers won’t stop by your booth (or in this case, your hotel room) and you leave without making significant syndication and foreign distribution deals. These are the lifeblood of little companies like Troma. It literally could mean the continued existence, or the end, of a struggling outsider organization. Of course, said pronouncements slowly backfire on the company as – thanks to their unruly interns – they get in Dutch with their hotel, with public relations people, and the local French citizenry.


Part ugly American dissertation, part lesson in doing a better job of picking your assistants and associates, this is the lesser of the four major Behind the Scenes features discussed, if only because the individuals mucking things up for Troma are so reprehensible. Watching drunken dullards take advantage of their boss to publicly embarrass themselves and said employer has never been so shocking. Maybe it’s the clueless posing of everyone involved – a little power taken to inhuman extremes. It could be the massive quantities of alcohol consumed. It might be the notion that kids who basically know nothing about the business end of cinema are destined to act like dorks. Whatever the case, All The Love You Cannes is educational on many levels. The pitch and shill of the international film trade is intriguing. How quickly your reputation can be ruined by dozens of directionless mooks is just irritating.


Apparently, that’s the point. What other company besides Troma would tear down the façade and let the viewing public see their shameful, disorganized reality? Though he’s typically outnumbered by the crudeness of his crew, Kaufman himself comes across as a surly, sometimes insensitive jerk who appears hindered by all that’s happening around him. Even worse, those looking for an excuse to diminish the company’s output as of late can look at the onset anarchy of Citizen Toxie or Tales from the Crapper and have their case proven, pointblank. But there is still something so rebellious, so anti-Hollywood-in-your-face about the way Troma does things that such a scattershot approach borders on the endearing. Mavericks are supposed to make a mess. They’re supposed to stumble and break stuff. They’re revolutionaries. By their very nature, they buck tradition.


And no one bucks up more than Lloyd Kaufman and his crews. Whether it’s the guerilla filmmaking follies of Terror Firmer, the actor inspired angst of Citizen Toxie, the overall ineptness of Tales from the Crapper, or the lack of suitable corporate etiquette while visiting Cannes, Troma has taken to playing the clown both in front of and behind the camera. For a glimpse at what such a Hellsapoppin’ plan might achieve, go out and buy a copy of the Make Your Own Damn Movie boxset – or better yet, collect copies of the four films mentioned here. Not only will the company be happy for the cash, but you’ll be rewarded with the truth about independent filmmaking. As usual, the facts are never pretty. 


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Sunday, Oct 7, 2007


Lloyd Kaufman is angry. Actually, that’s too weak a word. He is livid. After 35 plus years of making independent film (TRULY independent film) and building his company Troma Entertainment, into a leading outsider force, the 61-year-old maverick is beside himself. “We’re being economically blacklisted,” he huffs, describing his studio’s current position in pop culture. “Hollywood doesn’t want people to get a whiff of something subversive or creative.”


Initially, it sounds like the all too familiar ravings of a man known for pushing the fringes of his bravura business model, both artistically and financially. But when you get a chance to really listen to what Kaufman has to say, to hear his own professional horror stories, the proof becomes all too clear. “You know, it’s depressing that terrific films like Cannibal: The Musical (by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone) and Citizen Toxie have never played on TV. IFC (the Independent Film Channel) has never played one of our films. The Sundance Channel has never played a Troma movie.”


Granted, his is a brand name that needs little fan fostering support. Since founding the Manhattan based production house in 1974 (with Michael Herz), Kaufman has managed to build an empire that extends worldwide. Initially focusing on the sex farce as a means of cinematic survival, it was the introduction of the Toxic Avenger in 1985 that brought Troma closest to mainstream recognition. Now, seven years after the turn of the millennium, and with hundreds of movies under its belt, the company faces its biggest challenge. Kaufman has created Poultrygeist, a gore soaked scatological celebration of all things fowl, fast food, and undead. Yet the movie (read review here) can’t get a wide release.


“The theaters won’t call me back,” he states, his voice flecked with a hint of resignation. “We don’t want midnight showings, competing alongside something that’s been out there for 10 years. We made this movie for communal viewing.” He adds, “It was shot in 35mm. I don’t care about the money. I just want the movie to be shown on a big screen, as was intended.” There have been sporadic screenings of the film since its completion last year, including favorable responses from this year’s Comic-Con and other genre conventions. But Kaufman is convinced there’s a bigger issue at hand.


His degree in Chinese Studies from Yale helps guide his considered perception: “The dualistic view of the universe—the yin and yang, good vs. evil—that’s what filmmakers are dealing with today. The entire movie business has been consolidated, the public now at the mercy of five of six major devil worshipping media conglomerates.” Such control, says Kaufman, has had a horrendous two part effect on motion picture art. First, it’s given people with “nothing to say” power over the medium. For them the seasoned pro has some very unkind words.


“The studios want to drive these values. They want to produce product by kids whose parents paid for their Ivy League education—(individuals) who’ve never read a book, or fought for their country—so as not to upset the applecart. But there’s nothing there.” Even worse, there’s been a similar chilling effect in the arena he’s played in since the mid-‘70s. “The so called independent movies that get released now are ones that make it through the gatekeepers—or the vassals of the gatekeepers. You’ve got Fox Searchlight determining what independent film is. That’s the bad part.”


So where’s the good? Where’s the light at the end of what seems like a dark and ever deepening artistic void? For Kaufman, it’s one word—technology. “For the first time in history,” he boasts, “the making of a film has been democratized. With the digital revolution, anyone can make a movie.” It’s clear that the advent of DVD, as well as the accompanying PC production dynamic (where editing and other post work can be completed for next to nothing) is viewed by the seasoned veteran as his craft’s salvation. “You no longer have to be invested in the industry. You don’t have to get the Harvard business degree. Spend time Xeroxing contracts at a talent agency. As long as you’ve got something to say, you can save up some money and make your own damn movie.”


A perfect example of this ideal is actor turned auteur Giuseppe Andrews. First spotted by Kaufman when he submitted a short film to the annual TromaDance Film Festival (an outsider showcase that directly competes in Park City with the far more famous Sundance), he’s grown into quite the digital revolutionary. “Ten years ago, (he) couldn’t have made a movie”, the filmmaker adds, “now, he can. And the results are incredible.” It’s the same with a lot of product that the company has distributed (Jenna Fischer’s brilliant mock doc Lollilove) and/or had a hand in creating (the much maligned Tales from the Crapper). It’s enough to give Kaufman cause for optimism. “The old fashioned business model may no longer apply”, he beams, “Somewhere, someone is making a film for next to nothing. Hopefully one of them will be the catalyst to unseat something like Transformers.”


Of course, the purveyors of popcorn still have their accomplices in all of this. “The media drinks the Kool-Aid when it comes big studio films”, Kaufman warns. “They want to go on the junkets, they want the star interviews.” Even worse are the self-proclaimed ‘independents’ who use the Internet as a means of overtly arrogant criticism. “These little bloggers—these little shits—people who like to think of themselves as underground filmmakers… they’re just jealous,” he chides. “They say Troma’s not good enough. They make fun of us. They are people who haven’t seen our films and so they talk about it in a vacuum.”



Such marginalization of the Troma name by both the online and print community really hurts Kaufman. “We should make movies like the Sci-Fi Channel airs? We’d last 35 years that way? I don’t think so.” Even worse, many fail to understand how beloved, respected, and influential the company is. “The (web community) doesn’t realize that Quentin Tarantino, Peter Jackson, Takashi Miike—there are directors all over who, if you speak to them, will tell you how much they love Troma.” Case in point—at this year’s Comic-Con Saw and Death Sentence director James Wan brought an entire camera crew along to shoot an hour long interview with Kaufman. Similarly, at a recent South Korean horror convention, Grudge director Takashi Shimizu fawned over the filmmaker. “And these f*ckers suggest (we’re) not good enough? What do we have to do? What do they want?”


It’s a question that even the content packed domain of DVD can’t resolve. Like Rodney Dangerfield’s classic catchphrase, Troma currently finds itself in a place of little or no respect. While he can blame the critics—and he does—Kaufman has a hard time understanding the lack of recognition. “Our (discs) have so much inventive material on them, including offerings from the Roan Collection. You think we’re doing that for our health? Think it’s easy going back and interviewing a 100 year old Vincent Sherman?” He goes on to site several cases where journalists dismiss or completely ignore the company’s efforts in this area—even among their peers. “We got Lou Lumenick’s, the New York Post’s critic, commentary on these DVDs and no one gives us credit for it.”


All of which makes the current situation with Poultrygeist all the more meaningful. “Troma’s not out to make a fast buck with this film,” Kaufman confesses. “We made if for $500,000 on film, vs. $50,000 on digital. We wrote songs, recorded them ahead of time (yes, the splatter sensation is a musical), found actors who could sing them, and shot with playback.” Yet according to the director, no one mentions such attention to old school detail. “Poultrygeist is a real film. It should be viewed as such.”


Fortunately, the situation going on behind the scenes inspired the director. “It’s the enthusiasm from fans—we recruit cast and crew directly from them. You’d think the media would be excited about that. Over 80 people from around the world—Japan, Australia, France, Germany, Canada—came together to help. All living in peace and harmony. All sleeping on an abandoned church floor. All eating cheese sandwiches three times a day. Just to be involved. Just to make art.” For someone touching the twilight of his career, it was all very moving. “It was better than getting an Oscar, I’ll tell you that.”


Yet Kaufman remains mystified by that lack of attention. “For two months, there was no escape. Nothing but hard work. And you’d think the media would be impressed. That they would think how cool this is that all these people would come all this way to make Poultrygeist.” Yet up until recently, the latest Troma effort couldn’t get a playdate in Manhattan. “The Tribeca Film Festival wouldn’t show us,” he notes. “Lou (Lumenick) even wrote a piece condemning them. We’ve been in town 35 years, and yet a New York festival won’t show our film?”


With all the travails surrounding this latest release, you’d think Kaufman’s final assessment would be all doom and gloom. Not so. “Troma has created a brand, and our fans remain very loyal. There’s no need to advertise. Toxie is our trademark.” He even sees some hope within the floundering fourth estate. “The real critics, the ones who actually write about film, they get it. They see the sophistication and the subtext. Stephen Holden (of the New York Times) once said that you have to be intelligent to get Troma—and it’s true.” Yet the biggest challenge remains Tinsel Town and its marketing mind control. “It’s all brainwashing,” Kaufman warns. He goes on to state that Asian peasants, with no real need for education, are constantly bombarded by crude government signs convincing them to go to school. And they do. Now, imagine something capable of “$50 million in blatant brainwashing”, says the savvy cinematic rebel. Food for thought, indeed.


Pointing to the ongoing scholarship of Troma by Le Cinema Francais and the British Film Institute, as well as the continued interest in his personal Master Class Lecture Series, Kaufman seems resigned to his company’s continued relevance. “Word of mouth and prestige,” he notes, “that draws our audience”. He welcomes the continued archival interest in the company, and hopes individuals lucky enough to experience Poultrygeist for themselves will hit the messageboards and “spread the bird… word”. Just don’t question the legitimacy of Troma’s legacy. “Toxie (the Toxic Avenger) is famous around the world. There might just be a germ of meaning there” he adds. “Besides, Peter Jackson says that I invented the slapstick gore film.” For Kaufman, that’s the best badge of honor.


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Saturday, Oct 6, 2007


After humans split the atom, praised their prowess, and started dropping nukes on each other, the effects of radiation merged with a brand new set of Cold War fears to reinvigorate the horror genre. While man vs. a monstrous nature had always been a well used cinematic subject, a new mutant scheme was introduced into the dynamic. It was fear of the unknown merged with mutually assured destruction. The results typically centered on oversized varmints destroying villagers or undermining metropolises. As the years progressed, the serious became schlocky, and by the ‘70s, ecology ruled the movie macabre. Films like Day of the Animals and Food of the Gods maintained the malformed mammal ideal, but they were often couched in a cautionary browbeating about abusing mother Earth. Since then, the premise has passed into joke, and then legend.


Leave it to first time filmmaker – and certified Kiwi – Jonathan King to create a throwback to the days when our four legged friends turned fiends with the brilliant Black Sheep, new to DVD from Genius Products and Dimension Extreme. A New Zealand style splatterfest dealing directly with the nation’s major industry (there are 40 million of the title wooly beasts vs. 4 million human beings), this clever, gore-soaked wonder must be seen to be believed. Thanks to the input of Peter Jackson’s WETA workshop – responsible for the Oscar winning F/X work on Lord of the Rings – and an imagination bursting with all manner of horror homages, what we end up with is one of those far out freak shows, a geek love movie making up a whole new set of grue rules as it motors merrily along. With shout outs to fan favorites like a certain auteur’s Dead Alive, American shape shifting epics like The Howling, and every zombie stomp out there, we get a nimble and knowing knock off.

When he was a youth, Henry Oldfield experienced a pair of unexpected tragedies. His father died chasing an errant ewe off a seaside cliff, and his horrid brother Angus slaughtered his pet sheep. Fast forward 15 years and our hero is still a mess. He can barely interact with the livestock laden countryside without phoning his on-call therapist. Upon returning to the family farm, he discovers Angus has been experimenting with genetic engineering. The older sibling hopes to create a super-sheep that will lead them to untold riches. Unfortunately, three things are working against this business model. First, a pair of PETA-lite animal activists named Grant and Experience break into the compound and steal a sample of the sinister science. Second, Dr. April Rush’s research ethics are questionable at best. And finally, a fudged up sheep fetus is accidentally released into the population. Soon, the rams are ravenous, feasting on flesh and killing everyone and everything in sight. But the dead don’t stay that way for long. Seems such differing DNA likes to recombine with anything available – included rotting human remains.


Upon an initial viewing, audiences may start to suspect that Black Sheep will take forever to get to the body piercing. As character is established and circumstances are explained, the languid set up will seem like much ado about mutton. We keep waiting for the moment when these emblems of sleeplessness start bringing on the dirt naps. But there is a method to King’s mildness, a rational for taking it nice and easy. Even in a shortened cinematic running time, gore can grow repetitive very quickly. Unless you have a Troma level of gag invention, or simply feel the need to pour on more and more excremental excess, a 10th beheading will lack the punch of the first. So King decides to moderate his mania and make a real movie instead, using behind the scenes drama, icky experimentation, and long standing sibling rivalries to deliver us from the slice and dice doldrums. He even goes so far as to toss in a little romance, and some pro-critter political pronouncements as well.


During this down time, fans can enjoy some of the movie’s more subtle elements. It’s impossible to discuss Black Sheep without referencing New Zealand’s amazing landscape. It’s a literal dream come true, a patch of pure heaven accented with an incredible mountainous majesty and stunning country vistas. Like a travelogue for tourists who enjoy a smattering of splatter, King creates a real sense of place. Equally effective are the performances. Some of the players are new to Kiwi cinema (Nathan Meister as Henry, Danielle Mason as Experience) while others (Peter Feeny, Tammy Davis) are slightly more seasoned pros. Since the script is loaded with satiric swipes – mostly at the expense of genre standards – the acting really elevates such farce. Even better, we come to know and care for these individuals, wanting vengeance to be metered out to anyone – or anything – that does them wrong.


But once the wildlife goes goofy, Black Sheep piles on the putrescence and wallows in boatloads of blood. During a spectacular sequence where an outdoor presentation, loaded with international VIPS, is overrun by a stampede of killer creatures, faces are bitten off, limbs severed, necks garroted, and torsos torn asunder. Played for both giggles and gruesomeness, it’s a standout moment in a movie filled with them. Another amazing make-up tour de force comes when farm manager Tucker starts turning into a were-sheep. During the course of the conversion, something happens to stop the progress. We then get an outstanding physical rewind, highly reminiscent of Rob Bottin’s influence work in Joe Dante’s Innerspace. Indeed, much of the magic in this guts and glory goof is inspired directly by the man who helmed The Howling, and offered equally nasty prosthetics for John Carpenter’s The Thing and David Fincher’s sickening Se7en.


As part of the plentiful added content provided in this excellent digital package, King gets a chance to explain himself via a funny and very friendly full length audio commentary. Joined by actor Meister, both are ready to riff on everything that went wrong (and right) about this wooly magnum opus. It’s a nice, slightly nutty, narrative romp. The selection of deleted scenes (with additional director discussion) shows how clever King really was, and the blooper reel provides mandatory muffs. While an Early Morning Sunrise Scene (“shot specifically for DVD”, or so the cover art says) is rather dopey, the 30 minute Making-Of documentary is a delight. It gives us insight into the production process, including all the make-up and F/X work. It’s an outstanding explanation of how a small movie like this achieves a larger than life, big screen blockbuster look.


Movies like this aren’t flawless. Things do get corny once in a while, what with the need for mandatory variety meat quips, agricultural puns, and the occasional slip into man/mutton bestiality. And the ending does feel like an attempt at irony gone slightly pear-shaped. But for the most part, Black Sheep is stellar. It doesn’t redefine or deconstruct the genre so much as embrace it with an adolescent’s passionate appreciation, taking everything that made the grade-Z category into a post-modern prize. It bodes extremely well for King’s cinematic future that this first film feels so accomplished. Though it’s clearly limited in budget, it never once feels amateurish or addled. Instead, this movie reestablishes a horror fans love of all things furry, ferocious, and foul. Gut munching farm animals may seem like a stretch, but if Bert I. Gordon can make mealworms evil, why can’t a native knock on his nation. When the results are as endearing as this, there’s no reason to complain.


 


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