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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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Friday, Oct 5, 2007


The glorious sight of arterial spray. The delicious ‘splunk’ of wet organs hitting pavement. The sound of knives carving through flesh. The red rum color of blood – primary in its life leeching patina. These are the reasons fright fans love splatter. Call it a craven desire to wallow in excess, or a sickening fascination with death at its most frenzied, but hardcore macabre mavens can’t get enough of that awful offal. The need for noxious slice and dice, heads and other less necessary limbs rolling for the sake of a shiver, has come a long way since Herschell Gordon Lewis ripped a sheep’s tongue out of a model’s head for his gore classic Blood Feast. One need look no further than Jake West’s wacky (and wonderful) sluice spectacular Evil Aliens to understand the distances dismemberment has crossed.


Our tale takes place on an isolated Welsh atoll. When reality TV show Weird Worlde discovers that a local lass is claiming alien abduction, and even better, that she was impregnating by the extraterrestrial visitors, hostess Michelle Fox smells a scoop. She gets her ratings hungry boss to sign off on an expedition, and together with a crew of actors, technicians, and a nerdy UFO expert, a massive media event is planned. When they arrive on the secluded island – only accessible at low tide – they meet the woolly Williams family. Dad and his sons run the liquid manure plant, powering their farm with crap-conceived energy. But it’s Cat who has the problem. After one week post-contact, she’s as big as a house and ready to pop. Soon, cows are being mutilated, strange spaceships are hovering overhead, and a mob of menacing spacemen are tearing people limb from limb. They don’t appear to have a meaningful motive. They’re just evil interstellar mofos, that’s all.


Reminiscent of the great gross-out masterworks of the genre – Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead being two excellent examples – Evil Aliens is the kind of fetid fun that the entire post J-horror scarefest has long since failed to embrace. Shameless in its bloodshed and gonzo in its grinding, it’s a tasty throwback to the days of the motion picture double dare. Before it was embraced by jaded generations, splatter used to be a macho moviegoers game. Lover of Lucio Fulci and his Mediterranean brethren spent their days pouring over issues of Fangoria, hoping to gain the inside track on the latest vile vivisecting surprise. Weekends mandated traveling from one Mom and Pop video store to the next, the desire to find these elusive titles driving many away from acknowledged normalcy. Once found, cinematic constitution was challenged. Friends used the plentiful grue as a test of each other’s fandom. As eyes were gouged out and entrails exploded, relationships were forged and reputations made.


But thanks in part to those claret killjoys in the MPAA, this kind of film had to hide for most of the ‘90s. Film violence was blamed for everything from school shootings to increased gang activity. When DVD hit, it allowed the nasties to come out and play. Independent producers, unattached to the studio system, created no holds barred sluice fests, the more disgusting and nauseating flesh feasting, the better. Evil Aliens is clearly molded from that dangerous DIY delirium. It’s Shaun of the Dead without a conscience, an amplified zombie flick where death is celebrated in torrents of pus and the tell tale trail of people chunks. Writer/director Jake West cut his teeth on several fright film efforts, mostly as an editor. Prior to Evil Aliens, he helmed the well received Razor Blade Smile, and it’s clear that the man has a knack for moviemaking. This horror hoot is overloaded with invention and sly referential riffs. It frequently plays like Trainspotting with more eyeball eating.


Better yet, this film is very, very funny. Humor has long played a part in the fear formula, the better they say to maximize fright. But here, West works to make the laughs just as viable as the body butchering. The character of Michelle Fox is a manipulative little tart, the kind of career climbing fame whore who’ll do anything for a story. As played perfectly by Emily Booth, she’s the slutty stereotype you love to hate. Equally endearing, in a completely different manner, is unintelligible patriarch Llyr Williams. Mangling anything remotely close to the English (or in this case, Welsh) language and staring through the world with one cataracted peeper, actor Christopher Adamson gives the oddball hero a wonderful presence. Others of note include Jamie Honeybourne as decidedly dorky Gavin Gorman and Jodie Shaw as empowered female butt kicker Candy Vixen. Red Dwarf fans will also find reason to rejoice when Norman “Holly” Lovett appears for a clever cameo.


The real stars, however, remain the special effects. From relatively realistic CGI to utterly repugnant blood work, the madmen behind the prosthetics really outdo themselves here. Making decent looking aliens is always difficult, and relying on the humanoid archetype tends to put off purists. But these fiends feel real, even if they are nothing more than extras running around with gray skin and glorified gas masks. More impressive is the individual looks given to the Welsh family. Cat goes from coy to absolutely disgusting during her ‘birthing’ sequence, and the men all have their equally upsetting run ins with the evil ETs. This is the kind of movie that liberally involves a chainsaw, a weed whacker, a series of machetes, and a lethal bow and arrow to create its carnage, and gallons of the good stuff are freely utilized. It’s not just the quantity of gore that’s impressive. There’s an inventiveness to the gags, and a novelty to the storyline that really elevates the entire effort. It takes what could have been a mere collection of cruelties and turns it into a rib ripping (and tickling) riot.


Of course, those who’ve seen the film in its previous R-rated incarnation will wonder what the subtitle ‘Unrated and Uncut’ really means. Well, this critic can’t comment on the different versions, but he can offer this DVD-related caveat. Whenever a film fidgets with the work they presented to the MPAA, they must resubmit the title or face going forward sans a score. So what most digital distributors do is forego the reapplication and slap on a mere merchandising come-on. Granted, a movie like this one probably has increased its ratio of red, red wine. But even if the addition was just a new conversation about kittens, the lamentable league of decency demands the “Unrated” label. Fans of the film will also love Image’s overall presentation. The movie looks marvelous, and the bonus features include outtakes, deleted scenes, and a behind the scenes peek at the F/X work.


There’s only one issue left unexplained in regards to Evil Aliens’s history – why did it take so long to hit the home video format (it’s been playing festivals since 2005)? Clearly, torture porn – or gorno as some like to call it – has made splatter somewhat more mainstream – as well as more controversial. But it’s not like we’re dealing with any XXX outrage, and outsider companies like Tempe, Wicked Pixel, and Camp Motion Pictures trade in such over the top vein violations all the time. Perhaps it’s merely a matter of finding the proper launch window to maximize interest and raise awareness. And since this is the season of spooks and sinister slice and dice, the moment seems to have arrived. No matter what the rationale, Jake West has cemented his status as an atrocity auteur – and Evil Aliens is quite the craven calling card.


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Thursday, Oct 4, 2007


For the weekend of 5 October, here are the films in focus:


The Heartbreak Kid [rating: 3]


The Heartbreak Kid –- though why it would want to call itself that, seeing as how it slanders the legacy left behind by the Neil Simon/Elaine May original –- is a disaster, an unmitigated humorless horror that never once plays as raunchy or as outrageous as it thinks it is.

It’s time for Ben Stiller to hang it up. Time for him to take his smug self-deprecating smarm and pack it in, along with the pointless pratfalls, the perplexed looks, and the pre-planned pop culture references. None of it works anymore –- as a matter of fact, it hasn’t functioned successfully since he was riffing on Bono and Tom Cruise as part of his failed Fox sketch comedy series. At this point in his superstar status, he’s got enough money to make himself comfortable, and even if he doesn’t, his elderly dad’s F-you cash from Seinfeld and King of Queens will make a nice inheritance. So here’s hoping this normative force in funny business gets the message and moves along. That way, we won’t have to put up with his incredibly awful antics in mindless movies like this latest Farrelly Brothers flop. read full review…


The Seeker: The Dark is Rising [rating: 6]


Though it frequently feels like its missing most of its formative folklore, and trails off into fits of formless meandering about two thirds of the way through, The Seeker is actually a rather good ripping yarn.

Redundancy quickly kills even the most fitting flight of fantasy. Without imagination, or at least some level of innovation, a tale formed by magic/myth feels stale and unoriginal. True, when you boil it down to the basics, what you’re dealing with is the standard good vs. evil paradigm, and one man’s Ewoks are another’s furry footed hobbits. But the key to a successful movie of this type it to avoid the formulaic and cliché to present something new -– or something that, at first glance, appears unanticipated and novel. Such is the case with The Seeker: The Dark is Rising. Based on a series of books by Susan Cooper, this tale of the ages old struggle between The Light and The Dark should feel rote and preordained. But thanks to some interesting performances, a basically believable script, and a fine sense of scope, this kid friendly ersatz take on the Arthurian legend actually works –- at least, for a while. read full review…


Mr. Untouchable [rating: 7]


Potentially undermined by the Ridley Scott/ Denzel Washington/ Russell Crowe drama that’s arriving in theaters this November (American Gangster), Mr. Untouchable is still a compelling, if confused, expose.

It begins with an intriguing premise. In the 1970s, Leroy “Nicky” Barnes ran Harlem’s drug trafficking empire. A slick, savvy street entrepreneur, he created a dynasty rivaled only by those created in fictional Hollywood crime flicks. Along with his crew of dapper associates –- who called themselves The Council –- he used the mostly black community as a basis for a borough wide organization of sale and distribution. Working closely with the Italians, and using as much muscle as necessary to maintain his turf, Barnes flaunted his illegally gained power right in front of the police. Yet no matter how hard they tried, no matter what angle they pursued, they couldn’t take down this urban Don. It earned him a nickname that would eventually lead to his downfall -– Mr. Untouchable. read full review…


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