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Sunday, Oct 14, 2007


For dedicated horror fans, it’s the hideous Holy Grail, a cup runneth over with as much minced body parts and juiced marrow as possible. It’s the icing on a particularly nasty cake, a filling so foul in a pastry so vile that simply sampling its entrails-laced spice will send your palette to purgatory – forever! Since its popularity as a means of pushing the exploitation film into a new, non-nude dynamic, to its post-millennial pose as a redefining hardcore homage, gore has given the movie macabre its surreal, sacrilegious fascination. It’s also elevated the craftsmen behind the scenes – the make-up artists and effects technicians – to the level of Gods, beings given over to unbelievably realistic interpretations of human death and dismemberment.


For those of us who love dread, splatter is often viewed as the demon drug of the otherwise subtle and subjective spookshow, the next step in our genre appreciation, that uneasy leap from bone rattling to bone breaking. Some cinematic categories couldn’t survive without it. Imagine, a zombie epic without some flesh feasting, or a slasher film where the killer’s injurious intent is illustrated by a simple fade to black. For those who like to think of horror as a disease, a blight on movies comparable to tawdry XXX fare, gore is like the pop shot at the end of a rather aggressive sex scene. It’s the raison d’etra, the punchline at the completion of a jaundiced joke, a way of rewarding audience patience and solving narrative incompleteness with severed limbs and missing heads.


And yet, for some in the fear faction, gore isn’t groovy. It’s a cheap date that puts out, even when you don’t want it to, a shortcut scapegoat that argues for aesthetic sloppiness and a lack of true imagination. It’s the fart joke in the family comedy, the terminal disease that makes an already overdone drama more saccharine. While there are bigger abominations in horror – the continued Euro-trashing of vampires, the purposeful PG-13ing of content – many view the excess of blood to be indicative of what’s wrong with the contemporary creepfest. Citing old school scares like the Universal monsters and Haunting style ghost stories, they reject grue’s carnival barker bravado and cheap shot sentiments.


Of course, DVD has only broadened the debate, studios and their hired hands using the format’s ability to manipulate and reconfigure footage to produce dozens of unrated and unedited director’s/collector’s cuts. While there are rare cases when the new, MPAA-less version offers nothing new except extended dialogue and expositional material, that the vast majority of the updates are nothing more than moments of sluice originally rejected as inappropriate. Purists tend to balk at such an unnecessary reworking, while the more aggressive in the gorehound community argue that all censored scenes should arrive on home video in contradiction to their previous violated state.



But beyond the “us vs. them”, the classicist’s clash with the craven, the question remains – why is gore so satisfying? Why does it sicken some and excite others? Is there a psychological basis for such a dichotomy, or does it all just boil down to some manner of cinematic constitution. After all, there are awarding-winning dramas (Saving Private Ryan) and celebrated satires (anything by Monty Python) that uses blood and its excessive letting as a means to a much more viable ends. And while there would be some who’d actually enjoy the experience, no one is suggesting that actual autopsies be filmed and featured as the latest horror trend. No, somewhere between realism and revulsion lies the gruesome’s gonzo appeal. Tracing a path to its current controversial acceptance may lend some insight into what is, notoriously, a rather contentious creative predisposition.


For many, gore came to the fore after old school exploiteers Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman decided that the nudist colony film was fading. Always looking for a new way of bringing gratuity to the grindhouse, they decided that violence was the next great unexplored option. Now, substituting terror for titillation may not seem like the soundest business model, but the duo knew that their outsider status mandated moving the film medium beyond the simple and safe. It was their purpose to tweak cinematic taboos, and since sex and brutality had been longstanding Hays Code no-no’s, what better subjects to celebrate. But by 1963, everyone and their ballyhooing brother were filming strippers for cash. Lewis and Friedman saw the wanton writing on the wall, and decided to delve into gratuity’s dark side.


The one-two punch of Blood Feast (1963) and 2000 Maniacs (1964) proved to be intensely profitable. While they may not have started the horror subsect (it is up to others to argue over and determine the first true gore film), their success fueled a fiscal belief that terror could use a little redrum redirection. Initially, few picked up on the pair’s slice and dice dictum. It just didn’t seem like the proper paradigm for a softcore smut peddler to play in. Then the MPAA arrived, its “parental guidance” ideals putting a kibosh on everything that exploitation experts were pushing. While many spent the next few years battling First Amendment court cases, splatter gravitated underground. Aside from the occasional appearance in a high minded Hollywood effort (Bonnie and Clyde and The Exorcist, for example), it was film’s fringe dwellers who kept the claret flowing.


For many, the next great wave in motion picture pus came from Europe – and the Italians, in particular. Names like Argento, Fulci, and Bava brought the long dormant death dream back to prominence, mixing artistry with atrocity (or in some cases, just plain evil) to forge a kind of graphic Gothic approach. Movies like Suspiria delivered Grand Guignol grotesqueries back to the fore. By the end of the ‘70s, Zombi 2 and Cannibal Holocaust were pushing the boundaries of acceptability.  American filmmakers were also doing something similar. George Romero reinvented the living dead movie with his organ-caked offering Dawn of the Dead, while Friday the 13th combined slaughter with inventive make-up work to popularize the soon to be omnipresent slasher film. 


By the mid-part of the ‘80s, the genre had come into its own, with big name F/X men like Tom Savini, Rick Baker, and Rob Bottin ruling the medium’s cutting edge. Films like The Thing, The Evil Dead, and A Nightmare on Elm Street illustrated that outrageous and excessive violence could be used in undeniably compelling ways, while a landslide of direct-to-video efforts established that – sans intellectualizing or originality – splatter was destined to cannibalize itself. Sure enough, by the ‘90s, fright fans were looking for something new to tweak their tired interests. CGI gave imaginary creatures a well-deserved reprieve, while foreign fear factors – especially those from Japan and other Far East nations – offered a sly, more supernatural means of macabre. It wasn’t until the torture porn efforts of the early ‘00s that gore regained its footing. Today, it’s viewed as a necessary part of the overall horror story.



Yet none of this addresses why ample arterial spray remains so enjoyable. History has a habit of contextualizing something to the point of passivity, yet new grue mavens arrive on the scene everyday. As a matter of fact, technology has helped many of them crawl out of their fanboy basements and realize their own repugnant visions. So there is obviously something universal in the fetid format’s appeal. Yet even armchair psychologists and legitimate professionals can’t agree on a reason why. Some point to the adolescent need to rebel (citing that most blood lovers derive from the standard misspent and misunderstood youth movement) while others view it as merely a technique for experimenting with one’s own internal tolerances.


Indeed, the whole double-dare and/or water cooler nature of the set-up could explain its unusual appeal. Since, by its very nature, our social order is tied to competition, being the first on your block to see the latest gross out spectacle – and better yet, thriving on it – could be interpreted as a blatant badge of obsessive dishonor. It’s a calculated cool to be sure, but in a dynamic that tends to reward such unusual accomplishments, being able to tolerate a torso ripping isn’t the worst reward one can seek. Then, of course, there’s the standard human attribute known as morbid curiosity. Tied directly to the above-stated starvation for attention, people are notorious for wanting to stare disgust directly in the face. In addition, such sentiments are usually linked to mortality and a fear of death. Gore, therefore, may provide the panacea that allows the looky-loo a chance to feel more secure as part of this tenuous metaphysical terrain.


Yet the most obvious reason for gore’s continued interest is reflected in its execution. Filmmakers have gotten exceptionally good at such “gags”, while companies like KNB and Digital Domain transformed the terrifying into a viable art. When a throat is cut in your standard scary movie, wound gaping while rivers of blood pour from the slit, it’s not the crime that’s compelling. No, what lovers of such degradation are responding to is the tiny technical elements – the momentary pause before the skin stretches and parts, the realistic look of the flowing fluid, the actor or actresses’ performance and response, the manner in which the director frames and composes the shot. Because it can easily look like the fakest of filmic propositions, horror fans are particular about their putrescence. In fact, part of the appeal is the very “compare and contrast” nature of such appreciation.


Then there is imagination. Fear fans love to see things they’ve never witnessed before. They enjoy being treated as motion picture archivists, using the past as a means of measuring the present. The splatter specialists understand this, and strive to bring something different and exciting to each new project. Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof contains one of the most disturbing car crashes ever, the effect of the wreck on everyone involved examined and highlighted in horrific detail. Similarly, Saw III contained a sequence of brain surgery so sickening that many wondered if such a procedure was medically sound (to everyone’s surprise, it was/is). When Eli Roth offered up various power tools in his amazing Hostel, they didn’t shy away from their murderous mechanical mayhem, and in the Michael Bay produced Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, Leatherface got to wield his weapon in ways original auteur Tobe Hooper could only imagine.


So maybe it is the need to stare death squarely in the face. Perhaps it stands as a cruel desire to see others suffer for the sake of a thrill. Maybe, like the canvases of Francis Bacon, devotees locate the mastery inside these massacres. Or it could just be the new age equivalent of The Depression’s desire for happy, sappy musicals. In a recent interview, Re-Animator director Stuart Gordon suggested that horror is cyclical, ebbing and flowing based on the political signs of the times. Naturally, his argument took a more liberal bent when he points out that Reagan and Bush have been responsible for the most aggressive of redolent renaissances. But he may have a point. Gore is an escape, a vision of unreality in a world overdosing on actual information. It stands as a connection to our corporeal being, a way of helping us manage our fading humanity.


And besides, it’s a great deal of illicit fun. Like discovering your Dad’s stash of Playboys when you were young, the shady, antisocial nature of such disturbing imagery represents the heavy metal equivalent of movies, the raised fist anarchy that many horror fans long to embrace. After all, the genre itself stands in direct defiance of everything that makes the artform attractive – the stories are sordid and the images brutal and disturbing. So, in retrospect, perhaps the reason that gore is good stands as part of a more common individual attribute. There will always be those who follow the flock. In contrast, certain individuals will challenge such a corrosion of conformity. For them, the battle flag is soaked in corpse-grinding suet, blood caking every facet of this rage against the mainstream machine. This is one revolution that is frequently televised – and the images are always a deep, dark red. That’s why gore is so grand. It’s also why it’s so good.


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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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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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Wednesday, Oct 3, 2007


Back in the ‘80s, it was a running joke. It seemed like, every time you turned around, another Stephen King work - no matter how minor – was being prepped for a cinematic styling or on its way to your local Bijou. To call it overkill would be too simplistic. It was, as if, the man’s massive imagination was being purposefully corralled by an industry that believed his muse was all too fleeting. The “hurry up and hit it” mentality (otherwise known as strike while the iron’s assets are liquid) meant that, in some cases, the film version of a famed tome was in preproduction before the book even made the bestsellers. It was a buyers market and the author had literary real estate to spare. Among his many novels, numerous short stories, and projects purposefully created for the movies, he was a one man idea factory. A funny thing happened on the way to maximum production capacity, however. Audiences began to balk.


At first, all was business as usual. The studios kept churning out the chum, delivering subpar motion pictures and endless, unnecessary sequels. And while they weren’t overwhelmed, the crowds kept coming. But diluting your inventory never results in quality, and before long, King’s name was as marginalized as his turnstile reputation, a lamentable presence in a genre that had long since surpassed his undeniable storytelling expertise. Additionally, the remaining items in his oeuvre were becoming more and more complicated to realize – massive magnum opuses sprawling out over hundreds of pages and dozens of subplots. With visionary elements far exceeding Hollywood’s ability to realize them, and narratives that touched on subjects both controversial and complex, the days of simple story arcs (killer dog, killer car, killer kid) were long over. So while the viewers were turning to other macabre makers, Tinsel Town turned its back on the once heralded cash cow.


But that doesn’t mean King is tapped out. Far from it. As a matter of fact, there are a half dozen or so interesting production possibilities just lying around, waiting to be discovered. At SE&L’s suggestion (and we will gladly accept any and all finder’s fees, thank you), here are six wonderful works that would make riveting entertainment options. We’ve purposely avoided anything already planned (The Talisman, Cell, From a Buick 8) as well as remakes, reimaginings and outright rip-offs. As far as we known, this sextet of stellar novels are languishing in limbo, caught somewhere between 1408’s recent success and past calamities still stinking up the artform. Each one argues for two incontrovertible truths. First, there has never been a man as prolific as Stephen King. And second? That for every mediocre motion picture pried from his prose, there’s a possible gem waiting in the wings, beginning with:


The Long Walk


As part of his Richard Bachman persona, King tackled the dystopian future as only his insular mind could imagine it. The results are this spellbinding thriller about a group of 100 randomly picked boys sent on a mandatory trek across a totalitarian American landscape. With a storyline similar to Speed (the lads must maintain a certain pace to avoid being ‘warned’ and then ‘ticketed’ by the accompanying soldiers) and a breathtaking narrative drive, it has the makings of a fine action adventure. Even better, the Lord of the Flies like characters, each one bringing their own precarious personal situation to the contest, allows for endless subplotting and openness. Rumor has it that Frank Darabont owns the rights. If anyone can realize this intricate tale, he can.


The Regulators


Granted, the plot feels like a revamp of the classic Twilight Zone episode where little Anthony is the “monster” who can create unimaginable evils with his mind, but in a CGI reliant industry desperate for more bitmap magic, this could be the next horror hybrid hit. Maybe studio heads are waiting to see if the similarly styled The Mist makes a mountain of money come theatrical release time. Remember, King is still considered a tenuous source of material at best. And because this book is another example of his Bachman alter ego, there’s the possibility of a less than bestseller backlash. In the hands of the right visionary director, however, this reality in flux narrative could be a sensational slice of eerie eye candy.


Eye of the Dragon


Why this excellent sword and sorcery epic hasn’t been made into a movie is baffling? After all, if subpar crap like Eragon can stumble along and stink up a Cineplex with its dumbness and dragons, why not the work of an actual adult writer? Part of the problem, at least at the time of publication, was realizing the more “magical” elements of the story. It was reported that animation was initially suggested, the cinematic category’s open palette more readily capable of bringing the fanciful to life. But just like The Regulators, the supercomputer has changed the face of filmmaking, and with the proper director – someone in tune with the genre’s inherent pitfalls and possibilities – this excellent example of good old fashioned yarn spinning would make a wonderful bit of wistfulness.

 


Gerald’s Game


Actresses are always complaining that there are no good roles for them. King, fortunately, loves to feature women in complex, life changing situations. In this very dark single character piece, our heroine Jessie Burlingame finds herself alone, tied up, and very afraid after her husband dies during some rather rough sex. As she lies in bed, hunger and dehydration taking its toll, she recalls horrors from her past, while envisioning even more dreadful terrors in the shadows of her isolated cabin. While it’s true that any star who wanted the part would have to agree to some demanding physical trials (nudity, suggested violence), the rewards would be well worth it. Within the usual setting, the author creates some undeniably powerful prose.


Insomnia


It stands as one of his oddest ideas – an old man, unable to sleep, who can literally see the “strands” or mortality that rise from our body…and the creepy creature killers carrying the scissors to ‘cut’ them. And then there’s the whole abortion subtext filled with dogma and social terrorism. But Insomnia is still one of the author’s best books, a character driven exploration of mortality and aging drenched in a weird wickedness that is hard to shake. Even better, the book finally explains King’s favorite setting – the paranormal plagued town of Derry. With all this amazing material at their disposal, the right creative team could make something truly special. And with a lot of great actors approaching their twilight years, the casting possibilities are also tempting.


Blaze


Another Bachman book, another potential for some major acting tour de forces. The story revolves around a mentally deficient con man who decides to kidnap a wealthy couple’s baby for the ransom money. The crime begins to go awry, and Clayton Blaisdell, Jr. (or “Blaze” for short) starts flashing back to his own childhood, and the reasons for his own damaged brain. Imagine this unusual tale told by one of our modern movie icons, or better yet, driven by a fascinating newcomer (like Casey Affleck, perhaps) and you could have a character based dynamo. Though it was written way back in the early ‘70s (in between bouts with Carrie), there is a modern mentality to the piece that plays perfectly in these desperate post-millennial days.

 


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Sunday, Sep 30, 2007


He’s the most popular author of genre fiction ever. His sales have staggered a publishing industry used to thousands, not millions of units moved. His name is synonymous with fright and fear, a moniker mentioned alongside the classical macabre names. Yet when it comes to motion picture translations of his titles, Stephen King can’t catch a break. Granted, it’s an old story, one that’s been going on for nearly three decades now. But when Brian DePalma took the novice novelist’s first successful tome – the telekinetic teenager tale Carrie – and made it into box office gold, it opened the door for dozens of like minded auteurs to attack King’s canon. To say that the results have been scattershot at best would be some manner of historical heresy. With rare exceptions, he’s the King all right – the king of cinematic crap.


From a purely technical standpoint, there are well over 100 adaptations of the author’s work available for consideration. The split is about 60/40 between short stories and actual full length works. The vast majority of these movies were made between 1976 and 1996, and more than a couple represent the franchising or serialization of pieces (Children of the Corn, The Lawnmower Man) that lacked the necessary narrative heft to sustain multiple takes. In completely subjective terms, King’s craft has resulted in around 15 well regarded films. There are another half dozen or so that could be called successful without necessarily arguing for their overall artistry. That still leaves nearly 80% of the output in the average to awful category, and for anyone who has waded through that celluloid swamp, the garbage far outweighs the merely mediocre.


All of which leads to the question of why – why can’t King’s brainchildren catch a motion picture break? It seems like, for every Stand By Me, there’s a pair of unnecessary ‘Salem’s Lot sequels, for each Shawshank Redemption, there’s a similar big budget failure like Dreamcatcher or Hearts in Atlantis. Of course, some may argue that the man’s outstanding oeuvre, containing more text than a century of filmmaking could possibly handle, begs for such a hit or miss maxim. But the fact remains that some of the author’s best books – Pet Sematary, The Dark Half – have ended up delivering incredibly average entertainments. Even the seemingly successful interpretations – The Stand, IT – have issues among the faithful, from casting to editorial cuts.


It’s important to note why King is so heralded in the first place. Among his kind – writers specializing in horror – he’s one helluva storyteller. In fact, he’s so good, so adept at getting into your subconscious and laying down the ground rules, that it’s almost impossible for a film to step in and match your imagination. It’s the reason Stanley Kubrick rewrote The Shining as more of a psychological character study vs. a harrowing haunted hotel saga. Without the effects to accurately recreate King’s kinetic set pieces (the killer topiary animals, the shape-shifting interior design) the famed director had to rely on atmosphere, and acting, to carry his vision.


Or consider Christine, for a moment. John Carpenter is a horror maestro, a man responsible for a bevy of brilliant terror treats. When it was announced that he would helm an adaptation of King’s killer car novel, aficionados of both the writer and the director were psyched. To have two legitimate legends of their craft collaborating seemed like a dizzying dream come true. Of course, such a fantasy flew squarely into the reality of what Carpenter had taken on. As a book, Christine is almost all internal monologue, the character of Arnie Cunningham’s best friend Dennis Guilder explaining how his buddy slowly went insane under the influence of the evil automobile. There are also additional plot points that the movie completely avoids.


Now, this is nothing new for a book to film transfer. You can’t take the text verbatim and expect it to become a meaningful motion picture. But when you mess with a beloved work of fiction, you invite two kinds of criticism. The first comes from fans upset at the changes made. The second arrives from individuals who can’t quite figure out why this title deserved the big screen treatment in the first place. Both may have a point and still be completely wrong. Novels are not perfect, and sometimes, what seemed good on the page can appear paltry blown up 70 feet high. In fact, it’s clear that a lot of King’s works play better in the theater of the mind than the local Cineplex.


But that still doesn’t address the issue of his slipshod status. Perhaps a compare and contrast could help. In 1983, venereal horror icon David Cronenberg became attached to direct one of King’s more commercial works – the psychic thriller The Dead Zone. The basic premise found Johnny Smith, an average man, awaken from a coma after five years. Involved in a horrible auto accident, he barely escaped with his life. During rehabilitation, he discovers he has a gift of second sight. By touching a person, he can look into their past as well as their future. He even has the ability to influence and change events yet to come. All of this leads to a confrontation with a Presidential candidate who is out to start World War III. As the wheel of fate would have it, Smith must play assassin to stop the political favorite.


Again, Cronenberg tweaked the tale, removing backstory and emphasizing other aspects of King’s book. With the West still battling a frigid Cold War with the East, the importance on nuclear annihilation was illustrated, and thanks to a wonderful performance by Christopher Walken, Johnny’s dilemma was given depth and gravitas. So while some of the book’s more important twists were avoided or amplified, Cronenberg stuck to the basics. He believed in King’s ability to tell a tale, and did very little to vary from his prophetic prose. It remains one of the main reasons that The Dead Zone is a brilliant film, as well as a powerful page turner.


In sharp distinction, something like Pet Sematary pales in comparison. While it has its defenders, many find this film a shadow of King’s horrifying, hellacious original. Dealing with a topic that automatically hooks many prospective parents – the death of a child – and using reincarnation as a means for a far more terrifying prospect, the novel was originally scrapped by the author. He felt that, in a creative realm where he pushed the envelope of the gruesome and grotesque, a killer kid was just too much to fathom. Luckily, King’s better half (his wife Tabitha) convinced him otherwise, and yet another bestseller was born. Yet when it finally came around to making the movie, a series of bad decisions resulted in a less than successful product.


Up front, director Mary Lambert was a moviemaking novice. She only had one feature under her belt (the little seen Siesta) and may have helmed some successful music videos (for Madonna, among others), but that’s hardly the resume for taking on such a tricky piece. To make matters worse, she cast mostly unknowns. Among the leads, only Fred Gwynne (Herman Munster himself) had any real name or fame value. The final nail in the creative coffin was the direct participation of King. By this time (1989), he had grown tired of how his books were treated by screenplay writers, and he took a stab at the script. Yet even the man who originated the story failed to stay true to it. There were changes in both situations and tone that bothered longtime fans.


All the missteps did eventually add up. While slightly effective, Pet Sematary the movie is nowhere near as powerful as the book. Part of the problem is the actors. Aside from Gwynne, everyone else has a tepid, TV movie like quality to their presence. Even worse, the subject matter seems severely toned down so as not to totally derail already angst ridden Mommys and Daddys. Such audience friendly fiddling seems to go hand in hand with a King adaptation. This is especially true of broadcast standards and practices. Many of the author’s tales have been translated into small screen mini-series, the better to deal with their scope. But such a strategy limits content, undercutting the epic evil of IT, or the end of the world wonder of The Stand.


And yet some artists manage to turn the tentative into the terrific – and they seem to follow the Cronenberg method of manipulation (which can actually be traced back to DePalma and Carrie). Take The Shawshank Redemption. Frank Darabont took the original prison story and kept the core conceits. Changing very little, but streamlining some of the subplots, he managed what many consider to be one of the greatest films of all time. Rob Reiner reinvented both “The Body” (which became the nostalgic classic Stand By Me) and Misery by playing to King’s strengths (story) while deemphasizing his weaknesses (his lack of visualized action). Recently, Swedish director Mikael Håfström took 1408 and created a wonderfully moody minor classic – and he did so by remaining faithful while still striking out on his own.


Clearly, staying true to King is not an instant guarantee for achievement. Such efforts as Needful Things, Secret Window, and Apt Pupil all managed minor liberties with their source, and still they appeared underwhelming and incomplete. On the other hand, open interpretations often end up equally unexceptional. Graveyard Shift abandoned most of what the short story had to offer, and yet the giant rat retread was dull and dopey. Similarly, The Mangler made the mechanical horror of the original into something far stupider and unbelievable. Apparently, for every insightful interpretation (Dolores Claiborne) there’s a failure to figure things out properly (The Night Flyer, anyone?).


Perhaps the key is talent. While not a given (Dreamcatcher came from Lawrence Kasdan, after all), it is obvious that when individuals of great artistic insight take on King’s work, something worthwhile usually results. Darabont did it again with The Green Mile, which makes his upcoming work on fan favorite The Mist all the more exciting. Mick Garris usually makes the most of the author’s words, having guided several entertaining TV efforts. George Romero gave the sensational schlock of Creepshow the proper EC comic coating (though his Dark Half was merely a marginal triumph) and even the man of letters himself argued for his frequently misplaced participation when he directed the disastrous Maximum Overdrive.


So maybe it is just a statistical anomaly. A man with so many adaptations of his work is bound to have more than his fair share of failures. And when you consider that he’s working in horror, an already tricky cinematic type, that anything with his name attached actually gels should be cause for celebration. Yet King has written very few clunkers in his four decades behind the typewriter, and the subpar productions (Firestarter, Thinner) keep cramping his reputation. In fact, the hack nature of his many movie flops has definitely impacted his literary worth. Though he’s frequently referred to himself as the medium equivalent of a Big Mac and Fries, the vast majority of his writing is not junk food. Sadly, most of the movies made from his ideas are barely digestible. 


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