It seems like, for the moment, things have settled down for Troma. Uncle Lloyd and his ‘art for art’s sake’ strategies have paid off in a continuing stream of new releases, yet another new generation of confirmed independent cinephiles, and a strong political bent that sees the horrified head honcho taking on everything from Internet neutrality to that latest Hollywood hucksterism - 3D. Yet when it comes right down to it, Kaufman and his cohorts are still obsessed with bringing film fans the best, brightest, and ballsiest genre titles from around the world. Recently, efforts like Pep Squad, A Nocturne, Dark Nature, and Bigfoot have shown that, while slow in bringing their own productions to the masses, there’s still a vast untapped resource of other people’s work to wade through.
Of course, consistency remains an issue. There are times when it does look like Troma releases almost anything, from some film student’s snooty idea of a sex farce to some grade schoolers concept of splatter. There is rarely middle ground with their titles, Kaufman clamoring that all media should strike a chord within people - good, bad, but definitely not indifferent. That is particularly true of their most recent DVD offerings. In one case, the good old days of the company’s oddball dynasty are alive and well, covered in leather and studded metal wristbands. In the other, the monster movie is further defiled by a group of foreign fans who believe shoddy effects and even worse camera tricks bring back the glory days of US drive-in dominance. They couldn’t be more wrong.
A young man named Ace is given a birthday gift of the famed crystal guitar of a notorious rock and roll murderer. When the axe starts “speaking” to him, our uncomfortable dweeb turns into an undead hero, wrecking vengeance on Mrs. Delicious and her all girl gang of Ms. mobsters. He better take down the crime boss quick, since she plans on blowing up the local battle of the bands, and destroying heavy metal in the process.
It’s clear that writer/director/man of many other cinematic trades Mike C. Hartman is a student of Troma and the kitchen sink kitsch of their primary movie mover Lloyd Kaufmam. While there is a little of the filmmaker’s “day job” as guide for the syndicated Shock Theater riff Wolf Man Mac’s Chiller Drive-In, the rest of this amazingly goofy genre treat stems directly from the production house that brought us toxic avengers, kabuki policeman, and a metric ton of undead poultry. Throw in an obvious love for all things rock and roll, a bevy of beautiful if incredibly bad babes, and a cameo by everyone’s favorite fat man, Morbid Melvin, and you’ve got a hilarious horror romp that, while never really frightening, does deliver a plethora of power chord pleasantries.
Hat’s off to Hartman for finding the right balance between reverence and the ridiculous. You can tell by the basic setting for the story - a guitar shop called Detroit Rock City - that the man knows his metal. Even when the eventual concert and performance footage fails to live up to the purest levels of the musical type, the film reinforces its hand signs and headbanging purpose. Similarly, the all gal crime angle is a very nice touch. It’s unusual to see girls giving men a piece of the antagonist action, but these viable villainesses can really meter out the punishment. And then there is the acting. While most homemade horror films boast levels of amateurism worthy of celluloid novices, Hartman populates his effort with all manner of polished performers. Sure, some are still a tad mannered in their delivery, but for the most part, we enjoy the earnest energy.
Still, Heavy Mental does have a couple of drawbacks. First, the gore - while plentiful - is kind of pathetic, definitely from the red Kool-Aid school of blood flow. Morbid Melvin does get a gut shower that’s quite impressive, but for the most part, the blood and splatter are slightly subpar. Similarly, the movie is a tad overlong. At nearly 105 minutes, Hartman is clearly padding. He could easily cut a quarter hour or so out of his narrative (unless we really needed all those ‘walk the streets’ scenes) and made the movie leaner and meaner. Thanks to its humorous homage mentality, it’s do or die for the genre chutzpah, Heavy Mental ends up succeeding. It may not be the scariest, or most secure exploration of the whole death dread musical ideal, but it’s still a whole lot of campy, crappy fun.
DEAD EYES OPEN
A group of culturally suspect teens head out into the German countryside so they can “rough it” for a while (read: party like US frat boys). Little do they know that the surrounding wooded area has been quarantined by the government. Seems a viral outbreak is starting to spread, turning the recently deceased into the walking dead. If they’re not careful, these kids will become fodder for these hungry, haunting cannibalistic corpses.
Groan. There is so much to hate about Dead Eyes Open that to settle on just one thing undermines the horribleness of other aspects of the release. Take the cinematography… PLEASE!!! Shot in a bizarre fashion where sequences, colors, continuity, and watchability don’t matter, the visual element jumps around here more than a soccer mom at a Justin Bieber concert. According to the DVD cover, this was done to emulate the ‘70s style of exploitation schlock. What it really looks like is total incompetence on the part of the filmmakers. Then there is the make-up effects. Combining ill-fitting plastic prosthetics with blood so thin it’s like dive bar liquor, our zombies end up resembling implausible pizza faced refugees from the worst kind of Italian fright film - and not in a good way.
Then there is the acting. ARGH! Apparently, the best way to express emotion in the new Germany is to sit around and discuss how well you party while passing around a single bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon - not that are wholly novice thesps would know what to do with anything more complicated. They are line readers at best, sitting back motionless and inert until time to spew another “everyone’s dead” denouement. From direction that can kindly be described as “confused” to a storyline that would only make sense to a stoned seventeen year old, there is nothing interesting or inventive here. Then, to make matters worse, the production drags out George Romero (clearly captured during some Comic-Con convention setting) and dubs in his voice as a “expert.” There ought to be a law.
Indeed, Dead Eyes Open argues for one of Troma’s lingering problems - the championing of choices that clearly don’t match the entertainment ideals of Kaufman and Company. While they do tend to go for the sensational and the salacious, the indie icon also know that nothing sells cinematic subversion better than having a good time. Sure, there are honorable subtexts to many of their movies - feminism, environmentalism, anti-consumerism - but they are almost always bathed in Joe Bob Brigg’s “Three ‘B’s” - blood, breasts, and beasts. Here, we get nothing but dullness, dumbness, and dreariness. If Heavy Mental is everything great about Troma, Dead Eyes Open is everything god-awful about the otherwise reliable distributor.