[20 June 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
As stated before, the gossip got it wrong. Troma, left for dead by pundits who proclaimed its “Poultrygeist only” business plan a model for nothing but failure, wasn’t really on the brink of extinction. Instead, the independent titan responsible for such memorable cult classics as The Toxic Avenger and Tromeo and Juliet was merely reconfiguring its priorities. It needed to move from its Manhattan digs when unscrupulous landlords raised their rent by a ridiculous amount, and the lack of available DVD product had nothing to do with a deteriorating bank account. Instead, the company’s latest big screen spectacle, a deranged chicken zombie flick, needed a theatrical chance before more digital delights hit the local B&M.
This past April saw the label finally return to the fan-friendly format, offering up the ganja goof Pot Zombies, and just last month, two more treats were unleashed on unsuspecting audiences everywhere. And both Bloodspit and Belcebu: Diablos Lesbos were just like other items in the distributor’s cockeyed catalog - oddball finds from a world slowly embracing the DIY moviemaking ethos. This pattern continues with June’s releases. In Offensive Behaviour, a group of idiosyncratic individuals find themselves locked in a struggle between life, love (or at least, sex), and death. In addition, Demons Among Us takes the corrupt corporate take-over of the media and imagines it as a parable involving a small Australian town under the onslaught of a group of devil-possessed killers.
In our first film, the residents of a small New Zealand apartment complex, are having a hard time coping. For them, things couldn’t get much worse. Upstairs, Quentin is sick of his nagging girlfriend Debbie. She wants him to give up his dreams of being a filmmaker and get a job. He just wants to sell a screenplay. Suddenly inspired, he decides to star her in a porno with best buddy Clarke to gain some quick cash. Meanwhile, an effeminate hitman/hairdresser named Nigel is also being harassed by his bitter old nun of a mother. She wants him to follow in the family footsteps - professional assassination. He just wants to style and blow. When a $500K contract job goes awry, it draws everyone into a surreal circle of sex, violence, and misplaced mail.
Beginning with a perfectly awful (and quite hilarious) movie pitch, and channeling the post-modern indie ideal fostered by such filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, Offensive Behaviour is neither as outrageous as it thinks it is, or as funny as it could be. Five years in the making, Patrick Gillies’ good natured gonzo can’t quite match the men he’s mimicking, but then again, it’s hard to feel fresh when your final product has been gestating since 1999. If you remove all the Pulp Snatch strategies and the planned tastelessness, one winds up with a decent, quite winning comment on how technology and the Super VHS spirit have changed filmmaking.
Since our hero fancies himself another homemade auteur, it’s interesting to see the clueless way Gillies handles him. Wide eyed optimism is one thing - brain dead filmmaking fundamentalism is another. When Quentin stumbles across a pile of rotting corpses, he doesn’t shirk. Instead, he revs up the camcorder and creates a snuff subtext. In fact, the whole living room smut storyline is far more successful than the swishy, stereotyped mother/son material. During these moments, both actors do a wonderful job of turning up the tension, and the dialogue has a wonderfully fresh ring to it. But anytime a director resorts to limp-wristed revelry in portraying a homosexual, instant proto-PC flags start flying. Gillies tries to countermand this notion by making the other gay character far more ‘normal’, but even he ends up wielding a dildo in a strange, Star Wars like battle scene.
Overall, Offensive Behaviour feels more like a miss than a hit. It still has much to recommend it - gallant performances, witty scripting, definite directorial flare, and a welcome cultural subtext - and yet it also feels incomplete. We never know why our family of assassins is after the grubby guy in the Apartment 7. We can’t quite fathom the attraction between Debbie and Clarke…that is, until a last minute denouement tries to clear it up. The ending does reek of the slightest of rip-offs, having it all be a ‘dream’ being just as crass as what is offered, and no movie can kill an innocent guinea pig (totally offscreen) and get away with it. As a matter of fact, Offensive Behaviour is the kind of film that offers a fairly balanced collection of positives and negatives. How you gauge the balance will definitely decide your personal entertainment fate.
On the other hand, Demons Among Us has no such issues. This is a straight ahead horror movie with small touches of David Lynch tossed in for added atmosphere. When Joe moves into a tiny town in the Australian outback, he senses something sinister in the air. Isolation has rendered the place odd, and slightly off-putting. One day, the entire Winters family is found dead, their bodies torn apart in senseless savagery. Naturally, the newcomer is the prime suspect, but our hero knows differently. Seems he’s convinced that Hell’s minions are running rampant throughout the countryside, and they mean to destroy all life on the planet. With the help of local gal Kylie Fitzgerald and Police Sergeant Geoff Harding, he hopes to uncover - and put an end to - their Satanic plot.
If ambience were indicative of brilliance, Stuart Simpson’s Demons Among Us would be genius. It’s unusual Donwunder locations, accented by excellent camerawork and powerful post-production tricks, yields an amazing assortment of moods. It also adds a great deal of necessary menace. Since Simpson isn’t out to fully explain his evil media premise - there is a strong link between advertising and malevolence established - and because his narrative is so straightforward (death, investigation, accusation), he needs something to fill in the blanks. Luckily, his work behind the lens is so impressive we forgive the occasional flaws. In fact, the missing elements add an aura of mystery that actually works here.
It helps that he has a capable cast of actors to realize his vision. Nathaniel Kiwi is excellent as Joe, bringing the right amount of disbelief and drive to his character. Similarly, newcomer Laura Hesse isn’t hampered by some kind of Method mannerism. Her shock seems very real, her decision to fight born out of personal determination, not some scripted circumstance. Perhaps the most difficult individual element here is the slightly silly enigma known as Ed Winters. Essayed by Peter Roberts (who also plays the investigating detective) in gin blossom makeup and dark sunglasses, we never get a handle on this crude corporate shark. He seems the perfect target for a mangoat marketing scheme, but we’d like to know more about what he represents, realistically.
Still, Demons Among Us delivers in the all important fright department, its frequent homages to films like The Evil Dead neatly buried inside its own angle on supernatural terror. The gore is plentiful, and yet kept in check, while the numerous camera tricks (multiple exposures, digital F/X) add another layer of inventiveness. Sure, there are obvious moments of genre referencing, as when Kylie carries a camera into a dark passageway, night vision reflecting the unseen nastiness within, and we never sense the story being properly wrapped up. Indeed, one gets the impression that Simpson is prepared to go down the full Raimi road, delivering sequels meant to explore the legimately loose ends. As it stands, this is a great beginning. But even if we never see another installment, what our independent maverick has created here remains quite impressive.
As usual, Troma tries to flesh out these unknown entities the best they can. The images are uniformly good, especially when you consider the lo-fi aspects of the productions. Similarly, the scant added content (some bloopers for Offensive, a Making-of and a gross out short for Demons) doesn’t detract from the movies they’re meant to supplement. In fact, it’s fair to say that with this batch of DVDs, the once floundering reputation of Lloyd Kaufman’s indie icon is completely back on track. These are the kind of films Troma built their current reputation on - completely unlike what the mainstream delivers while coming curiously close to the art the CEO consistently champions. It’s good to know that, with all the changes affecting the industry, there is still such a home for outsider cinema.
If you like your comedy cockeyed and just a tad underdone, Offensive Behaviour will deliver enough chuckles to eventually win you over. Just don’t worry too much about Patrick Gillies’ overcomplicated script and you’ll definitely enjoy the ride…or at least, part of it. Demons Among Us, on the other hand, is a minor masterwork, the kind of creep out that stands as a solid example of one man’s unfettered vision. It’s the sort of movie one gets lost in - and from the looks of it, this is not the nicest place to lose one’s way. Together they signify what Kaufman and the clan have been arguing over for months - Troma is back. Frankly, based on the influence the company can claim here, they never ever really left.