[1 April 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s safe to say that, with six months back in business and a wealth of wonderful titles hitting the market, Troma, once considered down and out for the commercial count, is truly back. With the hullabaloo and struggle to get Poultrygeist before the people now over and done, the company that made the Toxic Avenger a household word can not fully concentrate on giving the fanbase what they want - more oddball independent and homemade movie mania. Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen surreal Sasquatch sex epics, badass b-movie future shock, vampire bedlam, and the return of some classic redneck zombies. This time around, Troma is treating us to four fascinating titles. While there’s no need to discuss the multi-disc ultimate Tox Box set, the recent release of The Best of TromaDance Volume 5, Crazy Animal, and The Seduction of Dr. Fugazzi, deserve some individual attention.
Every year, Lloyd Kaufman and crew pack up their Manhattan (now New Jersey) digs, travel cross country, and take up residence in Park City, Utah to participate in the famed film festival held there. No, not the Sundance or the Slamdance outings, but the only truly free (no entry fees, no attendance fees) short film celebration in all of cinema - Tromadance. Spitting directly in the face of the mangled mainstream moviemaking ideal, this outsider event has celebrated such outright auteurs as Giuseppe Andrews, Ludovic Spenard, and Andy Bauman. For their fifth DVD volume, the independent giant digs deep into their vaults, coming out with all kinds of usual and eccentric fare. While not quite up to the standards of past collections, the films here focus on the future of truly independent art. They make grand statements out of personal drive, limited funds, and a plethora of paltry cheese sandwiches.
First up is the fabulous, freaky The Mislead Romance of Cannibal Girl and Incest Boy. Tim Burton, this isn’t. Director Richard Taylor does a terrific job with some incredibly seedy material, making his grainy 8mm movie look like a snuff film without the slaughter. This is followed by the one joke novelty Chicken Ass. No matter how hard he tries, writer/director Joe Weaver just can’t make this shocking news exposé spoof work. The same can be said for Patrick Rea’s far more successful Bad Apples. While the laughs come from a single, predicable payoff, the monochrome manner in which the filmmaker gets there works wonderfully. Next up is one of the best films of the set. Bum Runners uses the homeless (obvious actors) as a means of making fun of action movies - and it’s terrific. Writers/directors Kurt Christiansen and Steve Herold do an amazing job with this oddball material, and fans of infamous ‘70s TV should be on the look out for Fred “Rerun” Berry in a minor role.
Mindslime is one of the more ambitious of the mini-movies. Director Henry Weintraub tries to mix alien invasion, horror, gore, comedy, man/woman relationships, and random goofiness into his manic mayhem stew - and for the most part, it works. So does the video for Pizza Time Theater, a raucous retro treat featuring Maniac Mansion, the first Nintendo-punk band in the world. Travis Campbell takes things into suburban ennui and individual alienation with his stunning, subtle Amnesia Party. Like a post-modern amalgamation of The Graduate and Parents, it’s the perfect antidote to all the 9/11 inspired jingoism. Rob Baniewicz’s Cold Feet takes the notion of marital fear a tad too seriously, while Jacob Hair’s The Courtesy Nudge is extreme Office Space like insanity. Wrapping things up is the pedophile themed home movie madness of Unicorn, the perplexing college creep-out P.S., I am Spaceface, and a terrific take on a particularly bloody Valentine’s Day.
The full length feature Crazy Animal, on the other hand, pretends to be a summer sex comedy. It’s far from it. When she was in high school, prom queen Jen was date raped by her BMOC boyfriend Jeff. Now an equally hedonistic frat boy, the ‘anything goes’ a-hole is also responsible for the sexual assault (and eventual suicide) of Ricky’s Goth gal pal Veronica. Plotting her revenge, Jen gets a couple of sexy Slavic models, contacts her creepy ex, and suggests he come down to the family beach house for a little spring break excitement. Dragging along his dim bulb brothers Henry and Chris, the trio plans to party hearty. When they are kidnapped by Ricky and forced to listen to his god-awful hair metal retreads, it seems like Jen’s plot has gone astray. Little do they know that it’s all an elaborate scheme to get Jeff to confess. There will be no drunken debauchery - just pain and humiliation.
Crazy Animal wants to wear it’s tell all title on its sexploitation sleeve. It wants to deal with desire, morality, sex, skin, revenge, death, and cult comedy craziness in one big fat rock and roll riot. It even digs deep into the camp kitsch cookbook by featuring porn legend Ron Jeremy and Troma’s own Lloyd Kaufman as polar opposite fathers delivering sage/slaughter advice to their oh-so impressionable offspring. So why doesn’t it work? Why does something that should sizzle with a kind of meat beat manifesto end up sinking like a sour guitar solo at a battle of the high school bands? The answer is quite simple - the script…that is, if there really is one. John Birmingham may be a lot of things - competent actor, decent director, acquired taste musician, shameless self promoter - but he can’t scribble his way out of a basic screenwriting class. The dialogue is dismal, the overall level of narrative competence swaying between dismal and brain dead. Only Brink Stevens manages to bring life to these lame words during her all too brief cameo.
Indeed, Birmingham has some decent actor delivering his verbal atrocities. Though his scenes are brief, Jeremy makes a genial father figure. Kaufman is also more controlled here, his anti-authority rants playing perfectly to the character he’s creating. All the leads are likeable, even if a few overstay their wanton welcome, and the two Russian/Eastern European babes are indeed hot. Yet all of this is not enough to overcome what appears to be a movie made in the editing room. Conversations go nowhere, narrative threads are left dangling without ever coming back and completing them. The songs (mostly written by Birmingham) lack the necessary satiric fire to be true comedy classics, and the resolution doesn’t “feel” right. Instead, we get the sneaking suspicion that it was thought up on the fly, formulated out of a desire to dig oneself out of a major storyline hole. While it earns points for trying, Crazy Animal has more cinematic demerits than credits. In some ways, it’s more of an incomplete attempt than an outright failure.
All of which makes The Seduction of Dr. Fugazzi all the more fascinating. Psychological savant Dr. Anna Fugazi is having a hard time with her burgeoning practice. Seems her patients, including a raging pedophile, an agoraphobic psychic, a true nutty professor, and a demented kleptomaniac are trying her mental mantle. Even worse, her home life with musician boyfriend Maynard is a wild ride of sex, parties, and disturbing dreams. You see, Anna is having nightmares involving bondage, discipline, blood, and vague metaphoric memories. While trying to keep it together, she feels like she’s literally falling apart. One day, a detective named Rowland comes to visit. She claims that one of Anna’s clients has killed his wife and left town. The cop wonders is she has any clues as to where the man might be going. Anna has a name - Grenwich - that’s all. Of course, she may have more knowledge than she even knows.
The Seduction of Dr. Fugazzi is indeed a triumph for first time filmmaker October Kingsley. Wearing her exotic erotica on her Suicide Girls inspired façade, she’s a creative and confident artist. Sure, the last act “twist” is about as unsatisfying as they come and we don’t always understand or follow the sexual symbolism involved. Still, for a movie that includes anal rape with a broom handle, child molesters dreaming of laughing children, and a post-plastic surgery, pre-apocalyptic disaster Faye Dunaway, Kingsley keeps things from going completely bat dance. She’s also an intriguing onscreen presence, her slight accents and petite stature giving way to moments of madness and murderous desire. Still, not everything about this oddball experience works. Kingsley is anything if not self-indulgent, and the actors appear lifted from the struggling local Los Angeles scene. Yet the minute Dunaway walks on the set, everything changes. Everyone’s community college level performances suddenly start attending graduate school.
There’s also no denying the look of this film. Kingsley loves to experiment with style and form, taking elements from the fetish scene and mixing them with standard cinematics. The moments of physicality are graphic without being profane and there’s an orgy sequence that shows how effective and arousing suggestion and careful editing can be. Still, there’s that uneven ending to contend with, a finale that falls short of the ambitions Kingsley shows elsewhere. Some will probably be able to predict the outcome the minute Fugazzi falls into her first “trance”. Others will witness the reveal and still wonder just what in the Hell is going on. There’s definitely a desire to play with reality and the dream state here, and Kingsley’s history as a psychology and philosophy major do come into play. If you’re willing to accept 5/6ths of a great film, you’ll truly enjoy The Seduction of Dr. Fugazzi. Even with its unsuccessful climax, this is a film and filmmaker worth watching. And that’s the main reason why Troma’s continued commercial output is so important. Without them, where would truly independent art be?