Over the Transom: Two from Troma

They just keep coming. The doorbell rings and there is UPS or FedEx, standing politely in the doorway, wondering what exactly they are doing back at this address yet again. Sometimes, it’s the USPS that acts as arbiter. With a smile and a signature, the often bulging envelopes (or carefully packaged boxes) are now your problem, passed off from courier to concerned with the usual business aplomb – and this is indeed business, the business of being a film critic. In any given week, six to seven movies make their way into the reviewers frame of reference. Most are via studio invitation, screenings both private and public meant to feed the marketing machine and make scribes feel important to a process they are more or less ancillary to.

Others, however, come unsolicited and streaming. They flow like water down a river of ridiculous expectations, distributors and manufacturers believing in a superhuman level of attention span and free time. Sure, the blogsphere has proven that some shut-ins can handle a half dozen DVD releases per post and never miss a beat. But within the commercial conceit of legitimacy, there’s no real time to tackle the latest collection of old grade-Z erotica from a bygone Berlin era, or yet another halting helping of homemade horror. While a few name companies keep the recognizable mainstream movies coming, others are just hoping for a mention, making their always needy advertising day in the process.

So for 2011, SE&L is starting a new semi-regular post entitled “Over the Transom”. Like the notes that old time detectives used to get from anonymous tipsters, we will look at some of the more worthy titles tossed our way, highlighting those we deem worthy of wasting a few paragraphs on. The overall tone will be short and sweet, two to three films per entry and always aimed at quick, critical analysis. This may not make the failing film co-op happy, but when faced with a daunting 300 to 400 potential product per year, a couple of paragraphs will have to do. For this installment, we look at a pair of titles from Troma, each fulfilling the indie company’s mantra of schlock art for schlock art’s sake:

There’s Nothing Out There (dir. Rolfe Kanefsky)

It’s spring break, and that means a group of debauched teens are headed to an isolated vacation house deep in the woods for a little of the time honored drunken dirty boogie. They are joined by cinematic stick in the mud Mike, whose vast knowledge of horror movies has him on the wide-eyed defensive from the very first bush shake. In truth, they all have good reason to be nervous. An alien creature has landed not too far from the party, and the slug like beastie has only one thing on its extraterrestrial brain – blood!

If you thought Scream was the first and last word on self-referential horror films, you clearly haven’t been exposed to the real origins of the genre subcategory. Made years before Kevin Williamson supposedly reinvented the fright flick, There’s Nothing Out There is the kind of envelope pushing production that doesn’t quite understand its lasting significance. While still ensconced in the direct to video dynamic of the ’80s, this 1990 title never takes itself, or its terror, too seriously. As a matter of fact, the main issue with this otherwise winning effort is that lack of legitimate dread. The mung fish-like monster is laughable, the acting is atrocious, and the script seems set on one single note. Luckily, that filmic beat is so substantial (and in the case of Craven’s mainstream hit, slandered) that we appreciate the bravery in it taking front and center. In essence, There’s Nothing Out There is a 90 minute horror cliche rant by snarky sidekick Mike. Everything else is just formulaic fear window dressing.

This is both a good and a bad thing. It has to be said that a little of Mike goes a very long way. He has a scary movie riff for everything – a flat tire, early morning fog on a pond, a sudden spring shower someone farting. To this highly strung encyclopedia of spook show stereotypes, nothing is beyond suspicion. He even finds female nudity to be questionable. For most of the time, Mike’s many one liners work. We enjoy his taking the piss out of a possible slice and dice. But since the creature is also comic, and the rest of the film is so nominal, he ends up overpowering everything. By the end, when all Hell is breaking loose, his constant interruptions grow tiresome. Mike might be the savior of There’s Nothing Out There (and actor Craig Peck is to be applauded for being such a stand-out), but he’s also a weak link. He illustrates the otherwise routine nature of this beast on the prowl plotline while simultaneously suggesting that everything other than his insights are worthy of ridicule. He definitely makes – and unmakes – the overall atmosphere.

The Chainsaw Sally Show: Season 1 (dir. JimmyO Burril)

Life in the pedestrian, puritanical burg of Porterville, Maryland is rather tough on local librarian Sally Diamon. Seeing people as either purely good or wholly bad, more than likeable or worthy of her own special brand of bedeviled justice, the otherwise quiet career woman has a dark, deadly secret. She’s a chainsaw wielding vigilante by night, wielding power tool flavored revenge on those who deserve a vivisection comeuppance! With the help of her brother Ruby and Goth girl pal Poe, she plots to rid the world of all useless people. With the police closing in on her diabolical double life, “Chainsaw” Sally has to be even more meticulous in the choices less her splattery secret be exposed.

Chainsaw Sally is a nu-media horror icon that should be a mainstream diva. She’s delicious in the way only the wielder of a gas powered tree tamer can be. As played by April Burril with a combination of sexiness and blood savvy, she’s the perfect female fiend. As her first film indicated, Chainsaw Sally has some major creative growing pains to overcome. Promise and presentation are almost always at odds in this otherwise unusual set-up, and with Burril’s tendency to be more impressive than the cinematic surroundings she’s within, there are definitely issues here. But thankfully, this playful webcast (now on DVD with all 11 original episodes present) does something smart – it reduces Sally’s adventures to a mere few minutes. By cutting down on both the mannerisms and mythology, our horror heroine gets a chance to shine. Sure, she has to share the spotlight with some underdeveloped supporting characters (especially brother Ruby), but for the most part, the “better in small doses” sitcom strategy works amazingly well.

Of course, you have to be tuned into Sally’s particular shtick for you to “get” the point of his dread parody. Our human hunter is supposed to stand precariously close to both seriousness and stupidity, offer a smattering of post-modern irony while supplying the splatter audiences crave. This being a web-based production from the start, the budgets are miniscule and the level of grue is limited. We get some nice bloodletting here and there, but none of the outright torture porn the premise suggests. Also, the format does offer its own restrictions. Sally is the star, but Poe and Rudy and a pair of bumbling police officers also get their individual moments, and they are not always the best examples of how The Chainsaw Sally Show works. The Burrils – both behind and in front of the camera – clearly know the kind of funny fright fest they are going after, and our lead is definitely lethal and luscious. All it needs is a bit of polishing and this creepshow comedy would be a classic. As it is, it’s an uneven investment that yields more gems (and jokes) than coal.