MUBI's retrospective, The Vulgar Disruptor: Troma Restored, runs March - May, 2020.
“To understand Troma, you must first know a bit about Taoism…,” or so says Lloyd Kaufman, president and co-founder of one of the longest running independent film studios, in his 1998 book All I Need to Know About Filmmaking I Learned from The Toxic Avenger. Which may or may not be so. He also says, “Troma films do exactly what low-budget films shouldn’t do. Our films defy genre… We are the Cuisinart of cinema.”
Troma Studios was founded in 1974 by Kaufman and Michael Herz. Today, Troma is known for its mutating creatures and graphic violence commingling comedy, science fiction, horror, gore, and sex in films that defy categorization.
It wasn’t mutating chickens (Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead) or toxic janitors (The Toxic Avenger 1-4) that first brought Troma success, however, but rather “sexy comedies” such as Squeeze Play (1980) and The First Turn-On (1983). While Kaufman may believe it was these “sexy comedies” that first gave Troma its voice (until then he felt that “there hadn’t been an actual Troma movie, just movies with the word ‘Troma’ on them”) it is interesting to note the first film that turned Troma a profit:A little picture with the subtly suggestive title “Bloodsucking Freaks” (1976).
The film was directed by Joel M. Reed, but is ultimately a creation of Troma. First off, Reed turned in a picture titled Sardu: Master of the Screaming Virgins. Troma, in one of their first decisions of in-your-face crassness, retitled the film (the title perhaps becoming the most interesting facet of the picture).
Secondly, the film Troma released was actually edited by Kaufman and Herz, under Joel Reed’s direction. Reed had all but dissected the film after it was deemed offensive and unreleasable. The R-rated cut of the film clocks in at 51 minutes, with the unrated Kaufman and Herz edited ”Director’s Cut” clocking in at a full 45 minutes longer.
Kaufman has stated, “‘Bloodsucking Freaks’ is the single film in the Troma library… that I feel queasy about distributing. I may have possibly secured my place in Hell by just watching it. It’s one of those rare films that is actually more offensive now than it was twenty-five years ago.”
It has since become the first true staple in the Troma library. If you are a Troma fan (or “Tromite”), you have seen this picture—for better or worse.
As a film, it is a strange artifact—essentially without point, morals, or reason for being. The camera, while barely managing to handle the basics of lighting and continuity editing, somehow finds calm and enjoyment in acts such as a woman’s back being used as a dartboard. It exists for shock value, yet often is undercut by fake-looking effects and bloodletting of an unreal tinge.
Part of this might be why, in some crazy way, it succeeds. The viewer watches a film that superficially suggests that man is attracted to ghastly violence, looks for it in his art, and then proceeds to showcase some of the most tasteless and artless violence put to celluloid.
And the film did attract an audience, making Troma enough to continue in business. So while Kaufman as a filmmaker may have come to goo and gore a bit later, Troma was always founded upon it. That stuff wouldn’t arrive in Kaufman’s cinema until 1984, under the guise of the first superhero from New Jersey.
Kaufman wanted to deal with “America’s mania over creating young, beautiful bodies.” Herz, believing Troma to be making the same film over and over, wanted to make a horror film.
The project kept faltering. It was to be about a monster that killed only bad people. In a fit of inspiration, Kaufman abandoned the prospect of a straight horror film. It would be about a monster that kills bad people. But it would be a comedy. The Toxic Avenger was born! Interesting side note: the character is only called the Toxic Avenger offscreen. Throughout production, he was referred to as the Monster Hero. They didn’t come up with the Toxic Avenger name until afterwards.
The Toxic Avenger ushered in a new era for Troma. Technically, the film is a mixed bag. Sequences are often simple shot/reaction-shot. The soundtrack is 80s cheese—-regardless if it plays over a scene of working out, of monster violence, or of an innocent child getting his head run over by a car tire. In one scene, a curly-haired character jumps from a window. In the next shot a man with a completely different haircut and color plummets out of the window. The Toxic Avenger is not a film with a lot of technical themes or motifs. But perhaps that is what makes it special, and why many of its fans became filmmakers themselves.
“The movie has a rawness and a messiness about it that gives it a sense of veracity,” Kaufman says. “Here was a movie with the seams showing, which made it all the more approachable from an audience’s point of view.” Here was a film you could watch and think, as Debbie Rochen comments in VHS Massacre (2016), “I could do that!”
“I loved it and I was forever changed,” says Thomas Seymour, co-director of VHS Massacre, a documentary from Troma on the decline of physical media. “I started making Super8 videos in my basement. I haven’t stopped making films since. VHS Massacre and VHS Massacre Too are love letters to Troma and cult film alike.”
If The Toxic Avenger brought popularity and acclaim to the Troma name, it would perhaps be another 12 years until another “Tromasterpiece” emerged, when Kaufman made the natural progression from Toxic avenging to Shakespeare.
1996’s Tromeo & Juliet is raw, abrasive, crude, and powerful. It is also well-made, fluid, and plot-driven, with powerful acting, a thoughtful plot, and lovers we care about. Whereas with The Toxic Avenger we delight in the ghastly goo while realizing that Melvin Junko (Toxie before the ooze) is nothing like the character of the Toxic Avenger (in fact he is no character at all—just a horny, underdeveloped bit of overacting by Mark Torgl), we now get our head-crushing mixed with two star-crossed lovers with motivations that feel real, and who seem to truly care about one another.
Tromeo & Juliet is a somewhat faithful adaptation of the Shakespeare play, following the lovers of two feuding families, trying to navigate and end said feud. In this case, the families are the Ques and Capulets—former partners of softcore smut. Capulet took the production company and left Que in ruin, thereby sealing the fates of the two families forever. Kaufman felt the themes of Shakespeare’s play were still relevant today: “Today, the old are still feeding on the dreams of the young.”
“It’s OK to dream,” Juliet’s friend tells her.
“Not in this house. Dreams make you die,” Juliet responds.
The opening sets the tone for the combination of the romantic and the crude. Inspired by Cukor’s 1936 adaptation of the play, Tromeo & Juliet introduces each character of the two-hour drama to the tunes of soft, lulling music. Contrasting this, Kaufman has Lemmy from Motorhead act as narrator, and ends the prologue with a shot of a snake eating a mouse.
The camera moves steadily, structuring mood and feeling. Contrast this with the camera and cutting of The Toxic Avenger which seems reactive. The pacing and framing here feel like that of a storyteller with intention. Take the dance scene where Tromeo meets Juliet. The camera glides along, following the duo. Then the backdrop fades away and is replaced by stars. Not only is this a romantic evocation of these star-crossed lovers falling for each other, it even plays as a motif, reappearing again when the two first make love.
Then, just when you think you are watching some sort of Alex Cox punk romance, there will be a dick or fart joke, or a husband will casually flip his wife over his head and you’ll realize you are fully in the hands of Troma.
Tromeo & Juliet also goes to show burgeoning filmmakers that filmmaking savvy trumps budget. While Tromeo & Juliet was lauded for its production value, it was the least expensive Troma picture since The First Turn On. For all Kaufman talks about how Troma does everything a film company shouldn’t do, he is economically savvy, which has allowed the company to outlive most other independent studios.
In an interview in VHS Massacre, Kaufman describes Troma as “a content company. We make movies. And whenever we have extra money, instead of buying drugs, or hookers or big mansions in California, we buy libraries of movies.”
One such pick up is Surf Nazis Must Die (1987). The Peter George directed picture was originally titled Surf Nazis. In true Troma tradition, they changed the name to the more subtle Surf Nazis Must Die and it went on to become the most popular Troma title that wasn’t produced by Troma.
Surf Nazis Must Die plays like a mixture of two pictures: an exploitative Nazi revenge film and an experimental surf picture. The music by John McCallum is the true star here, erupting in the first moments of the film, presenting the viewer in a post-apocalyptic world. The synth score plummets us into the dark sparsely populated world. On the beach we hear: “Who rules the beaches? Surfers rule! Who rules the surfers? Surf Nazis!”
It seems an earthquake did… something to the world, and now we are left with gangs and fear. But never mind that. The story is about Leroy and his mama (called Leroy’s Mama). After Leroy is killed by the surf Nazis, Leroy’s mama goes after them for revenge. But never mind that either. The film is really a love letter to surfing, and works best when this plot takes a back seat to surfing footage, intermixed with images of waves and coastline and set to contemplative, somber music. There are times that this borders on bizarre camp. When Leroy’s mama discovers that the surf Nazis killed Leroy, she jacks a young Surf Nazi against the wall and says, “Keep talking, white trash!” The wall has a giant image of a graffiti face with an open-mouth, which Leroy’s mama seems to be dropping the young boy into. The music kicks off, intense. The story is about to get moving.
And then, surfer footage. For about four or five minutes. And the revenge plot all but forgotten (temporarily). If you’re cynical (and watching the film with beers and buddies) you’ll probably erupt with laughter at this segue. But if you are alone and watching the film on its own terms, this might somehow wash over you; might somehow make sense in a meditative way.
However, a note of caution for those pillaging through the back catalog of Troma titles from the head of Troma studios himself: “Many of the movies in the Troma library are, to use a technical term, goat shit.”
There are a number of Troma films, in name only, as a result of acquisitions. Frightmare is one film among many others that proves what Troma is, by what Frightmare (1983) is not.
Frightmare is exactly what you would expect from a flick produced in the 80s that you have only recently heard of (even if you own three copies of Maniac and Re-Animator). A beloved horror actor dies. The Horror Society, a group of young college film fans, decides, quite naturally, to steal the corpse. His wife Etta follows the natural protocol for such tragic events: she hosts a séance. During the séance, contact is made with the dead beloved horror actor. Needless to say, Etta implores him to kill all parties responsible for his abduction. Being dutiful, he rises from the dead and dispatches of most of them.
Frightmare is perhaps a bit too well made for its own good. It is fully competent in nearly every aspect short of awareness of the ridiculousness of its story. Which is a big no-no in Troma. Troma films may often be technically inept, but they are very aware of how outrageous their plots are.
Why does Conrad kill (even before he dies, his murder count is at least two)? Why does he arrange such extravagance around his death? Why does The Horror Society think it is a good idea to steal a corpse? You will be happy to hear that none of these questions are answered, nor does the director seem to find these questions even worth asking. If it weren’t so well-produced, or if it played it a little less safe and familiar, you might not ask yourself “Why did I watch this?” But it is, they didn’t, and you likely will.
I wonder what the fellas behind VHS Massacre would think of a picture like Frightmare. Thomas Seymour and Kenneth Powell‘s documentary interviews the likes of Kaufman, Joe Bobb Briggs and others, while also traveling through video stores and flea markets in order to put on a VHS Massacre film fest—a sort of best of the worst of discovered VHS cinema.
The documentary plays as an elegy for the video store. Seymour and co. film in video stores that close down merely months later. They are able to return to the scene and shoot the decomposing, abandoned buildings the viewer witnessed them shop through.
“I made [the film] because the video store era was ending in front of my eyes,” Seymour tells me. “The film was a way for me to process what was happening.”
VHS Massacre manages to attack two different investigations in its tidy duration. While it examines the state of the film business during the decline of VHS and the video store, it also examines the VHS fetishist, confusing nostalgia for something more tangible in their cinema. While VHS presented a generation of filmgoers with untold discoveries, there are very few who might claim it ever did so with any sort of great quality. Yet, in the age of digital and streaming, VHS collecting runs strong.
“I can understand vinyl because, there’s a quality,” says Kaufman about this VHS craze in the film. “There’s nothing beautiful about VHS.” At another point, a store owner comments that he likes watching movies in crappy quality, as if it is some sort of point of pride.
What do the makers of VHS Massacre think? Seymour finds that “in certain film genres, like horror for instance, a lack of information can add some fright. When I watched The Exorcist on VHS it was horrifying and the lack of fidelity added to the mystery like impressionism. When I saw it later on Blu-ray, it was too clean, too perfect; less scary…More information can kill the mystery. Though I like seeing film cleaned up as well. I like it all.”
Which is interesting when you fully consider Troma pictures, because Troma is not a direct-to-video company.
“Troma continued and continues to pride itself on creating films meant to be watched in an actual cinema,” Kaufman writes in his book. “ALL of Troma’s in-house-produced films, including later productions… are shot on 35mm film in such a way as to promote optimum enjoyment while being viewed on a forty-foot screen.”
His love of celluloid is limited not to projection, but also to production, “THE CELLULOID PICKS UP EVERYTHING—pre- and postproduction, love and contempt, concern and carelessness, honesty and hypocrisy.”
Troma studios, in an age when even the most expensive movies are shot digitally, shoots on film. While other studios are trying to stamp out piracy and illegal downloads, in VHS Massacre Kaufman refers to this as “file sharing” and says he loves that these films are being shared and seen.
While streaming services have been sold as an avenue for independent filmmakers, the makers of VHS Massacre have recently completed a sequel, VHS Massacre Too, investigating how media consolidation has led to the near-death of the independent and exploitation film industry.
Yet Troma kicks on. “Troma may have a larger reach now in the streaming age. One of their YouTube channels has 35 million views,” says Seymour. The 46-year-old studio inexplicably seems to keep up with the times by specifically never paying heed to them.
Troma continues to do it wrong. And we continue to watch.