NOTE: This article being about a Troma movie, many of the trailers and movies being referenced and/or linked should be considered highly not safe for work, containing graphic sex and violence.
Its 11pm on a Saturday in January, and I’m in line for a Midnight Movie at Boston’s (Brookline’s, if we’re being technical) historicCoolidge Corner Theater. So far, nothing out of the ordinary. That goes double for the crowd both in line with me and just milling about – a mix of young Film School Hipsters who could well have been bussed in from the set of Girls. and old-school Punks looking all of their approaching-40s in denim, studded-leather and chains.
An early adopter of the Arthouse/Grindhouse fusion model that so many independent movie theaters have now adopted to survive, The Coolidge draws a crowd as eclectic as its lineup. On any given day it wouldn’t be unusual to find high-gloss Festival Daaah-ling Oscar Bait (or Indie Spirit Awards Chum, take your pick) sharing the marquee with a repertory showing of some D-list 90s family comedy angling for the dollars of college kids who watched it to the point of memorization in middle school (or younger kids who only just found out about it from Doug Walker or Lindsay Ellis) and a schlocky 50s monster flick accompanied by a tangential science lecture as part of a Science on Screen partnership with this or that local museum.
But tonight, we’re here to see a schlocky new movie, and the guests of honor – the filmmakers – have just arrived. They cut low impact profiles: Just another couple out to the movies, accompanied by a smattering of their cast and crew, with nothing else resembling an “entourage” in the Hollywood sense. A far cry from George Clooney rolling into Telluride with a private army of showbiz lampreys swimming at his side. They’ve come for the applause, the glory and the vindication, to be sure, but also to work: To move the DVDs, t-shirts and books that will (hopefully) make the effort financially worthwhile. This is the real Independent Movie scene, films financed out of pocket and profits recouped in direct cash transactions.
Inside, their “setup” will be familiar to anyone who’s been the friend of an artist, author or even game developer working from the ground up: the folding table covered with merch and their previous efforts (DVD after DVD of bloody slashers, drooling rubber monsters, erupting cleavage and anything else attention-grabbing), the posters and price-list scotch-taped to the wall, the Star Couple in control (but only just so) of the maelstrom. He, the director/spokesman, poses for photos and autographs whatever lands in front of him (sometimes a movie, occasionally a body part); she – his partner in life and crime – mans the table and directs traffic, equal parts Mother Hen and carnival barker. Later, after the screening, he’ll stand to answer questions from the audience while she documents the event, alternately beaming from behind a camcorder and entreating him to remind folks that the merch table is still open.
Their energy and affectations are innately youthful, and you would be forgiven for assuming based on my descriptions that they were indeed “a couple of kids” – college-aged indie filmmakers at the birth of their career. But no, they’re grownups. Senior citizens, in fact. Outside of this context, they’d look like somebody’s grandparents, the kind of “sweet old couple” some of the Hot Topic fangirls in the audience would coo over while imagining themselves and their partners in the autumn of life. Even inside this context, their “auntie and uncle you only see on holidays” demeanor should be discordant; given that they’re being fetted by a crowd of punks and hipster-gorehounds for a movie that features, among other things, exploding heads, teenagers melting into slime-puddles mid-coitus, nubile lesbians kiss-swapping irradiated vomit and a wheelchair-bound villain being beaten to death with a giant erect phallus.
But no. It makes perfect sense: Because the kindly older couple are Troma Films’ infamous Lloyd Kaufman and wife Patricia, and the movie is Lloyd’s latest feature: Return to Nukem High – Volume 1.
Much has been said about Troma over the years, by myself and by others, but its amazing how well the New York-based indie provocateur outfit has not only survived but thrived (culturally, if not financially) into the 21st century. Ever the master of buzzwords, Kaufman once branded his output Movies of The Future!, but it’s still almost eerie how well the Troma in-house ethos – a mash-up of bargain-basement sleazebag catharsis and rage-fueled, feces-flinging leftist agitation – precedes the era of Occupy and “artcore.” The films’ fictional town of Tromaville is located in New Jersey for easy working-poor class metaphor purposes, but isn’t it amusing that the original TOXIC AVENGER’s villain was a corrupt, corpulent NJ politician? And I can’t be the only person who first thought of Troma when the company that spilled toxic sludge in West Virginia’s water supply turned out to actually be called Freedom Industries, can I?
All activism starts out at a point where the genuinely justice-driven are indistinguishable from the opportunists and the firestarters who just want to watch the world burn; think Movement Feminists as comrades-in-arms with Hugh Hefner at the birth of the Sexual Revolution, or more pointedly Nelson and Winnie Mandela before his rebirth as a champion of nonviolence. That moment is the headspace Troma has never stopped occupying, and it’s part of the reason that jolly “Uncle” Lloyd Kaufman marshals fierce devotion from each new crop of earnest movie-loving youngsters who pass through the Troma boot-camp. (James Gunn, now directing Guardians of the Galaxy for Disney/Marvel, is one such graduate.) Kaufman is, albeit from across an ocean of time and experience, one of them: Mad at the world, hungry for change, but also looking to party amid the fight.
Case in point: The original 1986 Class of Nukem High took place in a Tromaville High School whose student-body and social structure had been mutated into grotesque parody by fallout from the mismanaged nuclear power plant next door. Its heroes, a classic good-kid couple, dealt with unwanted pregnancy and social/sexual pressure while battling the mutant Cretins Gang (pre-fallout, The Honors Society) and their own radioactive-monster offspring. It was followed by two sequels of less renown, that opening-narrator Stan Lee (yes, that one – he’s an old friend of Troma) literally fast-forwards through in the prologue of the new film – though he does pause on some of the nudity…
In Return Vol. 1 (it ends on a cliffhanger, part 2 is forthcoming) our 21st century Troma High heroes are now a newly-minted lesbian couple (a working-class environmentalist blogger and a rich girl new to town) and the Big Bad has moved from nuclear power to unscrupulous food corporations. The Tromorganic Foods factory, built on the ruins of the power plant (it was torn down, according to Stan Lee, because “criticizing nuclear power is no longer cool”) has a lucrative contract to supply revolting bargain-priced food to the school cafeteria; and their tainted taco meat (eventually implied to be made from abducted students) is responsible for this iteration’s round of mutations. Kaufman himself plays the manic Tromorganic CEO, and gets to deliver intentional groaners like “They keep saying we gotta go green! Well, that looks pretty green to me!” in reference to a barrel of toxic waste.
Subtlety has never been Troma’s strong suit. To hear Kaufman tell it, that’s part of the point. He’s been known to say, always with only a slight hint of hucksterism, that the studio’s slapdash, no-budget approach turns the films into “interactive experiences” – that the audience being able to see the obvious fakery of the effects (and the shamelessness of the sex-sells sleazier parts) offers a participatory experience. In Return, you can see that approach extending to its messaging: The villains bellow the political/ideological motivations for their evil directly to the camera, as do the good guys in the opposite direction, in a manner that loudly screams “Yeah, there’s a message here, why pretend otherwise?” At one point, gunfire rings out in the cafeteria and everyone ducks for cover until one of the heroes (credited, for real, as “The Black Guy”) stands to reassure them: “It’s okay! It’s just another school shooting – CNN doesn’t even cover these anymore.” Yes, a school shooting is a literal background-joke – it’s that kind of movie.
Same goes for the film’s concept of pop-culture parody. A new-millennium iteration of The Cretins is on hand, but this time they originate as Tromaville High’s Glee Club – conceived as a savage parody of “GLEE’s” politically correct earnestness: A wheelchair-bound member also sports elaborate dental headgear, a lone Jewish member carries a menorah with him lest we forget for a moment how inclusive they are, etc. Post-mutation, the Lea Michelle stand-in communicates via animalistic sonic-screams.
And, of course, there’s no missing the similarity of the film’s central rich-girl/poor-girl romance to the much-lauded Blue is the Warmest Color. In fact, the two films were both at Cannes last year, where festival organizers are said to have prevented Kaufman from staging a mock wedding for his starlets in support of France’s impending legalization of gay marriage (and, of course, in promotion of the film.) I can’t help but wonder what critics of Blue‘s soft-focus, elaborately-choreographed sex scenes would have to say about this film, which features similarly-adoring focus on its lead couples’ lovemaking (sometimes with each other, other times by themselves) but constantly undercuts any semblance of “male-gaze” pandering with squooshy cartoon sound-effects, flatulence and other gags that most gross-out movies section-off from their “resident hotties.” (If the Troma approach to equality could be summed up in a sentence, it might be “Everyone is gross, therefore everyone is also beautiful.”)
It’s hard – maybe impossible – to offer a proper criticism of a Troma movie at this point. How do you mark something down for being a sloppy mess (which Return to Nukem High – Vol. 1 most definitely is) when “A Sloppy Mess!” is exactly what’s on the label? Three decades and counting in, Troma (and Kaufman) have carved out a niche that belongs only to them: Movies that rage against The System with the sincere fervor of a Tumblr social-justice blog on bath-salts (while discussing whether or not they should come out of the closet, one half of Return‘s Sapphic lovebirds reminds her partner that in homophobic Tromaville LGBT might as well stand for Lynch, Grope, Beat & Torture,) while also playing The Gross-Out Game with a mind sicker than the world’s most insensitive fratboy. (The military-action shoot-em-up Troma’s War featured a terrorist plot to invade America with a disease-spreading rape-squad codenamed “The AIDS Brigade.”)
A Final Anecdote: Obviously, I wasn’t going to pass up a chance to get an autograph and a photo with Lloyd Kaufman. He did, indeed, sign my Toxic Avenger DVD, and I got a laugh from him and Pat when I mentioned that he and James Gunn’s book “Everything I Need To Know About Filmmaking I Learned From The Toxic Avenger” was instrumental in my opting to study film instead of something more practical in College (and that, consequently, my parents probably still hate him.) As he scribbled “To Bob, Toxie Loves You!” on the cover sleeve, he mused “Autograph! Sure, I’ll autograph anything! Y’know, I’m gonna die soon so this’ll probably be worth something!”
Heh. Usually, that’d be a pretty dark joke coming from an older man – celebrity signing autographs or otherwise. But coming from this guy, in all but appearance the same temperament, energy and enthusiasm as the twenty-somethings from the cast and crew flanking him, it went over like just one more Troma absurdism. Dead? Done? This guy? This wide-eyed 19 year-old filmschool kid who for some reason showed up to his own premiere in the costume of an unassuming old man?
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet. Aside from his work at The Escapist, he wrote a book and does a videogame criticism show.