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Monday, 26 September 2011

To Troma - an appreciation

- In which I ramble on about some childhood heroes and attempt to convince you that the Toxic Avenger is a beacon of inspiration for fringe theatre -


Around the turn of the millenium if you stayed up late enough on a weekend night and kept your eyes glued to Channel 4, something pretty magical happened. After Friends and Frasier were long finished, and they'd shown South Park and maybe an old re-run of Eurotrash, the face of respectable grown-up television vanished altogether, and for a few strange and wild hours the lunatics took over the asylum. Like a pirate broadcast hijacking the airwaves, green waves of static and distortion spilled back and forth and the words 'DO NOT SLEEP' flickered disconcertingly across the screen. They called it 4 Later, and it was absolutely psychotic. It was also one of the coolest things ever.

Does your Mum know you're watching this?
Looking back at it now, you can appreciate it as a cost-saving and talent-breeding experiment by a broadcaster still true to its subversive roots. (This was before Endemol ripped out their soul and skull-fucked their pallid carcass for Davina McCall's gratification.) It was a place to test out new ideas and provide some low-cost laughs for an audience who was more than likely as pissed as arseholes. I was about 14 years old, so unlike the intended audience I wasn't just back from the pub (or wasn't usually anyway), but I was absolutely transfixed. There was a show in which a sarcastic goldfish ripped the piss out of Ronan Keating and encouraged you to sing along, there was one where a foul mouthed Welshman and a Glaswegian made jokes about exploding diarrhoea and reviewed the kind of videos I actually wanted to buy and insanely well-researched documentaries about guys like Jess Franco and movies like Naked Werewolf Woman. And there was Troma's Edge TV.

You can buy it on DVD. Wouldn't be the same.
As a horror fan, I was aware of Troma before I first saw the TV show. I'd seen a BBFC butchered version of The Toxic Avenger a few years before and I was a big fan of Toxic Crusaders (who wasn't?), but mainly they were familiar to me from their incredibly enticing movie titles emblazoned on videos my parents would never have let me buy. Surf Nazis Must Die, Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town, A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell - they sounded like everything I could ever want from the silver screen. But it was Troma's Edge TV which gave me my first real introduction to Lloyd Kaufman and his merry band of tattooed 'Tromettes' and mutated, sexually deviant crime-fighters. The programme was very odd. Shot in and around Troma's headquarters in Long Island City NY, it was a bizarre mash of pseudo-interviews with Troma characters such as Toxie, Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD (NSFW) and the Killer Condom, clips from classic (and not so classic) Troma releases and a healthy proportion of those ol' Troma staples, tits and gore. Each episode began with a ostensive subject matter such as Pedophilia ('something children and adults can enjoy together!') and spiralled gradually out of control. Troma-don Kaufman was at the centre of it all, together with roaming reporter Trent Hagaa and anyone else who happened to be hanging around the studio that day. Made in the worst possible taste with the best possible attitude, it was about as punk as television has ever been.


Whichever mad genius Channel 4 put in charge of programming 4 Later then had the bright idea to start screening some of Troma's old movies, and so I finally got to see Billy Bob Thornton tearing up the scenery in Chopper Chicks and Kevin Costner as a creepy stable-boy in Sizzle Beach USA. They showed a load of them, with scant regard for the Video Recordings Act and the fact that most of them didn't carry BBFC certificates. They showed the brilliant meta-cinematic Terror Firmer (NSFW) completely uncut at a time when showing a slapstick foetus-ripping before the opening credits would have pretty much guaranteed you a big fat red 'R' from the censors of Soho Square. Half-way through their screening of Tromeo & Juliet (again completely uncut) the picture suddenly cut out with a message reporting 'Technical Difficulties' and after half an hour they switched to a re-run of Alien Nation. I've always figured some executive at Channel 4 noticed what was going out and pulled the plug.

Quite a lot more fun than the 100 Greatest Comedy Moments
Whatever happened, it was the last Troma film 4 Later ever screened. The end of an era. And what an era. There are two kinds of Troma films, and they reflect two differing but complementary approaches to independent cinema. There are the movies which Troma develops in house and which Lloyd Kaufman generally directs himself, films like Class of Nuke'Em High, the Toxic Avenger movies and Troma's War - ultra-violent and sharply satirical with a demented frat-boy-on-mescaline sense if humour and a left-leaning environmental message. Then there are those which Troma simply picks up and releases under its own imprint. These range from ultra-low budget splatter pieces such as Redneck Zombies, through high-concept European cinema like Killer Condom through to Trey Parker and Matt Stone's pre-South Park flesh-guzzling farce Cannibal - The Musical! 4 Later showed them all, and I soon began collecting them on VHS and DVD too.

The quality of the properties Troma pick up is pretty variable, and I can't say the copy of Demented Death Farm Massacre - The Movie has been through many replays, but there are some real classics there too. Rabid Grannies (NSFW) is a wildly gruesome mash-up of Peter Jackson's Braindead and Agatha Christie's Poirot and Monster in the Closet is (together with A Nightmare on Elm Street 2) a rare and very welcome exploration of homosexuality within the teen horror genre.

Their in-house movies are generally in another class. Troma's War is a coruscating rebuke to President Reagan's attempts to cast a sheen of glamour over the atrocities of Vietnam and The Toxic Avenger (NSFW) is both hilariously gruesome and genuinely funny, that rare beast of a superhero movie in which the lead remains compelling and likeable even after his acquisition of godlike powers. These films made a major impact on the thriving cult movie scene in the 1980's. They had modest budgets but big ambitions, and crucially they were made and distributed without studio interference or investor meddling. Though occasionally financially undone by their controversial convictions (Troma's War was rejected by the MPAA in anything but a totally butchered format - a move which smacked of the malicious and political) they remained true to them. 

After a brief attempt to woo the mainstream with their hit cartoon series and a couple of Toxic Avenger sequels, by 1995 Troma had come to the decision that if R-rated, sanitised middle America would never buy what they had to sell, they might as well really let rip. Tromeo & Juliet, Terror Firmer and Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV (NSFW) represented Troma's most extreme and personal work to date. Created by teams of film-makers as crazed as they were talented, most of whom had grown up in love with the early Toxie movies and gravitated towards the poky Troma offices of New York to learn their trade with Kaufman (surely the modern-day Roger Corman if anyone deserves that title). More extreme and offensive than anything Troma had attempted before, these movies were also made with a new verve and wit which reflected the total commitment, passion and love with which the films were made. Always the underdog, the independent studio had finally begun to truly relish the freedom that independence brings. Troma's slogan had always been 'movies of the future', but that seemed to find a new meaning in their later work, which was both fiercely anti-corporate and anti-studio. Amidst the bare breasts and buckets of blood, somewhere between the  man-eating escalators and foaming toxic orgasms a trail was being blazed, a trail towards a new future for independent art which thrived in college campuses and late-night cinemas, and passion and energy, not studios and the bottom-line, were at the head.

Lloyd demonstrates Troma's first rule of
film-making - Safety to Humans (Terror Firmer)


Kaufman (together with invisible co-founder Michael Herz) had always been the beating heart of Troma, a ball of manic energy around which the rest of the madness orbits, but from 1995 onwards he really came to the front of the picture. Terror Firmer is a loose adaptation of his best-selling book All I Needed To Know About Filmmaking I Learned From The Toxic Avenger, itself a brilliant clarion call for independent art from the lunatic fringe. We're so excited to be welcoming him to the festival partly because (as you will have gathered) he's a bit of a childhood icon, and when I was 16 and working on a student film with fellow Theatre of the Damned crew Liam Welton and Samuel Winthrop, Kaufman was one of the guys who convinced us that anyone could pick up a camera and create something, but also because I think many of the things that Troma embody resonate with the experience and ambition of fringe theatre. 

Nuts. In the best possible way.
It probably feels more that way to us because we're also working in the horror genre, mixing up cheap fake blood and planning eye-poppings, but whether you're putting together an Oscar Wilde comedy at the Greenwich Playhouse or Frankenhooker - The Musical at the Camden's People Theatre (not that we are...yet) the challenges are basically the same. The London fringe is filled with so many companies fighting against the odds to produce their art, fighting their way to opening night on love and a shoestring. In a time when arts subsidies are scarcer than ever, it's up to brave independent companies (and their even braver investors!) to keep the fringe full of the kind of work they want to see. That describes so many of the companies bringing their work to the London Horror Festival, and so many companies across the UK. They're working every hour they can, taking on jobs they've never even tried, trying things they'd never even considered and pushing, always pushing to get the show up on that stage and someone to come and take a look at it. I've met quite a few of them over the past three months, and they usually have that same slightly disconcerting glint in their eyes - somewhere between the excitement of a child on Christmas eve and the terror of a man staring over the brink of a precipice. It's a brilliant glint, that one.

So that's why Everything I Know About Theatre I Learned from Lloyd Kaufman, or at least a lot of it (most of the rest came from a friend and teacher) and if you're working in horror or on the London fringe and you haven't encountered the great man, I hope you'll join us on November 1st when he'll be introducing us to Troma's latest (and many have said greatest) movie Poultrygeist - Night of the Chicken Dead (NSFW). It'll be a blast, and there'll be a chance for you to ask him some questions of your own about his experience working in independent art.

I'll leave you with an excerpt from a job advertisement currently running on Troma's website.

'Communications Assistant - Long hours, low pay.'

Sound familiar?

- Stewart Pringle

For more information on Lloyd Kaufman's appearence at the London Horror Festival click here.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely piece! Ah if only there was some genuine subversiveness left in TV...and elsewhere...:O)