|by Collin Souter
So, a colleague of mine and I went to see the big, stupid “The Chronicles of
Riddick” with the intention of heckling the hell out of it. I know, I know…we’re critics, we should try to be objective. You’re right, you’re right, but in its second week, we had heard nothing good about it from anyone we knew and neither of us had been that jazzed up about it to begin with. And, hey, it’s a Vin Diesel picture, what do you care? Surprise, surprise, it ended up being everything we knew it would be: A Bad Movie. Pity. It could have been a good b-movie, but those can be hard to come by. Sure, your local video store carries them by the truckload, but what if you’re craving that communal, big screen b-movie experience, where do you go?
A b-movie retrospective film festival, that’s where! Hey, I never said it would be easy, but the good people at Movieside try their best to make your search worthwhile. Run by Chicago underground filmmaker Rusty Nails, Movieside ran its second annual film festival this past weekend (June 18, 19) to an enthusiastic crowd of Troma fans. Dubbed Tromathon, this weekend festival showcased four of the schlockiest pieces of schlock from the maestros of all that is schlock: “The Toxic Avenger 1 & 2,” “Tromeo and Juliet” and “Class of Nuke’em High,” all of which were introduced by the Troma ringmaster himself: Lloyd Kaufman.
I had never been a Troma fan. Never. Aside from Trey Parker’s “Cannibal: The Musical,” I just never got the gist of what made this shoddy little studio such a thriving cult empire. Just never got it. Movieside held their film festival at Chicago’s legendary Biograph, most famous for being the theater where the police shot gangster John Dillinger (as mentioned in “High Fidelity”) and also famous for being Chicago’s premier “Rocky Horror Picture Show” palace. It doesn’t play there anymore, but the spirit of “Rocky Horror” could definitely be felt with this crowd.
I showed up for the Saturday night double bill of “Tromeo and Juliet” and “Class of Nuke ‘em High,” but I also wanted to pay a visit with the star of the documentary "American Movie," Mark Borchardt, who showed up to screen his underground cult movie opus, "Coven," which would be blazing across the big screen in all its hand-made, grainy, black-and-white glory.
Mark recognized me even after not having seen me in three years. I spent a whole afternoon interviewing him back in 2001 and I had seen him a couple times since. “Oh, hey, dude,” he said. “In the dead of night, I hear you on Nick Digilio’s show reviewing movies, man, all across 38 States.” If I didn’t feel particularly welcome with this crowd, Mark at least knew me and that felt cool enough.
Let me explain. I look at Troma as Pure Punk Rock Cinema and, well, I’m just not all that punk rock. Most of the people who showed up sported colorful mohawks, strategic piercings, black “Eraserhead” t-shirts and a general disdain for everything mainstream. Fine…but I showed up wearing a U2 jacket and a shirt advertising WXRT, the last radio station in America to play new Los Lobos (and the best radio station in Chicago, I might add). I represented the antithesis of cool here.
The people at Movieside clearly know the Troma audience and in order to further Troma’s niche as Punk Rock Cinema, the organizers booked two thrashing punk bands, one to play in the lobby, the other to play in the theater: Dr. Killbot and I Love Rich. I honestly couldn’t tell them apart, but they drowned out every other sound in the place. The Biograph is actually still a multiplex that plays first run films, but tonight it seemed to be closed off to the masses. Could you imagine a family of five strolling merrily out of “Shrek 2” only to be assaulted by the screaming, maddening fury of Dr. Killbot? Dillinger would have been proud.
Not my cup of tea, but no worries. The Biograph is a big enough theater where I could sit off to the side far from the maddening crowd and just observe. Mark introduced “Coven” along with his cohort Mike Shank. If you’ve seen “American Movie,” than you pretty much know Mark and Mike. They haven’t changed, and God bless ‘em. “Coven” looked beautiful on the big screen and it really shows Mark as a great cinematographer. Seeing those over-exposed whites crossing with those pitch blacks and grainy grays, just looking at “Coven” and knowing he made it with the most primitive of resources in an age where anybody can pick up a digital camera, make a movie and gross a million bucks-plus, seeing all of that come alive on the big screen felt like a treat in and of itself. Plus, the movie is actually kinda funny. Never realized it before, but there exists a pretty distinct sense of humor lurking within Mark’s otherwise dreary horror film.
Watching a movie with a crowd can help you experience films in ways you never thought possible. That’s certainly the case with “Tromeo and Juliet,” a movie I turned off half-way through many, many years ago when my stoned friends and I would watch this type of stuff on a regular basis. This from a crowd who reveled in the awfulness of Richard Elfman’s “Forbidden Zone,” a movie made in the same spirit as anything Troma ever put out. My tastes have changed since than, but I try not to be all film school and pompous. I like a big, stupid, schlocky, entertaining, sleazy greaseball of a movie every now and then.
“Tromeo and Juliet” certainly fits that bill. It is punk rock. It has the take-no-prisoners, fuck-the-system, give-em-a-shock-every-15-minutes, fuck-you-and-the-politically-correct-horse-you-rode-in-on attitude that makes Troma a thriving video empire. It has no stars, no real budget, no intention of winning over any critics and no taste. That’s what this crowd wanted and that’s what they got. I got it too, and you know what? I actually enjoyed myself.
The movie follows the original Shakespearean tragedy as closely as it can, but that’s not saying much. It sticks with it in terms of story structure, but the devotion to the written word ends there. Lemmy from Motorhead narrates it, if that gives you any indication. You also get lesbian sex, child-molesting priests, beheadings, explosions, incest, rape and wonderful dialogue, my favorite line being, “How would you like it if I used your guts to Jackson Pollack the streets?” In other words, it’s much better than “The Chronicles of Riddick.”
Hell, “Tromeo” is a damn entertaining movie to watch with a crowd, but I probably would have turned it off if I had been watching it at home. It’s a party movie, pure and simple. Like punk rock, though, a little goes a long way. I didn’t stay for “Class of Nuke ‘em High,” a movie I had seen and enjoyed on cable over 15 years ago. All the charm of seeing it on the big screen went out the window when I saw the actual DVD menu blazing across the screen. The digital projection of “Tromeo” had its share of setbacks, mainly the sound and picture getting out of sync, at which point the movie screen would go all blue with the words PAUSE and RESUME. It happened about 10 times, much to the annoyance of the audience.
No matter. They came to a Troma party, not a Sergio Leone retrospective. Nobody’s gonna throw a hissy over a digital video malfunctions when it comes to a movie with a giant penis monster in it. As Lloyd Kaufman said to the crowd when asked if his movies carried some political or social commentary beneath the schlock (a la Roger Corman) and if any of his movies changed any minds in high positions of authority: “(Paraphrasing) I don’t know if any of my movies changed anybody’s minds in high levels of authority, but I know many people were high when they watched them.”
So, okay. I’m still not a Troma fan and I probably never will be, but at least now I get it. A retrospective film festival can often help you see movies in way you’ve never seen them. When watched with their intended audience, you get the sense of something you had been missing all along. I may not have bonded with these people, but I’m happy they’re out there supporting underground filmmaking. Festivals such as Movieside can be great outlets for hardworking underground filmmakers looking for exposure, and for the audience, they help us forget that movies such as “The Chronicles of Riddick” actually exist. So, God bless Troma and the politically incorrect penis monster they rode in on!
(Wanna learn more about Mark Borchardt’s new movie? It’s called Scare Me!)
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=1151
originally posted: 06/24/04 23:22:51
last updated: 06/20/06 11:22:23