This is how the script begins:
A gun on a table. A poster for Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat hangs on the wall. A hand reaches and grabs the pistol. We dolly back as the gun is lifted to the man’s head and he pulls the trigger. BANG! Brains and gore spew against the wall. He slumps across the desk, and immediately a rush of blood spills from his pulverized head onto the floor.
At the staircase leading upstairs, footsteps are heard. A young, ravishing woman appears. Unmoved by the bloodshed, she walks over to the desk. She notices an envelope. She picks it up and reads the inscription –
ALL OF MY LOVE FOREVER.
Her eyes narrow. Suddenly the dead man leans up and sneezes, spattering blood and snot on her face. She screams. The half-headed man calmly stands up and pulls something from his nose.
I’m so sorry, one of my teeth has gotten stuck up my nose.
And from here on in, things start getting really ugly.
Cinephiles – of a certain stripe, anyway – may recognize the signature touch of Troma Entertainment, the outfit whose oeuvre includes such titles as The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke ‘Em High.
The movie being shot is Terror Firmer. The half-headed man is the Toxic Avenger’s father (Troma could teach George Lucas a thing or two about the art of the prequel), and though journalism schools rightly condemn “foreshadowing,” I have to tell you this demanding role is played by myself. It should be noted that my fellow castmates included more formidable nonprofessionals: Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of South Park, impersonate a hermaphrodite couple; Lemmy from Motörhead does a public-service announcement; Richard Johnson, of “Page Six,” plays a stiff.
Troma, which was launched by Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz in 1974, has an eighteen-movie retrospective at the Anthology Film Archives on Second Avenue opening on December 1. Terror Firmer will run there concurrently. It is an overdue honor for an outfit that has occupied the same Hell’s Kitchen offices since 1979. (Herz shows his face in public so rarely that Kaufman has sometimes blithely introduced Joe Fleishaker, a 400-pound Troma actor, as his absent partner.) The office décor is self-referential, consisting mostly of Troma movie posters and promotional knickknacks. These include a green Toxic Avenger soft toy; lapel pins urging that people get tromatized; and various props, like a head from Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD, that are kept around, partly as memorabilia, partly on the off chance that they might fit into another movie.
As it happens, it was at a Kabukiman opening in 1996 that I made the acquaintance of Lloyd Kaufman. I had been invited by Lisa Gaye, who has played the villainess in other Troma movies. The movie was vividly gross – no Troma movie is complete without bare bosoms (“That’s not me!” an actress sang out at the screening, as we saw her being tossed topless out of a window) and at least one prolonged and copiously productive vomiting scene. But on the whole, Kabukiman was funny and had an eccentric edge.
We dined with Lloyd and Patricia Kaufman a few days later. He had a sly, seraphic manner, like a guru who keeps an eye on the bottom line. She is a pretty blonde woman who taught at Spence for seventeen years. She met Kaufman on a yacht. They married, and she worked as an executive assistant at Troma on three Troma movies, including The Toxic Avenger. In 1994, she served as deputy finance director on George Pataki’s gubernatorial campaign. Her appointment as the state’s Deputy Commissioner for Motion Picture and Television Development speaks well of the governor.
When it comes to Troma, Patricia is a loyalist – and tolerant. But then, she pretty much has to be. The two adorable little girls skewered to death in Kabukiman are Lisbeth and Charlotte, two of the three Kaufman daughters; Lisbeth played her first role at 18 months. The pair had handled their recent roles like troupers, Kaufman told me. “My wife’s the only one who hasn’t been murdered yet,” he added.
Troma movies, in short, are not your ordinary exploitation flicks. True, they are jaw-droppingly crude, with cheesy production values and the excessive interest in gore, breasts, and the squelchier body functions of a hormonally overcharged adolescent male. But each has an authentically weird vision, connecting to filmmaker Roger Corman; to R. Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, and the other Zap Comix maestros; to “serious” artists like Mike Kelley and Raymond Pettibon. Stephen Holden, reviewing Tromeo & Juliet in the New York Times, suggested that it was to Hollywood B movies “what Mad magazine is to comic books” and called the flick “goofily exhilarating.” Lloyd Kaufman is a true subversive, a blast from the sixties. It is no accident that Troma movies have become something of a cult.
It is notoriously hard to get at the financial secrets of cults, of course, and Troma is no exception. Some figures can be winkled out, however. Squeeze Play, which was Troma’s first hit, cost $300,000 to make, and printed estimates of its gross range from $10 million to $18 million. The Toxic Avenger cost less than $900,000 and made at least $15 million. The movie and its hero, “Toxie,” also spawned three sequels, a cartoon series, and bales of merchandising. Troma is content even if a theatrical release breaks even – the gravy comes from television, cable, and, of course, video. “Somehow, Lloyd has figured out a way of doing it that works for him,” says movie-industry analyst Len Klady.
it’s not giving away much to say that the plot of Terror Firmer concerns a movie being made within a movie. In a New Jersey warehouse, Kaufman was rehearsing a tall young woman with satin boots, long blonde hair, huge wounded eyes, and bosoms that looked round and hard enough to inflict damage.
“Action!” Kaufman said.
Twin craters appeared on the artiste’s torso; her breasts looked like recently snuffed volcanos. Her white lab coat was a goner.
“Didn’t that hurt?” I marveled.
“Actually, it stung a bit,” she said matter-of-factly.
By the time I was on, I had grown used to various Troma customs – the habit of clapping at the end of a take, the way passengers traveling on a dodgy Third World airline applaud a successful landing, for instance. Or the consoling mantra somebody – usually Kaufman himself – mouths when a shoot goes awry: “That’s Tromaville!”
My first scene was the suicide. They seated me at a hideous desk. Behind, a hideous painting was flanked by hideous gift-shop statuettes of Lou Costello and Curly, the third Stooge.
An unmanageably huge handgun was handed to me ceremoniously by the weapons guy, who clicked it open to show that no joker had put in a blank.
Or, come to that, a live one.
“Action!” Kaufman says. Click. Head hits desk.
Kaufman got it in three takes.
The second scene was the post-head-slump. Enter Ruth Pongstaphone-Safer, who’d cast my head in dental alginate a couple of weeks before. “Are you ready to be messed up?” she asked me brightly, and led me into her domain.
Her favorite ingredients were arrayed on a ready palette: Campbell’s split-pea soup, Kraft pancake syrup, Key Food instant mashed potatoes, Karo corn syrup, Hershey’s syrup, cotton balls, and plenty of gelatin. “Gelatin is a lot of fun. It’s got a very lifelike quality if you mix it,” Ruth said. There was a jar of what looked like outsize cocktail onions on the table. For some reason they filled me with unease. “What are those?” I asked. “Those are your eyeballs!” she said and set to work smearing gunk onto my head as if it were a Belgian waffle.
“You smell like liver!” Kaufman congratulated me, then turned to an assistant and asked, “Did the slime come yet?”
“Momentarily,” he was told.
The slime might not have come, but a good deal else had. Desk, walls, even the Big Heat poster had been spattered with gobs, puddles, and chunks of pink and gray … stuff.
Hang on. There was something there that wasn’t pink or gray. It was black.
“Watch out! There’s some coffee spilled here,” bawled the A.D.
“Art department!” Lloyd Kaufman yelled. “Who’s got the paper towels?”
“Action!” he said finally.
I dropped my head.
It was sploosh after sploosh for take after take after take.
The next scene was about the movie-within-the-movie scene, and it was crammed with various beloved Troma characters. “Kabukiman! Dolphin Man! Everybody!” Kaufman said. “Hey, guys! We need someone to play Fish Man.” His eye fastened on an actor holding several loops of translucent tubing and a colossal blood-filled syringe.
“Art department!” Kaufman barked. “What he’s got does not look disgusting enough.”
Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz are both New Yorkers. Kaufman grew up on East 62nd Street; his father was a lawyer who was a pioneer in minority-shareholder class-action suits. Herz’s father was a furrier, and the family lived in Forest Hills. Kaufman and Herz met at Yale. “My brother and Michael went to camp together,” Kaufman says. “I had a black-and-white TV set. The kind that went like this when a car passed” – he zigged and zagged a hand. “He liked to watch TV. So he had to talk to me.”
The talk became movie-nut talk. Kaufman was a fan of experimental moviemaker Stan Brakhage and composer John Cage. At Yale, he shot a feature-length movie, The Girl Who Returned. It was an exercise in Warholesque tedium, but it did okay on the college circuit because he advertised it with a picture of a young woman lying on her back, an orgasmic expression on her face.
Kaufman took various movie jobs after leaving Yale. He was a gofer at Cannon, then a production assistant. He also he tried his hand as a scriptwriter. Indeed, Kaufman and Stan Lee, the progenitor of Marvel comics, co-wrote a script for Alain Resnais, the reticent auteur of Last Year at Marienbad. The script – “a sublime comedy about … I honestly can’t remember,” says Kaufman – was not produced.
Kaufman and Michael Herz set up Troma in 1974 with $300 worth of financing in a rented storage room on Park Avenue. They were always contrarian. As the received wisdom was that comedy and sex didn’t mix in movies, the first Troma movies duly were bawdy comedies like Squeeze Play and Waitress, all directed by Kaufman under the pseudonym Samuel Weil and sometimes co-directed with Herz. They also acquired Sizzle Beach (which gave Kevin Costner an early role, as a wealthy rancher). Then the studios decided that sex and comedy did mix, after all: Porky’s and a slew of other movies came scrambling into Troma’s nifty niche.
At that point, Kaufman read in Variety that the genre of horror movies was dead. Great! Make a horror movie! The Toxic Avenger came out in 1985, and the Troma aesthetic was born.
The Troma archive now includes something like 900 movies, including movies Troma merely produces and those acquired from such eccentric talents as Italy’s Dario Argento. A Troma movie will typically be brought in for under $1 million in about five weeks, and very few have failed to turn a profit. So the sky is sunny? Not to the savage eye of Lloyd Kaufman.
In 1998, his autobiography, All I Need to Know About Filmmaking I Learned From The Toxic Avenger, was published. “This is the worst it’s ever been,” Kaufman writes. “Our distribution channels – the theaters and video stores and TV channels – have been fucked by consolidation …”
Kaufman must have been in a funk that day. “Actually, things are a bit on the upswing,” he conceded at the last shoot. This was on a set done up with a Christmas tree, Frosty the Snowman, a gargantuan red teddy bear, and string upon string of tree lights. You just knew something vile was about to unspool here. On cue, Ron Jeremy tramped onto the set, where he started serenading a young boy.
“I love you, Daddy,” the boy said.
“I love you, too, Casey,” the hardest-working man in porn business replied.
“Cut! It’s good. Beautiful!” Kaufman said.
“One take?” Jeremy said, startled.
The young boy disappeared and reappeared – wearing a dress.
“How do you feel?” someone asked.
“Uncomfortable,” the boy said uncomfortably.
“I think I see a lawsuit down the road,” somebody said. (Okay, it was me.)
The boy’s mother, who had been sitting outside, belatedly reading the script, hurtled onto the set and snatched him out of harm’s way.
“Nobody showed her the script. I said, ‘Show her the script,’ ” Kaufman mourned. “Just stay calm. There’s lots of kids who would love to be in the film. The production people – they live in some kind of weird world.”
“It’s Tromaville,” Ron Jeremy said.
“It’s not Tromaville,” Kaufman snapped.
It happened that there was a female Dutch still photographer on the set with a fresh face, her hair in bangs. From the back she looked like the boy’s twin.
That take went into the can. But then there was a problem involving a venerable performer who was required to dribble. It kept going wrong. “C’mon! The actress is peaking,” Kaufman called out. He brooded about the shoot. “It started with the problem with the Young Boy. And now we’ve got a problem with the Old Lady. It’s a very Taoist day.”