Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Troma's War (1988, Michael Herz & Samuel Weil/Lloyd Kaufman)

Troma's War (1988, Michael Herz & Samuel Weil/Lloyd Kaufman)

Version reviewed: The excellent Region 1 Troma DVD

"Troma's War" is Troma's biggest budget film and Michael Herz and Lloyd Kaufman themselves deem it Troma's masterpiece. It's certainly unique in their catalogue - it marked the zenith of Troma's pulling power in the marketplace and found them at a transition point between the classic period of "The First Turn On!", "The Toxic Avenger" and "Class of Nuke 'Em High" and the more mainstream sequels to "Toxic Avenger" and "...Nuke 'Em High" which followed shortly thereafter. It is not only their most expensive-looking, commercial and mainstream in-house production, it's also one of their most offensive and violent. It's definetely a film a Troma fan will love (in it's uncut form). The tone throughout is deadly serious, with the best laughs coming despite the material, as in the earlier classics, but this time even the main cast is playing it straight. Despite this, Troma's increased production budget shows itself in spades throughout the film (and this is after significant portions throughout the film were cut out!) and despite standard Troma staging, it does manage to convey a level of professionalism not found in much of the Troma catalogue.

The opening of the film immediately seems to spite this as a compelling narrative device (a plane crash) is only heard by the audience over the opening credits. This is countered somewhat by some funny jokes in the dialogue (Over the intercom after we hear the pilot screaming "oh shit" and "what are we going to do?, "Good evening ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Hayden speaking again, I hope you're enjoying your tropical fish dinner, we've encounter a few, minor, technical difficulties, if you look out of the window to your right, you'll notice we have fires in two of our engines, if you look out to your left, you will see the Carribean ocean...approaching rapidly,"), which more or less sets up the film effectively over the opening credits. (Troma would use a similar audio narrative device in the "Toxic Avenger" and "Class of Nuke 'Em High" sequels, but it wasn't very funny there).

The film proper opens on a gorgeous tropical beach, as a woman cries amidst stagey but plausable looking plane wreckage. She moans and mentions "Oh my God, Oh my God, we crashed!". Immediately, we get to see some considerably more dramatic footage - the same wreckage the night before, smouldering in the fire. People run around, on fire, screaming. The stuntmen look pretty good on fire here.

We quickly meet the other survivors - the broadly heroic looking Taylor, the gorgeous blond with nice breasts, the English guy, the Spanish woman, the crazed Vietnam vet (Parker), the old guy with Cancer, the fat jewish guy (Cooney), the blind girl, the recent mother and her baby, the old jewish lady, the New Wave punk band ("The Bearded Clams"), the Catholic priest (shockingly, for a Troma production, he is NOT portrayed as a pedophile), the compassionate and effeminate "Senior Flight Attendant", and the wealthy yuppie who smokes cigars and says things like "why did she have to survive this crash?" for no mean-spirited reason at all.

Pretty soon, the gang find there's a huge army on this island, planning a few terrorist acts and, inevitably, a hostile takeover of the USA. They decide to take up in arms and fight back, while very cheesy music plays.

In terms of performance, pretty much everyone does at least a serviceable job. Most of the main cast are great - the guy who plays Taylor is a likeable hero, Parker is played especially well by a real Vietnam vet (who was the weapons handler for the film), the English guy keeps his dignity and the female lead lights up the screen everytime she's occupying part of the frame. (In the DVD extras filmed circa 1998, she is shown to be every bit as attractive today, but in a '1990s mom' kind of way rather than an '1980s blonde' way, and not at all flippant and whiny like her character could sometimes be). I will also note the guy who plays Senor Sida, for being creepy as fuck, and also Dan Snow, who's priest is nothing like his "Cigarface" character from "Toxic Avenger", but equally comedic. His performances between films differ in a key way, which is pretty indicative of the difering tones of the films (more on this later).

In terms of the villains, we get a mix of broadly comic performances, and deadpan malevolance.
The head villains are apparently two conjoined Siamese twins wearing a black suit and a grey suit, representing...I can't remember. The "right wing" and "capitalism" ? Anyway, they only get two scenes, but they are creepy as fuck and the score to these two scenes is eerie (unfortunately, the second one ends with the beautiful black New Wave girl saying something cheesy after slicing them apart). Next in command, I guess, is Colonel Jennings aka. Pig-Nose (played by Troma regular Rick Collins, who makes angry speeches while snorting like a pig through his massive pig nose), but, then again, he also takes orders from someone who claims to be affiliated with the Cuban army (but has a Russian accent). There's a blonde terrorist leader, who is so fucking over the top, it drives even ME crazy. Can't stand her. There's a blond haired, blue eyed German who seems to be a parody of Arnold Schwarzenegger (Schwarzenegger as a symbol of oppresive right-wing power...how presicent) who's performance is deadpan and frequently hilarious (especially the scene where he repeatedly refers to the clerical-collar-wearing Catholic priest, to his face, as a "jew"). There are hundreds of snarling extras in black-face (I think...might just be intended as dirt) playing terrorists, many of whom are played by Pericles Lewnes who's face shows up four or five times (reminds me of all the times you see Tom Savini doing stunts in "Dawn of the Dead") and I think you can see a couple of the other guys from "Redneck Zombies" playing terrorists here. They seem to have a universal manner, so it's consistant if not exactly compellingly menacing. Senor Sida is a creepy fucking character and the AIDS Brigade are nasty looking guys who snarl and are covered in sores and marks. One of the survivors who becomes a bad guy by selling the other's out is a memorable shithead. He's introduced as an insensitive yuppie, proceeds to the point where he is the only survivor not to fight back in the first fight with the terrorists (at all), then sells out the group to the terrorists. His arc is similar to (and possibly inspired by) a similar character played by the immortal Hart Bochner in "Die Hard". There's even a comparable scene where the villain contacts the heroes via villain radio with the sellout present. I know Lloyd and Michael watched "Die Hard" as a guide to how violent an R-rated film could be for this film, so it may have been influencial in this capacity.

In terms of memorable scenes or set pieces, this film carries it's fair share. There's three major confrontations with the terrorists and all of them are pretty spectacular. With a huge depth of field we see all of the money spent on this film - guns firing, extras exploding in squib effects - into the horizon.

The most disturbing scenes in the film occur during the second major offensive with the terrorists. First off are the scenes with the creepy siamese twin leading the operation, and the others, vastly eclipsing those siamese scenes, feature the blind girl and the cute blonde from the New Wave band being raped by Senor Sida and his AIDS brigade. I'm not sure what combination of grotesque special effects, disgusting concept or inappropriately titilating nudity makes these scenes so disturbing and offensive, but I know it hits a peak when, during a stirring instrumental version of the song "Storm is Rising" (which you hear later with vocals) accompanying a heroic battle between the heroes and the terrorists, the cute blonde shoots up in bed, tits bouncing around, and breaks the fourth-wall and informs us via wail "I have Aids! I have Aids!". Combination of cheesy heroic music + heroic battle where heroes stand up to terrorists + rape joke + aids joke + gratuitous nudity. After the blind girl is saved by the fat Jewish guy (Cooney), she and he enter into a relationship. The film never touches on the fact that their sexual contact may communicate the AIDS virus, let alone the offensive idea that his saving her from AIDS rape makes him her lover.

On the whole the film is deliberately paced, having time for humour, suspense and plot development between the action set pieces. This makes rather difficult choosing isolated scenes out as highlights for the respectable merits of being funny or effective, compared to the action set pieces which, while limited in quantity, are long and well done.

I love the bit where two characters says this:
Taylor: I like Parker, but I don't know if he's crazy or if he's just a psycho.
Old Guy with Cancer: He might be a psycho, but he's not crazy.

There's also a great bit where the snooty Brit is reloading a weapon and this bizarrely painted terrorist backflips for an eternity to get to him. The music cuts out and we hear a lengthy, heavily processed and delayed scream as he approaches. It holds the film for a whole moment before the Brit punches him out (and says "all show and no blow, my friend, I'm afraid,") and it's pretty compelling.

There's a good bit where the 'Nam vet, after reconsidering cutting off an (admittedly busty) blonde terrorists's breasts to add to his ear necklace, tells her "With a pair like that, I'll let you keep 'em,".

There's some violence where that classic Troma reuse of a sound effect occurs - here, for example, the same 'punch' sound effect is used three or four times in a row. This is a small nitpick - the action on the whole is very well staged, only one or two hits look like they didn't genuinely make contact, and the effects are pretty solid all throughout.

Troma had a deal with a hovercraft manufacturer/seller around this time (I'm not making this up), so there's two hovercraft scenes in this and there's also a hovercraft chase in "The Toxic Avenger Part II".

This was the first Kaufman/Herz conceived Troma film since "Toxic Avenger" made the studio so well known. In the interim, Troma had all but accidentally birthed the second 'true' Troma classic with a film they took over production of halfway through, "Class of Nuke 'Em High" which originally Richard W Haines was to direct. Unlike the previous two films which used familiar and recognisable trash premises, "Troma's War" plotwise seems to resemble the disaster film more than the typical action film plot. It's an interesting thought if Troma, this time out, hadn't simply rewritten existing material in an effort to have a genuinely novel plot out in the action workplace. Having read Mr Kaufman's books, I doubt Mr Kaufman would see precisely where his vision differs from the mainstream world - he might think it was possible this would be the next "Die Hard", while still acknowledging it contains an old jewish lady comparing her automatic machine gun to a vacuum cleaner, Senor Sida and some pretty graphic violence. It's for this kind of thing I love Kaufman's films - there's always about four or five psychological triggers being pushed at once. Unlike a porno, which seeks to titilate, or a horror film to make you scared, Troma made exploitation an artform. They took the hallmarks and requistes of exploitation, violence and sex, and packaged them unlike anyone else on the planet, with scenes in their movies that provoke in different ways, often with several complex layers of violence and sexuality, at once. It's an overwhelming experience, which would be no fun at all if these films weren't comedies.

"The Toxic Avenger" had a unique superhero/comedy/horror tonal mix, "Class of Nuke 'Em High" felt like a "Reefer Madness" type propaganda film gone wrong but "Troma's War" seems to go with it's premise 100% straight. Don't get me wrong - there's still jokes you're expected to laugh at throughout the film and comedy is clearly a priority. It's just all the actors (with very few exceptions) are playing the film totally deadpan. Rick Collins and some of his lesser cronies are hamming it up for all it's camp value, but the heroes and most of the extras playing terrorists play the material like it's a straight film about real people in a real war.

It contains Troma's best in-house special effects (with "Toxic Avenger"'s being pretty good, but more stylised) with the AIDS brigade and a rotting corpse early in the film as particular highlights. This was the first film Troma produced after the great Pericles Lewnes of "Redneck Zombies" joined the Troma team. Strange that a detail as minute as the injury on Taylor's shoulder looks so flat I thought it was a tattoo on first viewing, but on all the set pieces the effects are great. The stunts are pretty good - when a car rigged with explosives is driven off a dock to collide with and destroy a boat, what doesn't matter to me as a viewer is that the boat actually blows up before the car connects. What matters is that, as it approaches the dock, the car drives through a huge puddle that has the golden sun reflected in it in a cheesy eighties way.

This film is the epitome of cheese. I know precisely what I mean when I say, it's definetely campy, but nowhere near as campy as "Toxic Avenger" and "Class of Nuke 'Em High", but it is every bit as corny and, on top of that, has possibly the cheesiest music in history. I estimate 60% of the soundtrack's length is filled with gunfire and that cheesy synth music. Seriously, this is state-of-the-art cheesy music - it overwhelms the gunfire in most of the film (despite being mixed lower) and definetely adds significant mood to the film. The music playing in an early sequence where Parker mows down row after row of terrorists was a slower, more pounding piece of the score than what usually plays throughout and is very effective. Two full-on songs (with vocals) are contributed by Christopher De Marco (who also wrote the score) and are blared out over montages, which function as kinds of music videos for the songs. They are titled "Storm is Rising" and "Alive", and both play several times throughout the film without vocals. Other parts of the score are sincerely effective - the slow, sinister airy push of the score to the scenes where the beautiful black girl saw the siamese twin dictator then later sliced them in half with a samaurai sword was a highlight.

The whole film comes off as a deeply sincere, firing on all cylinders, attempt at making a unique Troma cocktail as a mainstream film. It could never work, but somewhere out there, there is an alternate universe where this is a blockbuster classic and that world's probably a lot happier. If you like other Troma films, you will like this. It all depends on your tolerance for 1980s cheese, if you can handle that, you'll definetely enjoy it. It's not worth anything unless it's the uncut version available on DVD from Troma Team Video. From the opening audio skit to the end of the end credits (where Kaufman, via megaphone, tells all the extras playing corpses to get up and wave to the camera), this is a uniquely sincere exploitation vision.

It probably is their masterpiece, though it isn't generally indicative of their output.

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