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Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Celebrating Over Four Decades of Old-School Horror from Troma Entertainment!

With a few minor exceptions, I think we can all agree that the horror community is one of the most fun and accepting corners of the internet. That being said, there is one recurring comment around these parts that really bothers me, and I see it posted all the time. When referring to classic practical-effects-driven flicks from the 80s, a lot of horror fans will claim that “they just don’t make them like they used to”, which is simply not true. Countless creators are still out there hard at work crafting retro scares and gore-fests, they’ve just been overshadowed by mainstream productions. That’s why I’d like to take a moment to shine a light on one independent company that’s still embracing old-school schlock after more than 4 decades.

So fasten your seatbelts, we’re going for a ride into Tromaville!

Founded by Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz in 1974, Troma Entertainment started out with a handful of raunchy comedies but soon expanded into a genre-driven empire, producing and distributing hundreds of indie pictures around the world. Over the years, the company earned a reputation as a tenacious champion of independent cinema and freedom of expression, launching the careers of countless notable creators and performers (from genre veteran James Gunn to South Park‘s Matt & Trey Parker, not to mention celebrated actors like Marisa Tomei and Samuel L. Jackson).

Even with all these familiar talents, Troma’s success can be traced back to Lloyd Kaufman’s long-standing devotion to genre filmmaking. Born to a Jewish family, Lloyd originally studied at Yale University (with classmates featuring the likes of Oliver Stone and George W. Bush) with the goal of becoming a social worker. However, he became involved in foreign aid with both USAID and the Peace Corps before finally settling on a career in film, acquiring a passion for the craft once he became involved with student productions. After directing a few features of his own, he would partner up with Herz to create a distribution and production company for less-savory movies, and the rest is history.

Of course, there’s a reason that Troma is known as “The House That Toxie Built”, so we have to discuss Kaufman and Herz’s notorious 1984 super-hero/body-horror classic The Toxic Avenger, which spawned a multi-media franchise (featuring 3 sequels, a musical and even a short-lived animated series that spawned a classic toyline) and created Troma’s now-iconic mascot. For those who haven’t seen it, the film chronicles the misadventures of Melvin, a nerdy health-club janitor who becomes the subject of horrific bullying, winding up in a barrel of toxic waste and mutating into a hideously-deformed creature of superhuman size and strength. Naturally, Melvin uses his newfound abilities to protect the streets of Tromaville, New Jersey, becoming an icon in the process.

The first Super-Hero… From New Jersey!

Not only was The Toxic Avenger a bona fide hit, featuring a surprisingly compelling story told through Looney-Tunes-esque comedy and thrilling/horrific practical effects, but it also established certain themes and traditions that would recur in future Troma productions. Despite the extreme subject matter, there’s a certain na├»ve quality to almost all these movies as they satirize 1950s horror and sci-fi sensibilities, cutting corners during production (going so far as to reuse certain effects shots and props across several films) in order to find the cheapest route towards cinematic thrills.

It’s not all explosions and bodily fluids, however, as there are also a host of social concerns frequently brought up in these movies, much to the chagrin of critics who assume that genre fiction has only recently begun to tackle real life issues (especially after those silly “post-horror” discussions). Topics like environmentalism, civil rights and anti-nuclear sentiments are quite common in Troma pictures, and over the years Lloyd has continued to use his films as a soapbox to discuss other serious problems… without compromising the exploding heads and gross monsters.

Be it facing the American Educational System in Nuke ‘Em High, satirizing the highly-volatile filmmaking industry in Terror Firmer, or exposing the evils of fast-food corporations in Poultrygeist (a film whose mere poster was enough to give a younger me nightmares back in 2006), Troma’s never really stopped churning out highly-entertaining cult classics that also happen to deal with important social issues. Of course, simply referencing complex topics isn’t quite the same as presenting valid solutions or even deconstructing these ideas, and there’s no denying that Troma has had its fair share of problematic content in their movies.

I may enjoy the trashy gore and crude humor in these pictures, but sometimes Troma’s excesses are too much even for me. I actually had a hard time getting through Terror Firmer because of some really disturbing imagery and backward views on transsexuality. There’s also plenty to be said about the foul treatment and depiction of women in these movies (though to be fair, I’m not aware of any allegations of misconduct behind the scenes, which is a rarity among movie studios). Even so, I think it’s clear that Lloyd means well, as he’s always stated that he’s proud of the fact that his movies bring up taboo subject matter and get people talking about important issues. At the end of the day, I think that’s a more progressive attitude than you can expect from most folks in their 70s.

About as extreme as it gets.

Nevertheless, this punk-rock spirit of constantly sticking it to “the man” while advocating for environmentalism and combatting corporate filmmaking has kept Troma Entertainment relevant even in a world dominated by serialized blockbusters (though the company has actually established an expanded universe with frequent crossovers between characters like Dolphinman, Toxie and Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD). Even if you’re not a fan of their admittedly sloppy filmmaking tactics, it’s easy to appreciate how they’ve maintained a consistent style and tone after so long. Other than some digital equipment upgrades, there’s really not much difference between a Troma production from the 80s and something recent like their upcoming Shakespeare’s Shitstorm. The shoddy effects and haphazard scripts may not be for everyone, but there’s an earnestness to these projects that make them worthwhile, and they haven’t lost it yet.

Despite all this talk about keeping it old school, Troma has also embraced some conveniences of the digital age, producing wacky shorts and making a huge part of their catalogue free to watch on their YouTube channel until it was unexpectedly terminated earlier this year for “violating community standards”. Even then, they’ve still got Troma Now, a mercifully cheap streaming service for all your disruptive media needs.

At the end of the day, Troma is far from the only production company that still invests in schlocky projects with exaggerated gore and silly stories (Full Moon Features is still going strong, and there are plenty of totally independent creators out there making guerilla-styled slashers and found-footage flicks). However, they’re still a uniquely inspirational example of an old-school filmmaking tradition that simply refuses to die, regardless of folks claiming that modern horror is going down the drain.

Whether or not you appreciate their particular brand of b-movie madness, I think we can all be thankful that Uncle Lloyd and Toxie (who supposedly has a reboot on the way) are still out there introducing new generations of filmmakers to the industry and producing the bloodiest and most disgusting of features. During these uncertain times, when we’re not even sure if the traditional cinema experience will survive, it’s nice to know that someone’s still out there fighting the good fight in favor of retro-styled movie-going thrills.

So if you ever find yourself missing the sleazy charms of classic b-movies (or maybe you just want to shock a few close friends with some gnarly practical effects), look to the horizon and maybe, just maybe, a Troma picture will be there!



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3638253/celebrating-4-decades-troma-entertainment/

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