While fans await a new slice of insanity from the Manhattan-based asylum to independent filmmaking - Troma - the company keeps distributing more and more interesting DVD titles. A few weeks ago, we got a chance to see the latest in Giuseppe Andrews's ongoing deconstruction of cinema (the fabulous Touch Me in the Morning) and the previous month marked the release of an old cult classic (Seduction of a Nerd) and another collection of fine short films (The Best of Tromadance: Volume 4). Now, we get a chance to witness some obscure sketch comedy goodness from a couple of omnibus collections - the fascinating 1997 offering Bacon Head, and the less successful but still entertaining personal showcase Viewer Discretion Advised. They are part of a delightful double feature that proves the point about comedy being incredible difficult - and humor being a highly personal proposition.
Though they are really nothing more than a collection of comedy bits, both Bacon Head and Viewer Discretion Advised try to connect their material together through the use of some quasi-clever conceptual linking. Individually, here is what you will see:
Bacon Head (1997):
A man named Chauncey suddenly finds himself in the Land of the People Named Chris and is chased out. During his escape, we witness the work of the Toast Police, and ponder the mysteries of Quinlan the Detailing Tubbist. After a look in at the Tag Team Begging Championships, we visit with the Bartholomew Brothers, otherwise known as the Senator and the Monsignor. Bored and half-baked, they head out to score some smoke and attend a biker poetry slam, all the while working their "verbage" with their own insular and insane slang. It's totally "du jour".
Viewer Discretion Advised (1991):
Poor Ted Smith. Suffering with four distinct personalities, he visits a psychiatrist to air out his angst. Too bad the shrink only has his own self-serving, moneymaking interests at heart. He leads the 'teenage' Ted into a deranged daydream centering on girls who just want to "be friends". Then the 'military minded' Ted imagines he's the head of PRIC, an elite government agency that enforces safe sex mandates. The 'fried Vet' Ted learns to live with male erectile dysfunction, while the 'Nu-Yawk' Ted relives his most frightening fantasy - a spring break in a haunted house full of murderous monsters.
Ask any actor, writer, director (or fan, frankly) and they will tell you the same sensible story: drama is difficult, but comedy is impossible. Indeed, humor is so personal that finding something that will strike a universal chord of chortles with a mostly mainstream audience is like getting Paris Hilton to act like a lady (see what I mean?). Anyway, it is with this already tainted tendency that Ray Mahoney and Tommy Blaze step out to show the world what's witty. In Blaze's case, it's a stand-up comedian combination of stereotypes, sex farce and so-so impersonations. In Mahoney's mindset, it's all interconnected characters, non-sequitor linking material and incredibly well written lines of dialogue. Together they represent the yin and yang of homemade humor's potential. Mahoney's Bacon Head manages to transcend its low budget trappings to create something rather special. All Blaze's Viewer Discretion Advised can contribute is a lot of the same old shtick. Let's look at each film individually to see their promise...and their problems.
Bacon Head (Score: ****)
More like a pair of short films surrounded by added content than an anthology of sketches, Bacon Head is the bubbling brainchild of writer/director/actor/musician/maniac Ray Mahoney. Presented in muted monochrome for that "last known photo" look, this exercise in experimentalism and avant-garde goofiness is pretty close to a masterpiece. It falls short frequently, but buried inside the oddball operatives are a couple of classic comedy bits. The "Toast Police" skit is a very entertaining and engaging idea, centering more of the individuals involved in this bread-based police squad than the actual antics of scone search and seizure. While not always laugh-out loud funny (frankly, few things are in this world) we do get some incredibly clever dialogue and equally original situations. The entire conversation about 'getting a clue' is wonderfully witty, and the running joke about an unbelievably odiferous pal is also worth a giggle. There is a surreal sort of sci-fi speculative nature to the entire enterprise, and just when you think Mahoney will keep his gags centered in one style, he throws in another manner of merriment to enliven the mix. It is something he does throughout the entire first half of the film - whether it's a commercial for proctology kitchen utensils or a music video about a guy obsessed with clean bathtubs.
But the best material here is saved for the Clerks- like "Bartholomew Brothers". These stoner savants, complete with their own hella-cool slang and peculiar pastimes (advertising slogan competition, anyone?) are wonderfully resourceful and incredibly endearing. It would be easy to see the Senator and his Monsignor sibling starring in their own spin-off film. There is a real rhythm to this material, an inner knowledge that helps the more arcane aspects to still ring genuine. By combining grade school put-downs with more esoteric takes on life, these alcohol-bloated bums are like Beavis and Butthead with a Humanities degree. They take up much of the film's second half, and their adventures in drug dealing, pizza consumption and biker poetry are the very foundation of cult comedy. Though it may not always tickle your ribs or split your sides, Bacon Head rabidly believes in itself, and such amiable arrogance gets us over even the most misguided material (like the lame "Land of the People Named Chris").
Viewer Discretion Advised (Score: ***)
Tommy Blaze really fancies himself a multi-talented mimic. Within the 90 minutes of this scattershot sketch-fest, Tom tries to impersonate a teenager, a psycho army man, a shell-shocked vet, and a Big Apple asshole. Though he succeeds for the most part, that doesn't mean that his voice variable antics add up to crackerjack comedy. Indeed, part of Viewer Discretion Advised's problem is that it has tons of potential, but no real place to put it. When Blzae turns on his awkward youth mode, all he can do is surround it with some derivative slasher spoof about girls who don't want to put out. Similarly, the military moron is just an ancillary character in a semi-interesting lampoon of the DEA called PRIC (don't make me repeat what the acronym stands for - it's forced and unfunny). Granted, the bit where our freaked out Nam flashback boob gets a press-on dildo to solve his lovelife problems is pretty entertaining, but it really has nothing to do with the mentally unbalanced butthead that sets up the story.
That just leaves us with Tony, a John Travolta-esque student of Saturday Night Fever who's all "dee's" and "doo's" with his broad Burroughs brogue - and it's wonderful. This mugging mook, along with a couple of minor bits, single-handedly saves Viewer Discretion Advised, elevating its misguided merriment into something that is sort-of must-see. The entire haunted house zombie spoof, with all its Scream style self-referential riffs, is really very inventive (especially when Blaze keeps berating the camera for cutting away to monster POV shots). Along with a backwoodsman pain piece that it straight out of Monty Python's "Four Yorkshiremen" and a novel take on the game show format, this is not a complete wash out. Indeed, there are little moments in each of the four main "personality" pieces that are very clever. Unlike Bacon Head, we see something far more familiar - and, sadly, formulaic. Too bad Blaze couldn't be more daring with his delirium. The potential is there. The payoff is not.
Together, this is a twisted treat from Troma - a collection of comedy not based solely in the toilet, the tit, or the shamelessly scatological. Indeed, a lot of what Mahoney and Blaze attempt here is conceptual in nature, playing with tone and expectations instead of farts and foolishness to craft their craziness. Some might argue that a good dose of gratuity would go a long way to making these movies more memorable, but not everyone wants to get their laughs out of lewdness. While Viewer Discretion Advised is carved directly out of the Groove Tube/Kentucky Fried Movie school of sketchiness, Bacon Head is more like David Lynch's private gag reel. Together they combine to prove that there is still some comedic life left in the independent film scene. Most homemade movies strive for horror, not hilarity. It is refreshing to see some outsider filmmakers looking to mine mirth, not macabre, for their feature film fascinations.
Of the two films, Bacon Head looks the best. It has a nice, semi-letterboxed presentation (non-anamorphic, of course) and a beautiful beige/sepia look to all its monochrome material. The contrasts are crisp and the details are dense and easily discernable. Viewer Discretion Advised has the look of a direct to video release, its 1.33:1 full frame presentation very flat and lifeless. There are lots of washed out colors and too dark dynamics to the transfer, but overall, it looks presentable and professional. In the image arena, Bacon Head is borderline art. Viewer Discretion Advised, however, is just average.
Troma is never one to emphasize the soundtrack in their DVD releases, and this double feature is no different. Since Viewer Discretion Advised is mostly dialogue, all we really care about is if the conversations are discernible. Indeed they are, and any scoring is subdued and non-intrusive. Bacon Head, by comparison, is a literal soundscape of amazing aural attributes. The background noir-ska is by Mahoney's band The Angry Hippos, and it sounds just incredible. The music really adds to the mood of the film. As with Discretion, the actors are easily understood and even the subtlest line reading is rendered understandable. On the sonic side, this digital presentation is pretty good.
With nearly three hours of film already a part of this set, it's hard to imagine that Troma could toss in any more bonus goodness. Amazingly, they manage to cram in a pair of perky added features that flesh out the release nicely. The first is a complete Survivor themed episode of Troma's Edge T.V. Between the cartoon version of the reality show (featuring animated mock-ups of some of their classic cinematic icons) to the human-based battle to "host" the company's take on endurance (including Debbie Rochon, the Naked Cowboy, and a ferret) it's typical Troma toilet humor - and it's actually quite funny. Even better is the deleted Intro for Seduction of a Nerd. For those who've seen the disc (this critic included) the current Lloyd Kaufman preface is something concocted while on the set of the latest Troma enterprise - a feature called Poultrygeist. However, rumor had it that a far more disgusting bit was prepared - something about geeks loving the explosive diarrhea of a fat man - but cut at the last moment. We get the delightfully disgusting original as part of this presentation, along with the usual Troma merchandising material.
Though Bacon Head is good enough to warrant a single release by itself, Troma's decision to combine it with Viewer Discretion Advised places this critic in quite the quandary. Both deserve a look, but Tommy Blaze and his uneven entertainment is no match for Ray Mahoney's amazing anarchy. Thanks to the supplementary silliness, and the lingering aura of repeat-viewing oddness over The Senator and the Monsignor, there is more here to relish than reject. That is why a rating of Highly Recommended is being offered. But be prepared to laugh only sporadically at these crazy comic creations. This is mostly humor of the head, not the hinder, and unless the esoteric makes you explode with amusement, you'll get more metaphysical mirth out of these offerings than gut-busting moments.
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