Recently, I reviewed the indie comedy Creating Karma. The press notes boasted that the filmmakers had given up trying to find strong comic roles for women and had taken matters into their own hands, a cause I thought I could get behind. Unfortunately, the film turned out to be a serious competitor for the worst movie I've ever seen. One week later, I started watching The Sexy Box, a collection of early Troma sex comedies (pre Toxic Avenger), and a confusing cloud of déjà vu settled over me. The four films in this set -- Squeeze Play! (1980), Waitress! (1982), Stuck On You! (1983) and The First Turn On! (1983) -- rack up a surprisingly amount of similarities, down to using funny nose glasses as a joke, something I'd been appalled to see in Karma. Yet, in The Sexy Box, the low-brow humor seems charming, even legitimately funny. It goes to show that the right mentality makes all the difference: where Creating Karma strives for a complicated blend of slapstick and sentiment, the films in The Sexy Box embrace their base values in a way that highlights the occasional wit and earnest sense of playfulness.
At the heart of Troma is co-founder Lloyd Kaufman, who co-directed three of the four movies with co-founder Michael Herz (Squeeze Play! being the exception). As seen in the intros to many of Troma's discs, he's a friendly guy with a twisted sense of humor who believes in the power of truly independent cinema, as if he were Roger Corman's crazy uncle. Other than a few adult films and some producing experience on big-budget Hollywood productions, Lloyd and Michael were cutting their teeth on these movies, but there are brief flashes of Troma's distinctive style. It's one-part "throw everything at the screen and see what sticks", one-part "anything goes" and one-part low-budget ingenuity / insanity, and watching the movies in chronological order reveals subtle tweaks to refine the formula. The last film in the box set, The First Turn-On! (about four campers trapped in a cave with their nature counselor, recounting their first sexual experiences) is the best of the bunch, and even briefly specifically foreshadowing the studio's horror movie future.
The most surprising thing about the films in this set is the relative quality of the performances. Most Troma productions contain at least a few instances of intense mugging and scenery chewing, and many of these actors probably couldn't cut it in a major movie, but the acting is still better than expected, especially as couples. Squeeze Play! follows a bunch of fed-up girlfriends and wives challenging their obsessive softball-playing boyfriends to a friendly game, with Jim Harris and Jenni Hetrick playing the lead roles. Together, they find the right balance of sexiness and genuine drive to win that really makes the movie work. Similarly, Stuck On You! stars Virginia Penta and Mark Mikulski as two exes in the middle of a court case, who are encouraged by the judge ("Professor" Irwin Corey) to reconsider their relationship. Penta is completely game for the film's sex gags (including a hilarious seduction fantasy bit and another where the couple is glued together that gives the film its title), whereas Mikulski seems like he'd fit right in on "Whitest Kids U Know" as Trevor Moore's father (although some people might call that a bad thing). Finally, Turn-On! has Georgia Harrell (also a co-writer) demonstrating equal skill delivering one-liners and slapstick as the older counselor, and David Caruso look-alike John Flood doing a fine job one of the campers. Turn On also features Vincent D'Onofrio as an insane camper named Lobotomy and plenty of beautiful girls, like 1981 Penthouse Pet Sheila Kennedy.
Of the four films, Stuck On You! and Waitress! are the weaker entries. Waitress! tries to juggle two central plotlines: the slow collapse of an upscale restaurant and the acting ambitions of server Andrea (Carol Drake). Sadly, the former is basically just a string of puns and random background chaos, while Andrea's story really isn't all that interesting (not to mention the whole movie tries to float a mild feminist angle, which it fails miserably at amid waves of mild discrimination and exploitation). In the third act, the restaurant mess pulls itself together, and I liked the reactions of the film producer Andrea keeps trying to wow with her thespian skills and the way his wife is sympathetic to Andrea's plight, but even that's frustrating because the movie's supporting plot really works. That thread follows young writer Jennifer (Carol Bevar) and her assignment to see if a magazine's man-attracting checklist is legit, and it's considerably funnier and more interesting than either the central storylines. Had Jennifer's story been the A thread and restaurant chaos been the B thread, Waitress! might've been more of a winner. As for Stuck On You!, the idea is that the judge draws historical parallels to Penta and Mikulski's relationship troubles, which are performed in a Mel Brooksian screwball style. Some of these vignettes are clever, but the back-and-forth structure gets tiring, making 88 minutes feel like two hours.
It's a little surprising that Squeeze Play!, The First Turn-On! and maybe Stuck On You! haven't been remade yet, since they have fairly clever log lines (outside of the films' relative obscurity, that is). Maybe in the age of the internet, teenage boys no longer need the sex comedy. Personally, I remember the good old days of VHS rental stores, where the boxes for movies like Bikini Carwash Company and Beach Babes 2: Cave Girl Island could possibly hold. No offense to any fans of those films, but as an adult, I'm sure those movies are fairly boring, and in a weird way, Kaufman's high aim at a low target, regardless of the movies' technical merits, results in The Sexy Box showcasing a surprisingly well-defined style. In other softcore movies, any cinematic deficiency is just deficiency, but Kaufman enthusiastically embraces his schlock nature, making The Sexy Box both a nice piece of Tromatic history and a fun example of a director who lives and breathes the essence of "so bad, it's good".
I'm not a big fan of baby blue, but while I may not like the slipcover box holding these DVDs together, the individual DVD covers packed inside are very nice, using the original poster art on the front (R ratings prominently displayed) and featuring a slick, yet slightly retro design on the back that really fits all four movies. Lloyd directed the films under a pseudonym (Samuel Weil), but since his mainstream fame has risen and IMDb knows the truth, Troma has given him proper credit. However, they've left his old pseudonym on the billing blocks despite the change, so now Lloyd is credited alongside himself, which is funny. Each of the discs comes in a standard white Amaray case with no insert.
The Video and Audio
Not surprisingly, all four of these 1.33:1 full-frame presentations are fuzzy, muddy and beat up, with the colors offering that distinctive pale, slightly greenish look that unrestored films from the 1980's and earlier always have. That said, the quality of the presentations here is not only unsurprising but maybe even part of the charm, and none of them come close to being unwatchable.
As far as sound goes, Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo is the order of the day, which sounds about as cutting-edge of the transfers, but boils down the same story. Dialogue is audible enough that it's never a big deal, and these wouldn't be cutting-edge soundscapes if they were artificially upgraded to 5.1. There was a moment (in either Waitress! or Stuck On You!) where a strange digital echo occurs during a scene, but I'd guess it was caused by a combination of bad production audio and age rather than a disc error. The one disappointment is the fact that there aren't any subtitles, which is a common issue on independently produced DVDs.
Each film in this set includes a very funny, very candid, very informative audio commentary by co-director/co-writer/co-producer Lloyd Kaufman. There are some technical issues, including patches of fuzzy sound, desynchronization with the film, and Lloyd's closing comments being cut off on a couple discs, and he occasionally repeats himself after some of his tangents, but it really doesn't detract that much from the guy's non-stop chatter. On all four films, his main focus is the challenges of producing movies on extremely low-budgets, and he never sugar-coats the occasional complaint about his actors, the average person's sensibilities or the kinds of movies that Hollywood produces. They're not new (they were included Troma's previous releases), but they're still well worth a spin.
The last two bonus features appear on the disc for The First Turn-On!. The back of the box makes "Supersonic Guided Missile: The Origins of Troma" (9:39) look like three separate interviews (one with Michael Herz and two with Kaufman), but it's really just one clip featuring both Kaufman and Herz. Herz rarely does on-camera interviews, so it's a nice inclusion, but it doesn't really cover anything that Lloyd's commentaries don't, and it's definitely not three interviews (although it does feature most of the nudity from all four films, in case viewers wanted a "greatest hits" reel -- no, I will not make the obvious pun). The DVD cover also advertises a "Featurette with the sex comedy stars", but on the menu it's merely called "Featurette" (5:58), and it's a bit disappointing, since none of the actual leads from any of the films, like Jenni Hetrick, Georgia Harrell, Virginia Penta, Carol Drake, Jim Harris or Mark Mikulski actually show up, just a few of the supporting performers.
All four movies also include their original theatrical trailer and the trailers for the other three films in The Sexy Box, plus additional trailers for Hanging Woman, Combat Shock, Mad Dog Morgan, The Toxic Avenger, and Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead.
I imagine they didn't amount to much, but when these movies were previously released on DVD by Troma, each included an introduction with Lloyd Kaufman, none of which are present here. Still, there's more than enough to make up for their absence...
The Easter Eggs
Thanks to Troma's Twitter feed, I knew I should be on the lookout for some hidden goodies on each disc of this collection. What I found was amazing. Normally I'd include easter eggs in with the rest of the special features, but this is a special exception.
First, hidden on the Squeeze Play! special features menu is a link to the full-length Israeli comedy feature Schwartz, The Brave Detective, aka Ha-Balash Ha'Amitz Shvartz or Big Gus, What's the Fuss? (1:22:52), presented in 1.33:1 full frame (more or less) with 2.0 audio and burned-in English subtitles. Co-written by Lloyd Kaufman, this weird little movie about two private investigators trying to catch a cheating couple plays like a mishmash of The Pink Panther and The Godfather. It's never laugh-out-loud funny (although I laughed at the name "Pussy"), but it's got a friendly, spirited tone that prevents it from getting boring, and a reasonably clever ending. It may not be a sex comedy, but it's in keeping with The Sexy Box's theme by containing a few attractive, witty women, even if it comes off more sexist (likely due to the movie's age).
On Waitress!, hidden in the exact same spot, we get a weird, black-and-white, almost silent film about feminism and The Olympics directed and co-written by Kaufman called The Girl Who Returned (1:01:42), again in 1.33:1 full frame with 2.0 audio. It's only an hour (some footage may be missing), but a more ruthless editor could have hacked away at some of the wordiest, most overwritten narration I've ever heard, and long patches of deafening silence until the material formed a more entertaining 40-45 minute short.
Lastly, on Stuck On You!, in the same spot yet again, is another feature-length film, called The Battle of Love's Return (1:20:20), in 1.33:1 full frame and 2.0 audio. In this one, Lloyd tosses in acting on top of writing and directing, playing the lead role of Abacrombie, who wanders around the city interacting with lots of unusual characters. The movie's intriguing, oddball hook is that we meet all of these people in black-and-white interview segments where you can hear Lloyd asking them questions, contrasting the "real" people with the way they interact with Abacrombie on the street. Lloyd's old producing partner Oliver Stone (yes, that Oliver Stone) also makes a brief appearance. It slows down a bit near the end, but it definitely lands above The Girl Who Returned as an entertaining and interesting bonus.
The disc for The First Turn-On! still features the menu link in the same spot, but it doesn't lead to anything, and a runthrough of the disc content title by title reveals it isn't meant to.
In terms of quality, this four-disc set is all over the map. The movies themselves are mixed-bag affairs that depend strongly on the viewer's sensibilities, the A/V quality is tied to the age and budget of the movies in question, and the discs feature nice commentaries, disappointing video extras, and there are three of the most massive easter eggs I've ever seen (which managed to delay my review of this set by several days as I made my way through them). However, since Troma is a studio that both aims at and appeals to a niche audience looking for "reel independence", this set is recommended -- these light, surprisingly innocent affairs live up to the studio's motto.
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