DVD has done a lot for the entertainment industry. It has exposed filmmakers and their movies to audiences who would have otherwise missed their personal or perverted images. It has resurrected long-lost films that previously rotted on the bottom shelves of video stores, or worse, lay dormant in a studio's dilapidated vault. Even the more prominent moviemakers have had a chance to revisit their careers and bodies of work, releasing special edition versions of their classic titles with bonus material enhancing the context of their vision.
But perhaps nowhere has the diamond-encrusted power of the Digital Versatile Disc been better exploited than in the realm of the short film. This mostly-ignored medium, resigned to special festivals and little-seen PBS screenings, has found happy hospice on the modern home theater format Companies compile and compliment these mini-movies with all manner of bolstering bells and whistles in an attempt to appeal to an overly cautious consumer. In reality, such a supplement-oriented mentality shouldn't be necessary. Many short films stand on their own as examples of cinema at its most straightforward and sensational.
Such is the case with The Best of TromaDance Film Festival: Volume 3. This latest compendium from the free-spirited independent film company offers up 15 fascinating, occasionally flawed features, each one exploring a decidedly different facet of their maker's manic personalities. Taken in total, its an amazing amalgamation of styles and substances. Individually, there are some landmark works scattered amongst the rest of the merry mix.
Begun six years ago by Troma chief Lloyd Kaufman (at the suggestion of South Park genius Trey Parker) TromaDance represents a direct challenge to Sundance in both dogma and direction. TromaDance does not charge filmmakers to enter their movies. It does not require patrons to pay. The festival sees itself as a service to both fans and the dreamers of decidedly offbeat visions. Over the course of two previous volumes, Troma has highlighted some of the stellar moments from this cinematic showcase. This latest release is no different, piling 15 films and over three hours of content onto a single DVD.
Instead of trying to tie all these diverse dioramas together, this review has decided to rank the various vignettes in a countdown of sorts. Moving from worst (which is merely dumb) to first (which is some manner of lost masterpiece), you too can judge the level of talent and tenacity in TromaDance's stable of savants. Let's start with:
#15: Monkey Brains
Directors: Kevin Maher and Whitney Melton
Plot: A couple of guys eat monkey brains. Yep, that's it.
Trying to combine a Grand Guignol ideal of extremism with a slacker notion of wit and wisdom, this short takes its implied miniature time limit far too literally. Before we know it, the ersatz-evisceration is over and we've moved on in the festivities. Nothing truly works in this forced funny flop. Our cranium-craving dullards are just too devoid of personality to make us care about the baboon bloodletting, and when we finally see the staged simian slaughter, it's a few dozen Dick Smith makeup classes away from being successful. Some may find this funny, or in fairly bad taste, but the truth is that Monkey Brains (along with the installment at #14) is stupider than a gray matterless macaque. Score: ½*
#14: The Incredible Torture Trio
Director: Jim Ojala
Plot: A troupe of self-conflagraters misses their opportunity to appear at a big show. A local news reporter presents live coverage from the trio's hotel room as they proceed to injure each other on purpose.
If you mixed Jackass with the Kipper Kids, and tossed a few faux fratboys into the mix, you might have something as sad as The Incredible Torture Trio. This exercise in amateur one-upmanship and shaky stage bloodening is terrible, not terrifying. Hoping to give their hi-jinx a real "Live at Five" notion of authenticity, there is a limited editing, continuous take ideal at work. Unfortunately, it never sells the self-abusing shenanigans as anything other than some hoary old tactics used by carnies and exploitationers in spook shows throughout the 50s and 60s. By the time we've gotten to the over the top extremism of the ending, we want to see the entire cast dead. Score: *
#13: Marijuana's Revenge
Directors: Phil Jackson, David Valdez and Dan Gutierrez
Plot: A series of public service ad parodies about the so-called dangers of pot.
The lampoon is probably the easiest form of humor to get wrong, so when treading into such satirical territory, one needs to walk lightly and rightly. Unfortunately, Marijuana's Revenge does neither. Instead, it smashes us over the head with obvious attacks on such basic bong buffoonery as the munchies, disorientation and uncontrollable laughter. While some of this staidness is still pretty funny, - especially the Godzilla-like Marijuana Monster - it is never all that clever or insightful. Score: **
#12: The J2 Project
Director: Alex Horwitz
Plot: A plot to clone Jesus Christ is successful, but the new Messiah is not exactly what the powers that be had in mind.
A truly professional looking production, The J2 Project ultimately fails because it doesn't fully explore its subject matter. The notion of Christ being remade and retrofitted for a modern social ideal is very interesting, and the results are equally original. But somewhere along the line, we loose interest in the story, and the faux documentary/totally talking head presentation drags the drama down. With an ending that is telegraphed from the moment we see our test tube savior, and not enough transcendent moments to makes us feel the cosmic consequences of this experiment, we end up with a good idea half-heartedly realized. It's a shame, really. The J2 Project has a lot of potential. Score: **
#11: Dummy Drunk
Director: Sin Silva
Plot: A couple of drunk guys call their friend and leave a very bizarre message on his answering machine.
In some ways, Dummy Drunk represents a turning point in our progression, a moment where these short film experiments move out of the realm of the routine and into areas that are actually quite unusual and novel. Case in point is this incredibly weird cartoon. Silva uses photos of friends and associates, animates their mouths, and then plays the surreal soundtrack of the phone call behind it all. The results are both ridiculous and resplendent, commenting on the inebriated stupidity pouring from these intoxicated tools while matching the insanity of the situation perfectly. It's just too bad that the recorded retardation didn't last longer – there is nothing funnier than hearing pickled people caught in the actual act of being beery and buttheaded. Score: ***
#10: Kid Fears
Director: Ty McGee
Plot: A young man, bullied as a child, learns how to box in order to defend himself against those tougher than he. It doesn't help.
In a collection heavy on horror and the macabre, this short stands out for its subtle, suggestive storytelling. Never once letting us fully into the world of our protagonist and his pugilistic passion, but also dropping enough hints and clues to keep us compelled, this is pure narrative filmmaking in its truest form. Many of McGee's images are stunning, and there is a sense of both empowerment and foreboding in his style. Had we had just a tad more story and character development (this is more or less a silent film), we would have something truly special. As it stands, this is one of the better offerings from TromaDance Vol. 3. Score: ***
#9: Anomalous Humanite
Director: Sin Silva
Plot: We get a chance to see the supposedly only known footage of Friedrich Spookagori and his traveling Morgatorium of Mystery. Within this freak show setting, we witness many unsettling sights.
Silva uses his unique, unusual aesthetic to bring a very original idea to life. Recalling the classic "Closer" video by Nine Inch Nails along with some of Rob Zombie's retro reimagining, this intriguing bit of show and shock is an incredibly polished production. The only drawback is that Silva doesn't push the precepts far enough. He gives us only glimpses of the grotesque, suggestions of the peculiar and the pestilent without giving the images time to register. More or less hampered by the short film ideal, Humanite could have used a slower hand in the editing and a longer pause before each transition. The visuals are amazing. The flow is flawed. Score: ***
#8: In Defense of Lemmings
Director: Justin Remer
Plot: Starting off as a documentary on a Lemming loving activist, our story suddenly turns into the tale of a sad sack writer with a wicked case of block.
Sometimes, the best approach in a short film is to keep the audience on its toes, guessing what will come next and how it will relate to the previous portion. Justin Remer does just this, creating a clever story that keeps changing course just as soon as the prior element runs out of gas. Funny, fresh and occasionally a little forced (you can sense Remer taking certain paths because he knows they'll be outrageous) Lemmings perfectly exemplifies the power in short subjects. Within a brief span of time, an entire world can be explored. Remer does just that. Score: ***
#7: Skunk Ape
Director: Matt and Greg Brookens
Plot: A rotten punk band, Screamin' Scab and the Herpes, runs into the Everglades answer to Bigfoot while practicing for a gig. After successfully escaping the acrid ape, the band heads for a gig in Chicago. The bog beast follows to enact some swamp Sasquatch revenge.
Mixing goofiness with gore, a tired old premise (the Blair Witch documentary POV) with an irreverent sense of humor, Skunk Ape is a 30 minute short that goes on for about 5 minutes too long. Removing some of the flat filmic fat and tightening up the tension would have increased both the humor and the horror here. It is hard to balance bloodletting with jocularity, but the Brookens brothers manage the feat with deft ability. They do let some sequences drag on (the female bass players passion to be a Britney-esque pop star overstays its welcome), but the overall tone is terrific, and there are dozens of dizzying laughs in this cool, crazy comedy. Pushed a little further into the extreme of either side – scary or stupid – this would have been a classic. As it stands, it's an absurdly stunted slice of revelry. Score: ***1/2
#6: Kung Fu Kitties
Directors: David Valdez, Philip Gunn, and Dan Gutierrez
Plot: Two tiny kittens battle to the death over the ownership of their litter box. But when they wake the evil Snowball, all bets are off.
Mixing classic video game graphics with a Clutch Cargo ideal of character animation, Kung Fu Kitties is so dumb as to be divine. Using high-pitched people voices and a meshing of human mouths with real cat footage, this f*cked up feline fracas is just one jaw-droppingly deranged moment after another. Referencing chopsocky, Pong, ninjas and a few dozen of the filmmakers personal fever dreams, this mesmerizing mess just has to be seen to be believed. Anything that presents tiny, demonic cats with rapid marble eyes fighting to the death in modified martial arts mania deserves some manner of merit And the amateurish Photoshop animation is insane icing on this crazy cartoon cake. Score: ***1/2
#5: Working Stiff
Director: Jesse Kerman
Plot: A lonely video clerk pines away for an ambivalent Goth gal. Despondent, he decides to end it all. But he soon discovers that dying is not as easy as he thinks.
Working Stiff represents a simple idea, brilliantly realized. Flawless in tone and effortless in its storytelling, director Kerman keeps us engaged and involved in the life of these two star-crossed lovers, never once overplaying the moment, or hinting at the next reveal. Even when it wanders over into necrophilia and grave robbing, it keeps its bitter black humor in check. The use of a monochrome visual style helps maintain the stark contrasts between death and devotion in the tale. Expanded into an actual feature, it would be easy to see Working Stiff as an effective, eerie saga of unrequited love gone terribly wrong. Score: ****
#4: La Diamant Des Damnes
Director: Ludovic Spenard
Plot: A couple decide to vacation in an old country cabin. Apparently, the log-laden abode is the home to a strange legend about a demonic beast, a gaggle of evil spirits, and a rare diamond. Naturally, when the gem is disturbed, all holy Hades breaks loose.
Okay, granted, Sam Raimi did this movie a whole HELL of a lot better when it was called Evil Dead II and starred Bruce Campbell as a decidedly non-French Canadian Ash. Still, when placed in the Quebecian hands of director Ludovic Spenard, our standard wicked woods scenario plays out brilliantly. To call this a homage to Sam the man and his cabinessence chaos would be like saying Gus Van Sant's version of Psycho merely "suggested" Hitchcock's. While the effects are actually worse than those in the first Evil Dead (they recall the mediocre mannequin quality of some of the worst Italian zombie fare) Spenard keeps the mood light and the action inventive. Brains fly, limbs explode and the camera constantly races around, trying to keep up with the craziness. The foreign language facet of the film (it is in French with subtitles) also helps, since it suggests a level of sophistication and subtlety the movie more or less lacks. While the superhero style ending feels like a tacked on bit of bravado to suggest some non-existent sequel, this is still a frightfully fun and ferocious bit of genre juicing. Score: ****
#3: Fear of Fools
Director: Robert Kleinschmidt and Tracy Waaka
Plot: Sinister clowns entertain a group of spectators before killing and eating them.
If reading the plot synopsis above makes you wary of watching this clip of carnival carnage, don't worry – Fear of Fools is far kookier than it is cannibalistic. Using a stop-motion animation technique and a decidedly Play-Do design for its characters, Fools recalls a more macabre version of some eight year olds home horror movies. This Gumby gross out is filled with several menacing moments, galloons of clay grue and a few sly Killer Klowns from Outer Space idea swipes. The nightmare quality of the concept is pushed to the limit, and while many may feel that clowns as horrible specters of hate is nothing really new, Kleinschmidt and Waaka find ways to marry the harlequin with the horror to successfully avoid those clichés. While the directors could have pushed the puppet pantomime even further into the realm of the revolting, this is still a sensational bit of sickness, guaranteed to fill your malevolent Merry Andrew fixation perfectly. Score: ****
#2: PDA Massacre
Director: Jamie Greco
Plot: A crazy psycho it running around New York City, murdering couples who faux-fornicate in public. But he may have met his match in a young pregnant woman.
Don't let the title fool you: this is not some techno-drivel about personal computer or cell phones going postal. Instead, this is a part silly, part serious slasher movie throwback with some very insightful things to say about public morals and social standards. The PDA in question is the shorthand reference for public displays of affection, and such a novel approach to your typical terror tale is one of the reasons why the freaked-out killer theme works. Greco is very compelling as the menacing maniac (imagine Marc Almond from Soft Cell crossed with Arnold Stang and just a splash of drag queen divadom) and balances the hideous with the hilarious quite well. Equally excellent are b-movie scream queen Debbie Rochon and Troma chief Lloyd Kaufman. Both match Greco tone for temperament to make PDA Massacre both spine tingling and rib tickling. Constantly pushing the envelope of taste and tackiness, there is only one shortcoming to this otherwise inspired insanity. The narrative could have easily been expanded into full feature length and everything Greco was working through would have still seemed fresh. As it is, this is a sensational bit of slice and dice. Score: ****1/2
Director: Giuseppe Andrews
Plot: A washed up basketball player spends his days drinking and his nights reminiscing, hoping to reclaim his past glory.
It is safe to say it: Giuseppe Andrews is some manner of cinematic God! After the startlingly original Trailer Town, it's hard to imagine this inventive, confrontational auteur manufacturing anything as potent or powerful, but dammit if Dribble doesn't match that previous masterpiece brave beat for beat. Using the same format as he did with Town (a cast of actual trailer park residents reading scripted material to form a series of profane, profound conversations), Andrews offers more of a narrative here, taking his main character through the trials and tribulations of being a has-been sports hero. There are scenes so profound they literally boggle the mind. There are moments so perverted you feel dirty overhearing them.
Andrews loves the language of filth, and piles on the debauched diatribes with unreal relish. Knowing you've never heard or seen things as deranged and disgusting as he presents here (including a full frontal shot of a creepy old man doing a nude dance) Andrews makes us confront some very uncomfortable facets of life. He uses words and images in carefully crafted couplets of corruption, blending the brash with the brazen and the bawdy to practically revolutionize cinema. True film fans should seek out Andrews' weird, warped work. It is truly something uniquely deranged. Score: *****
Overall, this is a great collection of shorts, a real tribute to Troma and the fans who favor its corporate carrion call against mainstream mediocrity. While the first few vignettes in this review appear less than successful, the truth is that they tend to rework well-worn ideals to limited success. There is far more invention in Marijuana's Revenge or The J2 Project than you'll find in most full length Hollywood blockbusters, and for all their Faces of Death derivativeness, The Incredible Torture Trio and Monkey Brains still represent an energy and excitement that directly gainsays the conformity of pop culture creativity. But thanks to the brilliance of Dribble, the mixed message of mockery and menace in PDA Massacre or the dark dramedy of Working Stiff, one can actually see the next generation of genre filmmakers taking form in this fine collection. TromaDance does what Sundance claims to do: it introduces the world to new voices in independent cinema. And The Best of TromaDance Film Festival Volume 3 is a satisfying souvenir of that determined doctrine.
As wildly divergent as the subject matter they manifest, the transfers of the short films on The Best of TromaDance Film Festival, Volume 3 are equally contradictory. Some are pristine and perfect. Others are faded and flawed. A few even have distracting defects like massive grain and blatant creases in the tape transfers. Some of the best images come from Dribble, PDA Massacre, Skunk Ape, The J2 Project and both of Sin Silva's works. On the negative end of the visual spectrum are Working Stiff, La Diamant Des Damnes, and Monkey Brains. Nothing about these 1.33:1 full frame features is particularly pathetic, but some do definitely stand out over the others.
Everything said about the video can be transferred over to the audio as well. Though each soundtrack is channeled through the primary presentation's Dolby Digital Stereo mix, many of the films suffer from camcorder microphoniness. You will experience occasional dropout, some shrill distortion, indecipherable dialogue and frequently lame indie rock songs throughout all of The Best of TromaDance Film Festival Volume 3. More times than not, there is plenty of mood and a marvelous sense of atmosphere in the sonic situations. But this is not a true decibel delight.
With so much content cluttering up the available disc space on the DVD, there is really not much room for bonus features. Peta2.com, a sponsor of TromaDance, uses some of its more gruesome animal experimentation and abuse footage to get across the music video message of Goldfinger's "Free Me". Also, there are a couple of trailers for other Troma films. Lloyd Kaufman makes his usual amusing introduction (including a big fat freak eating handfuls of pizza), but this time, he really has something heartfelt to say about his film festival. That, however, is the extent of the added content. Again, with so much movie here, it would be next to impossible to provide padding like commentaries, making-of's or simple filmographies. The fact that we get 15 different views from the world of independent cinema should be enough...and actually, it is.
The immediate impression one is left with after watching The Best of TromaDance Film Festival Volume 3 is two-fold. First, it's hard to imagine the level of talent and invention that exists outside the mainstream Hollywood marketplace – or perhaps, in spite of it. No one over at Miramax or flying under the radar at Fine Line is making magnificently malignant movies like Working Stiff or Dribble. Big budget auteurs with more bucks than bang aren't crafting the creativity inherent in PDA Massacre, Skunk Ape or The J2 Project. Certainly there are stumbles along the way, and most of these cinematic experiments are far from perfect. But when you can laugh at the lunacy of In Defense of Lemmings or marvel at the copycat cajones of La Diamant Des Damnes, it's time to thank your DVD player. And that's the second notion that navigates your individual aesthetics after wading through this trove of treasures. If it weren't for this new technology and its cheap, available entertainment elements, there would be a limited outlet for works such as these. If the digital domain is the savior for outsider cinema, Troma is the champion of its challengers. The Best of TromaDance Film Festival Volume 3 is an amazing merger of mini-movies. And it's all DVD's fault.