You can't fault Troma for championing the underdog. They've made their entire reputation via flying under the radar, challenging the Tinsel Town norm, and discovering unsung talent. Without the company, we wouldn't have the genre geek James Gunn, or his equally impressive spouse Jenna. In fact, there are dozens of titles – Meat Weed Massacre, Rock and Roll Space Patrol: Action is Go!, Viral Assassins, Superstarlet A.D., Dumpster Baby, the collected works of Warren F. Disbrow, and the wonderful creative canon of Giuseppe Andrews - that would have gone unnoticed and unappreciated had this Manhattan mainstay not stepped up and supported their efforts. Of course, under this all-inclusive conceit, you've got to take the crap with the creative. For every Trailer Town, you've got to sponsor a Slaughter Party. For every Outlaw Prophet, you've got to tolerate a Dr. Hackenstein.
Now comes the latest entrant into the Troma cinematic showcase – The Macabre Pair of Shorts. The question, naturally, is on what side of the scale does this supposed fright film fall? Is it a dream? Or, a dud? Sadly, the latter label is most appropriate. This is an appalling attempt at horror humor, degrading every aspect of the genre it wants to mimic and mock.
This movie is made up of two main plots. One involves a couple of Panavision employees working Overtime (thus the name of this section) on Halloween. They discover a film can with the label The Macabre Pair of Shorts (thus the movie's moniker) and they decide to watch it. What they witness is the second main story, which covers a pair of vampires who, after a dinner of David "Angel" Boreanaz, decide to sit down an watch a television show entitled – you guessed it, The Macabre Pair of Shorts (thus the title, name-checked a second time). We then get a chance to view the following:
Vamps – a pair of lesbo-leaning vampirettes need to find another mortal to feast upon. They make the mistake of picking up a seemingly sappy dork, only to discover he is dying from a blood disorder. Out of sympathy, they turn him into a member of the living dead, granting him immortality. Unfortunately, the dude is a serial killer (huh?) and he goes on an invincible citywide killing spree. The girls have to capture and destroy him before he wipes out all of LA.
The Legend of Seymour Hackell – a literature teacher is plenty pissed off that modern students could care less about Ichabod Crane and the classic "Legend of Sleepy Hollow". After his authentic Crane period costume is mistaken for George Washington at a Halloween party, he decides to leave the lamentable shindig and take a shortcut home. Naturally, he comes face to face with a modern day headless horseman – on a motorcycle, no less.
MPS – a behind the scenes look at how the vampire couple scenes were shot – including an interesting bit of casting.
The Eggs – an anxious man visits a psychiatrist and tells a surreal tale about being followed by a mime. The silent stalker in the funny striped hat keeps offering the man green eggs and ham, which naturally, he does not like.
After the movie is over, the workers wander into the projection booth and discover that the film has unraveled. Shockingly, the footage doesn't want to stay in the garbage can. It attacks the men and goes on a Panavision rampage. Our hero, Tony, has to arm himself, Aliens style, to take down the rampaging reel.
Really nothing more than a highlight portfolio created by some (now ex-) employees of Panavision, The Macabre Pair of Shorts is painfully bad. It flaunts its arrogant ambitions in ways both depressing and indefensible. Nothing works here – not the set up story, not the material within the movie, not even the several shorts that are incorporated into the overall narrative. Indeed, the word "pair" by its very definition means "two", and yet this muddled mess offers no less than six separate narratives to follow. Even if you grant away the bookend bits and remove the boob tube watching bloodsuckers from the formula, we still have three different segments to suffer through. Now, there would be nothing wrong with bending the rules if the experiences were worth it. Filmmaker Scott Mabbutt could call his movie 101 Tall Tales, and only deliver a dozen, as long as they were expertly helmed, wonderfully written, and professionally realized. But you can feel the home movie quality of this product from the first few minutes of screen time. As Tony and his partner discuss their depression over having to work on Halloween, the noticeable amateur acting begins to bother us. By the time they pull out that tired premise of the "long lost reel of film", we expect something less than impressive.
Sadly, all of our worst fears are instantly realized. Looking over the individual segments will surely support this conclusion. Beginning with the prologue and epilogue, we can walk through the individual films and pinpoint where the problems exist. Unfortunately, it's going to be a rather prickly experience. Let's start with:
Overtime (Score: **)
The original inspiration for this tired bit of nonsense, Overtime is supposed to be a spoof of all the '80s films where unsuspecting individuals unleash unholy entities of Hate by the application of standard lifestyle choices (turning on a light, going into the basement, preparing a portion of peas and carrots). Here, our goofy lens cleaners decide to ignore the warning plastered on the reel of film from the vault, thread it up, and come face to face with the most hideous of inhuman creations – and they battle a celluloid monster as well. The comedy is forced and unfunny (only the running gag about Tony's odiferous feet offers any manner of merriment) and the nods to action thrillers like Aliens and Terminator II are very poorly accomplished. Mixing styles (there's stop motion and obvious reverse footage) and moods, we aren't sure how seriously – or conversely, how slightly – we should take this stuff. The anticlimactic feeling one gets when the narrative finally fades away permeates every other cinematic experiment here. Mabbutt is obviously a man of ideas – he just doesn't know how to bring them to entertaining life.
Vamps (Score: **)
A slight story, followed by an even more minor finale. This wants to be one of those atmospheric, Anne Rice-inspired looks at the lives of modern monsters. We are supposed to see these Sappho vein drainers as sexy and seductive, but in truth, they look like Poison groupies, bad hair and overdone make-up suggesting that the members of the undead could really use a style consultant. The plot jumps ahead in its ideas before the proper foundation is set, and when the girls take pity on the dying drone they've captured, you can see Mabbutt trying to foreshadow his sinister side via prop newspapers and oddball acting. Since the serial killer angle is so underdeveloped, it comes out of left field during the climax, and the rift between the vampire lovers is lost among an attempt at tone and mood. Choppy, sloppy and lacking in any real insight into the fascination with these creatures of the night, Vamps is a violation of several genre mandates. It deserves to drink all the diseased blood it discusses.
The Legend of Seymour Hackell (Score: *)
Just what the cinema needed – another overbearing, irritating, scenery-chewing character to totally aggravate and irritate an audience. Good anti-heroes are hard to come by, and the smug Seymour Hackell is someone we don't want to know, let alone follow for five minutes. During this dreary reinterpretation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, we start to see certain strategies in Mabbutt's moviemaking. He loves to try out old tricks (stationary individual inferring movement via smoke and wind) and play with specific angles to accentuate the aesthetic. It doesn't work. Indeed, we grow annoyed at how clueless the movie seems to be about its tacky production values. The characters here aren't campy – they're angry, irritable and irrational. We want to get away from them as soon as possible. Besides, budgetary limits obviously hampered the possible ending, since the final shot makes little or no real sense.
MPS (Score: 1/2 *)
This minor moment in the film is supposed to be a slam at how crazy and chaotic a film shoot really is. As David Bonreanaz argues over appearing in the segment, we see grips grunting and groaning, while technicians tweak. The punchline is poor and the overall segment plays like a lame afterthought.
The Eggs (Score: *)
Remember when Jesse Jackson took the stage at Saturday Night Live to offer a dramatic recitation of Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham? By law, that was the only allowable reimagining of that kiddie classic – ever! Well, apparently Mr. Mabbutt didn't get that memo, since he tries to turn the tale into a self-referencing work of Twilight Zone like suspense. Ho hum. First of all, Sam I Am was not a sniggering mime. He was a mischievous imp desperate to open up the realms of possibilities to his narrow-minded pal. He argued that, without trying it, how would the reluctant gourmand not know if he enjoyed emerald pork product and their sunny side up jade accompaniment. In this vapid version of the tale, no amount of moody monochrome or noir like nuances can save this stupid setup from itself. As a man on the run from this pesky performance artist, anything remotely 'Seuss' gets lost in filmic masturbation and very bad writing. Even when the reference is obvious, it still gets lost in the tepid translation.
When your title is as confusing as your films, you know you're in deep, disastrous do-do. The Macabre Pair of Shorts (which has nothing to do with the leggy ladies on the cover, or their hinder riding hot pants, mind you) stinks of the direct to cable/VHS craze of the late 80s, when the ready availability of rental outlets and coaxial links created a sure bet supply and demand situation. No matter how horrid the product was, a decent return from Cinemax or Blockbuster was pretty much a glorified guarantee. Mabbutt shows very little skill as a filmmaker, fumbling the facets of the cinematic process regularly and often. The editing is awkward and the compositions pedestrian and, on occasion, problematic. Desperation would be the only reason anyone would want to waste their time on this compendium of crud. Unless you have a masochistic streak a couple of miles wide, or need to see every title where the subject matter somehow relates to horror, you should avoid this release at all costs. The only thing horrifying here is the scary lack of entertainment value.
Crafted on 35mm stock (most likely, ends and run-offs) and switching between a 1.33:1 (Overtime, Vamps, MPS, The Eggs) and a 1.85:1 non-anamorphic letterboxed presentation (The Legend of Seymour Haskell), The Macabre Pair of Shorts looks pretty shoddy. There is ever-present grain in the night (and black and white) sequences and the colors are incredibly soft. Details are drained away by the lack of a clear, correctly contrasted image and the transfer trades on darkness far too readily. While one doesn't expect perfection from a no-budget showcase in directorial experiments, DVD demands better. Troma's treatment here is obviously not the problem. It was the prints they were provided that cause the concern.
Offered in Dolby Digital Stereo, the music is pushed up high in the mix, making dialogue occasionally hard to hear. Other sonic elements – effects, ambiance – are handled well. Overall, the aural aspects of this release are acceptable if unexceptional.
As part of the DVD package, Troma ponies up a few deleted scenes (nothing major or truly missed) a full length audio commentary from Mabbutt and a few of his cast members/friends (dull and incredibly self-serving, since these guys feel the films are genius) and a typical Troma introduction by the usually hilarious Lloyd Kaufman. This installment of his perverse prologues is no different. Add in the standard merchandising material from the company, including trailers and a look at the upcoming Toxic Avenger novel and you've got an above-average digital presentation – not that this movie deserves it.
All critical sniping aside, The Macabre Pair of Shorts is a spectacularly dull diversion. It will not peak your morbid macabre curiosity, nor will it awaken your desire for true independent cinema. Instead, you'll more than likely catch yourself drooling, drowsy, and incoherent after the fog of failure this film engulfs you in. Easily earning the weakest rating available, Skip It this film sucks – and even then, that may seem too polite a position. Since the movie assaults our aesthetic senses so, ignoring it is not enough The Macabre Pair of Shorts deserves a good clip across its hackneyed chops. While it's obvious that Troma tries to give everyone out there slogging away at their own homemade masterpiece a friendly and fair shake, some amateur auteurs just need to be avoided. Add Scott Mabbutt to the list of outsider cinephiles who sully, not support, Troma's ideals. This sad selection of short subjects is a just abysmal.