The Frank Capra of splatter films strikes again.

Published October 30, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"Within the first two minutes of the movie, you've got a man's leg pulled off, a man blowing his brains out and a woman being defeatist."

Lloyd Kaufman, director, writer, producer and co-founder of the infamous Troma Studios, is describing his new picture, "Terror Firmer," which opens Friday at Laemmle's in Los Angeles.

But I'm confused about the last thing he said. "Defeatist?" I ask.

Kaufman pauses, then clarifies. "No. Her fetus being pulled from her stomach. De-fetused."


Founded in 1974 by Kaufman and partner Michael Herz, Troma Studios is the oldest -- and most controversial -- independent film studio in existence. Filmmakers as diverse as Quentin Tarantino, Trey Parker ("South Park") and Sam Raimi ("For Love of the Game") were inspired by Troma. Actors such as Kevin Costner, Robert De Niro, Billy Bob Thornton and Samuel L. Jackson got their start there. And titles such as "Chopper Chicks in Zombietown," "Stuff Stephanie in the Incinerator" and "A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell" fill the studio's shelves.

"You cannot endure for 25 years without doing something that touches people," says Kaufman of these films. "With all due respect, when the dust clears, our movies are classics. Our movies are great art." Kaufman points out that -- just like Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Buquel in the 1920s -- "films I wrote and directed were extremely upsetting 20 years ago. Now they're being shown in museums."

Troma is primarily regarded as a horror factory, but its main function has been, as Kaufman puts it, to act as "a Cuisinart of genres." Gory 1980s horror flicks like "Nightmare on Elm Street" had started to take on a slightly comic tone. Being "an extreme movie studio," Kaufman and Herz took this trend to its logical cinematic extreme, and made the slapstick, ultra-violent horror-comedy "The Toxic Avenger." This comedy-horror hybrid is thriving today, as evidenced by the success of the "Scream" and "I Know What You Did Last Summer" franchises.

"The Toxic Avenger" is the story of Melvin Junko, a wimpy health club janitor who falls (after a cruel prank goes awry) into a vat of toxic waste and mutates into the repulsive yet heroic Toxic Avenger (or "Toxie," as he's affectionately called). Toxie has been used as a symbol for the Environmental Protection Agency, the Armed Forces and the Green Party -- and has spawned three sequels, comic books, trading cards, video games, action figures, lunch boxes and even a Saturday morning cartoon show, "The Toxic Crusaders."

How many X-Rated films can you say that about?

"We made 'The Toxic Avenger' partly because we saw a headline in the Hollywood Reporter that said, 'Horror films are dead.' Horror films never die. Sometimes Hollywood just has an attitude that horror is beneath them and their $100 million explosion movies," says Kaufman.

"Troma films will frighten you, but not in the way 'Halloween' frightens you. Our movies stretch you in every direction -- you're scared, you're shocked, you're laughing your head off, you cry ... It literally Tromatizes you, it makes your emotions into stretchable rubber."

Case in point: the 1996 underground hit "Tromeo and Juliet." In the first 15 minutes, it boasts nipple piercing, dismemberment, Internet porn, phone sex, lesbian sex, masturbation, farting, incest, bondage, splattered brains and cigarette-smoking vaginas -- all the things that make Shakespeare great. Yet each act of Tromatic degradation is somehow less insulting than a single Bruce Willis gunshot.

"They're low-budget spoofs of everything," explains Stephen Holden of the New York Times. "With the sensibilities of Mad magazine, they're making fun of themselves and making fun of the audience at the same time that they are using some of the images that are popular in exploitation movies."

Such movies fill the 500-strong Troma library. This includes the reviled 1975 film "Bloodsucking Freaks." This very nasty, very repugnant "comedy" could've easily been titled "101 Ways to Torture and Mutilate Naked Women." Not surprisingly, it sparked a national campaign of protest from Women Against Pornography.

"It's probably the most horrifying movie ever made," admits Kaufman today. "I think if it came around again, we would not get involved because it's so misogynistic. I think I've been enlightened by the women's movement. I must tell you, though, that 'The Toxic Avenger' sells about 2,000 tapes every month, and 'Bloodsucking Freaks' is not far behind."

Kaufman stands behind his other affronts. "The Toxic Avenger" includes evil teens who score points by running down children with their car. When one child survives, they throw the car in reverse and try again, squashing his head beneath the tires. The finale of 1995's "Beware: Children at Play" involves townsfolk slaughtering a tribe of malicious kids. Small children are decapitated, macheted and pitchforked in the neck; one youngster gets a gun thrust in his mouth and his brains sprayed against a wall.

"You don't kill children in movies unless it's Troma," says Kaufman proudly. "That's part of our function. Why not kill them? Why shouldn't they be killed? Kids are scary. Kids are zombies, most of them."

While I'm speaking to Kaufman at Troma's L.A. office, several LAPD officers pause to examine the graffiti caricatures of Toxie, Sgt. Kubikiman and other Tromungous icons that grace the outer wall. Kaufman laughs at the officers. They don't know if it's art or vandalism. This confusion is consistent with the Bad Filmmaking Seal of Disapproval that the Troma label often stamps on its product. Even MTV calls the Troma crew "trashmeisters."

Case in point: "Troma's War" features the "AIDS Brigade" -- a festering, lesion-riddled troop bent on infecting America with their exaggerated affliction. On the one hand, this is offensive. On the other hand, dealing with AIDS in 1986 (long before red ribbons became almost trendy) was brave. Dealing with AIDS humorously was even braver. Adding AIDS to their list of traditionally non-funny topics (along with sex and violence), Troma continued to practice "healthy catharsis through comedy."

Kaufman likens the Tromatic effect to Dadaism, the early-'20s anti-art movement devised to confound, infuriate and shock. "I want to get people's juices flowing, get them to react emotionally. I mean, how can you react emotionally to 'Notting Hill'? You've seen it all before. It's safe and goody-goody -- a true example of passionless, misdirected, unguided, committee-made non-art."

"Everything's being homogenized into baby food for us. When people go to a Troma movie, they know they may love 'The Toxic Avenger,' and they know they may hate 'Tromeo and Juliet,' but they know they're never going to forget 'Terror Firmer.'"

"Terror Firmer" (which was described by the French Cinematheque as "Truffaut's 'Day For Night' meets 'Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer' through the eyes of Frank Capra") is the consummate Troma horror/comedy. It's a Troma film about Troma filmmakers making a Troma film. A "sexually conflicted serial killer" is knocking off members of the crew. Camera-ham Kaufman plays -- get this -- the film's director.

"'Terror Firmer' has people getting their heads squashed. We've got dismemberment, we've got people getting their penises pulled off, we've got everything in this movie," says Kaufman. "But the one thing that gives me the willies is when I watch myself acting -- or trying to act."

"Terror Firmer" has no national launch date. Then again, no Troma film does. "We only have about 60 people working for us," says Kaufman, "and we don't have the wherewithal to open nationally. So we start in L.A."

From there it's a process of convincing the few remaining independent theater houses to play the film. The politically charged Kaufman -- who led the 1999 Academy Award picketing of Elia Kazan's Lifetime Achievement Award -- believes this process is hampered by de facto blacklisting.

"The four or five big companies own everything -- the movie studios, the newspapers, the TV stations, the cable systems  they own the president of the United States, for Christ's sake, and his whore wife! Warner Brothers spends $1 million per film to advertise in New York; we are spending $15,000 in cash. Our fans have been trained to find us quick because there's gonna be some shitty Miramax movie [replacing our film]. It's an age of being brainwashed by the media that everything's got to be big to be legitimate -- big companies, big cars, big breasts, big lips, big money."

To battle what he sees as an economic stranglehold, Kaufman tries to take his product directly to his fans via Troma Team Video, Troma DVD and the upcoming

"It's a virtual city in cyberspace specifically aimed at the alternative culture," says Kaufman, who urges everyone to apply for Tromaville citizenship. It kicks off at the Playboy Mansion on Nov. 15, with a live Webcast of the last day of shooting on the set of "Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger 4." One lucky contest winner gets to be killed by Toxie himself.

Kaufman is a consummate underdog. Like him or hate him, Kaufman has resisted selling out or distilling his confrontational vision. "As Jimmy Stewart says in Frank Capra's films, 'Lost causes are the most important ones to fight for.' And the Bard said it, too: 'To thine own self be true.'

"That's the true Troma philosophy."

By Daniel Kraus

Daniel Kraus is the director of the award-winning film "Jefftowne."

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