Recently, I volunteered to review the indie comedy Creating Karma for Boxoffice.com. The press notes boasted that writers Jill Wisoff and Carol Lee Sirugo decided to give up trying to find comedic roles for women and take matters into their own hands by writing one themselves, a cause I thought I might be able to get behind. Unfortunately, the film turned out to be a serious competitor for the worst movie I've ever seen. Over the course of seven or eight grueling hours, I slowly, forcibly dragged myself to the end of the 90 minute film, often groaning out loud at each painfully exaggerated facial expression, each amateurish Windows Movie Maker transition and each excruciatingly unfunny joke.
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 to Creating Karma, even using funny nose glasses as a joke, something I'd been appalled to see in Wisoff's movie. Yet despite these similarities, The Sexy Box seems charmingly low-brow, even legitimately funny at times. It's the perfect example of how the right mentality and tone make all the difference in the world: where Creating Karma sets out with something to prove, the films of The Sexy Box just want to entertain, and their target is undiscerning, horny teenagers at that.
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 indepedent cinema, as if he were Roger Corman's awesome 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. Of course, most Troma productions contain at least a few instances of intense mugging and scenery chewing, and most of these actors probably couldn't cut it in a major movie, but the acting is still better than might be expected (better than is necessary, anyway), 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, Harris and Hetrick find the right balance of sexy playfulness 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 at dialogue and slapstick as the older counselor and David Caruso look-alike John Flood doing a fine job one of the campers, not to mention Vincent D'Onofrio as an insane camper named Lobotomy and plenty of beautiful girls, like 1981 Penthouse Pet Sheila Kennedy.
Admittedly, I found Stuck On You! and Waitress! to be a bit lacking. 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 amidst 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, not to mention the way his wife is sympathetic to Andrea's plight, but the real shame is that 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 better than the other two. Had Jennifer's story been the A thread and restaurant chaos been the B thread, I think 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, but then again, in the age of the internet, I guess teenage boys no longer need the sex comedy. Personally, I remember the good old days of VHS rental stores, where I wondered what kinds of forbidden images tapes for movies like Bikini Carwash Company could possibly hold. No offense to any fans of BCC (or its' sequel), but I'm sure those tapes ultimately pale in comparison to the ridiculous things my young mind could imagine, and in a weird way, Kaufman's high aim at a low target, regardless of the movies' technical quality, results in The Sexy Box's contents having a surprisingly well-defined style. In films like Spring Break, 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 four 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 distinctively getting that pale, slightly greenish look that unrestored films from the 1980's always have. Of course, the look of the films is not only unsurprising but maybe even part of the charm, and none of them are even close to unwatchably bad.
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 occurred 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, like the occasional patch of fuzzy sound, desynching and the occasional last word being cut off, and Lloyd 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, Lloyd mostly talks about the challenges of producing movies on extremely low-budgets, and 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 someone wants all of it in one place...). 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, along with additonal trailers for the other three movies in The Sexy Box and 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. Then again, disc space may have been an issue...
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 weird 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 feels a touch on the sexist side at times (likely due to the movie's age than any legitimate notions of discrimination).
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, if you haven't picked up the trend yet, 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 weird 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 also makes a brief appearance. It slows down a bit in the third act, 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 genuinely all over the map. The movies themselves are love-it-or-hate it affairs that depend strongly on the viewer's sensibilities, the A/V quality is both remarkably poor but also surprisingly acceptable based on the age and budget of the movies in question, and the discs feature nice commentaries, the video features leave something to be desired, 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). Since Troma is a studio that both aims at and appeals to a niche audience looking for "reel independence", this set is recommended to fans of the movies, fans of Troma, and anyone who knows what they're walking into -- everyone else is advised to give it a rent before just diving in.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD and theatrical reviews here and my film blog The Following Preview here.