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FEATURING: , Alyce LaTourelle, Trent Haaga, Lloyd Kaufman
PLOT: A serial killer picks off members of a film crew making a -style movie.
COMMENTS: John Waters once said, “It’s easy to be shocking, but it’s hard to be witty and shocking.”
I’m not sure Terror Firmer, and Lloyd Kaufman’s Troma output in general, wants to be either shocking or witty. In a movie that begins with a baby ripped out of the womb inside the first minute, it seems easy to make a case for the former. But since everything is played as a joke in the very broadest terms possible—e.g., when a man’s hand is cut off, he takes a bite of his own bloody stump, for no conceivable reason—the impact of the shock scenes is greatly diminished. It’s not as taboo-busting as Pink Flamingos (although it does have a number of rape jokes, which, besides racist and homophobic jokes, are perhaps the last real taboos left in existence.) Troma may poke at political correctness, but they don’t really take a stand behind any of their offensive ideas, playing them off as toothless gags as quickly as possible. What they really aim at is not to be shocking so much as to be simply gross—thus, the rivers and rivers of bodily fluids and waste, from director Lloyd Kaufman blindly peeing all over a fornicating couple to the killer puking voluminously over a couple of Frenchmen. As a grossout spectacle, Terror Firmer reaches a pinnacle that even John Waters couldn’t have dreamed up (though a few frat parties I went to in the 80s might have approached it).
As for witty… I’m not sure that was a big point of emphasis in the script. Yes, there are a couple of clever film industry jokes at the expense of self-important targets like Stephen Spielberg, “Cahiers du Cinéma” and Penny Marshall; and, for fairness’ sake, jokes at the expense of Troma’s own lack of taste, quality, and continuity. But in general, Lloyd Kaufman’s instinct is to go lowbrow, and to go for quantity above quality. The comedy calculus seems to be: if they can fit in four jokes a minute, that’s almost five hundred gags in the movie, and at least three or four of them will land. Terror Firmer isn’t witty, but it’s busy. Take, for example, a random but representative scene involving the shooting of the movie-within the movie from the middle of the picture. It’s set at a vegetarian rally and in the space of a minute it brings in protesters in bikinis, a surly script supervisor with a mohawk, a honking crotch sound effect, a piece of liver on a string, and a man in a cow suit with a functioning udder that leaks greenish milk; it ends with a scatological eruption. The result of such scenes, packed with chaotic, trashy punk mise-en-scène, is a movie that’s better in its tiny details than it is in its grand design. The movie’s frenzied parade of freaks and outrageousness keeps you from getting bored even when the juvenile jokes aren’t carrying the lame plot. It’s a Tromatic as any movie has ever been.
Bottom line: Terror Firmer is gross and busy rather than shocking and witty. But you can’t say that a movie with prosthetic hermaphrodite genitals, a naked fat guy running through the streets of New York City, and a puppet crucifixion (complete with dangling severed hand) isn’t going all-out for your attention.
The cast is huge. Will Keenan, who also starred in Tromeo & Juliet (1996), may be the closest thing to leading man material to appear in a Troma film. He reminds me a little of a slightly less handsome with slightly better acting chops (his impression isn’t too bad). Alyce LaTourelle does a decent job as the only straight character in the madness, but was never seen again after this. Kaufman is as goofy as one would expect; his lack of comic timing is itself a running joke. Trent Haaga got this part (his film debut) by publishing positive reviews of Troma movies; he later wrote screenplays (The Toxic Avenger IV, Deadgirl) and fashioned a career as a character actor. supplies most of the eye candy. Ron Jeremy and Lemmy from Motorhead have cameo roles (Lemmy’s is funny).
Dedicated fans may want to pick up 2020’s “20th Anniversary” Blu-ray release, but it’s arguably no improvement over the original 2-disc DVD release, whose special features it mostly recycles. Troma’s grimy visual style doesn’t really scream out for high definition. This print has also been reformatted to a widescreen presentation, when the original was deliberately shot in a 4:3 ratio intended to fit 1999 television screens. A new introduction from Kaufman and a fifteen-minute reunion featurette are the only bonuses not found on the original release.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: