Embraced by E!, shrugged off by Psychotronic, and variously hyped or panned by less schlock-centric institutions, the output of Troma Studios has remained gleefully questionable regardless of whether anyone was asking. Lacking the double-time invective perfected by Russ Meyer and Jack Hill or the outer-limits cinematic ineptitude of Ed Wood and Herschell Gordon Lewis, Troma films are better addressed in bulk—like any tenacious fungus, they’ll grow on you given half a chance.
A sustained bit of exposure, Anthology’s Tromathon offers ample evidence that cofounders Michael Herz and Lloyd Kaufman’s works have become increasingly adept, nimbly self-referential absurdist burlesques. If the duo’s early sex comedies are ill-suited for sober viewing, Kaufman’s Terror Firmer (1999) proves infectiously drunk on its own excess, a catchall plot literalizing the implicit theme of their whole writhing, farting canon: the contentious thrill of making Troma movies. Here, blind director Larry Benjamin (Kaufman) struggles to rein in the roiling freak show of a Troma crew and get Toxic Avenger 4 into the proverbial can. Equally concerned with guerrilla filmmaking, hermaphroditic rage, and snot-nosed digression as a means to every end, Terror Firmer blows a load hardest when skewering its own fervent idiocy.
The best of the rest do likewise, if rarely with such pitch-perfect mania. Troma’s War (1988) is as concerned with outgunning Rambo on a shoestring budget as it is with social satire (American plane-crash survivors massacre an island’s worth of terrorists). Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986) reimagines ’80s teen flicks as the playground of chemical waste victims, while The Toxic Avenger (1984) actually is one—though he makes less of an impression than head baddie Gary Schneider, who gratuitously runs down little kids when he feels “stressed.” Rounding out the lot is 1996’s Tromeo and Juliet; proof positive that Shakespeare encourages revision, the psychotic restaging of the Tybalt/Mercutio duel is a coup of hyperactive brashness even by Troma standards. Lest anyone think they were frontin’ with William S., the studio heads ensured a touch of refinement by hiring Mötorhead’s Lemmy to narrate.
As for the Troma-distributed selections, it’s appropriate that Dario Argento’s The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) tanks completely while two no-budget whatzits score big. T’ain’t South Park, but Trey Parker’s Cannibal: The Musical! (1996, costarring Matt Stone)—which re-imagines 19th-century long-pork aficionado Alferd Packer (Parker) as a guileless pud lost in a bizarre Crayola-hued West—charms in its equal willingness to piss away screen time or break into song. Joel M. Reed’s Bloodsucking Freaks (1975), on the other hand, is unrepentantly harsh: Queasily misogynist yet grimily hypnotic, it spins the tale of an effete Soho theater director whose Sadean scenarios employ real victims. Fittingly, his greatest ire is reserved for a snooty critic who refuses to concede that all the hyperbolic, blood-spattered fucking about might be worth a second look.