In the first of a 3-part series, Chris Ward takes a look at the history of Troma, with exclusive insights from the big cheese himself Lloyd Kaufman.
Are there any film production studios these days that have a truly identifiable style? Or more to the point, are there any that spring immediately to mind, as a quick trawl of an internet search engine will no doubt name a few that will make you go “Oh yeah, that one”? There are a few that have a certain style of film that will usually be associated with them – for instance, Lionsgate always brings to mind the Saw films and several other low-budget horror films (much to their contempt, no doubt) – but as for a production company having an immediately definable style then the names of Hammer and Ealing are probably the two that most would know and name, but their heydays are long ago.
Of course, there’s always Troma. Some of you would have read that and spat your mouthful of tea out in a Tetley-fuelled frenzy, whilst others may have given a wry and knowing chuckle. Chances are that a large percentage of you have never heard of Troma but there’s a damn good chance that you’ve seen at least one film that the company – or to be more precise, it’s founders Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz – have been involved with; The Toxic Avenger is probably their most famous production, but how about Rabid Grannies? Zombie Island Massacre? Mother’s Day (the 1980 original)? Or how about the early Samuel L. Jackson feature Def By Temptation?
Okay, so they’re not all premier league titles but the point is that Troma have been making and distributing independent films since 1974 and have a back catalogue totalling over one thousand titles with which they’ve put their name to. You want a quick history? Troma was put together by Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz as a way of making and distributing low-budget sex comedies such as Waitress!, Squeeze Play! and Stuck on You! Then in 1984 they released the cult hit The Toxic Avenger, a schizoid mix of splatter, comedy, camp and exploitation violence that was initially a commercial flop but eventually gained a huge following on the midnight movie circuit, creating three sequels to date plus a proposed remake. Continuing in this vein Troma put out several B-grade exploitation films over the next few years, mostly direct-to-video but some did get small theatrical releases if you knew where to look, and are now, with everything 1980’s being emulated or repackaged, in a position to start having some of their better known titles cleaned up and put back out there to introduce a new generation to their unique style.
But what is Troma’s style? What differentiates Troma from the hundreds of other production houses out there that churn out endless titles in the hope of having a hit? Perhaps the three titles that are being reissued by Arrow Films in the UK hold the answers. Perhaps even Lloyd Kauffman himself may be able to shed a light on their success and influence. Speaking exclusively to Eat Sleep Live Film, Lloyd Kauffman explains how he and Michael Herz came about creating the infamous production company:
“When we incorporated we had to do it quickly as we had made a movie called Squeeze Play!, a women’s liberation raunchy comedy, and we wanted to set up a vehicle to distribute it since we had been ripped off on three previous movies by other distributors,” he explains “and we needed to move fast so my partner tried to think of the worse sounding name he could in order to get clearance for the name, because every name is taken. He figured if he could think of a horrible sounding name we’d get clearance to incorporate, and he figured we’d be out of business right after Squeeze Play! came out anyway so it wouldn’t matter. Meanwhile forty years later, Troma is almost a household name… in many whorehouses” he chuckles.
“Well, we have among our many rules ‘If the experts say one thing, we do something else’. So the idea with the sexy comedies was the establishment said that ‘You don’t want to mix sex and comedy because sex is something to propel the raincoat manufacturing trade’. We said ‘no, there’s been burlesque, Shakespeare combined raunchy sex and comedy and we’ll do the same’, and we were very, very successful. But then movies like Porky’s [came out] and big-time Hollywood started making our movies, and as always they don’t play fair by using good scripts and good actors so we had to do something else. And one day we read a headline in Variety, I think, or it could have been one of the British newspapers, that said ‘Horror films are commercially dead’ so then we said ‘Okay, well if the experts are saying that then we’re going to make a [horror] film’. But because we like comedy and satire we decided we would make a comedic horror film with serious social issues. All of our movies contain a lot of social issues and political issues, every one of them.”