[The Cult Club is where Flixist’s writers expound the virtues of their favourite underground classics, spanning all nations and genres. It is a monthly series of articles looking at what made those films stand out from the pack, as well as their enduring legacy.]
James Gunn’s path to Guardians of the Galaxy was an unlikely one, similar to Sam Raimi’s path from Evil Dead to Spider-Man and Peter Jackson’s path from Bad Taste to Lord of the Rings. Apart from the two other films Gunn directed–2010’s violent pitch-black comedy Super and 2006’s sci-fi gross-out Slither–his writing credits include the live-action Scooby-Doo films, the remake of Dawn of the Dead, and The Supers, which looks like Mystery Men but with Rob Lowe.
Go all the way back to Gunn’s first writing credit, and the idea he’d be at the helm of a major Marvel movie seems even odder. In the mid-90s, Troma paid Gunn $150 for his revised screenplay of Tromeo and Juliet, a grimy, mutated retelling of Romeo and Juliet. Maybe the most surprising thing about Tromeo and Juliet is its sweetness underlying all the goo. Yes, the small and strange human heartbeat is more surprising in this film than the infamous penis monster scene.
Tromeo and Juliet is one of Troma’s best films and easily its most romantic. It’s a great date movie for the cult aficionados out there, because trash cinema is for lovers and misfits.
Narrated by Lemmy from Motörhead in the first of his Troma cameos, Tromeo and Juliet follows Romeo and Juliet semi-closely. The Ques and the Capulets made low-budget skin flicks together, but their partnership ended poorly. Our star-crossed lovers (Will Keenan and Jane Jensen) live in Manhattan, though it looks more like Long Island City and Brooklyn since the Manhattan skyline figures in the background of many shots. Schlock ensues.
Before going to work for Troma, Gunn received a creative writing MFA from Columbia. He purportedly tried to write Tromeo and Juliet in iambic pentameter before giving up, which is just the sort of unnecessary yet amusing formal constraint that an MFA student would attempt. There’s a smattering of actual Shakespeare in the film, and used sparingly it’s oddly effective. The meet-cute between our heroes culminates in a touching recitation of the “holy palmer’s kiss” exchange. The couple spins on a Lazy Susan in front of a chintzy backdrop of stars, and the camera rotates in space, and for little money and textual faithfulness, Tromeo and Juliet captures the vertiginous joys of love at first sight.
Ample bad taste is used to reconfigure much of the familiar story. The balcony scene takes place in a black box sex dungeon that Juliet’s father has used to punish his little girl since childhood. Instead of biting thumbs, they flip birds. Instead of dueling with rapiers, one guy has a tomahawk with Hitler’s face on it. The apothecary’s drugs work differently–less like death, more like The Toxic Avenger. Bawdy puns are placed throughout, and also classy fart sounds and sophisticated boings. In Act V, the attempt at Shakespearian verse sounds more like Dr. Seuss. And there’s loads of sexual repression in Juliet’s bad dreams, which features a bizarre use of popcorn that recalls Troll 2.
I noticed that Tromeo and Juliet hits some of the same notes as Gunn’s later film Super. As Tromeo spends a lonely night looking at pornographic CD-ROMs, he cries as he climaxes over a fantasy of domestic bliss, repeating “I love you” as he hyperventilates. Later in the film, Juliet is so taken with her passion for Tromeo that she dials a phone sex line, her operator played by the morbidly obese and dispassionate Michael Herz. Herz sends her into ecstasy while he, bored and possibly hungry, eyes a Famiglia pizza box on his desk. That ugly yet honest desperation is all over the place in Super, with Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page as two psychotic and lonesome goofballs looking for approval and acceptance, sublimating their desire through grim vigilante justice. Super might be the most enjoyable Troma-esque movie in the last decade or so.
Tromeo and Juliet could technically be counted as Gunn’s first work as a director. According to an interview on Gunn’s official website (not updated since December 2012), he associate directed the film while Troma’s leader Lloyd Kaufman was the credited director. In an odd inversion of job duties, Kaufman handled the camera and the extras while Gunn got to work closely with the actors and supervise sets and special effects.
If Gunn’s fingerprints are on the performances like the screenplay, he gets a good amount for what he had, which was very little. Both Jensen and Keenan are fine as leads, Keenan especially since he has such a strange squirrely look to him. The best performance, however, is William Beckwith as Cappy Capulet. He vamps around, devouring scenery, shooting stuff with his crossbow, and he plays his role like Robin Williams on crack trying to be Shakespearian. Beckwith was a “real actor” (i.e., SAG), so he worked on Tromeo and Juliet under a pseudonym in order to get around union rules.
Comparing Tromeo and Juliet to later Troma films like Terror Firmer and Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, there seems to be a shift in overall tone. Given, I haven’t seen Terror Firmer or Poultrygeist in a long while so I may be off on this, but Tromeo has the attitude of a snotty, sex-starved 15-year-old boy while the Troma movies that followed have the creepy demeanor of a dirty old man. That tension might be present in Tromeo, with the younger Gunn’s writing merging with but ultimately succumbing to the sensibilities of Kaufman. Tromeo doesn’t gross out or indulge in T & A as much as later Troma entries either, though some of the sex scenes run a bit long, and in my mind I picture some obnoxious 15-year-old boy getting uncomfortable while watching this on VHS–the maturing moment when something that was once hot becomes suddenly uncomfortable. At least the scenes are tasteful for Troma, for what that’s worth.
I tend to come back to the idea of misfit love stories since those are the best kinds of romances and the most meaningful. Rather than having two lovely people just like everyone else, the misfit romances have two oddballs against the world. That sense of opposition is obvious here in Tromeo and Juliet (even in the snotty and youthful demeanor it projects), though maybe it’s also what’s at play in Super and Guardians of the Galaxy. These are all misfit movies, with misfit relationships, and misfit characters, and all of them, in their own ways, are shown in opposition to the world that doesn’t get them. Troma is, even still despite a sense of decline, a misfit company, and Gunn has remained faithful to Kaufman even now, giving the man who gave him his start cameos in his own films.
Maybe the path from Tromeo to Guardians isn’t so unlikely after all. Who better to make a movie about misfits than someone who loves misfits so much?
Am I the meanest?
Am I the prettiest?
Am I the baddest mofo low down around this town?
The Last Dragon (1985) turns 30.
PREVIOUSLY SHOWING ON THE CULT CLUB
Samurai Cop (1989)
El Mariachi (1992)
Six-String Samurai (1998)
The Warriors (1979)
Funky Forest: First Contact (2005)