The advent of high definition technology has ushered in an era of unsurpassed quality in terms of the home-cinema experience. With TVs now able to match filmmakers’ original visions closer than ever, the path has been cleared for the true maverick masters of cinema to shine on the small screen. Which brings us to Troma Entertainment head honchos Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz, whose final two Toxic Avenger sequelsmake their way onto Blu-ray this month.
Not by any stretch of the imagination a pair of essential HD releases (you could argue the grainy footage of any Troma film is best viewed on ancient VHS), The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation Of Toxie and Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV are what they are: both the best and worst of Kaufman and Herz’s deliberately terrible bad-taste stable.
When wrapping the second outing for everyone’s favourite hideously deformed creature of super-human size and strength, the film’s directors realised they had far too much footage for one movie, so, in true Roger Corman style, made another one with what was left over. The result sees our mop-wielding mutated crime-fighter face off against not only the evil Apocalypse, Inc, but also his own demons, as we see Toxie’s descent into the world of yuppiedom.
With extreme, inventive violence combined with god-awful production values somehow rendered charming once again and gloriously offensive characters getting into more genuinely funny/extremely cheap situations, The Last Temptation Of Toxie is one of the real gems in Troma’s somewhat rusty crown.
It’s a real shame, then, that the ridiculously enjoyable silliness turns nasty for Citizen Toxie, representing the studio’s more recent trend towards plain horribleness, irritatingly pointless celebrity cameos (here, we get Corey Feldman, Lemmy from Motorhead and porn-star Ron Jeremy) and over-the-top (even by Troma standards) bad acting.
A plot involving a parallel-dimension Toxie (The Noxious Offender) causing problems in Tromaville whilst Toxie himself solves problems in the Bizarro World Amortville is largely unwatchable, though a guest appearance from fan favourite Sgt Kabukiman, NYPD, and, erm, Satan himself help matters slightly. Still, rumours of an upcoming fifth instalment in the saga are less than welcome for this writer.
Somehow even less fun than the grim depths of Citizen Toxie, next up, we have Ravi Dhar’s unremittingly poor revenge road movie, Vengeance Road (the clue’s in the title). Inexplicably retitled from its original US moniker American Muscle, everything about Dhar’s film, out now on DVD, feels derivative and, well, dull. From Nick Principe’s (Laid To Rest) forgettable performance as an ex-con out to get his bloody bleeder of a brother through to annoying directorial ‘flourishes’/bullshit (CGI blood splattered on the screen a repeat offender), other than one nicely gory death scene, this is another bleak trawl through the deeply unlikeable American underbelly.
A slight change of tack now, with that rare beast in these woods: the genuinely good film, and not just one, oddly enough. First of these is the low-key mystery spin on the cabin in the woods trope/staple/cliche, The Haunting Of Blackwood on DVD. With a Cube-style set-up, three strangers, including The Innkeepers’ Sarah Paxton and Clint Jr, Scott Eastwood, find themselves in a strange cabin in the middle of nowhere and, even, stranger, they can’t seem to leave.
Bad Milo producer Jack Heller turns director here, and Paxton particularly puts in a good turn, though the real plaudits should go to the writing team of Shawn Christensen and Jason Dolan, whose subtle script deftly keeps the viewer hooked whilst maintaining some semblance of subtlety in a decidedly unsubtle setting. Claustrophobic direction and the odd surprise make for what should be a sleeper hit once horror fans get past the apparently (though ultimately far from) formulaic premise.
The second actually decent film this month and the last release covered this time round comes in the form of Bill Gunn’s intelligent, oddly meditative blaxploitation classic, Ganja & Hess, out on Blu-ray and DVD. Like the simultaneously great and silly Blacula and Scream, Blacula, Scream, this 1973 production also follows the fortunes of a charismatic African-American bloodsucker, though is far more accomplished than both of those films, genuinely offering a one-of-a-kind take on the vampire mythos.
Night Of The Living Dead’s Duane Jones (in his only other notable lead role) plays the anthropologist Hess Green, who ends up cursed by an ancient ceremonial dagger to live forever, as is the way with these things. So far, so every-single vampire film, yes? Well, that’s the jumping-off point for Gunn’s remarkable screenplay, which takes the viewer on a hallucinatory journey through love (with Marlene Clark’s spunky Ganja the object of his affections), religion (have you ever seen a Christian vampire on-screen?) and racial identity in an entirely fascinating way.
With a notable lack of blood (at least compared to similar movies), capes and fangs, Ganja & Hess’ major achievement is to almost present the traditional horror genre cliches as merely incidental to the more important love story unfolding. Genuinely erotic and thoughtful, yet never gratuitous, Gunn’s visually striking film remains a defiantly innovative take on familiar themes.
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