FILM COMMENT : Toasting the Toxic Avenger's Parents

Sitting on the terrace of the Carlton Hotel, his lime green pants and lavender socks resplendent in the morning sun, Lloyd Kaufman president of Troma Films, casts a benevolent eye on Margot Hope, the fetching writer-producer-director and star of Troma's latest extravaganza, "Femme Fontaine: Killer Babe for the CIA."

"Margot," he says, searching for just the right way to be nice, "your film is much too good for the American Cinematheque retrospective."

Not really, because nothing is too good--or, for that matter, too bad--for the feisty folks from Troma, who in truth will be feted with a three-day Cinematheque retrospective (starting Friday at the Directors Guild Theater) in honor of 20 years in the business. Longer, the New York-based company boasts, "than any other independent distributor and most Hollywood marriages."

Complete with personal appearances, this may be the first Cinematheque series to come with what it calls a surgeon general's warning: "These films are often repulsively violent and sexually explicit. Not for children (and many adults)."

"We are especially pleased to be finally honored in Los Angeles," was Kaufman's official response to the event. "The international flights to the other tributes were just getting too expensive."

Kaufman, who likes to claim that the company name is Latin for "excellence in cinema," wasn't just being hyperbolic. Troma's films have been the subject of retrospectives in London, Tokyo, Munich, Toronto and San Sebastian, plus a monthlong "Aroma du Troma" tribute at the American Film Institute in Washington. Not to mention the two Belgian scholars that Kaufman insists are devoting their lives to the definitive academic treatment of the company.

Why Troma? Is it because stars like Kevin Costner can be seen just getting started in Troma's "Shadows Run Black" and "Sizzle Beach USA"? Or because Kaufman and company vice president Michael Herz have co-directed something like 30 films, a feat worthy of the Guinness Book of World Records? Or is it simply that, as Kaufman has put it, "we're the smallest, cheapest movie studio in America"?

"In the entire history of the movie business," he says with his usual sang froid, "there has never been a movie studio that existed for 20 years without a hit. And so long as we continue as the heads of Troma, we will continue this perfect track record."

Self-mocking and with a genius for self-promotion, the Troma Team, as Kaufman likes to call his group, clearly did not get to where they are by taking themselves too seriously. "We enjoy what you in the media call sex and violence," says Kaufman, who has been known to brandish the actual shoestring his movies cost.

And though his cheerfully tasteless films are as likely to be admired for the spirit in which they're made than the quality of the execution, one of Kaufman's most accurate boasts is that "when you see something by Troma, you may love it or hate it, but you'll never forget the movie." A sentiment that goes double for the publicity that goes along for the ride.

For while most critics have not actually sat through many of Kaufman's films, almost everyone in the business is familiar with the clever and cheeky titles and ad lines that are stuck on them. For instance:

"Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD: America's First Accidental Oriental Crime Fighter!"

"A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell: The Pre-Historic and the Pre-Pubescent, Together at Last!"

"Maniac Nurses Find Ecstasy: Their Weapons Are Sterile, Their Bodies Are Fertile, and Any Thought of Escape Is Futile!"

"Redneck Zombies," filmed in (what else but) Entrail-Vision: "Tobacco Chewin', Gut Chompin', Cannibal Kinfolk From Hell!"

This kind of zaniness is visible also in the Troma Times, the company's genial newsletter whose motto is "Dictated but Not Read . . . or Even Thought About." And it shows up in the "Troma System" infomercial the company has put together, complete with bikini-clad Tromettes, which satirizes self-help ideologies as it pushes the sale of various kinds of Tromabilia.

When you ask Kaufman where he and Herz learned the basics of filmmaking, he is likely to answer, "if you read the reviews of our movies, you will see that we did not learn." But in fact his film education began at Yale, where he and Herz met and where movie buffs in his dorm made him familiar with the efforts of Joseph E. Levine and Roger Corman, shrewd producers who inspired his own work.

After college, Kaufman worked in low-budget filmmaking, and years later even had a part in the original "Rocky," playing "a bum sleeping in the gutter who Rocky picks up on his shoulder and pops down on a nearby bar." When he and Herz founded Troma, tiny budgets were the order of the day, the plan being to make films that would have negligible theatrical releases but make most of their money in video, cable and overseas markets.

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Starting off the Cinematheque series on Friday night is what Kaufman calls "our Mickey Mouse, the movie that put us on the map." That would be "The Toxic Avenger," familiarly known as Toxie, a movie so successful it inspired a TV series, hundreds of licensed products, two sequels (one called "The Last Temptation of Toxie") already released and a third ("Mr. Toxie Goes to Washington") in the planning stages.

Set in Tromaville, N.J., "the toxic waste dump capital of the world," "Avenger" details the awful circumstances that turn health club mop boy Melvin Furd, "98 pounds of solid nerd," into "the first superhero born out of nuclear waste." Equal parts cartoonish violence, simulated sex and broad skit humor, it is the kind of treat aficionados of bad taste don't get every day.

Following that, for those who still haven't had enough, Friday night will feature another pair of Troma classics, as "Class of Nuke 'Em High" ("Readin', Writin' and Radiation") is paired with "Surf Nazis Must Die."

Set in a post-earthquake Los Angeles "where the beaches have become battlefields," "Nazis" has a rather unusual heroine: Leroy's Mama, a cigar-chomping, motorcycle-riding middle-aged black woman who snarls, "Taste some of Mama's home cooking," as she lets the lead fly.

Speaking of cycles, Saturday night boasts another Troma classic, "Chopper Chicks in Zombietown," which explores what really happens when an all-female motorcycle gang takes a breather in a quiet hamlet mainly populated by the undead. Typical dialogue, from the leader of the gang to her troops: "You're the Sluts. Try and act like it."

Though you might not know from reading the Troma Times, the company has been associated with some classier films as well, and two of the best are showing Sunday night. "Def by Temptation," a slickly made (by James Bond III) and stylishly photographed (by Ernest Dickerson) all-black horror film about a sexy succubus who has her way with men, is offered first, followed by a genuine sleeper, Bob Dahlin's 1986 "Monster in the Closet."

A sweet and loving homage to the golden age of horror films, with genuinely scary moments alternating with gentle humor and deft parodies of classics ranging from "King Kong" to "Psycho," "Monster" also features an all-star collection of cameo performers, including John Carradine, Claude Akins, Howard Duff, Henry Gibson, Kenneth Moffat and Stella Stevens. If you have even the slightest interest in the genre, this rarely seen treat should not be missed.

Better films may actually be in Troma's future, since the company has created a subsidiary called Fiftieth Street to concentrate on doing just that. And then there is the projected "Tromio and Juliet," a no-doubt liberal adaptation of Shakespeare's play. And after that?

"We've become an institution, a national treasure," Kaufman has said, probably more than once. "It's not going to be long before Troma will be awarded the coveted Nobel Peace Prize."*

* The schedule for the Troma retrospective at the Directors Guild:

Friday: "The Toxic Avenger" at 7 p.m. Discussion with Kaufman, Herz and Toxie follows. "Class of Nuke 'Em High" and "Surf Nazis Must Die" at 9:15 p.m. Discussion with filmmakers and "Surf Nazis" cast follows.

Saturday: "Teenage Catgirls in Heat" at 3 p.m. (free in the video theater). "Chopper Chicks in Zombietown" and "Sugar Cookies" at 7 p.m. "Rabid Grannies" at 10:30 p.m.

Sunday: "Redneck Zombies" at 1 p.m. (free in the video theater). "Def by Temptation" at 3 p.m. Discussion with Kaufman and Herz follows. "Monster in the Closet" at 5:30 p.m.

The American Cinematheque is located at the Directors Guild Theater, 7920 Sunset Blvd. near Fairfax Avenue in Hollywood. Admission is $6 for the public, $3 for members. Parking is free. Information: (213) 466-FILM.

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