Sugar Cookies (1973)



Back in the world of pre-Troma Troma, we have this intriguing little picture which has the distinction of being the only X rated film that lost money.  Upon release, the film was re-rated with an R because the sex is no more explicit than a typical soft-core porn.  Sugar Cookies, although an American production from the independent Armor films, which Lloyd Kaufman worked for before starting Troma, resembles a stylish Euro-trash picture of the era.  Even though there is a lot of sex, it’s still held together with a solid thriller plot and it’s also a blatant homage to Vertigo.

What I really liked about Theodore Gershuny’s film is its insight into the world of that era of pornographic films, which, at the time, were also referred to as “art films.”  In this way, the movie functions as something of a time capsule; especially with the really tacky art-deco set designs.  After all, while early pornographic films might have been shot well with some actual art in mind, this certainly is not the case anymore.

The plot takes off after a bizarre game in the home of “art film” director Max Pavell (George Shannon) leaves Alta Leigh (Lynn Lowery) dead.  Inevitably, the police try to piece together what happened.  But this only serves as a framework to a series of vignettes which further illustrate the “alternative” world in which these characters live in.  Among them is Camilla Stone (Mary Woronov), a sexually dominant casting agent who brings the somewhat naive Julie Kent (also Lynn Lowery) into her world.

The Vertigo-riffing is obvious since Stone blatantly tries to turn Kent into Alta Leigh through personality and style makeovers.  Along with these, we get to lesbian scenes which are well played and full of tension.  There are also some interesting montage sequences which are not forced either.  Lowery, although only briefly playing the first role, does a fantastic job as the second.  Her adorable yet unique face – huge eyes and big teethy smile – further add to her innocent-turn-corrupt appeal.

Elsewhere, there is a subplot involving an overweight kid trying to lose his virginity.  His tie in the film is that he’s Max Pavell’s brother in law and he visits a prostitute in a comic subplot that is okay but not particularly necessary.  Also, look out for Lloyd Kaufman somewhere in this movie.

I’ve been a fan of Mary Woronov since I first saw her in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and enjoyed her dominant sex appeal.  I’ve also enjoyed Lowery who was in I Drink Your Blood, The Crazies and Shivers (a.k.a. They Come from Within) among others.  One interesting scene involves Woronov’s character who watches the dailies of the first Lowery character in a voyeuristic manner and later tries to recreate the scene with the second Lowery character.  Another neat scene is the sequence in which several different actresses audition for the role in the next Pavell film; some are pretty frank about what they are doing while others treat it as “art.”

OH, ya know what I just realized as I write this?  Remember the frankness with which Sharon Stone talks to the cops in Basic Instinct?  Do you think this movie invented that shockingly frank female character?  In this film, Woronov answers the officer as such: “you mean, did we fuck?  Why yes, we did.”  Haha!

So yes, I would say it’s a soft core film about the world of hard core films but, really it’s just a sexy, Eurotrash thriller, ya know?  Ah, how the world of sex films has changed!

The Love-Thrill Murders (1971)



I don’t know what the Troma team is waiting for but it’s time to give The Love-Thrill Murders a full DVD release because it is easily one of the finest films in the Troma library.  The film originally came out in 1971 with the title Sweet Savior and somewhere along the line, it was also called Frenetic Party but Troma made the correct choice by calling it The Love-Thrill Murders when they distributed it a few years after its initial run.

The Love-Thrill Murders is a somewhat fictionalized account of the Tate killings perpetuated by Manson family members.  I say “somewhat” because director Bob Roberts followed some of the details but, to make the story work, changed a few of them, like having the Manson like leader Moon (Troy Donahue) present at the Tate killings which, of course, weren’t called the Tate killings in the film.  Roberts wasn’t trying to make a straight, documentary retelling of what happened but instead to explore the makeup of the cult, the characters within and what drives them to follow their leader, who is nothing more than a long-haired degenerate.

People claim this is an exploitation film and, in a way, it is but it’s going for more than just cheap shocks.  It actually is a well made film that is pretty disturbing.  Troy Donahue does a convincing job in the role as he leads a group of hippies from drugged out parties and orgies to eventually commit the murder at the end of the film.  The plot is pretty simple.  The cult initiates a new recruit, the hippies have sex and do drugs of all kinds then plan the killing of Tate like actress Sandra (Renay Granville) and her swinging group of friends at a party.

While Moon is the main character, he’s obviously just a one-dimensional manipulator, using or rather perverting Christian symbols and rituals to his own need.  That’s an interesting detail; that the ceremonies, despite only referring to the cross and Christian mythology look more like Satanic rituals.  After all, what kind of Christian ceremony  incorporates sex on an altar?

But the other character the movie really focuses on is the above-mentioned new recruit.  I wish I could remember her name but the IMDB credits are no help since they don’t have pictures.  But basically she’s a confused, run-away kid looking for acceptance among this new, hip group of people.  And it stands to reason she has no particular sociopath tendencies.  In fact it’s easy to tell she doesn’t exactly feel comfortable with all of the stuff Moon wants her to do to prove she’s with it.  Her desire to fit in eventually leads to the film’s disturbing climax where we witness how far peer pressure can lead a person.

The rest of the kids do anything he tells them, including an early scene where the girl and her friend pick up a local dealer and give him oral sex in exchange for drugs.  One of the kids is Squeagie who is played by none other than Lloyd Kaufman, weee!

On the other hand, the actress Sandra and her bunch try to live up the modern, swinging late 60s/early 70s lifestyle and want to party with the freaks.  Among the group is a particularly flamboyant homosexual whose role is somewhat comical if a bit stereotypical; he gets disgusted by the word “cunt.”

Altogether, as said before, this is a good movie.  Some of the orgy scenes go on a little too long and almost threaten to take away the movie’s credibility but since the acting is good and the killing is realistic and violent, the film prevails at doing what it sets out to do.

The Battle of Love’s Return (1971)



Remember how when I reviewed Lloyd Kaufman’s first film, The Girl Who Returned, and I said the main reason I gave it 3 out of 4 is because I was just so excited to see an early student short from the creator of the Troma universe (don’t get me wrong, I still liked the film but don’t know how much many others would)?  Well, in this case, the 3 out of 4 grading comes from more of an objective viewpoint (well, as objective as you can be when you’re expressing your own opinion but still).  I actually do recommend the film provided that you know these two caveats: Lloyd Kaufman is a shitty actor and The Battle of Love’s Return is a Godard/Brecht inspired “art film.”

I use “art film” in ironic quotes more to attack the notion of the “art film” rather than to say that The Battle of Love’s Return isn’t art, get me?  In spite the humorous looking poster, this film is comedy in the loose sense.  There are funny moments but the overall objective, I do not think, is just to make you laugh or something.

But first, before we get to it, let me explain something.  The common folk view Troma as a z-movie company who offer nothing more than a few cheap laughs from lousy films.  The slightly more astute film watcher catches that Lloyd Kaufman is actually a good filmmaker and employs his knowledge of film history in his work, often making inside references such as the Buster Keaton gag in The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie, where the Toxic Avenger attempts to kill himself by standing in front of a tunnel anticipating getting hit by an automobile only to realize the approaching headlights come from a pair of motorcyclists who pass by on either side of him.

And then there are assholes such as me and some French people who go as far as to call Kaufman’s work Brechtian.  YOU might excuse the lack of continuity, non-seamless direction and cheap special effects as bad film making but I give my man the benefit of the doubt and say some of that is deliberate.  Or as Lloyd Kaufman once put it; “continuity is for pussies.”

So what does this have to do with The Battle of Love’s Return?  Well the film jumps back and forth between the minimal narrative to interviews with the actors.  The interviews are shot in black and white and you can hear the crew yell at Kaufman during the filming of these scenes.  The story concerns perpetual loser Abercrombie (Kaufman), who struggles at every turn to fit in, do a job correctly or just win the affections of “Dream Girl” (Lynn Lowery) who angrily calls him a joker after he attempts and fails to operate an elevator.  Elsewhere Abercrombie tries to help an old lady cross a busy street and in turn, receives her abuse.  At other times he tries to join a group of hippies and the military only to be rejected by both groups.

The narrative portions are okay but the meat of the film comes from the interviews some of which include Lynn Lowery pre-Shivers, a hippie beatnik street poet, a Socialist party member turned preacher, an adult bookstore owner and an old lady who immigrated from somewhere in Eastern Europe (I forgot the specifics since it’s been a week since I’ve seen it so I apologize for that one).  There were probably a couple others I don’t remember but I’m reproducing this from memory so don’t shoot me if I forgot anyone.

And, again, if you’re on the Easter egg hunt, look out for a young Oliver Stone somewhere in this movie.

The Girl Who Returned (1969)



Do not take the score of 3 out of 4 as some sort of recommendation.  If you are not up to watching a slow, grainy 16mm film which was made for $2000, The Girl Who Returned  can seem interminable in spite of its 62 minute running time.  This is Lloyd Kaufman’s debut feature film but if you were expecting a precursor to Troma, you’re out of luck.  Actually I take that back; even in a nudity free, oddball student film, Kaufman still managed to squeeze in some sex.

But let’s start from the beginning.  I became a huge Troma fan around 1999 when I was an obnoxious teenager and, as I was engorging the standards like The Toxic Avenger and Tromeo and Juliet – and basically anything that was gory, horrific and exploitative – I never in my life imagined I’d get to see this film.  I thought it would be a forgotten relic, only mentioned as a learning experience in Lloyd Kaufman’s autobiography.  So thank you Youtube for existing.  It is fascinating to see this time capsule film; a grainy window into college life circa 1968.  That’s not what the film is about mind you, but, in some ways it can seem like a glorified home movie.  I know that’s an insulting statement so let me get to the review before I dig myself a bigger hole.

The Girl Who Returned begins with a group of college girls doing calisthenics on a football field while a male announcer informs the watcher that the Olympic games between Luxemburg and Mongolia will soon commence.  This is apparently code for the females and the males.  The two conflicting states hold Olympic games every four years to determine who is better.  The rest of the narration is taken up by a female and the actual plot concerns Lucy (Gretchen Herman) being trained by her coach, Geneva (Beverly Galley) to become the best runner or something.  Not very much happens until Lucy breaks free and goes to “Mongolia” in hopes of restoring a “golden age” between the two states.  When she meets some “Mongolians”, they mock her.  That is until she encounters a friendly one – a nice guy – and the two walk around, hold hands and eventually sleep together.  Don’t get any ideas!  The sex is presented tastefully.

Back in Luxemburg the Olympic games take place and well, I guess I shouldn’t spoil the whole film.  But basically there is some sort of vague message being sent about how the supposed “golden age” is as much of a chance occurrence as a one time pickup.  The point is that Kaufman pulls together some neat tricks in order to make you feel like you’re watching a narrative and not just a goofy collection of shots.  Indeed some scenes seem painfully long and if there wasn’t a narrator to string the plot together, it would make no sense.  Well, I don’t know…. maybe I should test that theory and watch it without the narrator.

The acting is about what you’d expect from a silent student film.  The actions are exaggerated but it’s not to the point of annoyance.  There also seem to be some lesbian overtones between Lucy and Geneva or maybe my perverted mind imagined that.  I dunno.  It’s a neat idea if not the most actively entertaining film in world.

Also, in true Tromatic sense, Kaufman’s artistic aspirations were a bit too ambitious; he attempted to make the film equivalent of John Cage’s use of silence by putting black screens between various shots which resulted in the film’s watchers complaining that the projector was malfunctioning.