Tromeo and Juliet (1996) **
There is probably no dramatist in the history of life on Earth more respected than William Shakespeare. Meanwhile, it seems almost equally likely that there is no filmmaker in the history of life on Earth more despised than Lloyd Kaufman. So obviously— obviously— what the world was really waiting for all along was for Kaufman to try his hand at a Shakespeare adaptation. Naturally, Tromeo and Juliet is sick and wrong on just about every conceivable level, but most unexpectedly, the movie turns out to be considerably more entertaining than the typical Troma suckfest.
For one thing, Lemmy Kilmister narrates. No movie that causes the lead singer of Motörhead to spout a plausible approximation of blank verse, occasionally for minutes on end, can be all bad. For another, either of the feuding families at the story’s center would give their counterparts from Pink Flamingos credible competition for the hotly contested “Filthiest People Alive” title, and the original Romeo and Juliet really does suffer from its distinct paucity of transvestitism, lesbianism, and S&M incest. As per the bard, we have the Capulet clan on one side, but rather than the familiar Montagues, this version gives us instead one Monty Que (Earl McCoy), together with his son and nephew. Monty was once the partner of Cappy Capulet (Maximilian Shaun) in the most profitable pornography studio in New Jersey, but then Cappy blackmailed him into signing away his share of the business by exploiting some interpersonal ugliness that nobody wants to talk about. Capulet’s wife, Ingrid (Wendy Adams), was definitely involved at some level, though. Ever since then, the two families have been gunning for each other, to the extent that police detective Ernie Scalus (Gene Terinoni) is well acquainted with all of them. In the latest affront, the cross-dressing Sammy Capulet (Sean Gunn) snuck into Monty’s apartment while he was passed out drunk (as usual), and hung a dead squirrel from the ceiling. This in turn led Monty’s nephew, Benny (Stephen Blakeheart, from Rockabilly Vampire and The Ghouls), and family friend Murray Martini (Valentine Miele, also of Rockabilly Vampire) to take revenge by chopping off some of Sammy’s fingers with a paper cutter when they corner him at their favorite nightclub, and then heading over to the Capulet place to holler obscenities in the garden in the middle of the night. Inevitably, Sammy’s cousins, Tyrone (Patrick Connor) and Georgie (Tamara Craig Thomas), then seek revenge of their own by attacking Benny, Murray, and Monty’s son, Tromeo (Will Keenan, of Terror Firmer and Love God, who is apparently a moderately respected independent filmmaker in his own right these days), at the tattoo and piercing parlor where they all like to hang out.
Meanwhile, on a pair of tangential plot tracks, we have two most unhappy romantic couplings. Tromeo is dating a girl named Rosy (Jacqueline Tavarez), who cheats on him constantly with pretty much every man she sees. And in the Capulet house, Sammy’s sister, Juliet (Jane Jensen, who later appeared in Keenan’s Operation Midnight Climax), is engaged to marry billionaire lunch-meat magnate London Arbuckle (Steve Gibbons). This is a problem for her not so much because London is a creep and a weirdo (after all, he can’t be any worse than the Capulets themselves), but because Juliet is both a vegetarian and a lesbian. Sure, she fantasizes about sex with guys, but since those fantasies always seem to end with the man’s dick turning into a riotously unconvincing hand-puppet monster, it only stands to reason that Juliet shares her bed solely with Ness (direct-to-video softcore queen Debbie Rochon, whose non-porn credits include Santa Claws and Killjoy 2: Deliverance from Evil), the Capulet family maid.
As fate would have it (look, it’s Shakespeare— we’ve got to have fate in here somewhere, right?), Tromeo and Juliet are soon to meet and fall head-over-genital-jewelry in love with each other. Rosy, you see, has been invited to a costume party over at the Capulet place, while Tromeo, predictably, has not. He wants to spend the evening with his girlfriend anyway, though, so at Murray’s instigation (“Come on— we can steal from the rich people! You always love stealing from the rich people.”), the two of them don suitably concealing costumes (Tromeo puts on a full-body cow suit) and crash the party. This plan backfires on two levels. First, while Murray is off surreptitiously jerking off in the punch bowl (your guess as to how someone might do that on the sly is as good as mine), Tromeo spots Rosy in the company of one of her other boyfriends. Secondly, the dejected Tromeo’s subsequent flirtations with Juliet (who is visibly looking for any excuse not to dance with her fiance) inadvertently blow his cover, leading Tyrone and Georgie Capulet, together with some of their friends, to throw him and Murray out of the house. But their brief time together is enough to fixate Tromeo and Juliet inexorably upon each other. Juliet even begins spurning Ness’s attentions afterward!
We all know how this works. The ongoing warfare between their families makes it next to impossible for the two lovers to be together, but they refuse to let that stop them. Their affair, meanwhile, leads to yet further escalation of the feud, which soon turns deadly on both sides. Along the way, there is an imaginatively twisted variation on the famous balcony scene, which here takes the form of Tromeo sneaking past the inebriated Cappy to romance Juliet in the plexiglass punishment cage to which her father confines her (clad only in leg irons and a vinyl lingerie set, I might add) whenever she’s been naughty; a bloody showdown at the tattoo parlor; and four ordinary movies’ worth of exuberant gross-out scenes in which innocent bystanders get caught up in the feud with nauseating results of the sort only a Troma film is likely to deliver. Matters diverge considerably from the canonical text during the final act, however. Tromeo and Juliet turn to pedophiliac priest Father Lawrence (Flip Brown) for assistance, and he in turn sends them to the wizard Fu Chang (Garon Peterson)— as is only logical, he turns out to be a West Indian houngan rather than a Chinese apothecary— who gives Juliet a magic potion with which to sabotage her impending marriage to London. In true Troma style, this is no death-faking drug, but some sort of toxic waste derivative which transforms Juliet into a cow-woman (well, maybe “woman” isn’t quite the word I’m looking for…) with a densely furred sixteen-inch penis. London, needless to say, loses all interest in getting married when he sees that. Tromeo, on the other hand, is not deterred in the slightest, and his love for Juliet miraculously changes her back to normal— or to whatever “normal” might mean in the present context. (Frankly, I was a little disappointed that Tromeo didn’t turn into a hermaphrodite farm-animal monster to match his girlfriend’s new look.) Then it’s just a matter of eliminating Cappy. With him out of the way, not even the revelation that Tromeo and Juliet are really brother and sister separated at birth (Monty to Tromeo: “Maybe you didn’t notice, son, but I’m black!!!!”) is enough to keep the star-crossed lovers apart. And they all lived kinkily ever after…
I’m really amazed by how much I didn’t hate this movie. Obviously, Tromeo and Juliet wallows quite gleefully in Lloyd Kaufman’s distinctive brand of gross-out humor, and chances are you already know what your tolerance level for that is. Mine is extremely low. But somehow the simple act of applying the Troma sensibility to a Shakespearean tragedy automatically makes the standard routine many times funnier than it deserves to be on its own merits. For that matter, it also seems that having something specific (and indeed, something practically sacred) to subvert may have engaged a layer of the Troma Team’s creative process that normally lies dormant and forgotten. Tromeo and Juliet occasionally manages actually to be subversive, instead of merely crass like the usual Troma flick. Mind you, once really is enough— so if you’re reading this, Lloyd, please don’t bother following up belatedly with The Toxic Tempest or A Midsummer Night’s Troma.
The other surprising thing about Tromeo and Juliet is the acting, which is light-years ahead of that in any other Troma production I’ve seen. Admittedly, there isn’t a single performance in this film that would qualify as “good” by the usual definition. Everybody overplays everything, both in their physical acting and in their line delivery, but there is a uniformity, a mutual integration, to their overacting that makes it look like a deliberate stylistic choice rather than a simple accumulation of fuck-ups. I get the impression that most of these folks could and would do better if they thought it were appropriate. And because anything better really wouldn’t be appropriate in a movie like this, the cast deserves paradoxical plaudits for falling so far short of their likely capabilities. It’s also worth drawing attention to the skill with which certain performers— Will Keenan in particular— time the delivery of their conventional English lines to undercut and poke fun at the artificiality of the neo-blank verse dialogue that surrounds them. Even when there’s nothing especially funny about the utterance in question, Keenan can often turn it into a punchline when he drops out of iambic pentameter (or tetrameter or hexameter, as the case may be) and into ordinary speech.
What it all amounts to, I guess, is that there is a smart way to be stupid, and Tromeo and Juliet finds it during its best moments. There is perhaps a lesson to be learned here, too, in that this film is frequently cited by fans as the pinnacle of Troma’s output from the 1990’s. Would that Kaufman will get the hint one of these days.