- Two households, different as dried plums and pears,
- In fair Manhattan, where we lay our scene,
- Two homes adrift in hate for twenty years a score,
- Awash in sin for long deprived of dreams.
- Once long ago they planted seeds of hate,
- Which bloomed to constant battles for revenge,
- Soon murder was the awful commonplace,
- And everything once real seemed like pretend.
- - Lenny from Motorhead
You might perhaps have detected one or two differences from the original Shakespeare. However it's not a bad stab at iambic pentameter, though the third line needs to lose either "twenty" or "a score".
I presume you've heard of Troma? In case you haven't, they're the wacky cheapo sleazoid filmsters behind The Toxic Avenger
, Pterodactyl Woman from Beverly Hills and Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead. A Troma film is a movie-going experience like no other, being cheap-looking, idiotic and in appalling taste. What's more, that's the whole idea. They're the tsars of low-budget filmmaking. When it comes to their work I can't claim to be an expert or even really a fan, but I have seen a few of them. Class of Nuke 'Em High is amusing at best and Chopper Chicks in Zombietown
is a bit dull, but with Tromeo and Juliet I'd heard that they'd hit it out of the park.
Unusually for them, this film was selected to play at the Cannes Film Festival, the Fantasporto festival, the Mar del Plata Film Festival and the Italian Fantafestival, where it won the award for Best Film of 1997. The unloved first draft of the film was handed over to a newbie called James Gunn, who's since gone on to both write and direct more mainstream films. The only one of them I've seen is Scooby Doo, but I don't hold that against him. Curiously Tromeo came out the same year as Romeo + Juliet starring Leonardo DiCaprio, but I know which one I feel is the more important. Hint: it's the one with a cast including 1-900-HOT-HUNK, Bluto Fitzgibbon, CD Rom Woman, Fabio Lookalike (Penis Monster Dude) and Fellow with Disgusting Larva.
This film is basically everything promised in the tagline. "Body Piercing, Kinky Sex, Dismemberment. The Things That Made Shakespeare Great."
Viewed as a very free Shakespeare adaptation, there are points of interest. Little of the early draft's pentameter has been retained, but the star-crossed lovers have fun butchering it anyway. "What light from yonder Plexiglass breaks?" "Parting is such sweet sorrow." "Yeah, it totally sucks." Some of these gags are funny. Will Keenan delivers Tromeo's soliloquy so badly that your DVD player will crawl away and cry, but I rather enjoyed the Shakespearean dialogue in his scenes with Juliet. It's not just mindless homage. It works. The heightened language adds to the film. The central romance is improved by its lyrical expression, even if in all other ways it's weird and perverted.
It's also interesting to hear all this from such aggressively non-Shakespearian performers. It's worth the entry price just to see an prologue from Lenny from Motorhead. He's not good with the pentameter, but there's a simplicity to his delivery that I rather liked.
I also appreciated seeing a Shakespeare adaptation packed with gore and nudity. I'm not saying it's the ideal approach, but it's a valid experiment. What's more, it's all for laughs. You can't take it seriously for a moment, yet it adds something to see fingers guillotined off and heads crushed against fire hydrants. Besides Romeo and Juliet is a love story starring teenagers. It makes sense for once to see them consummate their feelings.
However that's not the really important stuff. This is a gross, perverted movie with lots of things that aren't in other films. Watch it and you'll see the following, with items 1-5 being done for real. Yes, including the mouse.
- 1. a nipple being pierced
- 2. someone being tattooed
- 3. fat people so fat that they pass all normal definitions of the term and can only be described as "from Planet America"
- 4. a lizard eating a live mouse
- 5. lots of naked breasts, plus Juliet's translucent top (but oddly no crotch shots)
- 6. lesbianism
- 7. a two-foot-long fanged penis monster
- 8. ultra-violence, including a death so extreme that you could put it in The Omen or the Final Destination series (but funny)
- 9. severed head fun
The cast are worth watching. There's some dodgy acting, especially in the over-the-top reaction shots, but also some more that's surprisingly non-horrible. Tromeo and Juliet themselves manage to be sweet, despite some self-abuse that I don't remember from the original. That could easily have gone wrong in a freakshow film like this.
James Gunn adds some interesting twists. Juliet's lesbian relationship with her nurse is obviously there for the sake of the nudity, but it does add another emotional dimension. In its own way, it's a clever development. Meanwhile Juliet's father is a monster so appalling that even in a silly film like this he's eventually almost shocking. He's Fred West without the body count. It's harder to find high-minded justifications for the paedophile friar, so I'll note that he's funny and move on.
I liked best the rejigged finale. It's one of Shakespeare's flawed tragedies, since the lovers' downfall doesn't come from any character flaw but merely dumb bad luck. I don't object to unhappy endings, but here I think they did the right thing in changing that. It's a comedy. Gross and ultra-violent, but a comedy. The clever bit is that Gunn keeps you guessing which of his completely different sick twist endings he's going to run with. Then at the very end, just when you think you've seen everything, the epilogue pushes the boundaries of taste just that last bit further.
Mind you, the original Shakespeare still outgrosses Troma when it comes to Juliet's age. This one's eighteen, so we don't have to watch kiddy-fiddling with a thirteen-year-old whose mother got married at twelve. Given all the sex and nudity, I think we can be grateful here for Troma's atypical restraint.
Through sheer dumb excess, this film ends up going somewhere rather clever. At times it's outright parody, but in its own screamingly vulgar way it's also playing it straight. They have lots of fun with the Que-Capulet vendetta, including one line so unforgettably gross that that alone made me glad I'd bought the film. There are also offensively stupid gags, but that's Troma for you. Sometimes it's genuinely funny. This might seem an odd claim for something so trashy, but I think this film is quite an achievement. It works on all kinds of levels, some of which can even be appreciated by the high-minded. They pull off the notion of an arranged marriage in contemporary America! There's also a really weird dream sequence and comedy closing credits. Recommended for everyone with no taste.