Sunday, September 21, 2008

Nuke'Em High Is Top of Troma's Class

Troma ever really only made two great in-house productions as we know them. The film's original title, "Atomic High School," is a phrase as meaningless yet utterly evocative as "Toxic Avenger."

"The Toxic Avenger" invented its own genre by throwing about 30 years of postwar trash cinema and culture into a single film - slashers, vigilante and revenge flicks, high school sex comedies (which Troma briefly specialized in before Toxie) - and embracing the new mood of humor/horror in epochal 1985 with less class, less intelligence and more New Jersey accents than any of their more polished zombie competition in the theaters: and Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator officially making zombies walking gore gags waiting to happen.

Pat Ryan, of the Toxic Avenger and the Fake Troma Movie "Street Trash"

Amongst all the trash hooks Troma threw into a cuisinart for Toxie to happen was the vague intonation of a super hero story. Nerd Melvin falls into a barrel of toxic waste and hulks up into an ugly deformed strongman. Something about this is as conceptually weird in the American way as a high school built too close to a nuclear plant and now some strange mutations are happening to the students!

Lloyd Kaufman embraced the filmic Capra-esque small town, the dumb styles and moods of the moment and filtered it all through a deliberate bad-taste filter of gory gags about death and told it with breathless brashness. The offhandedness in which the guilty and innocent must suffer for our amusement results in choices like preceding a gag about putting a snake down the back of a gay aerobics instructors shirt with the infamous 80s style child thrill kill head crush.

The man whose hands helped decide such neurologically confrontational ordering of scenes was editor Richard W. Haines. Credited in Nuke'Em as co-director with Lloyd Kaufman's pseudonym Samuel Weil (as with Toxie) Haines was replaced by Kaufman abruptly after he nearly drove the cast to quit several days into filming. His full contribution is unknown, possibly as little as one or two scenes.

Fortunately Haines is still the editor, and frantically compensates for his missed directorial opportunity with a bravura level of intensity. There's a ridiculous level of incidental close-ups, reaction shots, exteriors and other assorted second unit work that when combined with Kaufman's cluttered Mad magazine shot compositions makes for a far more polished and confident experience.

Keith Harring posters and a long line of makeouts behind the dialogue

Class of Nuke 'Em High (or Nukem if you prefer) doesn't merely excel at continuing the promise of Troma Toxic Avenger created. Its handily better on a technical level and is second only for basing itself in part on Mark L. Lester's amazing Class of 1984 from two years prior, and the short history of straightlaced gangs-in-school movies. Toxie will always wear the crown for original irreverence. To Nuke 'Em's credit, violence from post-apocalyptic punks in schools is always best played as a joke.

Part of the sheer breeziness is the 2nd-unit assisted mass of secondary characters, but to be fair, the main character roles are also highly archetypal within the context of a high school movie - the wholesome young all-American couple, their goofball horndog and bimbo friends. Kaufman's handling of actors was essentially still the same as when he made Waitress! or Squeeze Play!, the late 70s / early 80s sex comedic style. There's a deceptive filmic normalcy in the contrast that results from embracing popular film trends and allowing the underlying presence of extreme sex or violence to bubble forth half the time.

Normal looking extras, instead of the visiting Troma fans used since 1996

Take also for example the soundtrack. As with Toxic Avenger some legitimate and long-forgotten contemporary singers and one or two bands were hired to write original songs that are completely indistinguishable from any generic 80s youth movie you could imagine. Where Toxic Avenger contained cheesy disco workout music and power love ballads, Nuke'Em is all "rock and roll" that rolls on and on until the pavlovian movie-watching synapses going off in your brain become hypnotic. The better to contrast mental aberrations from the shockingly great trash premise of an "atomic high school" like seeing a clean cut 80s preppie vomit up a mutant.

Frequent comparisons to Toxic Avenger are warranted by the inclusion of many of the same bit players and two major characters from Kaufman's brief Preston-Sturges-Goes-To-Hell-Via-New-Jersey entourage. Robert Pritchard and Gary Shneider, first the hit and run bullies Bozo and Slug, now and Spike of radioactive joint selling school gang The Cretins. Switching roles from Toxie, Schneider is a kilted lackey to Pritchard as he blows Timothy Van Patten's punk gang leader part from Class of 1984 clean out of the water.

A typically strong and fleeting shot - Pritchard's intro

Be sure to watch for the cameo by Jennifer Baptist, then-wife of Pritchard and girlfriend to his character in Toxic Avenger...In an interview she said they met making out in the back of that death race car.

Though further Troma in-house productions would be set in Tromaville, Class of Nuke'Em High was the first and functions perfectly as a semi-sequel running on the same steam. Why also did Kaufman's film cinematography begin to look like straight-to-video with the very next in-house production, the ill-fated Troma's War? That title itself signaled the coming solipsism of the Troma brand and loss of the subtle chemistry that made these two gems so incredibly subversive and fun.

Deus Ex Mutant

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