Cult Filmmakers You Should Know: Lloyd Kaufman
By Michael Varrati
It always amazes me to discover that there are self-professed fans of horror and cult cinema who don’t know the name Lloyd Kaufman.
Essentially the ultimate champion of independent film, Kaufman has been fighting on behalf of the little guy in movies for decades. His company, Troma Entertainment (co-founded with Michael Herz in 1974), has distributed hundreds of low-to-no budget motion pictures that would otherwise never see the light of day and has served as a launching point for many notable names within genre history. Kaufman’s steadfast conviction that movies should be made with passion and drive, regardless of budget, has allowed many filmmakers under his tutelage to gain exposure in a studio-controlled system that would just as likely see them brushed aside.
Yet, for all of this, I still run across the odd filmgoer who raises an eyebrow when Kaufman’s name is mentioned. To me, the mere notion that Lloyd remains unknown to some is tantamount to filmic heresy. After all, there may not be many constants in this world, but there is one steadfast rule that I believe you can always count on:
Lloyd Kaufman is fighting for your movies.
So, my dear children of the popcorn, today I offer an education to those of you who have not yet come to know and appreciate this man, who in his way, is also one of cinema’s true legends.
As previously mentioned, Kaufman is most directly linked with Troma Entertainment, an independent movie distributor that rose to prominence in the 80s as the place to go for the best of all things shocking and sleazy. Through Troma, Kaufman has provided a platform for filmmakers creating art outside of the mainstream to get distribution for their work. Though Kaufman knew that distributing low budget, homemade films was not likely to make him or the various filmmakers money, he more importantly understood that through distributing them, he gave the emerging artists a chance to be seen. By getting these movies out to a larger audience, Kaufman provides the films the opportunity of greater recognition, allowing the careers of the most promising to take the leap to the next level.
Indeed, it is an inarguable fact that this system of artist support has been hugely successful. Many prominent genre filmmakers, such as James Gunn (Slither), Trent Haaga (Writer of Dead Girl), and Doug Sakmann (Punk Rock Holocaust) have all sprung from Troma’s loins, their work each carrying the distinct stamp of Kaufman’s mentorship. Similarly, notable Hollywood actors like Kevin Costner and Marisa Tomei made their humble start in films distributed by Kaufman’s company. When one considers the many careers that have been launched on Troma’s doorstep, it’s hard to deny that a nudge from Kaufman is rarely a bad thing.
For Troma’s founder, providing a guiding hand to emerging filmmakers is all in a day’s work. However, Kaufman does not do so blindly. More than just a distributor and studio head, Kaufman’s knowledge of the filmmaker’s struggle comes from first hand knowledge. Although he spends his days fighting on behalf of the films of others, it is only because Kaufman is a filmmaker himself that he can truly give them the guidance that has come to earn him respect from so many.
While Kaufman’s devotion to the fight for independent cinema earns him my undying respect, it is ultimately his own body of work that I want to highlight and celebrate here today. After all, this series is called Cult Filmmakers You Should Know, and let me tell you- As a filmmaker, Kaufman has delivered some of the very best late night cinema has ever had to offer.
With Kaufman’s own films serving as the very heart and soul of Troma Entertainment, the man himself clearly defined the company’s tradition of bringing social commentary covered in sleaze and blood to audiences everywhere.
Although involved in film production since the end of the 1960s, Kaufman’s first true breakthrough into the world of cult cinema came with 1979’s Squeeze Play!, a sex comedy that set the tone for a slew of imitators in the decade to follow. The film, about a group of New Jersey women who become fed up with the fact that their men pay more attention to softball than to them, became a staple of USA Up All Night and was a popular rental for those looking for more lurid humor in their comedies. Serving as Troma’s first major hit, Squeeze Play! allowed Kaufman and his business partner to buy what would eventually become the Troma building and set forth to create a schlock film empire.
Playing like a Russ Meyer sexploitation flick on comedy steroids, the success of Squeeze Play! laid the groundwork for the next few years of Kaufman’s filmic output. Helming three more “sexy comedies” – Waitress!, Stuck on You!, and The First Turn On! – Kaufman seemingly had cornered the market on audacious, hormonally driven humor. To be sure, Troma’s sex comedies were willing to go to the next level for a laugh, oftentimes making the character’s sexual exploits seem downright depraved. However, thanks to a derisive article Kaufman happened to read while attending the Cannes Film Festival, the future of Troma would soon be changed forever.
Reading the opinion of a critic who believed that horror films were no longer popular, Kaufman considered the statement to be akin to the issuing of a challenge. Stepping away from the sex comedies that he’d been working on for the previous few years, Kaufman mounted his own version of a horror film. The final product, while less outright horror and more splat-stick horror comedy, eventually became Kaufman and Troma’s single most successful property.
That film was The Toxic Avenger.
Telling the story of a 98 pound weakling who is turned into a powerful monster when exposed to giant vats of toxic waste, The Toxic Avenger became a cult movie favorite after a long and successful run of midnight screenings in New York City. The lead character, dubbed “Toxie” by fans and the citizens of the fictional Tromaville, became the official mascot of Troma, and would go on to appear in three subsequent sequels and a (cleaned-up) Saturday morning cartoon. To this day, the series remains wildly successful amongst genre fans for its subversive humor and over-the-top violence. In fact, the fan following is such that Kaufman recently announced he’d be returning to direct a fifth feature, tentatively titled Toxic Twins: The Toxic Avenger V (a film I’d totally petition for a cameo in…if anyone knew who I was).
Iconic and groundbreaking, the guts and gore filled debut of Toxie marked a decidedly new direction for the Troma team. While the films would continue to retain elements of raw sexuality and perverse humor, The Toxic Avenger injected into Troma and Kaufman’s work a sense of the dark and fantastic. That the company would become known in the years to follow as a haven for low budget horror is due in no small part to Toxie’s unparalleled success in the annals of the company’s history.
Following such a smash as The Toxic Avenger surely must’ve been daunting, but Kaufman proved he was not one to rest on his laurels. A year after Toxie put Lloyd and his company on the map, Kaufman returned to the fictional town of Tromaville with a tale of a high school besieged by the radioactive waste of the power plant next door. Playing like the punk rock cousin of The Toxic Avenger, The Class of Nuke ‘Em High became an instant cult classic, and itself spawned two sequels.
Essentially, if you’re not getting the gist yet, it comes down to this: Kaufman tends to have a unique eye for the bizarre and silly. That two of his back-to-back efforts proved to spawn franchises of their own speaks to a great ability to produce quality schlock. In other words, Kaufman tends to make cult cinema classics almost every time out.
I say this not as a generalization, but more so as a fact. Also, because I feel if I were to take time to attempt to go in-depth about every film he’s done since The Toxic Avenger until now, it could be a daunting task. Consider the following brief snippets that provide an overview of these cult gems:
Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D- An NYPD cop investigates a string of murders involving kabuki actors and unknowingly becomes blessed by one of the victims. From this point on, the cop gains the otherworldly ability to turn into “Kabukiman”…a being who has heat-seeking chopsticks and a drive to avenge the innocent.
Tromeo & Juliet- One of Troma’s most popular and enduring titles, this is essentially Lloyd’s take on Shakespeare…but with more sex…and even more mutilations. Oh, and a revised ending.
Terror Firmer- Kaufman goes meta, playing a fictional version of himself directing a horror movie on a set that is being attacked by a sexually-frustrated serial killer. Even as the cast bands together, bodies pile up…both sexually and in pieces.
From fatal sushi to taking on the Bard himself, Kaufman’s body of work showcases a near endless level of creativity and a willingness to break new ground in the world of slapstick, low-budget horror. Even his latest effort, Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead (about a fast food restaurant that serves up zombies possessed by the spirits of angry chickens), is exploitation at its very finest. Poking fun at the idiocy of fast food culture, Kaufman slashes through the trappings of society with a razor sharp beak…just as he has for countless years across a canvas of similar works.
By providing a core of strong material that ultimately forms the heart and soul of Troma Entertainment, Kaufman uses his work not only as a platform for his own creativity, but as a means to inspire other filmmakers to go forth and do the same. Irreverent and Dadaist in nature, Kaufman uses art to battle the mainstream, and in doing so has built an anti-Empire in his wake. A true friend to the struggling artist, yet an incomparable auteur himself…Lloyd Kaufman is without a doubt one of the definitive Cult Filmmakers You Should Know.
So, do yourself a favor: Go watch one of Lloyd’s movies…
…then make one of your own.
Until next time.