“Body piercing. Kinky sex. Dismemberment. The things that made Shakespeare great”.
The above tagline for Tromeo and Juliet neatly encapsulates the values of Troma Entertainment, the world’s longest-running independent film company. In Tromeo and Juliet, director Lloyd Kaufman, Troma co-founder and the man responsible for such cult classics as The Toxic Avenger (1984) and Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986), takes Shakespeare’s famous 1597 love story and turns it into a softcore schlock-horror-romance. The screenplay by Kaufman and James Gunn is replete with expletive-laden dialogue, gruesome violence and every kind of sexuality one could possibly imagine. Kaufman further alienates Shakespeare purists by giving his story a happy ending and resolving the feud between the two warring clans. On the surface then, one could be forgiven for thinking that Tromeo and Juliet has little to offer fans of either Shakespeare or good taste. However, viewers with the stomach to endure the unsavoury elements may find that Kaufman’s work contributes to discourse surrounding Romeo and Juliet in some surprisingly nuanced ways.
Set in late 90s “fair Manhattan”, Tromeo and Juliet adheres to Shakespeare’s central premise of forbidden love between the protagonists. In this case, though, the romance occurs in the midst of a rivalry between two pornography barons, former partners turned bitter enemies. Thus it expands upon the “ancient grudge” of Shakespeare’s play in a believable manner – something rarely, if ever, attempted by more conventional productions of Romeo and Juliet.
All other changes are in keeping with the seedy modern-day environment: Prince Escalus is a greasy police detective; Benvolio owns a tattoo parlour and Will Keenan’s gawky Tromeo masturbates in front of his computer. To an extent, these updates keep the characters relatively consistent with those found in Shakespeare’s play. In particular, Romeo’s obsession with love is parodied with hilarious results, while Lord Capulet’s abusive streak is taken to a horrific, incestuous extreme that makes for compelling viewing even while arousing disgust. Other changes are simply gratuitous and have little to do with the main plot; Father Lawrence’s implied paedophilia, for example, is a tacky joke. At moments like this one is reminded uncomfortably of Gunn’s distasteful jokes on Twitter from 2008-12, for which he was recently sacked by Disney.
As the film’s tagline implies, Tromeo and Juliet is a film crammed with bodies – bodies that mingle, interact and intertwine. Kaufman leaves no orifice unexplored in his attempts to shock and entertain the viewer, with mixed results. Some scenes that signpost Kaufman’s and Gunn’s fascination with body horror use the grotesque very effectively indeed, such as that which immediately precedes Cappy Capulet’s implied rape of Juliet. In this scene, the semi-naked Capulet (played with terrifying gusto by William Beckwith) locks and handcuffs his daughter in a Plexiglas cage. Capulet looks as repulsive as anything else in the film: his language is foul, his face and potbelly drip with sweat, and his barely-concealed genitalia threaten to erupt onto the screen at any point. As a result, Kaufman manages to evoke genuine fear in his viewers – a tricky feat by the standards of even the greatest directors. Moments of disturbing horror such as this find their counterpoint in the occasional instances of romance; viewers may be pleasantly surprised by the tenderness with which the softcore love scene between Tromeo and Juliet is shot.
Elsewhere in the film, the grotesque is used for comic effect: Tromeo evacuates his bowels noisily in the toilet as he arranges his clandestine marriage with Juliet over the phone; Monty Que is defined by his flatulence; every scene involving the police force is purely carnivalesque as they consume inexhaustible supplies of messy snack foods while interviewing witnesses. Most impressive, perhaps, is the scene in which Tyrone Capulet’s death interrupts a cheerful family outing to depict a darkly comical mise en abyme of Shakespeare’s plot: violence disrupts a domestic unit, and two young children are associated with death as they play with Tyrone’s severed head.
All too frequently, however, any hint of meaningful grotesque realism is undermined by Kaufman’s childish descent into gross-out humour. The extended close-up of a nipple being pierced, for example, does not serve any purpose other than to satisfy Kaufman’s love of the edgy. Similarly, London Arbuckle (Tromeo’s Paris counterpart, played by a game Steve Gibbons) indulges in frequent bouts of savage self-mutilation that are more disturbing than amusing. The most gratuitously puerile sequence is also the scene for which the film is best known: as the story reaches its denouement, Juliet transforms into monstrous bovine-like creature, in a poorly directed mess of a scene that prizes abundant green gunge above technical proficiency. Troma, it is well known, work on a limited budget, but that does not excuse the director from failing to notice part of actress Jane Jensen’s real ear visibly protruding from behind her mask. What is more, the whole transformation has no purpose other than to scare London away. Perhaps, considering London’s aversion to vegetarianism, it would have been more appropriate for Juliet to transform into a giant carrot. This entire scenario seems to have been engineered purely for the juvenile thrill of giving Juliet a three-foot long phallus. The joke fails quite impressively.
It could be argued, of course, that this scene was intended as a tongue-in-cheek statement about the objectification of women (the principal villain of the piece, after all, is a pornographer), but this argument carries the whiff of hypocrisy. It would be difficult to take seriously any such statement from a film that actively plays to the male gaze over the course of several sex scenes, including two tacked-on lesbian encounters between Juliet and her Nurse.
In general, one gets the impression that Kaufman wants to both have his cake and eat it when it comes to depictions of sexuality. On the one hand, few will complain that the film designates rape and incest as repugnant behaviours, or that London’s gruesome sado-masochism is also depicted unfavourably. Furthermore, for a film which contains so many softcore sex scenes, it is also a shock to find in it so many unflattering depictions of the pornography industry. Pornography is responsible for the feud between the two families, Juliet’s experimentation with a sex-line is distinctly unpleasant, and Tromeo suffers from a borderline addiction to pornographic computer programmes. These dark references to adult entertainment are certainly part of Troma’s trademark self-aware humour, and to a great extent its determination to avoid glamorising pornography gives jokes about the subject a refreshing air of honesty.
On the other hand, these elements of the film highlight the contradiction at the heart of Tromeo and Juliet: although it makes sense that rape, incest and self-harm and addiction to pornography are presented as undesirable behaviours, it is odd to observe the moral arbitration of unhealthy sexuality in a film which ultimately makes money by exploiting it.
It is also alarming to see homosexuality presented in such starkly negative terms. Following Murray Martini’s deathbed wish to kiss Tromeo, for example, Benny ridicules him for being “a fag”. The lesbian relationship between Juliet and the house cook Ness is actually presented as relatively healthy, and works well as a modern re-interpretation of the the loving relationship between Shakespeare’s Juliet and her Nurse. The dalliances between the pair provide Juliet with respite from her depraved father and cold mother. However, their homosexual affair, however, provides only temporary escape from Capulet’s violence. Ness is powerless to do anything but stand by and watch as Juliet is beaten and raped.
Sadly, then, even though Tromeo and Juliet has much to say about sexuality, viewers are given the distinct impression that it is not quite as sexually liberated as it professes to be. It says a lot about attitudes towards sex in this movie that the only relationship to be depicted as positive and fulfilling is that between the central protagonists. It’s deeply, tragically ironic: in a film from a company which prides itself on representing counter-culture responses to Hollywood norms, the only kind of sexuality represented in a favourable light is monogamous heterosexuality. “Are there any lines that can’t be crossed anymore?” asks Capulet halfway through the film. According to Tromeo and Juliet, the answer is an emphatic “yes”.
The biggest problem with Tromeo and Juliet is that, as a film, it wants to have fun, but also wants to be “about” something. What is that something? It can’t decide. Kaufman veers jarringly between laughter and horror, morals and hedonism, maturity and fatuousness. Nowhere is Kaufman’s directorial indecision better exemplified than in Sammy Capulet’s death scene, which mashes together comedy and tragedy in uncomfortable fashion. Sammy (Sean Gunn) is trapped on the outside of a car with his head stuck in the rolled-up window; when the car sets off, he is dragged along with it. The ostensibly ridiculous situation is made comical by Cappy Capulet’s reaction to these events – he seems to care less about the fate of Sammy than he does about insulting Monty. When Benny tires of the game, he punches Sammy free of the window. Sammy lands headfirst on a fire hydrant, accompanied by sickening sound effects. Until this point, the comic book violence is nothing new – thus far in the film we have already seen a man have his ears pulled off, while Sammy himself had two fingers sliced off by a paper-cutter.
The events following Sammy’s collision, though, take a completely different tone to the previous scenes. Sammy sits up slowly to reveal major head trauma; he gingerly reaches up to his wound. As realisation dawns, his reaction is harrowing to witness: he wails and cries out in pain, and we see the fear of death in his eyes as he grows steadily weaker, all the while attempting to piece back together his broken skull. Still weeping like a child, he falls back and slowly dies, as onlookers crowd around, powerless to help. Gunn doesn’t play this for laughs, and creates a rush of empathy for a character that had been, up until that moment, a violent, incestuous thug. It’s a magnificent piece of acting
This tragic death is impossible to reconcile with other ridiculous set-pieces in the film. How can one death be comical when another, such as the aforementioned decapitation of Tyrone, is not (especially when one considers that Tyrone, as a character, is far easier to relate to than Sammy)? Why are they handled so very differently? Kaufman’s inconsistency is frustrating, and detracts from both the funniest jokes and the most moving dramatic moments of his film.
To conclude, Tromeo and Juliet delivers exactly what its tagline promises. In this respect it cannot be faulted. However, at times the levels that Kaufman sinks to are painful to watch, and his inventive and more powerful moments are all but drowned in a sea of bad puns and disgusting visual effects aimed at eliciting only cheap thrills.
However, it cannot be denied that beneath the green gunge tonal inconsistency, Kaufman also delivers much more than his tagline suggests. Tromeo and Juliet provides a surprisingly well-developed love story (with important romantic moments delivered in the original Shakespearean verse) along with some truly clever touches that pay homage to Shakespeare even as they spoof his work. Many of the jokes are extremely funny despite (or perhaps because of) their childish bent, and the excessive violence does not completely detract from the rare moments of true emotional resonance.
The film closes with Shakespeare himself appearing on screen to chuckle at the events we have just witnessed. And, as much as the idea may horrify many scholars, at times it feels like Kaufman understands Shakespeare far better than he is willing to admit.