It’s not every Shakespearean adaption you see that starts with the immortal form of Lemmy from Motorhead standing in the middle of Times Square, impassively reciting lines from from the bard’s most famous love story, but then Troma isn’t exactly your typical movie studio. Having plumbed the offensive depths of the independent scene since the 80’s, founders Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz moved their focus from the radioactive romps of The Toxic Avenger and Class Of Nuke ‘Em High to pulling off an adaptation of Romeo And Juliet so audacious, it made Baz Luhrmann’s version look positively middle of the road.
Co-writer James Gunn (he of Guardians Of The Galaxy and The Suicide Squad) joins the insanity as the timeless tale gets a tasteless update with all the added incest, drug abuse and mutant genitalia the original was obviously missing.
For years now, the two families of the wealthy Capulets and the poor Ques have been feuding on the streets of Manhattan ever since Cappy Capulet swindled ex-business partner Monty Que out of their movie studio.
Monty’s dutiful son, Tromeo, is the kind of lovestick man-puppy who chooses the “true love” option on his porn CD-ROMs and has been bouncing from being smitten for the various big-busted bimbos who regularly cheat on him. On the other side is Juliet, daughter to the abusive and perverted Cappy who has been sheltered from the world in general and has been finding sexual fulfillment in secret with the Capulet’s by Ness, the family servant.
Tromeo and his friends, in attempt to anger the Capulets by crashing one of their parties and generally baiting the crap out of them when one day, Tromeo bumps into Juliet and it’s true love at first sight, but matters are complicated by the fact that the young girl is betrothed to marry self-harming meat tycoon London Arbuckle.
The two vow to marry in secret and hopefully bring an end to the bloodshed that’s already claimed the life of Juliet’s cousin Sammi, but the animosity between the two houses spirals even further out of control when Tromeo’s attempt to calm matters ends in acts of overblown violence that leaves yet more dead in impressively overblown ways.
On the run from the cops and hiding from the vengeful Caps, Tromeo begs Juliet to flee New York with him, but to do so, Juliet needs to get out of her arranged marriage so on the advice of kindly Father Lawrence she Bob’s on over to the local opium den and picks up a potion that’ll sort that right out.
Bear in mind, the original version ended with the two love sick kids incredibly dead, so imagine how the story will end up with Troma calling the fucking shots?
Anyone who’s taken a trip to Tromaville before pretty much knows what to expect from the studio’s taste baiting output and 1997’s Tromeo And Juliet certainly doesn’t disappoint, but in among the trademark bizarre gore and puerile humour lies probably the most nuanced release they’ve ever done. Now, when I say “nuanced”, please understand we’re still dealing with a movie where a character gets his head stuck in a car window and is dragged, screaming down the street until his skull meets a fire hydrant, but with a pre-Hollywood James Gunn on adapting duties and a slightly better class of acting than, say, Class Of Nuke ‘Em High 3, Tromeo And Juliet ends up on the higher end of the Troma spectrum.
Keeping the basic story intact, while gleefully screwing around with the details in the way that only Lloyd Kaufman and co. can, the movie revises the legendary balcony scene with Juliet in bondage cuffs and sitting in see-through cube (“What light through yonder plexiglass breaks?”) while the later scene which originally sees the young female lead take her life with poison now sees her transformed into a mutant cow-woman, dripping with slime and lesions in an attempt to call off her wedding.
Students of the bard will no doubt see this as some form of highly sexed heresy and lovers of good taste will naturally miss the point and find the humour that routinely pokes fun at everything from the blind to pedophile priests utterly vile. However, huge props have to be given to Kaufman for trying something fiercely different than the usual Troma output.
The leads are… well, I wouldn’t say great exactly; but in true Troma style, they have enough natural charisma and lack of inhibitions to be fairly appealing as Troma leads, even if their big break involves numerous scenes of masterbating and gratuitous sex in public places – welcome to movies, kids!
Featuring more than a few familiar faces among its cast, the movie features James Gunn’s dutiful brother Sean and counter culture horror queen Debbie Rochon both making noticable contributions while William Beckwith as the monstrous Cappy is upsettingly too convincing as the abusive patriarch of the Capulets, spending sizable chunks of the film beating on his daughter while wearing nothing but a pair of tiny blue pants and a shiny film of sweat.
Admittedly, the act of trying to fuse their one-of-a-kind style to one of the works of history’s greatest playwright means that some of that unrestrained Troma insanity that turbo-charged newer movies like Citizen Toxie and Poultrygeist is a tad muffled in the need to keep an actual plot on track. This means Tromeo And Juliet is actually slower paced than your average Troma film and therefore can’t rely so much on the usual deranged energy to carry you through any jokes that fail to land or scenes that eventually go nowhere.
Still, it’s ironic that the most original Troma has ever been is when it’s ripping off one of literature’s greatest stories and in 2020, Kaufman went back to bothering the bard once again with an adaption of The Tempest, classily renamed Shakespeare Shitstorm.
Weirdly appealing, yet oddly restrained, Tromeo And Juliet may a good – but not great – helping of Troma, but it’s still as enjoyably filthy and grotesquely cute as an abandoned trash baby that acted as a launch pad for James Gunn to become one of Hollywood’s most respected mavericks.