Troma Team DVD's two latest releases, Marc de Launay's Dark Nature and Steve Balderson's Pep Squad, are a study in contrasts. One is an understated, deliberately paced thriller that has garnered some critical acclaim in European film festivals. The other is an over-the-top high school satire featuring an assassin prom queen and a kidnapping gone awry. Unfortunately neither is quite as successful as it might have been, but likewise neither is entirely without merit or promise.
Dark Nature opens up with an unexplained killing at a country estate, where a sweet-looking old lady is bludgeoned to death with a typewriter by her slightly less-sweet-looking husband. As the hubby goes about cleaning up the mess he made on the rug, he in turn is stabbed to death by an unseen assailant. If you're waiting for context or explanation, you might want to go grab a beer--it's going to be a while.
Next we find join a stock dysfunctional family on their way for a weekend in the country at the same estate. We have Mom, Precocious Young Son, Unassertive Stepdad, and of course Surly Teenage Girl, who would rather listen to her iPod and make inappropriate overtures to the curator of the John Paul Jones museum than spend quality time with Mom and New Dad. Waiting for them at the house are Slutty Sis and her Ambiguously Oriented Male Companion, who are concerned about the missing parents, but not overmuch. Rounding out the crew is the Peeping Tom Birdwatcher and the Skinny Pale Groundskeeper, who totes around a suspiciously weighted canvas sack and mumbles to himself a lot.
Eventually People Start Dying, there's some cryptic talk about Family and how the Skinny Pale Groundskeeper loved the Murdered Old Lady, and a Shock Ending that one can only assume is supposed to explain the film's title.
In his commentary on the Dark Nature dvd, director Marc de Launay talks a lot about he and his collaborators were interested in "subverting viewer expectations," which apparently means keeping the body count low, keeping most of the murders offscreen, and having the killer actually BE the person who is the obvious (and almost ONLY) suspect. There are a couple of gore shots--one fairly good one in which Unassertive Stepdad gets his head caught in a bear trap (though the set-up for this is beyond ridiculous)--but also some pretty atrocious CG gore (a knife that exits the chest at a completely different angle than it enters the back) that seems unnecessary, especially since there were prosthetics built for the aftermath shots anyway.
There are a couple of positives to take away, however: the high-def cinematography throughout is excellent, and justly won some laurels at HDFest 2009. Surly Teenage Girl (character name Chloe) is played with a believable bad attitude by Imogen Toner, and Obvious Killer Niall Greig Fulton is good in his villain role. And in the one effective subversion of expectations in the film, de Launay gets around the cliche "cell phone loses reception" trope rather ingeniously: the victims' phones work flawlessly, with 5-bar reception--but since the country house is miles from nowhere, it will take the police an hour to reach them! It's elegant in its simplicity, and could be used to build suspense by putting a time limit on the villains machinations (but isn't). I'm surprised more scriptwriters haven't thought of this, so kudos are due for that.
Where Dark Nature lacks a sense of humor entirely (or else has one so dry as to be undetectable), Steve Balderson's 1998 effort Pep Squad rather shoots for that over-the-top, broad comedy vibe that Lloyd Kaufman and his Tromites have refined to an art form all its own. Introverted but attractive high school senior Beth, whose OCD Mom and Distant Dad are getting a divorce, finds herself embroiled in the wicked machinations of high school politics when her new BFFs, school paper editor Julie and student body president Scott, get on the shit lists of two separate Keerazy Bitches who both want to be homecoming queen. One is Terra, a self-involved, John Waters-esque character with a bottle tan and penchant for stalking anyone she thinks has wronged her, and the other is Cherry, who favors Ilsa Boots and deals with disrespect via kung-fu kicks and vehicular homicide.
As with the Troma films it tries so hard to emulate, Pep Squad is full of eccentric characters and seedy subplots. There's a Drunken Cheerleader-Nympho, a Creepy Goth Girl (character name: "Suicide Chick"), a Perverted Principal, and a couple of silent nerds who bear the brunt of everyone's wrath. Perverted Principal tries to molest Beth, which leads her to knock him unconscious, which leads Julie and Scott to kidnap him as part of Julie's ill-defined Che Guevara-like scheme to "change things" at the school, which leads to Julie shooting the Principal and having to call in Cherry for help disposing of the body, which Terra sees and uses to blackmail Scott to make her the Prom Queen. Along the way Cherry murders a few of the Prom Queen Competitors, kidnaps the new Sassy Black Woman Principal, and busts up the prom in order to grab the crown.
It all sounds deliriously entertaining, but somehow it's not as much fun as you'd think. Part of the problem is the script's attempt to portray Beth, Scott, and Cherry as outcasts in the high school social scene, which anyone who's been to high school can tell you doesn't' jibe with the whole Editor/Student Body President/Gorgeous Rich Girl set-up. Also, much of the humor falls flat, partly due to the amateur acting, but mostly due to the script. Though if you think there's something inherently hilarious in a blonde-fro'ed Goth girl scratching obsessively through all the pics in her yearbook, "America the Beautiful" playing over a nearly nudity-free sex scene, or a high school party featuring a Siouxsie Sioux lookalike in a wading pool while musclebound slaveboy's drink her bathwater, well, there's something here for you.
The biggest problem, though--and it's a common one in films like this, in my experience--is the unwillingness of Balderson and crew to GO THERE. Though it clearly aims at John Waters/Lloyd Kaufman territory, the film has little of the nudity, gore, or even outre ideas that makes those other movies sizzle. Of course since it was lensed in Kansas with largely local talent, this is perhaps unsurprising, but it still doesn't help matters. However, they *did* manage to film a climax with Cherry in her dominatrix boots and prom crown standing in front of a blazing American flag, so that's something, anyway. And Brooke Balderson as Cherry and Amy Kelly as Terra are standouts in an otherwise unremarkable cast.
Troma Team DVD is to be lauded for giving indie filmmakers a shot, and both de Launay and Balderson show promise, even if it's not fully realized in these examples. Both dvds have some nice extras--commentary, behind the scenes vignettes, and of course the usual Tromatic Trailers--which is a much nicer presentation than they'd be likely to get anywhere else. While the movies weren't entirely to my liking, I wouldn't be uninterested in seeing where either filmmaker goes from here.