Movie Review – Terror Firmer (1999)

After the success of 1996’s Scream, horror became self-referential. The trend affected many films in the immediate years that followed, such as 2000’s Jason X, where franchises and the genre as whole showed greater self-awareness.  Hell, in 1999 even Troma went “meta”. Terror Firmer is filled with references to the production company’s history and nods to its previous films. Lloyd Kaufman, Troma’s co-founder and the film’s director, plays a parody of himself as a blind filmmaker trying to make a new Toxic Avenger movie while a killer picks off people associated with the production. The film is written by James Gunn and loosely based upon Kaufman’s own 1998 autobiography, All I Need to Know about Filmmaking I Learned from the Toxic Avenger.

Terror Firmer is balls-out insane, even by the standards of a company like Troma which prides itself on tasteless humor and exploitation. It follows the manic formula of Airplane! (1980), having a joke every three seconds because if one joke fails you can quickly move on to the next one. It throws everything on the screen hoping enough will eventually stick, and I’m not just talking about the copious amounts of gore. Just as Airplane! is a parody of the 1970s disaster genre, Terror Firmer is in many ways a parody of the production company’s already satirically exaggerated filmography. Troma die-hards will find plenty of “Easter eggs” with which to keep busy as the film is Troma’s love letter to itself – the equivalent of cinematic masturbation.

Terror Firmer is probably the most purely Troma film, completely unfettered. It is replete with over-the-top, unconvincing but no less disgusting, gore, gratuitous nudity, jokes revolving around bodily fluids, and juvenile jokes meant to offend as many people as possible. It’s what you come to Troma for, and here Kaufman gives it to you in spades. However, all its excess reveals that Troma is at its best when it’s reined in just a little, more in style than in substance. The jokes run too long (which is itself sometimes the joke) and a lot of the immature humor falls flat. The hermaphrodite jokes in particular already feel tiresomely outdated.

I wish I had seen this film when it first came out, around the time I would have been graduating high school. I would have been at the point in my life when I would have best appreciated the film’s humor and antics, for my friends and I were busy making our own purposefully terrible Troma-esque movies. I’m not claiming that maturity has ruined me for Kaufman’s exploitative humor, as I remain a fan of both The Toxic Avenger (1984) and Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead (2006), I just think that the satire, gags, and overall pacing work better in those films than in this one – in fact, as I’ve grown older I’ve come to value absurdist humor more, because the more we conform to the realities of adult life the more difficult it becomes to tap into that ridiculous creativity that came so easily in adolescence. For keeping that alive, I will always salute Lloyd Kaufman.

Throughout much of Terror Firmer I was bored or impatient for a tired joke to move on, but much of that was saved by the last act. Will Keenan, who played Tromeo in 1996’s Tromeo and Juliet,  commits to his role with an admirable gusto, channeling an emotionally broken Dr. Frank N. Furter, adding a dedication to character in a film where bad acting is the norm. Keenan, in my opinion, makes what came before worth it retrospectively. Nevertheless, I can always support Troma’s methods, summed up by one of the film’s characters: “Sometimes pissing people off is the only way to get them to look at shit.” While Kaufman doesn’t always embrace subtlety, he undoubtedly understands art.

Grade: D+