Tromeo and Juliet is a creation of Troma Entertainment, a studio that specializes in low budget horror works that have splatter gore, nudity, wit; their productions always stand out for being so... unconventional. And this adaptation of Shakespeare’s most well-known story is certainly unconventional. I mean, how do you inject tension and excitement into a story whose major plot points all of us know? How do you get the audience to get behind these kids and worry whether they’ll get together?
You change the names of the characters. You change… the ending so it involves Juliet violently murdering someone. You include scenes at a tattoo/piercing parlor, where one of the players suffers a gruesome head injury. You make Count Paris into the billionaire London Arbuckle, whose business is in the meat-packing district, to the chagrin of his vegetarian fiancé.
And you make Juliet a die-hard lesbian who, within two minutes of her introduction, gets jilled off by the family nurse. Juliet’s never even thought about a man that way, so how can Romeo win her love?! That, my friends, is how you create tension.
This is Juliet's first hetero fantasy.
TaJ is, truly, one of the most demented films I've ever seen. If you don’t have an idea of what I mean by “demented,” then just think about the mood and tone (but not the quality) of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s a gonzo sort of world where anything goes, and people do the most insane stuff imaginable. So this rendition of two star-crossed lovers has lots of sex scenes surrounded by icky, visceral violence, and a lot of comedy. For my money, this is all kind of a perfect fit – not only because The Bard himself had a racy sense of humor, but because the result is just so much damn fun.
I already discussed the start of this picture, when I compared the opening sequences to three Romeo and Juliet adaptations. Set in a pre-Disneyfication Times Square, none other than the great Ian Fraser Kilmister (Lemmy from Motörhead) recites the introductory couplets while preview scenes set up the action to come and present the names of all the players. Right there, you get the first inklings of how the filmmakers altered the text to suit their needs – even though the presentation is in perfect keeping with Shakespeare’s own practices.
And what sick, perverted hacks dared to create this trash? Well, the director and co-writer is Lloyd Kaufman, one of the founders of Troma Entertainment and the creator of Class of Nuke ‘Em High and The Toxic Avenger. The other co-writer is James Gunn, the man who penned and filmed Slither, Super, and a minor 2014 work called... uh, The Guardians of the Galaxy.
I just want you to imagine how wide the smile on my face is right now. Hint: both of my dimples are visible.
For younger readers: Troma Entertainment’s modern equivalent is probably The Asylum, the distributor of Sharknado. TE began in 1974 in Long Island, New York, and has released over 1000 independent films since that time – most of those were low-budget horror movies with a strong sense of humor. The studio’s fame grew with the release of the 80’s cult hit, The Toxic Avenger, but they’ve always operated on the periphery of public awareness.
People whose first or second film jobs came in Troma efforts include Samuel L. Jackson, Marisa Tomei, Vincent D’Onofrio, Billy Bob Thornton, J.J, Abrams, and Kevin Costner. Hell, Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s first film, Cannibal! The Musical, was a Troma production. At least at present, you should probably be able to throw a stone at a Hollywood gathering and you’ll have 1-in-5 odds of hitting someone who speaks respectfully of Troma...
And the great thing is that, despite Troma films reusing old props or filming rough-and-dirty scenes on open streets in NYC, that level of financing or prurient sensibility bears no impact on the quality behind the finished product. This is the real gift of TaJ: Gunn’s dedication to quality is all over this piece, so from a writing perspective, it's the most technically-blessed picture in Troma’s history.
This version of Romeo and Juliet doesn’t just go through the paces – it gives Juliet a true sense of agency. Instead of being the object of romantic affections, she’s a character who has realistic, palpable motivations and desires. It doesn’t matter that you see the actress’ bare breasts repeatedly – Juliet has real fire and proactively fights for what she wants.
All of these dusty old characters become more vivid when you understand that they’re leaving a scene because they want to score drugs or have sex. Mercutio gets an added dimension when his dying words are to ask Romeo to kiss him on the mouth(!). This is the sort of subversive fun that everyone should be open to at some point in their lives, an openness that is rewarded by the completely bonkers alterations made to the story’s final 40 minutes.
Throughout it all, there are ludicrous asides, a subplot involving a porn studio, and a real sense of the public violence caused by the senseless feud between the houses known as “Que” and “Capulet.” It’s gory, it’s nuts, and it’s gleefully unhinged.
In fact, there’s a good argument to be made for the story making more sense once its recontextualized. Cappy Capulet makes more sense as a wife-beater (really, his first moment of domestic violence makes both men and women laugh) who has a weird, hopefully not-realized semi-sexual fixation on his darling daughter. Monty Que’s hatred of Cappy works nicely when you learn that he lost his wife and his porn studio to Mr. Capulet. And Romeo and Juliet’s mutual obsession plays just fine when you see them both masturbate to porn while thinking about each other.
Released in 1996, this picture hasn’t lost much of anything with time - one of the truest benefits of low budget films, where the makeup work and special effects look exactly as they were intended (and already dated the first time around). Its... unique approach toward Shakespeare remains fresh and unexpected. In fact, the only things that don't work well are a bare handful (out of dozens) of jokes, and (especially) a gag where a priest intimates that he has a bad case of little boy love.
Tromeo and Juliet possesses the smarts of a mature work, while retaining a juvenile joy that both suits the material and makes the T&A scenes feel fitting, too. The play itself is about teenage passions and hormones run wild, so the fact that Mr. Gunn cared to flesh out the two leads and transpose them into a world of New York City freaks is just a gift to the audience. Does any of us expect two young lovers to seal their devotion with a chaste kiss, or by doing it next to a lion sculpture outside the New York Public Library?
Tromeo has a dedication to cleverness, lurid behavior, and a modern look at romance between two incredibly-weird individuals. The way the film embraces freakishness is pleasing and well-handled – and a wonderful touch for all of us New Yorkers who are used to street fights, nutjobs who threaten to rape other dudes, or women with five facial piercings. Wasn't the warm public response to Bruce Jenner's sexual transition and last Friday's Supreme Court decision surrounded by the concept of who society deems an unworthy outcast?
And, for all of this fun – fun you can find on Netflix Streaming right now, folks – you have to thank Mr. Kaufman and Mr. Gunn. They decided to update a classic story so that it’s full of lunatics, producing a rare work that’s as full of artistic quality as it is cheaply-made, as full of humor as it is horror. This movie never loses sight of its tone, or its characters - it revels in them and all their outlandish behavior.
But we also have to thank this cast: Will Keenan makes a fine Tromeo. Singer-songwriter Jane Jensen is a beautifully-portrayed, gorgeous Juliet. Maximillian Shaun lives it up as Cappy Capulet, while Valentine Miele brings a subtle humor to his Murray Martini. Earl McKoy is hilarious as the broken, flatulent drunkard, Monty Que. Stephen Blackehart’s insanity as Benny Que is second only to Patrick Connor’s surprisingly-focused Tyrone Capulet. Everyone here gives a lot, and the viewer should be able to see that, whether it’s Debbie Rochon as the lusty nurse, Ness, or Steve Gibbons as London Arbuckle, the cattle king. Wendy Adams and Tamara Craig Thomas (from Odyssey 5) round out the imbalanced Capulets, playing Ingrid and Georgie, respectively.
And, y’know what? I’ve loved this movie since it came out – I saw it as soon as I could, for god’s sake – and I have to give James Gunn a lot of credit for casting himself as “The ‘Found a Peanut’ Father,” (you’ll love it when you see it) and his own brother (Sean) as the incestuously-inclined, butt-rape threatening Sammy. I enjoyed Super and Slither, and I gave Guardians of the Galaxy a very positive review – and yet I’ll sit here with a wicked grin on my face, proclaiming for a long time to come that Tromeo and Juliet is my favorite James Gunn film. This movie shares a lot in common with Evil Dead 2 or my beloved Bad Taste - a Peter Jackson film that's more compelling and enjoyable than PJ's Hobbit followups.
If you’re inclined to try out my recommendation – stick with it for at least 15 minutes, please – then I think it might become your favorite James Gunn film, too.