Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Making Monsters #27: Street Trash

While I appreciate a good gore effect, I've never had a lot of interest in splatter for splatter's sake, so I've skipped or been late to a lot of the more notorious horror movies, including the majority of the subgenre known as "melt movies." While I can appreciate a solid effect depicting the spectacular liquefaction of the human body in the context of a movie that earns it - just last week, my son and I were enjoying the featurette explaining how they melted Toht's face in Raiders of the Lost Ark - protracted gore porn just isn't my bag. I'm not judging, I'm just saying. So when I finally saw Street Trash in ideal circumstances - a pristine 35mm print with live commentary by writer/producer Roy Frumkes - I was surprised that there was much more to the movie than I'd always assumed from its disgusting VHS cover art. To be clear, it is a completely disgusting movie, but with more wit, satirical edge and pure chutzpah that I'd expected. Rarely has a film that features rape, necrophilia, rampant bodily fluids and an extended game of "hot potato" involving a severed penis seemed so darn cheerful.

A film about winos, junkies, lowlifes and the assorted denizens of New York's streets in the 1980s, Street Trash is a joyously over-the-top exploitation movie that has as its narrative thread an extremely cheap brand of booze called Tenafly Viper that has become lethally skunked. When a liquor store owner sells his overstock extremely cheap to the homeless, it causes any character who drinks it to rapidly melt in a spectacular fashion. What makes this work is that the approach to the melt effects, which aren't as interested in a realistically sickening detail than in constructing an extreme, deliberately ridiculous gross joke. Bodies erupt in cascades of blue, green and purple goo, collapsing within their clothes, melting into grimacing puppets or even exploding into a million sticky pieces. The effects transcend bad taste; they're so extreme that they become completely, hilariously abstract.

One of the makeup effects supervisors on the film was Jennifer Aspinall, who also did a lot of work for Saturday Night Live, which suggests that the filmmakers were more interested in makeup that was comic than realistic (incidentially, Aspinall doesn't include Street Trash among the list of credits on her website). And it helps a great deal that the filmmakers weren't cynical hacks but genuine cinephiles - Frumkes has long been a member of the National Board of Review, and he's also responsible for Document of the Dead, the excellent documentary on George A. Romero and the Dead movies. And the movie's director, Jim Muro, is responsible for the movie, which was largely shot on Steadicam, for having such a slick visual style and professional look for a very low-budget movie. This is Muro's only film as a director; he became one of the most sought-after Steadicam operators and cinematographers in the business, working on Best Picture winners Titanic and Crash. Frumkes explained at the screening that Muro had become a Christian and, possibly embarrassed, had distanced himself from Street Trash. In a strange coincidence, I worked as an extra later that summer on the Anna Faris vehicle What's Your Number? and realized that the cigar-chomping director of photography was none other than Muro. It took a lot of willpower not to mention the movie to him, but it was a pleasure to watch him work - using clearly homemade rigs and even substituting a 2x4 between two ladders for a more expensive camera mount, it was clear that Muro hadn't completely lost touch with his low-budget roots.

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