Seeing the chintzy, but charming, cardboard city skyline accompanied by the words “A Troma Team Release” is something that can send paroxysms of anxiety through even the stoutest film lover’s heart. Troma built their brand from the ground up, and they did it through the most blatant of hustling. Lloyd Kaufman is a man who knows the value of getting something for nothing. If Roger Corman is lauded for stretching every dollar he ever spent on his films, then Kaufman can pinch a penny into a piece of copper wire for his, and should be equally applauded. I admire Kaufman’s particular brand of hucksterism. He sells every film he puts out like it was “The Citizen Kane Of” whichever genre. I’m quite certain he has no illusions about the level of quality in the movies he produces. They are what they are, they are made (usually) with some heart, and they are typically exploitative as all hell. Yes, the humor is normally not above the level of a twelve-year-old trying to light a fart. Yes, the effects would make Ed Wood wince. Yes, the acting lacks the subtlety of, well, it lacks subtlety entirely. These are the things that attract their fans.
Troma has also released films they had no role in producing, and this is where the nervousness about seeing their logo at the start of a movie arises. For example, they were involved in the re-release of Dario Argento’s The Stendhal Syndrome as well as the distribution of Joel M Reed’s Bloodsucking Freaks. While one could argue the merits of either of these films, one would have to agree that they are almost nothing like the stuff that Troma actually produces and distributes (although Bloodsucking Freaks comes close). In other words, when you see the Troma logo, you know you’re in for a crap shoot. This brings us to Sean P Donahue’s They Call Me Macho Woman (aka Savage Instinct), a movie Troma co-produced. If the lack of resemblance between the woman on the box cover art and the film’s star (Debra Sweaney) doesn’t tell you you’ve entered Tromaville, nothing will (and maybe they’re both Sweaney, but I’ll be damned if they don’t look worlds apart to my eye). And like the majority of Troma’s output, your mileage will most definitely vary in terms of enjoyment, depending on your threshold for uncut schlock.
Widow Susan Morris (Sweaney) and her realtor Cecil (Lory-Michael Ringuette) are en route to see an out-of-the-way property for Susan to purchase. A chance auto mishap puts Susan in the crosshairs of Mongo (Brian Oldfield) and his kookie gang of drug dealers. Now, she’ll have to man up if she wants to survive.
They Call Me Macho Woman (by the way, no one in the film ever calls Susan “Macho Woman”) falls into the category of movies that tell us, quite clearly, that, no matter where you go, trouble will find you. Susan wants to get out of the city and fulfill the dream she and her husband had of moving to some place quiet and peaceful before a drunk driving accident took his life. Solitude, however, is an impossibility. The menace of city life expands to the countryside. If it isn’t rapey, drug-addled thugs in the urban jungle, it’s rapey, moonshine-addled/inbred hicks in the woods (or, alternately, rapey, shitkicker cops). In exploitation cinema, true peace is elusive, but it can be earned through violence. The protagonist is broken down only to be built back up (by their own ingenuity) into a figure more frightening than those who threaten him/her. To be at the top of the heap, to win the right to live as they want, they must sink to the level of savagery with which they are opposed. And then top it. Susan is handy from the start. When their car gets a flat tire, Cecil proves worthless. It’s Susan who has the know-how to change it, having been schooled by her brothers. Eventually, she kits herself out with all manner of makeshift weaponry (while also taking the time to polish her mini-axes to a mirrorlike sheen; fashion and function). Every situation in which Susan finds herself, she has to dig deeper and deeper into her primal core. She has a cat fight with a predatory lesbian that ends with Susan tackling her opponent off a hay loft. She seduces one of her attackers (I mean, he was going to rape her anyway, but still…) and impales his head on a nail. She stabs a gang member in the ear with a stick (leading to a rather funny running joke for the rest of the film). By the end of the movie, Susan can not only kill another human being, but she can do so brutally. The question becomes, has Susan gained her freedom or lost her humanity? Are the two the same?
Every person in this film is a shithead. Mongo (who looks like a larger version of Nick Cassavetes) growls at everyone, and he isn’t above allowing his gang members to die in order to keep more of their illicit gains for himself. He also kills people with a spiked bit of fetish headgear instead of, oh, say, shooting them. With the exceptions of Mongo, Cecil, and Mr. Wilson (J. Brown), there is not a man or woman who doesn’t attempt to sexually assault Susan. This even stretches to a trio of guys who could have been her saviors. She flags down a car and is picked up by Geno (Paul Roder) and his mates. They quickly pull off to the side to get some, cackling, drinking beer, and basically being assholes. Things don’t go well for them. Hand in hand with this omnipresent shitheadedness is the fact that every character says whatever is on their mind every moment of the film (typically consisting of calling their associates “idiots,” etcetera). None of them has either ever heard the mantra that silence is golden, or they simply never paid it any mind (but mostly, let’s just blame Donahue, who is also the screenwriter). This might not have been quite so bad if they didn’t all speak and relate on the level of eighth graders (one could imagine them trading spitballs with ease). This is illustrated and/or compounded by the constant use of the term “bitch.” In fact, its usage is so prevalent, you could easily make a drinking game out of it. And that’s the territory in which They Call Me Macho Woman exists. It is tiresome in its drudging repetitiveness. It is not well-written, shot, or acted. It is not even especially satisfying in its resolution. Nonetheless, it is a singular cinematic experience that distinguishes itself by its insistence on trying to be as generic as possible. A sort of failing upward, I suppose.
MVT: The premise is solid enough. That’s why it’s so well-worn.
Make or Break: The fate of Geno and his crew is nicely executed.