Stars: Erica Andrews, Willam Belli, Kelexis Davenport, Jenna Skyy and Krystal Summers
Sometimes there are movies you should never watch because there's just no way they could ever live up to their titles. When I saw that the Arizona Underground Film Festival was screening a film called Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives, I knew it was either going to be a disappointment or the greatest film ever made, but catching up on DVD I realise that it's a combination of both. Obviously this isn't a movie for everyone, but you can hardly accuse it of false advertising. It's an indie film, financed by a lesbian in her eighties, shot by a gay Texan director and, perhaps for the first time anywhere, starring real transgender women in most of the lead roles. It's also a throwback to grindhouse rape revenge movies like I Spit on Your Grave and Savage Streets, but with plenty of comedy and nowhere near as much nastiness. Those who would hate it are the ones who wouldn't dream of watching it to begin with because it's exactly what they think it is.
Personally I've found drag queens to be an acquired taste, somewhat like gangsta rappers, but I'd much rather see a dozen drag queens bitching at each other for ninety minutes than just one pissant little gangsta rapper who thinks he's tough for five minutes. The five stars of this film are mostly transgender women but all are professional entertainers, most of whom director Israel Luna knew from a Dallas bar called Station Four. This is success number one, though he didn't have a clue while making it that his film would be a first. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately given the free publicity it gave him, he had problems with GLAAD, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, who protested at his use of the word 'tranny', and at his depiction of transgender women, surprising given that the real transgender women who played them built the characters themselves. Luna sees his film as empowering, which makes sense to me.
The characters the girls play are success number two. Willam Belli, the best of the five actors, often appears on TV dramas and cop shows, but she rarely gets to be as flamboyant as this. She plays Rachel Slurr, who isn't a racist, she just hates everyone. She also has a repartee that is so gloriously dry that she had me in stitches with almost every line, as the persona is one that she can really explore, unlike usual roles like 'Bathroom Tranny', 'Blonde Drag Queen' or 'Tranny Hooker'. When her characters have names, they usually lean to the generic, like 'Sasha Simone', 'Candy Darling' or 'Supernova Chablis'. Rachel Slurr is so much better, as are those of the girls she works on stage with: Tipper Sommore, Emma Grashun, Bubbles Cliquot and Pinky La'Trimm. These actors are less experienced than Belli, at least on film, with few if any credits, but they're more than up to the task, all five of them contributing substantially to the dialogue.
Success number three should have been the throwback to the grindhouse days, but while Luna gives awesome interviews and obviously really loves the films and subgenres he takes influence from, he doesn't nail this as an old school rape revenge flick. I can get by the technical issues, as he didn't have much budget to speak of, so fabricated fake tape rips out of Final Cut Pro effects. Some are better than others and I have to admit I loved the missing chapter and the deliberately abrupt ending to another. Part of it is that there's no attempt to grain the film or date it, but for the most part it's the lack of consistency of tone. Sure, many grindhouse movies were so awful that they didn't have consistency of tone either but chapter five here left me totally dry because it only served to interrupt the good stuff that came after and especially before it. So while I love the idea of a seventies tranny rape revenge movie, this one isn't it. It's a 2010 indie version.
As you can imagine, if you've seen the sort of picture that Luna was inspired by, the plot is not particularly difficult to summarise, but for a rape revenge movie there's just not enough rape or revenge. The rape takes place before the film begins, though we find out about it during chapter three. Bubbles was raped by a redneck lowlife called Boner because he thought she was a real girl, which looking at Krystal Summers (no, not the porn actress) is understandable. Now she's dragged along by Emma and Rachel to be the third girl in a private party with three guys and he turns out to be the one they hadn't seen. What ensues is an agreeably violent scene with decent filmmaking from Luna, especially given the budget. While the choreography needs some work, he's able to build suspense well, as he proves again later in the film. The suggestion is that after this scene fades to black, Bubbles may have been raped again and two of her friends are dead.
Up to this point the film has been solid. The first chapter introduces the girls, not just names but characters, in a great scene that would feel like Quentin Tarantino wrote it if only it didn't sound so natural. These flamboyant drag queens with daunting cleavages argue about Trashy Tuesday, Lindsay Wagner and Latino nicknames (would you date anyone named after a cheese?) in lines that were ad libbed as much as they were ever written down. Apparently Luna often had to work hard to keep his camera steady for laughing so much. This all carries on when they go to a gay bar to party and talk about relationships. Anything less than four months isn't a relationship. If you sucked it, you're gay. Only you, unicorns and leprechauns believe in bisexual men. I wonder if I'd find Kevin Smith funnier if he was a drag queen. These drag queens have no conception of restraint but they don't ever cross over that line where banter becomes cruel.
So after so much great character building and so much great dialogue, we get a decent scene of violence and I was all set for this to become a great movie. Unfortunately the missing reel was probably better than the one after it that survived, at least once the first scene is done. That's as funny as the early ones, with Bubbles emerging from a coma unable to speak, while Rachel and Pinky go to cheer her up and prove to be gloriously infuriating instead. Unfortunately, for a while it goes downhill from there. We get Nurse Connie Lingus, Dr Phil Lashio and a character called Fergus who takes them on a haycart ride into the middle of nowhere in oriental garb, umbrella for Pinky and all. The scenery is great, the rest is embarrassing. There's even a fart joke, which sadly isn't out of place, and the only redeeming moment it finds is the last one, as it ends with the film burning up and an 'excuse us while we change reels' message. I was thankful.
I expected that after the scene of violence (I'd say rape scene to be traditional, but surely a rape scene has to contain a rape), we'd get a period of recovery and then Bubbles would turn tough and hunt down with a bloody vengeance the men who killed her friends and violated her. There are three of them, so that would make three scenes of therapeutic justice, building in degrees until Boner gets his during the finalé. Instead we get a chapter of juvenile humour that is totally out of place and then only one vengeance scene, because the three bad guys show up together at Bubbles' place for the final hurrah. Having three scenes condensed into one means quite a lot. It means there's plenty of time to stretch out good dialogue into far too much dialogue, it means there's little opportunity for suspense and most of all, it means no escalation of violence, which is much of the joy of such films. If this scene was this gruesome, what is the next going to have?
Luna doesn't skimp on the violence for his finalé but he misses the mark with some of it, going beyond the choreography, which in this instance was understandably a little awkward because it was all shot in one long 27 hour session. My biggest problem with the scene is that rape is an act of sexual violence and you would expect any response to it to be an act of sexual violence too but we don't see any of that here. In the films Luna was influenced by, rape scenes make women squirm and revenge scenes make men squirm. I didn't squirm once, though there was plenty of opportunity to include material that would have done the trick. The only example that comes close (a great use for switchblades) was again told to us rather than shown to us. Grindhouse is always about showing us, which is why this fails on that front. It has a joyous beginning with joyous characters but the middle sucks and the ending could have been so much more.