Friday, September 7, 2012
NO, THEY REALLY MEAN IT: A review of SHAMELESS, TASTELESS
“Discovered in the lower depths of the Ukrainian black market, Troma proudly presents the infamous works of Soviet sleaze-maestro Yakov Levi. With casts comprised of real-life criminals, prostitutes, and narcotic addicts, this depraved anthology chronicles the misled adventures of degenerate whores, possessed sadomasochists, and murderous undergarments. Available for the first time in America (with English subtitles), SHAMELESS, TASTELESS: TRASH CINEMA FROM THE SOVIET UNDERGROUND takes transgressive art to a new level of moral corruption.” So reads the back of the box. But there are a few problems with that.
First of all, it should be noted that Yakov Levi isn’t even Soviet (or Ukrainian); he’s a Canadian who stayed in Ukraine for a while. And while the cast does include prostitutes and strippers (and criminals, since the former is a crime), there is no evidence to support the presence of narcotic addicts. (However, the main star of Levi’s films is a mental patient who was released from the asylum so he could film a couple of shorts with her.) And sure, the subject matter is pretty transgressive, but there is no “new level of moral corruption.” Anything you’ve seen in the films of, say, John Waters would prepare you for anything here.
In fact, many of the short films here aren't all that transgressive. For example, “Matroshka Dolls of Doom” really isn’t all that far out there. A group of young women vacationing in a forgotten corner of Ukraine stay with a seemingly harmless (although odd) old babushka (played by Ukraine’s version of Divine, Baba Alla), only to find that the old woman has been kidnapping people and transforming them into matroshka dolls so she won’t be so lonely. (For those who don’t know, matroshka dolls are those Russian dolls that fit inside of each other.) There is nothing outrageous in this film. About as far as Levi goes is having his young protagonists dance sexily with the matroshka dolls of young men who have been kidnapped by the babushka. That’s it. There isn’t even nudity in this.
“The Ghost of Marquis de Sade” goes a bit further. Three young women (noticing a trend?) decide that there isn’t enough romance in their lives, so they decide to hold a séance to bring a ghost from the past to life to woo them. They don’t know who the Marquis de Sade is, but his name sounds French, and the French are supposed to be the most romantic of lovers, so they bring him back. In a rather remarkable scene, one of the woman is tortured and whipped by an invisible force, and she is forced to give fellatio to an invisible dick. All right, the effects are lousy (in fact, the effects are non-existent), but the idea is kind of fun. Her friends don’t believe her, and the next night, one of them is possessed by the Marquis and starts to torture her companion. In one ridiculous moment, she shoves a broom handle up her friend’s ass, and it comes out her mouth. But this doesn’t kill the poor girl, it’s just one of those things. However, like the previous movie, there is no nudity.
In “Vanity Insanity,” two girls (yeah, only two this time) come into possession of a mirror once owned by an actress. One of them falls in love with her own reflection while the other falls in love with her friend. While there are some really interesting images in this one (like the one woman squirming around on the mirror, covered in whipped cream, or the moment where it looks like she’s licking the reflection of her pussy), again, there is no nudity. How can this possibly be considered trash cinema?
The secret is in the other films. “Penisella” 1-4 more than makes up for the lack of trash. Penisella is a hot woman with a 12-inch cock, and all she wants is to find love. Instead, all the men she tries to entice run away from her as soon as they see what she’s packing. It’s so big that when she wears short skirts (which is always), it hangs out the bottom. In one instance, she puts a Santa’s hat on it and kisses the tip. All right, the cock is fake, and Penisella is really just Levi’s neighbor, but that’s a sight more transgressive than anything else in this collection, especially when she meets VaJohna. John is a guy she meets through the internet, and before long, she realizes that he’s a man with a pussy. They make wild, passionate love, and in the end, they get married and have kids. Isn’t that romantic?
But you want the really nasty stuff, don’t you? Perhaps you’ll find more enjoyment with two shorts called “Shameless” and “Tasteless.” (The latter is the sequel to the former.) Most people really enjoyed the babushka from “Matroshka Dolls of Doom,” and they wanted Levi to make more movies with her. The problem was, by this time, Baba Alla had been committed to a mental institute. In order to get her out to film these two shorts, Levi told the staff that she was going to play this old lady who gets hit on the head and thinks that she’s 17, so she starts hitting on all these young men in the park. Of course, that was a complete lie. What the movie really is about, is an old woman who is trying to support her son’s heroin habit by whoring herself. While she hangs out by the dumpster, she shouts out to all these potential customers, trying to entice them by saying she’s 17 years old and a virgin. Enter three young men (yeah, men this time), and they are so disgusted with her that they dare each other to do horrible things with her. The first is dared to kiss her on the lips, and he pukes all over himself when he’s done. The second is dared to kiss her pussy, and when he comes away, his mouth is covered in mush and twine and cigarette butts. The last guy is challenged to fuck her in the ass, and when he does, she shits on his legs. How’s that for fucking grotesque?
In “Tasteless,” the third young man is the protagonist. He’s a chronic masturbator, but he’s tired of blowing his load all over porn, coffee mugs, and even pens, so he calls the local escort service only to find that the two dollars he has won’t get him a regular woman. Instead, the pimp sends over Baba Alla, who puts on the most disgusting strip tease ever put to film. It’s enough to make John Waters gag, especially when she squeezes her tits and shoots milk all over the poor guy’s face. While she’s dancing, a baby pops out of her. Does she care? Nope. That just happens every nine months, that’s all. Her ride shows up, and she leaves the guy with the kid, but when he calls up the escort service to complain, the pimp simply tells him to throw the kid in the trash. So THAT’S how they do things in Ukraine . . . .
After all of these films, Levi got tired of spending so much money and getting very little recognition. He quit the business and moved back to Canada, and that was when Lloyd Kaufman of Troma fame discovered him. Not only did he agree to release all of these films in one collection, he also gave Levi enough money to fund another short film to round everything out. What did Levi come up with?
Witness “The Killer Bra.” A young woman sees a bra so desirable she will do anything to get it. Sadly, another customer sees it at the same time, and they fight each other for it. One of them falls down the stairs in the store and breaks her neck. Satisfied, the young woman buys her bra and brings it home.
What she doesn’t know is that the bra is now possessed by the spirit of the woman who died, and it will use its supernatural power to murder this young woman and all of her friends. It is simply the most ludicrous thing to happen to horror since Bruce Campbell fought his own hand in EVIL DEAD 2. This bra strangles and smothers people in the most ridiculous ways imaginable, and the protagonist does everything in her shallow mind to kill it (even putting it in a blender after burning it with a clothes iron). It’s a masterpiece of horror-comedy, and unlike many other tales in this collection, there is an abundance of nudity, therefore qualifying it for trash cinema.
Not only are the movies great and engaging, so is the commentary. Ordinarily, the commentary is the most boring DVD feature imaginable. There are a few people who manage to handle it well, like Kevin Smith, the Broken Lizard guys, and Matt Stone and Trey Parker. Now, add Yakov Levi’s name to that august list. The stories he tells about the making of these films are amazing. He will point out the prostitutes and strippers to you. He will tell you about how a candle in “The Ghost of Marquis de Sade” nearly burned down the set. He will tell you about how, once when he was getting exterior shots of buildings, the Ukrainian police arrested him, thinking he was a terrorist. He will tell you about how he met Baba Alla and how he liberated her from the asylum to film those two shorts. He will tell you all the dirty little behind-the-scenes stories, and why you should NEVER pay an actor in advance. He will tell you about how one actress’s prostitution got in the way of shooting, and how a bunch of thugs masquerading as police officers tried to shut down the filming of one of his lesbian shorts. (He has a great love of lesbians.) Also included in the extras is the most horrifying boardgame EVER. You will never ever EVER want to play this game, guaranteed. For example, if you land on one square, you have to give your opponent a rimjob. Even if you win, you lose, as you will see if you check it out.
Is SHAMELESS, TASTELESS really “trash cinema from the Soviet Underground”? Some of it is trash cinema, and since most of it was filmed in Ukraine, it is more or less Soviet. But it is definitely worth your hard-earned cash. You will never see anything like Baba Alla prancing about by the dumpsters. Hell, you will probably wish you’d never seen anything like it. Also, be sure to keep an eye out in the extras for a bonus film about a man who masturbates so much his dick runs away from home and gets into all sorts of trouble. Hopefully, Levi has not retired from film after all; just think of all the crazy shit he can still get up to . . . .
Written and directed by Yakov Levi
Produced by Troma Studios