You just know that any film featuring a character named Helluva-Bottom Carter is really going for the gusto…
And Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives (2010) — a recent fave of the film circuit and the scourge of GLAAD (an organization which protested the film during its premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival…) — certainly goes for the gusto.
What that means is that this low-budget Israel Luna film is gleefully politically incorrect in the presentation of a 1970s, grindhouse-styled “rape and revenge” story. The film casts a wide net of intentional inappropriateness, lobbing joke-bombs at everyone from trannies to rednecks to those with speech impediments.
It may not be nice and it may not be correct, but in an increasingly homogenized Hollywood — where movies are focus-grouped and test-screened until no rough edges are left — this throw-caution-to-the-wind approach pays homage to the decorum-shattering, taboo-busting essence of 1970s exploitationers. For instance, the filmmaker’s approach to characters here reminded me a little of the indecorous way that Tobe Hooper depicted a handicapped character, Franklin, in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
You just don’t see something like that every day, and especially not in this century.
Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives kicks off with an inspirational quotation from Helen Keller (which I suspected was apocryphal…but isn’t), then follows five immensely likable Transsexual “ladies,” — Bubbles, Rachel Slur, Pinky La Trimm, Emma Grashun (who just arrived in the country…) and Tipper Somemore — as they run afoul of a redneck rapist named Boner and his evil minions. This creepy cracker lures the trannies to an out-of-the-way warehouse one night, and then pulls a Last House on the Left-styled assault on Bubbles and the others….with a baseball bat as his weapon of choice.
The remainder of the film finds the survivors of that violent attack launching a revenge campaign against their tormentor, a revenge campaign highlighting switch-blades and other sharp, bladed objects inserted in places where…well, where the sun don’t shine.
Ticked-off Trannies with Knives starts off really, really well, introducing theTrannie characters with sharp dialogue, real wit, and strong characterizations. There’s one scene set at a club called “Weenieland” that ably and humorously expresses the existential dilemma of Trannydom: they want to be in relationships with straight-seeming men; but straight-seeming men don’t like, well…dick.
In this and the other excellent inaugural sequences — which raise the specter of contemporary society’s seemingly-routine violence against those who are different — you really grow to like the titular characters. In particular, Willam Belli — playing Rachel Slur — is a stand-out in the cast, perfectly walking a delicate tightrope between dopey earnestness and catty sarcasm. Every time Belli’s Slur is on-screen, the movie works on all cylinders. The film’s lead, Bubbles (Krystal Summers) also does a terrific job anchoring the material; playing the scenes for their organic worth and not attempting to ramp up the campiness or humor quotient just for the sake of getting a laugh.
Filmed in garish, even lurid light and showcasing frequent scratches and jumps in the print, Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives often works overtime to re-create the cheapo vibe of disco-decade grindhouse films. Unfortunately, it also over-uses the “missing reel” gag (also seen in Tarantino’s Grindhouse) and almost uniformly lacks the oppressive sense of danger, pacing and urgency that made efforts like the aforementioned Last House on the Left (1972) or I Spit on Your Grave (1978) such bracing, lightning-rod landmarks of the form.
The well-crafted first act of Ticked-off Trannies with Knives gives way, alas, to a scattershot, disappointing second act that highlights some weak, jokey performances (notably from an actor portraying a doctor).
Instead of authentically developing the traumatized characters and their dilemma after Boner’s vicious first attack, Trannies instead relies on easy fart jokes from the fat tranny, and makes a mockery of the film’s “reality” with an off-tone scene involving the martial arts training of the wronged gals by a campy, silly fellow named Fergus (Richard Curtin). Again, a single performance almost sinks the whole enterprise.
In this interlude, the likable, put-upon Trannies hardly seem to take notice that two of their number are dead, murdered. They don’t even craft a plan of revenge on their own. Instead, Fergus telephones them out-of-the-blue and leads them down the path of revenge. It’s a tonal and narrative misstep.
To put it another way, the first act of the film features funny characters who exist — more or less — in a real, believable world, even if it is a 1970s-styled exploitation, Russ Meyer-inspired world. But then the movie slips into unbelievable and broad Airplane–styled antics in the second act, so you can’t take the characters or their world seriously. The suspension of disbelief is sacrificed and — there’s no other way to say it — the second act is an unmitigated disaster.
The movie veers back on-message for its final, brutal (and brutally funny) third act, but by then, all of the energy and pace is totally evaporated. What you’re ultimately left with then, is a movie that is occasionally funny, often wicked, but which ultimately fails to cohere into any kind of meaningful or affecting story.
And that’s a shame, because there’s so much promise here, from the way the film uses 1970s female icons (with mentions of Farrah Fawcett and Lindsey Wagner), to the movie’s final, questioning take on vengeance…noted, ironically, post-vengeance.
Also, as I’ve noted above, the performers here are uniformly good. I wished the movie had met their efforts half-way and aimed for a little more consistency of mood and in narrative approach. These actors (actresses?) clearly have the right stuff to mold real characters and not just one-note jokes, and the movie should have had the courage and artistry to let them do just that.
I once shared a convention panel with one of my favorite film critics, Maryann Johanson — The Flick Filosopher — and she memorably noted that as much as a critic might want to, he or she can’t award a movie “an A for effort.” I’ve never forgotten that axiom, and I kept remembering it while watching Ticked-off Trannies with Knives.
Everyone clearly had a good time making this film, and there’s a lot of raucous, wild energy evident in the proceedings. The movie has a lot of highs, but some real lows too, particularly in that momentum-killing second act.
So “A for effort” and all, but Ticked off Trannies with Knives needs a little more duct tape in the right places to honestly be judged a good movie.