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Attack of the Toons

A talk with the director of the micro-budgeted horror funfest TERROR TOONS

By John Thonen     August 16, 2002

From time to time, CINESCAPE has delved into coverage of low budget fare, which in Hollywood parlance is any movie under around $10 million in cost. We've even journeyed into what is a newer phenomenon, most often referred to as "micro-budget" films, shot on video movies with budgets under $50,000, even as low as $10,000. But the creative energy that drives people to make a movie that is exclusively their vision, one undiluted by producers and publicists needing to reach the widest possible audience in order to have a prayer of recouping the sizable investments found in most movie productions. Still, there may need to be a new term for movies like the just released TERROR TOONS, a wildly inventive and undisciplined purging of the dark recesses of a filmmaker's mind. The movie features an outlandish location, cartoon-like killers, a suburban family as bizarre as anything in TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, all set to bouncy, Danny Elfman inspired music. And all of it executed in 3 days for about $2300.

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TERROR TOONS might best be described as an episode of the "cartoon within a cartoon" ITCHY AND SCRATCHY SHOW (though the film's director cites REN AND STIMPY as his primary influence), the ultra-violent animated adventures of a cat and mouse given to such amusing sight gags as evisceration and immolation. Now, try to picture those kind of characters crossing over into a Tim Burton-esque suburbia where a family lives who seem fairly normal at a distance, but are probably closer to THE MUNSTERS in terms of their nuclear composition. Got the idea yet? Probably not, so how did writer/director/effects makeup artist Joe Castro come up with it?

"My friend Mark Villalobos and I were driving to this movie set," recalls Castro. "It was a religious thing with a retelling of the crucifixion which we were doing effects on. Anyway, this car passed us with this bumper sticker with this bizarre cartoon cat, evil looking thing. Mark turned to me and said, 'You know, no one has ever made a movie about cartoon characters coming to life out of their world and killing people.' And I agreed that no one had ever done that, at least not in a really graphic sense and I told him, 'You know, I am going to do that film.' And, within 48 hours I had planned and conceptualized the film and within a month we had started shooting."

Castro's career in special makeup effects has given him an interesting resume, one which includes work on the TV show ROSEANNE, several Full Moon movies, Robert Rodriguez's debut, EL MARIACHI ("Robert and I had grown up together in San Antonio") and various low and medium budgets films. But, he has also put his energies into directing movies whenever possible, starting with CEREMONY back in 1994, and later with LEGEND OF THE CHUPACABRA (2000), and on to the recently released vampire tale BLOOD SISTERS. All his directorial efforts had been in the "micro-budget" range, and had helped him establish the contacts he would need to make a movie that's costs were so low as to approach being non-existent.

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TERROR TOONS' concept was that a young girl receives a free DVD in the mail which features the ultra-violent, cartoon-like adventures of the mad Dr. Carnage and his brutal simian buddy Max Assassin. The video, which is quite cartoony, is amusing in the fashion of the aforementioned ITCHY AND SCRATCHY. Kind of a gory ROAD RUNNER AND THE COYOTE idea, only with cartoon-like monsters pursing, and slaughtering, humans in hand drawn sets. But when the young girl (portrayed by porn queen Lizzie Borden, who's in her late '20s and looks even older) falls asleep while watching the tape, Max and the bad Dr. step out of their video world and into her home. It's a deranged concept to be sure, but also an original and not an unworkable one. At least not if your movie's budget is more than the cost of a bad used car.

To get the film in his head onto the videotape, Castro turned to a long time friend, Jerry Macaluso, one of the owners of SOTA Effects, who have handled effects on titles ranging from THE TOXIC AVENGER PART TWO to Academy Award winner OF GODS AND MONSTERS. Castro often works for SOTA and explains how he got to know Macaluso. "Well, when I was 12 my cousin bought me a CINEMAGIC and that was kind of the bible of young, would-be special effects artists back in the early '90s and that really set me off because it taught me how to make a rubber mask. From there, I would actually call people like Tom Savini and Dick Smith at home, and ask them questions and I started corresponding with people who put ads in the back of FANGORIA magazine, and that's how I first met Jerry. We became good friends over the phone and through correspondence. Eventually we both ended up out here [in L.A.] and in the business and he became interested in these micro budget movies and I asked him if he wanted to fund mine and he said yes."

Macaluso put up a decidedly minimal budget, basically enough for supplies and little more, and allowed his home to be used as the film's set. Castro got industry friends to work his crew and he borrowed equipment to shoot and post the movie. "It was people who had read the script or knew the concept and really wanted to be a part of it because they knew it was going to be something very original and new. I had them come to a reading and we read the script together and they signed the agreements and we did it."

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One cast member brought a unique "name value" to TERROR TOONS: ultra-hardcore porn director Borden. Borden is a rather cute little blonde who is widely considered to be not so much one who pushes the envelope of what can be done in adult entertainment, but one who tears that envelope apart and then shreds it. As wife and partner of Rob Black at Extreme Associates, Borden has made movies such as the COCKTAIL series. Then there's the incredibly controversial FORCED ENTRY, a movie which brutally and graphically depicts the alleged beating, torture, rape and murder of several women at the hands of a serial killer. Castro acknowledges Borden's notoriety and shares how she came to be involved. "I have worked in that industry [adult moviemaking] and have contacts in it. I'd worked for a company she's involved with, Extreme Associates, created some special effects for them. Props and costumes, that kind of thing. I'm not involved with the films in any way shape or form. I just created effects, monster suits and what not, for them. I'm not on set or anything, but if you see some scaly monster having sex with a girl on the Internet, the suit probably comes from me. Anyway, I asked her if she wanted to be involved and she said yeah."

To avoid the impossibility of building sets on his woefully inadequate budget, Castro knew he had to shoot his movie in existing locations, preferably someplace where his cast, crew and equipment could stay at during the shoot. But the locale also had to look like it had been designed and decorated by Chuck Jones on an acid trip to fit the tone of the movie. Where to find such a home? "[Jerry Macaluso] was having it painted at the time and he told me he wanted to make it 'look like a rainbow puked,' which is a pretty colorful image I think. Anyway, what he was doing just kind of matched what the script needed." Painted in wild colors with bizarrely mismatched trim and seemingly decorated by someone who just stepped out of a Tim Burton nightmare, Macaluso's home adds immeasurably to TERROR TOONS' look. It just seems to be the kind of home where something like the film's storyline just might happen. "I have no idea why he wanted it to look like that," laughs Castro. "It's just Jerry. I mean, that [wall of clocks] was already there. The house was perfect, actually."

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While the film is certain to bring to mind certain vignettes from the works of director Tim Burton, Castro claims the influence is largely inadvertent. "It wasn't that I tried to copy his style, it's just that I think Tim Burton's style is cartoony [and] was what I was trying to do. I wanted to take all the things I like about cartoons and do them live action. I wanted it to be very cartoony, but very twisted and I put the two together the best I possibly could. If it seems like a Tim Burton film, I guess that's a compliment, but it was never a goal."

Cartoon monster styled killers, gory effects, a rainbow vomit decorated house, just who is it that inhabits this world Joe Castro created for TERROR TOONS? When asked if Borden, with her balloon-like silicone breasts and porn-kitten face, wasn't an odd choice to play the child-like Candy in the film, the director doesn't entirely disagree. "Well, it's not just her. It's a very bizarre, mixed up family. You have a mother who's a transvestite, a father who's much too young to be with the mother, this child-like, big-busted woman who looks like she might be the oldest person on the screen, but she's playing the youngest. And then there's a pretty normal teen [played by pretty Beverly Lynn]. They're kind of like the Munsters or something. You know, a really strange family with one normal member. It's just the result of this bizarre mismatch of people who came together to do this film. I kind of brought these people together and then let them become the people in the movie. Well, really I let them be themselves, or who they wanted to be in the movie. They were crazy people to begin with." While the film's acting is often one of its weakest aspects, Castro is right that the seeming lunacy and "unreality" the actors project helps make the acting more palatable than it might otherwise be.

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Another attribute of TERROR TOONS is its score, a collection of Danny Elfman inspired cuts which underscore the film's actions in the same way Elfman's work did in so many of Tim Burton's films. "It's all original music," Castro says. "[It's] produced by Josh Logan and Jan Logan, good friends of mine. Josh works for SOTA as well. The music does do a lot for the film."

The last of the elements which makes TERROR TOONS more watchable than it otherwise has any right to be is simply the anarchistic approach Castro took to directing it. Just letting the movie become what it would be, more or less by its own volition. "You know, when you're making a horror film and are trying to make it as serious as possible and as shocking as possible, you sometimes find yourself in these ridiculous situations that become funny, and what you wanted to be serious ends up being laughable for some reason. I've fallen into that a lot in my films. You realize it when you're set and working with the actors and you suddenly realize that what you're doing is just so crazy that there's no way to tone it down to any kind of reality. You might as well just go all the way over the top."

And "over the top" TERROR TOONS does most assuredly go.

Questions? Comments? Let us know what you think at feedback@cinescape.com.

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