Somewhere deep within “Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives” lies a fresh cinematic voice, but it’s buried under so much Tarantino wannabe material, all you can hear are a few faint murmurs.
Right from the start, “Trannies” announces itself as a shameless “Grindhouse” rip-off, complete with retro credit fonts and faux print damage (which never convinces, considering the movie was shot on video and not once looks like film); later, we’re even tossed the ol’ “missing reel” gag. Eager to reveal its “Kill Bill” tendencies as well, the story is broken into titled chapters and eventually focuses on a woman waking from a coma and seeking revenge on those who left her for dead. Oh, and one scene finds the camera gliding in circles around its cast as they banter about sex.
Writer/director Israel Luna isn’t merely inspired by Quentin Tarantino; he’s artlessly aping him. The same cinematic punchlines appear, but this time they’re flat, tired, unnecessary, like a guy at the office retelling a joke he heard on last night’s talk show, but with all the rhythms out of place and a waft of desperation sinking into the delivery. Worse, this imitation gets in the way of the story itself, the characters forced to play second fiddle to shallow visual style.
Removed from Luna’s Tarantino cover band tics (which fade as the film progresses), “Trannies” is a crude but occasionally effective revenge fantasy. The filmmaker shows a solid grasp of the genre, especially in a lengthy finale that mixes brutal unease and self-aware dark humor, while the cast – consisting mostly of transgender women and drag queens – is given free rein in terms of smart-assed bitchiness, which lends the film a likeability often missing in such exploitation fare.
It’s this likeability which clashes with the movie’s darker scenes. The plot involves a group of close friends who are attacked by a homophobic rapist and his two creepy buds; in true exploitation tradition, the film takes great pains to show us this assault, which expands into a full-on fight scene as the gals attempt to fight back. There’s some campiness sprinkled throughout, but Luna mostly makes the scene humorless and uncomfortable, aiming to confront us with hate crime up close.
Compared to the lighthearted fun-at-the-club scene before it, the attack sequence is intended as a shock, an unexpected turn in a story we thought would be a campy romp. Compared to the scene that follows, though, the attack sequence feels like it was dropped in from another movie altogether. Luna zigzags us from party time sassiness to hate crime agony to a hospital scene full of fart jokes and cornball single entendres (including two character named after sex acts). Everyone’s happy and sassy and full of You Go Girl, as if apologizing for letting the movie be such a downer five minutes earlier.
“Trannies” then becomes a fight between two attitudes: a screwy spoof where star Krystal Summers develops a hee-larious lisp for no reason versus a ruthless thriller where the mere appearance of the villain (Tom Zembrod, delivering a genuinely creepy performance) is meant to create chills. When the bloody finale arrives, full of creative mutilation so squirm-inducing the makers of the “Saw” franchise would be humbled, we’re supposed to cheer along, but it’s tough to get in the mood. We’re too off-balance by the film’s random tonal shifts. What’s supposed to be cathartic and empowering ends up losing track of its sense of fun, wallowing in an ugliness that erases too much of the parody.
(Curiously, that attempt at empowerment was completely overlooked by the folks at GLAAD, who caused an uproar when they condemned its run at the Tribeca Film Festival, claiming the trivializes violence toward transgender women. The group failed to comprehend the rules of the revenge fantasy genre itself. Yes, the genre is often guilty of sensationalizing and exploiting violent attacks in an effort to set up the plot, but this is done to give weight to the revenge that follows; the revenge is crafted to let victims feel less helpless, if only in an imaginary manner.)
Luna works best when he’s simply allowing his cast to have fun and be themselves. The early scenes have a loose, freewheeling vibe that’s energetic in a way that almost overcomes the Tarantino camerawork thievery. The cast, despite being mostly new to the screen, display natural charisma. Why not put these people in a character-based comedy instead of cramming their camp humor into a nasty Tarantino-lite horror flick?