Judge Bill Gibron takes you inside the lurid world of Troma's bespectacled butcher.
Blood red…with brains! Blood red…with brains!
Harold Kunkle is a poor, put-upon Mama's boy who is the butt of every social joke the world can capture him in. Beaten up by thugs on the street, rejected by a female co-worker, and mercilessly picked on by everyone else from the office asshole to the local florist, Harold is the used chewing gum under life's banquet table. His self-esteem is so low that suicidal teenage girls with body issues and rampant anorexia look down on him from their precarious personality plateau. During a typical lonely Saturday night, Harold gets an infomercial-inspired idea. He will take a self-help course that guarantees to make him a super stud. Well, a few cassettes and a mad makeover later, Harold is ready to score. But after witnessing his woman with another man, and getting the hair gel hamfisted out of him by some pathetic punks, Harold has had enough. He reaches deep down into his wounded psyche and discovers…a desire to kill. That's right, Kunkle goes nutzoid—and with acid, axe, and meat cleaver in hand, he stalks and slays his tormentors with pocket protector precision. Harold, it seems has finally made a true magical transformation. He's no longer a good-natured doormat. He is now a Killer Nerd!
Thankfully, Harold gets away with his earlier serial splatter spree and is living a life of quiet calculation. Unfortunately, guilt has caught up with our favorite social misfit, and he's starting to see phantoms of those he disposed of. Meanwhile, at a local high school, Thelma—Kunkle's female equivalent—is being picked on by the cool kids. Seems the popular crowd doesn't share her love of Emily Dickinson (and who can blame them, really?). One day, Harold intervenes in the haiku hazing and it's love at first overbite. While Kunkle and his snugglebug Thelma make goo-goo eyes at each other, the callous clique tries to find a way to get back at the girl geek. They invite her to a big shindig / beer blast / kegger and in a typical The Girl Most Likely To manner, they embarrass the AV out of her. Harold is harmed as well. Naturally, when dorks are degraded and demeaned, their inner Voorhees comes calling. And soon, a freak-faced Thelma is lending a leading hand as she and Harold systematically slaughter the socially acceptable. Thelma and her unhunky man become a match made in murder as death serves as maid of honor to the Bride of Killer Nerd.
Toby Radloff is a God, a deity of such divine dementia and perverse personal piety that any chance to witness his warped wonderstuff is a near-religious experience. A self-proclaimed "genuine nerd," this Cleveland, Ohio oddity is an original American creation, the kind of real-life character that someone like Studs Terkel would celebrate in a feature article. Turning social—not mental or physical—retardation into a kind of performance art form, Toby becomes the perfected embodiment of an overappreciation of math and science, a personality shaped from the excitement of equations and the mystery of science fiction fantasies.
Just looking at him inspires waves of recognition. A mat of washed-once-a-week hair sits atop a head seemingly misshapen by a plethora of unexplored ideas. Eyes exist behind Coke-bottle glasses, pupils droopy from one too many "graphic novels." A long-sleeved dress shirt encases a musculature-less torso, every last button fastened in a skin-shielding sense of anti-fashion. Polyester pants are pulled up along the mid-belly, a broad brown belt with an oversized novelty buckle (perhaps featuring an arcane cast member of Star Wars: Episode IV) setting off the ensemble. At the end of the somewhat exposed leg, black socks sit in sensible shoes, laces tied tightly and in knotted near-perfection. A series of pens perches precariously in a plastic protector and a calculator/slide rule combo hangs near hip level. An overly technical chronographic watch rests upon one oversized wrist (which offers its own implied issues) and the merest hint of hygiene issues emanates from his pasty personage. Like a superhero in the comics he craves, Toby is a completely pre-packaged prop, the "no acting needed" example of real life supplanting the fictional. The movies included on this terrific Troma double feature, Killer Nerd and Bride of Killer Nerd, showcase his special qualities in an amazing tribute to the silliest aspects of the slasher film.
Killer Nerd is a certifiable classic, a perfectly executed premise of such outrageous originality that it's amazing no one had thought of doing it before. In the more proletariat world of the psychotic serial killer, all manner of social misfits are relied upon to dish out the death. From buckets of pig's blood to graduation day hazing, machete-wielding maniacs could be relied on to have all sorts of ancillary reasons supporting their slaughter. So why not let the nerds have a go at garroting? After all, they are the original pecking-order punching bags, the bottom-of-the-esteem-food-chain freaks who are universally seen as smelling of mimeograph toner, body odor, and old corn chips. Who, frankly, in the communal substrata is more picked upon, after minorities and the elderly that is, than the geekazoid? No one! So why not feature a future Mensa member dismembering a few fools? What better way to celebrate an AV club member's memories of how hellish high school really was than to turn a card-carrying corporal in the slide rule sect into a blood-and-guts slasher of the popular people? Those who score 1600 on the SAT should be allowed to meticulously murder their detractors, and Killer Nerd fulfills this fantasy fantastically. Sure, it lags a little in the second act, but after a jaw-dropping beginning and a too-good-to-be-true ending, one is left with the overall impression of death accented by Dungeons and Dragons; the sinister shuffling in orthopedic shoes.
Bride of Killer Nerd does its predecessor one better. It takes the terror back to the hallways of senior year where it belongs, and makes the bullies of youth pay for all their verbal abuse. Unlike Killer Nerd, Toby and his character Harold take a back seat to the newest awkward anti-socialite. As the taunted Thelma, Heidi Lohr brings true menace and unhinged insanity to her role as the wallflower-turned-weedwhacker and her clown make-up image (the face painting was part of her party-time humiliation) is creepy and memorable. Ditching the directorial mistakes that made Killer Nerd a tad long (directors Mark Steven Bosko and Wayne A. Harold were under the mistaken belief that films coming in at under 90 minutes were ineligible for national distribution), this reprise of Harold's homicidal tendencies mixed with a new bedfellow in bloodletting combines the best of two terrific worlds: Radloff's genuine nerdiness and low-budget gore horror. The opening scenes of Harold being hounded by the various corpses from his past have a real nice nuance of dread to them. And when Heidi joins in the jugularity, the film delivers in shrieks and shivers.
But perhaps the most amazing thing that happens in Bride of Killer Nerd is that we start to sympathize with Radloff and respond to the horrible way he (and Heidi) are treated. The youthful cast of victims-in-waiting all manage to create believable characters of vile shallowness with minimal dialogue, and their horrible, hateful attitude toward the dorky duo really makes the vengeance that much sweeter. Although both Bride and its predecessor have novelty written all over their no-budget boundaries, each film is a fulfilling experience in formula fright familiarity mixed with one of the most intriguing individuals ever to come ambling into the public eye.
Frankly, why Harold "The Killer Nerd" Kunkle is not a Hall of Fame maniac the way people worship the steel-fingered Freddy or the unable-to-dogpaddle Voorhees boy is a demented mystery. This is one serial killer perfect for the new millennium, when the entire world is embracing its inner spaz. Thank goodness Troma rescues these resplendent relics from the early '90s and sets them up in a DVD package worth celebrating. From a purely technical position, both films are offered on a single disc and look equally good. They were shot on video and meticulously transferred over to film (at great cost to the filmmakers), and it's that conversion that makes these transfers terrific. It doesn't excuse Mark Steven Bosko and Wayne A. Harold's obvious inexperience behind the camera (they are all over the map when it comes to lighting, shot selection, and editing) but the 1.33:1 image is still better than the majority of made-for-cheap cinema. The Dolby Digital Stereo soundtracks are uniformly evocative. Mixing standard horror harmonies with a great deal of local band boogie, the aural aspects of Killer Nerd and Bride of Killer Nerd are sufficient, and at times, atmospheric.
If you cast aside the usual Tromatic treats that a disc from this company constantly provides (Purple Pam videos, ads for other movies, a merchandising onslaught to match Disney and Lucas), we are left with a couple of Killer Nerd-inspired throwaways (Troma Titan Lloyd Kaufman and Toby in Akron being themselves, and a seven-minute interview in which Radloff recites the entire plot of both movies) and two marvelous commentaries. Radloff and co-director Wayne A. Harold are on hand for a full-length audio narrative of each film (Mark Steven Bosko is no longer associated with these productions), and their comments are a blast. Radloff is effusive and full of strange stories. Wayne A. Harold loves to pry into his enigmatic star's personal issues to get interesting responses out of him. While some of the revelations are obvious (Toby likes titties, he doesn't drink or smoke) there are some bizarre inferences (at 45, Mr. Radloff may still be a virgin) that make this more than just a discussion of a couple of minor monster movies. The narratives become yet another window into the wacky world of the only man in American brave enough to call himself a genuine nerd! In a society so corroded with conformity that we have to invent ways to seem distinct, Toby Radloff is an actual one of a kind, that rarity in a civilization that celebrates the hip and the cool. Radloff is a dipstick, a doofus, a schmoe! And thanks to the campy, creative celebrations that are Killer Nerd and Bride of Killer Nerd, we wouldn't want him any other way.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Actor Toby Radloff and Director/Writer/Producer Wayne Alan Harold
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