Between Chaz Bono and RuPaul’s Drag Race, transgender people are finally getting some long-overdue media play. Then comes Israel Luna’s Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives, a “transploitation slasher flick” that proudly cast transgender actors in trans roles. Critics (read: GLAAD) took offense at the “tranny” title and the trailer’s tasteless mention of real-life bashing victims (issues the director later addressed). But the film’s biggest problem isn’t its depiction of transgender people but its pacing and tone. Luna’s bashed trans-women ultimately get their bloody revenge, but getting there is nowhere near as fun or edgy as it should have been.
The film actually starts pretty well. When stage performer Bubbles Cliquot shows up to work with a shiner, her co-stars (Tipper Sommore, Rachel Slurr, and Emma Grashun) start giving her advice: “You should put some meat on it… doesn’t a big slab of meat on your face make you feel better?” The quick and bitchy banter keeps the action clipping along while revealing the dynamics of this “tranny” family and it definitely helps the film. Also, the well-choreographed fight sequences genuinely kick ass: bitches get stabbed with jagged CD shards, blinded with stilleto heels, and anally violated with switchblades—fun!
But in between, the dialogue, plot, and pacing all start to fall apart and eventually cost the film its emotional core. Before the film even begins evil hick Boner drugs, beats up, and rapes Bubbles but doesn’t kill her for some unexplained reason. Instead he uses his hotter Latino pals to lure Bubbles and her friends into a deathtrap. But when Boner fails to kill her again, he comes back a third time to finish her off. It’s improbably dumb and what’s worse is that his every attempt gets preceded with three to ten-minute monologue from Boner to help explain just how evil he is.
After Boner bashes Bubbles, she awakes in a hospital unable to speak. Naughty trans nurse Connie Lingus quips, “Poor little thing just got a little knot on her noggin; marbles fell right out of her head.” Later, when Bubbles develops an Elmer Fudd-esque speech impediment, it also gets played for lame laughs. Bubbles’ two murdered friends get merely a mention but no real mourning. In fact, Bubbles’ buddies seem completely disinterested in revenge until their employer suddenly appears and decides to teach them martial arts knife-fighting.
Luna says that he wanted to make an empowering film in the spirit of I Spit on Your Grave. But I Spit on Your Grave showed how violence can transform a victim into a cold-blooded monster. In contrast, Luna obviously wants the audience to like his stabby trio. And so he uses jokes instead of letting his heroines or the audience experience the very real anger and pain that would facilitate bloody revenge. By making light of the Bubble’s injuries and dead friends, Luna robs the film of its emotional core focusing on the fun of cartoon violence rather than the humanity of his heroines.
Luna deserves praise for showcasing local performers—especially Dallas-native Jenna Skyy who along with Nip/Tuck star Willam Belli definitely stands out. Similar casting could one day yield the next Divine, but that day has not yet come. Trannies’ other co-stars, hand-picked from Dallas’ local drag venue, deliver earnest but unpolished and ultimately uncompelling performances where the natural wit and compassion of trans-sisters gets replaced with stilted recitations.
Despite its circa 1990 appearance, Trannies begins with a grainy 1970s aesthetic taken straight from the Rodrguez/Tarantino double-feature Grindhouse. Luna uses the aesthetic to bypass boring scenes with “lost reels” and burned celluloid rendering it a gimmick rather than a consistent visual style. And while Luna’s exploitation homage may eventually find a cult following like the classics it emulates, its mediocre qualities dull its sharp-edge to a butterknife blade. In the end it’s not that Luna shouldn’t have made an action-horror about trans-bashing, but that after all the hype the film doesn’t cut very deep at all.
RATING: Two out of five switchblades Though the bitchy banter and bloody battles make an exciting start, the script ends up the film’s most tragic victim: riddled with holes, strangled by bad dialogue, and left without a heart. Fast-forward through the boring parts and you’ll stay entertained.