Dumpster Baby

Dumpster Baby – James Bickert and Randy Hill

Nationality: USA

Year: 2000

DVD details - at the time of writing (2009) this is only available on a US Region 1 import

There is a name associated with this film.  Troma . . . yes, THE Troma, the American production company famous or infamous for turning out or distributing low-budget shock-exploitation films filled with gleeful sleaze, gore and general happy trash.  Their oeuvre include such things as The Toxic Avenger, The Class of Nuke ‘Em High, Surf Nazis Must Die, Poltrygeist and a long list of others.  Troma has quite a cult following as their bravura and general hyper-ludicrous film-making could be strangely endearing.  And perhaps also because, in their own way, they seem quite willing to be innovative and produce unexpected things.  Aside from their usual, they have produced Shakespearian parody (the outrageous Tromio and Juliet, which I must review one day), anti-war films from the Regan era (Troma’s War) - and also, lurking rather forgotten in the depths of their catalogue, one of the strangest movies I have seen – Dumpster Baby.  About as unexpected an offering as you could ever hope to find and described as follows:

  • An ‘existential masterpiece’ [bob-920, imdb]
  • A ‘glorious, surreal fable’ [Lauren Chambers, imdb]
  • ‘Luis Bunuel meets 70's grindhouse’ (dvd cover)
  • ‘It feels like you are watching art created by a serial killer genius’ [Sally Todd, imdb]
  • ‘A decent enough trash film’ [TheatreX, imdb)
  • ‘Pure garbage. I hate it so much I needed to rub ajax on my eyes with steel wool’ [Matthew Shults, Amazon.com]. 

Yup.  Looks like another of those good old Love it or hate it, art?/trash? offerings! 

Dumpster Baby

And it is!  A darkly ugly, sleazy and cliché ridden film on one level, it nevertheless has a structure and drive that is straight out of the arthouse.  The most obvious aspect of it is that it has no ‘normal’ narrative running through it.  Instead it has an odyssey structure – a linear sequence of separate vignettes like pearls on a necklace.  And yet, the whole thing works together as one story very well.  It all begins with the gloomy spectacle of an immense ‘crackwhore’ unexpectedly giving birth in her tiny apartment – a decidedly unwelcome occurrence and she demands that her friend just get rid of the result before her boyfriend finds out.  Unsure what to do, said friend leaves the baby in a dumpster (‘skip’ to us brits) – and this is the beginning of this sorry bundle of cloth’s strange journey through the American psyche – as one person after another finds it, maybe uses it for some purpose or issue, then abandons or looses it again.  It is quite pathetic really, watching this little bundle moving through American trash culture.  Some people are good people, trying to do the right thing or totally uncertain what to do – and it is a tribute to the film that this stands out in such a gloomy and seedy atmosphere.  Some are decidedly not good people.  Some are downright creepy. 

As a matter of fact, this is a film filled with archetypes who are played like puppets rather than developed characters.  A bunch of kids so all-American-teen as to be unreal.  The Tragic Girl.  The Goth girl.  The Good-Hearted Retard type.  The Mad Religious type.  The Drunk Redneck type.  The Young Airhead Couple creeping into the lonely ruined house for sex type (I think it is a type since it is so bloody familiar!).  The Revolting Pimp type.  At least three whore archetypes.  The Stressed Businessman type.  The Sickly Tramp type.  Of course, for 'type', one could read 'cliché' – and yet, to my mind, it seems to work quite well as a parade of these puppets.  It is one of the most distinctive aspects of the film, making it play out like a strange hybrid of intellectual exercise and trash movie. 

Most stylised and unreal of all, the barely visible figure of death, who haunts the whole film in his wide-brimmed hat, playing the role of darkness and enigmatically putting his hand into the plot on occasion.  He is never human, with his Dick Tracy villain style silhouette and pure white face.  He is a synthesis of human paranoia – a dramatic archetype of the great modern bugbears that haunt us all: Serial killer, child rapist, the figure in the shadows.

Dumpster Baby

As one might expect, the film's coldly observing mood does not make it an emotionally involving film – and perhaps that lets it down a little.  It is hard to have a great deal of feeling for this bundle of cloth!  Or indeed for anyone at all – even the Tragic Girl, who gets raped in the back of a van by a rather ghoulish couple, then jumps naked off a highway overpass.  But even so, this strange film certainly held my attention.  The cold-hearted mood somehow fits the subject matter quite well – a documentary as frosty and worn down as the world it is portraying rather than a heartrending portrait by some grand artist.   Rough-edged and queasy – sickly and sleazy on occasion – it paints a curious vision not quite like anything else.  And, for all its rough edges, it paints it with a fairly sure hand.  It is – well – there is an engaging touch of earnestness and ingenuousness and originality about it that merits that favourite term of mine, outsider art. 

Dumpster Baby

Many people have been mystified by Troma taking on this piece.  But then, this film seems likely to alienate just about everyone, so maybe a hard-stomached maverick like Troma was the only option!  Anyone looking for the Troma cheap laughs and gory fun and titillation will be left bemused by this strange, drifting, enigmatic entity.  On the other hand, for the people open to enigmatic surrealism, there is just enough sleaze and sick content to frighten them a mile away.  So perhaps no wonder that this film remains so obscure. 

Unfortunately, this really quite interesting work is marred by one serious problem - the little matter of the sound quality. Now, I can put up with a lot in terms of bad production, but lets just say that something must have happened to the audio in Dumpster Baby.  I have never heard anything like it!  Much of what people say is physically inaudible, especially towards the end.  It is the audio equivalent of looking at a few faint traces in a rock and trying to imagine what the fossilised creature once looked like.  Actor’s mouths move, but silence . . . then suddenly a loud bit will get through in a click that might or might not just be identifiable as a word.   This isn’t just bad sound – it is sound that has been totally trashed!  A search of the internet for a subtitle file has so far yielded no results – so it may be that the liquid poetry dripping from those actor’s lips is forever lost . . .

The effect that this has on the film is debatable.  Myself, I am trying to pretend that it is some avunt guard trick to create the impression that it is an obscure fossil of American low-level culture.  Let’s pretend that this is some mouldering reel discovered in a damp cellar somewhere long after humanity became extinct – this bizarre and sickly vision of the human condition as the last surviving tombstone of a failed species.  Occasionally I even succeed slightly.   

Even so – this film shouldn’t just fade away as it seems to be doing.  It is such a curious entity and really quite unique.  To my knowledge, there has only ever been one DVD release – and that is now discontinued and prices are climbing as it gets rarer and rarer.  It seems a shame.  I don’t know if that sound is beyond repair or not – but something ought to be done with this film.  A new issue, tidied up as well as they can manage, would be very welcome. 


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