How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the "Killer Condom"

Curator's Note

Killer Condom (1996) is quite possibly the most pro-queer film of the past two decades. No, really. For all of its problems, Martin Walz’s movie offers viewers something pretty remarkable: a film responding to the AIDS epidemic which is as anxious in its allegories as it is unapologetically sex positive. Adapted from Ralf König’s 1987 comic book Kondom Des Grauens, Killer Condom details the final chapters in the career of Luigi Mackeroni (Udo Samel), a hard-nosed bear of a cop who foils a conservative Christian conspiracy to castrate the degenerate denizens of New York City using genetically-engineered prophylactics dentata.  Along the way, Mackeroni inadvertently becomes the protector of the prostitutes, transvestites, and gay men who frequent Hotel Quickie, the brothel where the condoms are first unleashed to take a bite out of (sex) crime. He also loses a testicle (his member, it turns out, requires a Magnum-caliber monster), finds true love with twinkie hustler Billy (Marc Richter), and saves the city.

Killer Condom takes cues from the dark humor of Gremlins even as it parodies and refutes the sexual politics of Cronenberg’s Shivers. The bogies of body horror take much of their psychic terror from bodies that are grotesquely queer—think of Alien’s tea-bagging facehugger, which upends the “natural” order of things by violently “impregnating” a man. Killer Condom thus literalizes the anti-queer underbelly of its genre with creatures that are transparent instruments of homophobic violence—baddies designed by Alien’s H.R. Giger, no less. Accordingly, the film inverts the traditional genre paradigm of punishing wanton sex with grisly death, and culminates in a heartfelt speech where Luigi assures us that “There aren’t any condoms in heaven… nor any that bite,” and that “God will protect all lovers.” Indeed, for all its performance of B-Grade schlock, the film’s politics are surprisingly earnest, offering us a fantasy world in which cops champion and protect, rather than persecute, deviant sexuality.

In this clip, Luigi Mackeroni shares an elevator ride with Billy while his ex-lover Babette (formerly Bob, also of the NYPD) performs “Teach Me, Tiger.” Certainly the scene isn’t without some “bad” formal oddities that take us out of the moment. Why does sex sound like popcorn popping and fireworks going off? Why does Babette’s audience break the fourth wall? What is going on with Luigi’s tie? The scene takes place at the juncture point between Jim Henson’s affirmative cuddliness and John Waters’ unabashed sleaze. This is a “bad” film that applauds “bad” queers doing “bad” drag and having “bad” sex. Needless to say, these aren’t the kinds of queers who grace the cover of The Advocate, but Killer Condom embraces them all the same. “Bravo,” indeed.  

Comments

James Daniel Elam's picture

Who's bad?

Excellent post, Kaelin, and thank you for finally writing on Killer Condom.

After watching this clip and Google-researching Killer Condom (but not, to be fair, having seen the movie), I wonder what genre the movie is parodying. Grauen means horror, and the US trailer for the film plays up the space-invaders gimmick. But the narrative focus and this clip especially feel more like a jaded-cop drama: the center of narrative focus is a good-hearted-cop-just-trying-to-make-it-in-this-bad-world more than, say, a group of fun-loving teenagers in immediate extraterrestrial danger. The jaded-cop does his best, stumbles on and breaks a deep secret conspiracy, saves the city, and has some elevator-breaking sex along the way. Especially given the very comic, very cliché NYPD Italian cop name, I feel like I’m watching a Nicholas Cage movie (Bangkok Dangerous puns aside!).

At the same time, however, one look at those Giger-designed killer condoms, and it seems like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes all over again. These genres aren’t discrete, of course, so I imagine that what Killer Condom does is to play with both, especially to queer the needlessly über-masculine jaded-cop-conspiracy genre.

 

This scene is so well constructed – cuts, angles, sound layering, lighting – that it feels like most 1990s German cinema. Is it then “good” because it gets “bad” right? Or is it “bad” because it’s relying on “bad” genres? Or is it a different type of “bad,” like you mention: here, the “bad” is the subject who rebels but never effectively, and thus upholds the dichotomy of hegemony (Althusser/Pecheux/Munoz). So then is Killer Condom “bad” because it celebrates that “bad” subject?  

Barton Scott's picture

condom camp

Thanks, Kaelin, for posting such a provocative piece of schlock and for your killer comments. I would recommend that those who have not yet seen it take a look at the Killer Condoms trailer on YouTube to get a gander at Giger’s toothsoms rubbers:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jqxEdzPakOI

 

Killer Condoms raises two main questions for me. First, when and how does paracinema get swept up by the mainstream? As both Kaelin and Daniel note, this film plays on a range of B-grade genres, including both horror and the detective film, and it delights in the camp sensibility that these genres provide. But where those films met with critical silence, Killer Condoms seems to have been met with success: it was an Official Selection of the Berlin Film Festival. Indeed, as Daniel points out, the clip that Kaelin provide looks like a good German film of the 1990s. If a film working in a paracinematic genre successfully passes as "art," does it still qualify as paracinema? Or has camp passed from the aesthetic fringe to the arthouse mainstream?

 

Second, although this is perhaps an obvious point, I appreciate the link that Killer Condoms makes between campy badfilms and campy queers. I realized today that every B-grade horror movie needs at least one drag queen in it. Failed gender, failed genre: why isn’t everyone doing this? Camp has come home to roost.

 

And maybe that’s the problem. If campy badfilm can earn a slot in the film festival canon, can it still serve as a critique of mainstream film? Or has the mainstream learned how to subsume the aesthetics of camp, in terms of gender or genre? Do drag queens and condom-monsters still make us remember that they are plying fiction, or have filmic/ gender fictions learned how to include these moments without risking disruption? In other words, have we all learned how to stop worrying and love the killer condom? (Rants welcome in reply).

Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece's picture

I could never come up with a better title than Killer Condom

This is a terrific post and clip, Kaelin (with perhaps the worst lip syncing performance I’ve ever seen), and some great follow-up thoughts from Daniel and Bart.  It seems to me like Killer Condom would make an excellent double-feature with Teeth.  And here I wonder a little bit about the anti-queer nature of body horror—anti-queer, indeed, but also incredibly fearful of the female body, too.  Does this sort of associative operation in body horror code female bodies as akin to or at least aligned with queer male bodies?  The alien queen is also definitively, horribly female, and, as you note, is a female who impregnates males—I’m wondering which is supposed to be more terrifying, the impregnated male or the impregnating female. 

I’d also like to take up some of Bart’s comments, which I find really interesting; namely, the greedy swallowing of genre by genre.  I absolutely think that the mainstream has learned how to dress in drag, or at least drink a martini at Lucky Cheng’s; RuPaul’s Drag Race may be produced by Logo, but it’s definitely also on VH1.  I wonder if camp isn’t somehow negated in this process, or at least stripped of some of its subversive power. When camp’s teeth are removed, does it just become bad?  Where is this funny line between camp and bad, or should we locate it in a continually shifting and discursive motion?

Finally, I’m wondering at what points or in what genres bad film functions or is allowed to function as a critique of mainstream cinema.  A lack of subtlety is one of the major aspects of bad films that allows them such free reign as objects of camp, of mainstream critique, and of affection.  Do we need as straightforward a title as Killer Condom or as blatantly obvious a vagina dentata as in Teeth to allow bad film a critical space?  And on some level is the obviousness of this kind of critique a little bit easier to handle—i.e., its shlockiness and its politics are on its sleeve, enabling viewers to, if they wish, discard one with the other?  Or, on the other hand, does its lack of subtlety simply get the job done more efficiently?  

Love this movie!

I thought that I was the only person who actually saw this movie?  And was unashamed to admit really really liking it??

This is a great post, Kaelin.  I agree that the film engages queer culture’s "politics of generation" — the ways in which queer people who came of age in the 70s and 80s experience and/or interact with the more mainstreamed gay publics who have come out in the years since.  And not in some weird, "break with the past" paradigm.

To what extent do contemporary filmgoing cultures anticipate this "collusion" (for lack of a better word)?  As in, how do mail order DVD services and gay cable television networks (this has actually aired on LOGO in the middle of night) generate historical consciousness vis-a-vis things like queer subjectivities, sexual practices, and various queer cultures? 

Glyn Davis engages some similar questions in his work — you might want to check out his essay in the anthology "Film and Television after DVD".

Kaelin B.C. Alexander's picture

Now I want "Killer Condom 2: Ribbed for Her Terror"

Thanks, everyone for such great feedback!  I’m consistently amazed at the ways in which these texts are in conversation even before we enter the picture. After some reflection on your posts, I think it’s clear that Killer Condom highlights the degree to which "bad" movies are often appreciated, valuable, and even marketable as such. If Watchmen is a bad movie that will make money despite its badness, then Killer Condom suggests that there are films which will find an audience precisely because of theirs. Tellingly, it was distributed in the U.S. by Troma, whose entire business model raison d’être relies upon releasing B- to Z-Grade movies for a niche market. Clearly, there’s a trade in "bad." Daniel (SPOILER ALERT) will be taking up the question of capitalizing on "bad" more directly tomorrow, though, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Maybe Killer Condom isn’t "bad" so much as it’s a good film in drag as a "bad" one, as Bart’s punning suggests. Daniel, you’re quite right that, more than "good" or "bad," Killer Condom seems able to masquerade as any number of different genres. Following Hollis’ and Jocelyn’s comments, then, I too find myself wondering to whom exactly this film addresses itself. Sure, we now have DVD and electronic distribution markets which facilitate its dissemination as an object of curiosity. But, more than that, part of what makes the movie so smart, and to my mind a little subversive, is that its genre drag (to invoke a problematic, but appropriate example) ends up pulling off the proverbial Crying Game.

To return to the text, there’s a scene which perfectly analogizes these epistemic smoke and mirrors. In order to uncover the fiends behind the plot, Luigi’s straight, uptight partner Sam (Peter Lohmeyer) is sent undercover to a leather bar in order to get information. Luigican’t himself go because he’ll be recognized. Sam, self-conscious in assless chaps and anxious that a Daddy will want to give him a crash course in fisting, only agrees to go the bar only after Luigi gives him a yellow hankie which, Luigi says, will let everyone in the bar know that Sam’s only there to chat. Now, gay men of a certain age (or nerdy undergrads majoring in queer studies) will know what’s actually in store for Sam when he wears a yellow hankie. Sam, however, won’t understand until that meaning ends up all over his face.   What are we to make of this? Is the film, like Konig’s comic, being marketed to a gay audience who will be in on the joke? Does it capitalize upon queer dollars like contemporary niche Cable networks? In part, sure. But I’d also offer that Killer Condom welcomes the possibility that its spectacular genre deception will result in its fairly progressive queer politics finding their way, like the killer condoms, into the bedroom VCR’s of unsuspecting viewers looking for a more straight(haha)-forward slasher flick, cop drama, or B-movie. Its “badness,” then, is all part of the ruse. Killer Condom not only “makes good” on the “bad” genres and sexual subjects who compose it, it also ends up passing itself off as something else entirely. Yes, there are cases in which the subversive potential of queerness is co-opted, capitalized upon, and rendered inert or quotidian.  But I still think Killer Condom has some bite left in it.

Jeffrey Sconce's picture

I wonder if this is "bad" so

I wonder if this is "bad" so much as well-executed farce, somewhere between parody and pastiche.  In that respect I would agree its a good film in drag as bad—and it makes sense that Troma would pick this up as that is their stock in trade (except that most of their product is nowhere near as clever or even compotent as this). 

Off the badfilm trail, I’m interested in Kaelin’s comments about the politics of horror and sexuality (especially the homophobia of Cronenberg, Alien, etc.).  If we accept a fundamentally psychoanalytic approach to horror in order to adjudicate an "anti-queer" underbelly in the genre, don’t we have to go all the way and say that the genre as a whole is grounded in a polymorphous anxiety over sex in its most abstract form?  To trade in the classic (and allegedly foundational) architecture of castration, what does it mean when gay filmmakers displace (barely) the exemplar of vagina dentata onto condom dentata?  Or are we to a point where the equation of horror with sexual repression/trauma has become so commonplace that filmmakers can now treat it as explicit farce?  Or (one more time), is ‘straight’ horror (as in non-comic) necessarily a ‘straight’ genre, and thus any queer intervention (either at the point of production or reception) brings with it a comic inversion of some sort?  I know this is a bit off the badfilm theme, but this leaves me wondering what an earnest gay horror film would be like, and what structures/iconography it would invoke to express the fundamental abjection of body horror. 

Kaelin B.C. Alexander's picture

Queer. Srsly?

Thanks, Jeff, for your frightfully suggestive comments. I too am wondering now what such an "earnestly" gay horror film might look like. Jocelyn was quite apt to bring up Teeth which, in some senses, seems like an earnestly feminist response to the same genre problematics. In that film, the protagonist Dawn embraces the monstrous feminine of her own body as a resistance to misogynist violence. In one of its most over-the-top scenes, Dawn foils her (adopted?) brother’s attempts to rape her by making quick work of his member, which flops to the ground and is quickly eaten up by the brother’s dog, which is of course named "Mother." It thus ends up trading in the same psychoanalytic iconography, but renders the potentially sexist implications of that imagery, well, castrated. This is a scattershot reading of a complicated film, to be sure, but I do think it has some merit. Teeth isn’t without elements of parody or pastiche, but it certainly doesn’t resort to the technicolor comedy of Killer Condom.

 

I’m racking my brain to think if there are any queer analogues to this  invocation of, and simultaneous internal difference with (what Munoz calls disidentification), horror. I’ve heard great things about the "gay zombie movie" Otto; or, Up with Dead People, but sadly haven’t seen it yet. From the trailer, though, it seems like that film is engaging in humorous, but pointed, genre drag like Killer Condom. So, I’m left wondering if there are any queer responses to horror that don’t fall back on the tried-but-true tactic of camp. Can queer texts ever do genre intervention straight-faced? Or, can queer only be taken "seriously" in high drama?

 

As Hollis points out, there’s an active (and growing) niche market for queer takes on all sorts of genres to which, I must confess, I have very little exposure. My gay dollars, it seems, are not yet enough to grant me access to queer consumer citizenship. Or, maybe I furnish intellectual and affective investments which grant me such citizenship, or maybe I invest that money in other virtual citizenships. But, if we’re looking at certain high-profile award nominations, a lot of critics seem to like their queers miserable, overwrought, and (often) dead. The other option seems to be something like Queer Eye, whose commodified camp has been discussed above and elsewhere. I’m willing to venture that there’s a trade in queer suffering, and yet another market for queer frivolity.  But is there an equally wide market for something like queer seriousness? This is definitely something to think about, and something I’ll keep in mind.

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