Each month in Horror Queers, Joe and Trace tackle a horror film with LGBTQ+ themes, a high camp quotient or both. For lifelong queer horror fans like us, there’s as much value in serious discussions about representation as there is in reading a ridiculously silly/fun horror film with a YAS KWEEN mentality. Just know that at no point will we be getting Babashook.
As two gay men, we have opted to use the moniker “Horror Queers” for this series of articles. It is a word that has a complicated history due to its derogatory use by bullies and hateful people, but has increasingly been adopted as a term of empowerment and a unifying term that recognizes the many complex identities that make up the LGBTIQQ community. Queer has become commonplace in academia, politics and pop culture over the past three decades. We understand and recognize that the term is still very hurtful for some people, but we believe that the more people that proudly reclaim it, the more the wounds and stigma surrounding the term are reduced. Using the word “queer” is intensely personal, but it is a decision that we are committed to. Please don’t be an asshole when using it and we’ll get along fine.
***SPOILERS for Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives to follow.***
Synopsis for Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives: A trio of trans women friends exact revenge on the men who brutally assaulted them and murdered two of their friends.
Queer Aspect: As the title suggests, the film centers around a group of transgender women. The controversy surrounding the film is over the use of the word “tranny” and the fact some of the transgender characters are played by drag queens, rather than transgender women.
Well Joe, here we are. Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives. As you can probably imagine, we have a bit to unpack with this one. I saw this film for the first time way back in 2010, when it screened at the Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival (aGLIFF). I distinctly remember the post-screening Q&A with writer/director Israel Luna because there was a transgender woman in the audience who tearfully asked him why he used the word “trannies” in the title of the film. It was the first time I was made aware that that word was considered a slur in the queer community, which is why I chose it for this installment of Horror Queers. We are nothing if not educators.
Before we get in too deep, let’s cover just what exactly this film is. Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives is filmed in the style of old ‘70s grindhouse exploitation movies (Luna affectionately calls it a “transploitation” film), complete with doctored film footage and a missing reel. Our protagonist is Bubbles Cliquot (Krystal Summers), a transgender stripper who goes to work one night after she is drugged and raped by a thug named Boner (Tom Zembrod). Her co-workers consist of fellow transgender strippers Rachel Slurr (Willam Belli), Emma Grashun (Erica Andrews, aka the drag mother of RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Roxxxy Andrews), Tipper Sommore (Jenna Skyy) and boss lady Pinky La’Trimm (Kelexis Davenport, aka the drag mother of Kennedy Davenport, another contestant from Rupaul’s Drag Race). That night, Emma convinces Rachel and Bubbles to join her on a triple date, where they discover that Boner is one of the three men they are meeting. Pinky and Tipper come to the rescue, but after a brief tussle, two of the women are dead and the remaining three plot their revenge.
Before we get into the negatives, I feel like I should make it clear that I do like this film. I find it incredibly entertaining, even if it doesn’t fully manage to balance the tone between an exploitation parody and a brutal rape-revenge film. For every moment that doesn’t work (why aren’t Rachel and Pinky upset over the deaths of Emma and Tipper?), there is a moment that will have you howling with laughter (pretty much anything that Rachel says, along with her “empty asshole”). The film’s grindhouse gimmick isn’t particularly original (Robert Rodriguez‘s and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse was released a full three years before Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives), but it makes it easier to forgive what is clearly a film with a minuscule budget.
All of that being said, there are aspects of the film that are problematic. The controversy surrounding the film’s casting is even more relevant today than it was eight years ago, what with the issue making its way into mainstream cinema (see: Scarlett Johansson withdrawing from the film Rub & Tug after backlash when she was cast in the role of transgender man Tex Gill that could just as easily have gone to an actual transgender actor, as opposed to a cisgender woman). Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives is a different beast, though. Both Summers and Andrews are/were (Andrews sadly passed away from complications from lung infection back in 2013) transgender women, while Belli, Skyy and Davenport are all real life drag queens. I don’t believe there is any ill intent here, however, it is easy to understand why someone would be upset with the lack of transgender casting.
UPDATE: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that trans man Tex Gill could’ve been played by a trans actress. It has been updated to correctly state that Tex Gill could have been played by a trans actor.
The portrayal of these women received some criticism as well. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) condemned the film for its negative portrayal of transgender people, but I would argue that the film is decidedly pro-trans. These women are portrayed in a comedic way, but that is because the film chooses to portray them as drag queens as opposed to transgender women. That is the film’s major misstep. Why not just have the characters all be drag queens? I guess the title Ticked-Off Drag Queens With Knives doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it? The use of the word “tranny” was also a point of contention for many people, though the characters don’t seem to mind it. Rachel uses the term “tranny” in the film during a casual Simon & Garfunkel reference to “Bridge Over Troubled Tranny”. Did I laugh? Yes. Should I feel bad about it? Possibly.
Joe, this was your first time watching Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives. What were your thoughts on it? Did you find it offensive like many others did? Or were you won over by its charms? And how about those one-liners and reads? Sublime, right?
Alas, I wound up being a little more negative about it than you, Trace, but that has more to do with the fact that the narrative, direction, or some of the performances are dicey. But I’ll dig into the film itself in greater detail in a moment.
To understand the controversy around this film, it’s also important to distinguish between different terms. Let’s hit the GLAAD Media Reference Guide!
- Transgender: An umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth…Many transgender people are prescribed hormones by their doctors to bring their bodies into alignment with their gender identity. Some undergo surgery as well. But not all transgender people can or will take those steps, and a transgender identity is not dependent upon physical appearance or medical procedures.
- Transsexual: An older term that originated in the medical and psychological communities….Unlike transgender, transsexual is not an umbrella term. Many transgender people do not identify as transsexual and prefer the word transgender.
- Trans: Used as shorthand to mean transgender or transsexual – or sometimes to be inclusive of a wide variety of identities under the transgender umbrella. Because its meaning is not precise or widely understood, be careful when using it with audiences who may not understand what it means.
- Cross-dresser: While anyone may wear clothes associated with a different sex, the term cross-dresser is typically used to refer to men who occasionally wear clothes, makeup, and accessories culturally associated with women. These men typically identify as heterosexual. This activity is a form of gender expression and not done for entertainment purposes. Cross-dressers do not wish to permanently change their sex or live full-time as women. Replaces the term “transvestite”.
- Drag Queen: Not unlike cross-dressers, the term drag queens refers to men who occasionally wear clothes, makeup, and accessories culturally associated with women for entertainment purposes. These men may identify as heterosexual or homosexual. Drag queens also do not wish to permanently change their sex or live full-time as women.
As you suggested, “tranny” doesn’t appear in the GLAAD guide because it is a slur and an insult; in the eight years since this film’s release, the term has been relegated to the dustbin of history. Looking at this list of terms (I included transsexual and cross-dresser for reference since those terms are often conflated with transgender and drag queen).
It is easy to see where people, director Israel Luna included, went wrong with the title: “trannies” is used interchangeably with transgender and drag queen despite the fact that they’re completely different things. In an archived story for the Dallas Star, he explains: “Everyone says I have the corner on the market with the drag queens and the transgender women here in Dallas because I have them in all of my projects. I just have this fascination and love [for them].” That fascination isn’t the same as understanding. Luna may claim to love his subjects, but he’s still a gay man making a film about transgender women, a population that he clearly doesn’t actually know that much about. I’m not someone who believes that artists can’t make art about other groups that they don’t self-identify as, but as we’ve increasingly seen in the last few years, when they assume that they can speak for another group without significant consultation and/or active involvement from that group in the creative process, these ambitious artists wind up being accused of appropriation or they fuck it up.
Therein lies possibly my biggest gripe with the film: its entire genesis. In a separate piece by Queerty, Luna mentions that he drew inspiration from a number of gay bashing cases, but he decided that wasn’t “modern” and (from the Star piece) “I thought the gay thing’s been done, the coming-out-to-the-parents thing has been done. We’re just so past all of that stuff.” His quotes are all over the map: at one point he claims his intentions were noble because he elected to tell a story about the most underrepresented and misunderstood group, but earlier in the same article he more or less admits to wanting to replicate Rodriguez and Tarantino after watching Grindhouse: “After, we were just playing around and someone said I should do this with drag queens. That would be so much fun.” Reading between the lines, it’s not hard to decipher that Luna got inspired from Grindhouse, decided to make his own version, and then identified an inflammatory but highly-sellable title based on a topic adjacent to what he really wanted to explore (gay bashing) that he doesn’t actually know anything about.
In this context, the outrage and controversy about the film is mildly justified. Luna didn’t treat his subject matter with the care it deserved (regardless of the fact that it is just “a simple, old-fashioned revenge movie”). So what of the actual protest claims that Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives a) “exploits violence against trans women for cheap laughs” and b) “portrays trans women as murderous vigilantes” which “is hardly going to improve understanding about this already heavily marginalized group of people”? The first point is debatable considering that the violence perpetrated against the women is treated very seriously and the film’s comedy comes from the women. The second is more valid, though arguably no revenge film would serve this function; the reality is that there simply need to be more films that depict the transgender community in all facets of life to help dispel myths and expand understanding. That’s a much larger project, however.
All in all, I would argue that this controversy around content has less grounding than those for, say, Cruising or Basic Instinct, which truly portray their subjects in an extremely negative, exploitative light. People should have been protesting Luna’s lack of awareness, not the depiction of the women in the film.
Trace, we’ve both rambled on about semantics and controversy so let’s turn our attention more explicitly to the film. I’ll elaborate more in my next section, but do you agree that the film is more indebted to Tarantino than actual vintage (s)exploitation films of the 70s as Luna claims? And we should probably dig into the straight rape/butt stuff in the climax…
Thank you for that lesson, Joe (if that sounds sarcastic, it is not intended to be). It is sometimes wrongfully assumed that all members of the queer community are “in the know” on all aspects of the queer community, and that just isn’t the case. I am most definitely still learning things every day, as what is deemed politically correct (and polite) is ever-changing and evolving. It can be difficult to keep up!
As for Luna’s inspiration, I too found the same quote you did regarding Grindhouse, and I believe you are correct. Ticked-Off Trannies is the result of a borrowed idea repurposed with a catchy title. The title most definitely came first and the plot came second, but this isn’t the work of an incompetent filmmaker. The lack of understanding you mention, while troubling, doesn’t prevent the film from having a positive message/intention. Luna’s film treats its female characters with respect and never once belittles them or their plight (save for the occasional jab at Rachel’s intelligence). The sisterhood that these women have is representative of a lot of the queer community. When you feel like this much of an outsider, your friends become your family. That is something that Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives conveys particularly well. Luna does understand that much, at least.
If you’re curious about what Luna has done since, it, unfortunately, hasn’t been much. Save for two Ouija knockoffs and a slasher film named Fright Flick, the only film of note is a movie called Kicking Zombie Ass for Jesus (also starring Willam Belli and Krystal Summers). I must say I’m curious about it, if only because of that title (and because I find Belli irresistibly charming). There is also a character named “Cooter.” Perhaps he is related to Ticked-Off Trannies’ Boner? I digress.
Moving past the social politics of the film, at least it’s still entertaining. It is a smidge too long, even at a relatively brief 91 minutes, but when it is simply trying to be a quippy bitch-fest of one-liners, it’s remarkably successful. This is ultimately a one-joke movie, but the movie carries that joke pretty far, all things considered. You’re forgiven for feeling like it overstays its welcome, however, because it does. I just can’t bring myself to dislike a movie that features a nurse named Connie Lingus.
An odd choice that Luna makes is to not show the rape that Bubbles suffers. A common trait among rape-revenge films is that you bear witness to the horrific acts done to the female protagonist before she goes on her revenge spree. Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives has the event occur before the film starts, so that by the time we meet Bubbles she has already been drugged and raped. I’m not saying I want to see her get raped, but robbing us of that sequence potentially dampens the cathartic effect that her eventual revenge has (and also contradicts the homage that Luna is trying to make with his rape-revenge film). We do get to witness the murders of Tipper and Emma, which are played fairly graphically (though how Rachel survives her head-bashing is a question left unanswered), but ultimately this is Bubbles’ movie. It plays more like the trio of surviving women are “merely” getting revenge for their friends’ murders and not Bubbles’ rape.
In regards to the straight rape in the climax, that is what I expect in a rape-revenge film. It doesn’t make a ton of sense (how did the switchblades not go off as they were inserting them into anuses that must have clenched even as the men were unconscious?), but it’s still rather cathartic. It’s over the top in a way that the rest of the movie frequently isn’t and helps inject some life into the proceedings after the dead air that is the journey to Kung Fu movieland. Luna shows more confidence in the gory proceedings than he does in some of the film’s other moments, but the climax has a John Waters-esque vibe that I wish he had gone for throughout the rest of the film. I’ll take a bunch of Rachel Slurr harsh digs when I can get them, though.
Joe, do you have a different view on the climax of the film? Was the switchblade (and gun) rape uncalled for? And how about those chapters? Talk about unnecessary! The fifth and final chapter is the last half of the movie!
I completely concur with you that when Ticked-Off Trannies focuses on the bitchy camaraderie of the girls it works best. In fact, that’s why I liked the first quarter of the film more than any other part: our introduction to these characters at their (strip?) club job is filled with catty dialogue and bitchy rejoinders, in addition to character introductions. It’s an R-rated version of RuPaul’s Drag Race with personality to spare.
I will politely disagree with you about the offscreen rape that Bubbles has already endured when we meet her. I don’t ever need to see another rape sequence in a rape/revenge film – there’s virtually no way to show it without being gratuitous and exploitative (which, even when that’s the point, is unnecessary). I would argue that there are two reasons that it doesn’t land as significantly as it should: 1) it feels disingenuous for the other girls to be so selfish that they don’t realize how upset Bubbles is and 2) Krystal Summers lacks the required acting range to convey Bubbles’ state of mind.
The latter issue is actually one of the film’s biggest failures for me. Out of all of the girls, I found Bubbles to be the least interesting and Summers isn’t convincing at any point in Bubbles’ arc from victim to avenging angel. I was beyond disappointed following the warehouse ambush when it is revealed that Tipper didn’t survive her knife wound because, to me, Jenna Sky is the best actress in the bunch. Simply check out her delivery of the Ava creation story or her financial negotiation with the new go-go boy and you’ll see the most dynamic, whip-smart, catty performer in the cast.
For me, the biggest obstacle to recommending this film is just how one-note it is. As we learned during our off-cycle discussion of Sorority Row, you have a higher tolerance for bitchy characters and dialogue than me; just like in that film, Ticked-Off Trannies loses me once it becomes clear that there isn’t too much else going on. The acting and character roles in Sorority Row are more varied and interesting, but for my money both films overstay their welcome because they’re not bringing enough new to their respective sub-genre. That’s particularly evident in the hospital and Kung Fu movie land sequences, which tries to riff on Kill Bill Vol. 1 and fails (badly). There’s an almost palpable change in pacing and energy immediately after the attack because the rest of the film really starts to feel like a slog. By the time things pick up again for the startlingly queer climax, Ticked-Off Trannies had already lost too much momentum.
I will credit the “knives and guns in butts” bit as a relatively daring plot development on Luna’s behalf. The entire sequence might have worked a little better if the villains were more memorable (or distinguishable) as only Boner really makes an impression. Logistics and practicalities of how the girls got the weapons up there aside, there’s something exceedingly political about cramming phallic weapons up the rectums of straight men who perpetuate violence on the LGBTQ community. You’re right, Trace, it definitely has a John Waters ring to it (or maybe Waters crossed with Cronenberg?)
Unfortunately, the film overstays its welcome by not making the penetration reveal the climax. Instead there’s a protracted finale involving (admittedly fun) slow-mo repetitive kicks and hits, but on the whole this goes on too long. Plus: that belabored “twist” when Boner gets free? Ugh…just end already.
Ultimately I can see what Luna was going for and I do think that the outrage was misdirected since the film is pretty staunchly on the girls side and the comedy doesn’t diminish or make light of their violent experiences, but I also wish that Luna had of spent more time developing the structure of the film to create a stronger product. The title and those ridiculously inane chapter titles (who could care?!) feel like desperate ploys to be cool and edgy rather than legitimately creative decisions. Honestly? I’ll stick with Death Proof.