Trash Humpers is a difficult film to talk about without people dismissing it as, well, trash. Shot on VHS and edited in part on a pair of VCRs – sometimes blindfolded – it follows an anonymous gang of misfits in rubber old person masks1 as they traipse around Nashville, TN and film themselves doing a bunch of weird shit, like humping rubbish bins. Right from the second shot of the film, they hump rubbish bins, and fences, and trees, and whatever other inanimate objects strike their fancy. (They hire some sex workers at one point, but mainly to play drums on their asses.) It’s vulgar, strange and unsettling. It has less than no plot and almost no sense of linear time: the only thing that suggests any particular order to the events is the fact that some scenes are taped over others.
“It’s not for everyone” is a cliché and a truism, but the audience of people both able and inclined to enjoy a film like Trash Humpers is vanishingly small. Some of that is the weird sex stuff, sure, but Pink Flamingos features unsimulated blowjobs, sex scenes involving live chickens and a guy who makes his asshole sing “Surfin’ Bird”, and it has a thousand times more popular appeal than Trash Humpers ever could. When we talk about taste in art, I feel like there’s a tendency to try and sort people into “types” or “taste profiles” or whatever. Usually on the basis of genre – the horror fan, the action fan, the romance fan – or, increasingly, based on weird, niche stereotypes like the “IMDb 250 fan” (a subject of derision in many online film communities for reasons that remain unclear to me) or the many varieties of “bro”. But our tastes are a lot more granular, specific and individual than that. I am, in theory, the target audience for a film like Hell or High Water. I love Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster and Chris Pine. I love westerns. The premise – two brothers rob the bank that duped their late mother into getting a reverse mortgage – fits me like a pair of moulded leather gloves. I wish at least 800% more films were about the recession and earnestly believe that movies should depict as many bank robberies as possible. But I don’t like Hell or High Water. It’s not a bad film, and there are lots of things I like about it, but it left me cold in the end. When I look back on it now, my overwhelming memory is how its desaturated colour grading reminded me of watery dilutable orange. It’s simply not to my taste.
I don’t know if I could ever explain exactly why Trash Humpers appeals to me, but it does. In spite of all the reasons to find it mindless or boring or ugly, I just love this little film. It’s beautiful and funny and scary and moving. It rules.
The focus on indigent sexual deviants hooting and hollering as they do a bunch of weird shit makes the comparison to the works of John Waters (a fan of Trash Humpers, incidentally) almost too easy. But the film that Trash Humpers most resembles to me is another tale of fringe degeneracy: The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Like the events over at the Frankenstein place, Trash Humpers gives an inside view on a strange, decadent culture hiding under the surface of human life. But where Rocky Horror introduces us to this secret society through the arrival of soppy normies Brad and Janet to a meeting of Dr Frank-N-Furter’s alien sex-and-mad-science cult, Trash Humpers is sort of a found footage film: the characters are the camera operators in-universe and, unlike most such films, the actors – including director Harmony Korine and his wife / frequent star Rachel Korine – are also the camera operators in reality. I say “sort of” because the term “found footage” implies finding. The vast majority of found footage films at least suggest the footage was discovered by a third party in-universe at some point after it was recorded. The Blair Witch Project is presented as footage from an unfinished documentary, Cloverfield as part of a cache of material recovered by the military after the monster attack, etc. Trash Humpers is not that straightforward. The characters are filming themselves and each other, but rather than suggest how the footage might have been uncovered, the whole film seems like it was made through and for the gang’s eyes only. They wander the streets of outer Nashville, sometimes by day, but mostly by night, sometimes in cars or on bikes, but mostly on foot, and go about their strange business, laughing at their antics, however dark or deranged they become.
It’s both far more intimate than Rocky Horror and far more inscrutable: there are a few scenes shot in a car where one of the gang expounds on their life philosophy, but since he’s speaking to another member, he assumes a lot of foreknowledge and the whole rant ends up pretty elliptical. The broad strokes are clear enough – the gang seek personal freedom through nonconformity and immediate gratification – but there’s nothing specific about their backstory or relationships. We never even get to learn whether they hump trash out of sincere sexual desire or purely in opposition to normative sexuality. Instead, the film is just about action and environment: the gang, their antics, the various other oddballs they meet along the way and the landscape of the Nashville sprawl.
Trash Humpers is in part a kind of perverted love letter to suburban Nashville, its buildings, streets, wastelands and, most importantly, its lights. The light in Trash Humpers is always the first thing I remember. Strong light blurs on VHS, especially at night and especially on the commercial, rather than professional, VHS used in Trash Humpers. It has an ethereal, almost celestial quality that I’ve always loved, as if the glow is too much for the tape to hold, like it’s bursting through the medium itself. The modern lust for ever sharper and clearer video has never appealed to me – I’ve never fully recovered from having to listen to someone tell me how excited they were to get an 8K TV – and I’m not generally a fan of digital cinematography. Not that everything shot on digital looks bad, obviously. The best season of television ever made was shot on digital. But in the wrong hands, which seems to be most hands, it has a tendency to end up looking too smooth, glossy and clean. It lacks texture. It’s the main reason I favour film, which more than makes up for any lack of clarity with the sheer richness of its images – the warmth of its colours, the depth of its shadows, the tactile weight of the objects it captures – even with small-gauge formats like Super 8. But there’s also something to be said for VHS, the neglected middle child of the format wars. People love digital for its clarity and film for its richness, but I love VHS precisely because of its low visual fidelity, the way it nearly comes pre-faded, pre-aged. Expressing ambiguity is one of the most powerful things art can do and what I love about VHS is how it almost obscures as much as it reveals, especially on the home video-quality tape used for Trash Humpers. Shot well, I can read someone’s facial expression on both digital and film pretty clearly even from fifty feet. But on commercial VHS, even fifteen feet is enough to create a level of uncertainty. It puts you on the back foot as a viewer, leaves you constantly doubting your read on the characters and their situation. It makes everything more fraught and tense, which lays a really strong foundation for both Trash Humpers’ humour and horror.
There is absolutely nothing clever whatsoever about Trash Humpers’ sense of humour. The primary gag of the whole film, repeated over and over again, is people in old person masks humping objects. It’s not the only way they interact with the world sexually – one of the guys fellates a tree branch a minute into the film – but if you’re not going to continue finding the image of people in old person masks humping stuff funny for at least fifty percent of its 78-minute runtime, you’re not going to like Trash Humpers. I think it’s hilarious, especially as the repetition of the gag brings the finer details of the physical comedy to the fore. I laugh every time one of the gang stops mid-hump, readjusts their position, then starts humping even faster and harder. I can’t really explain why it works, there’s just something comical about how much thought and effort they’re putting into humping things. Much of the humour, maybe most of it, is this delightfully puerile sex stuff, but there’s also a lot of musical comedy. The gang sing lots of horrible atonal little ditties, including one called “Three Little Devils” that seems to be their theme song, but the best song in the film comes from one of the strange and wonderful characters the gang meets on their journey: an older, shirtless and seemingly mentally-ill man introduced lying in bed, alternately playing trumpet, smoking a cigarette and ranting about the downsides of having immortality and a huge penis. (“A lot of girls think that my gigantic pecker is a plus, but you know something? They never seem to jack me off.”) Following his trumpet rant, he plays and sings a bluesy little guitar number called “You Girls Juss Suck Large Fat Penis”. We only get to hear the first minute of the song, but the combination of his surprisingly intricate guitar work, his inability to sing and play at the same time, his deep, swampy voice and the fact he’s singing about sucking large fat penises just gets me every time.
But the sex stuff – however strange – is probably the most wholesome humour in the film: much of the rest skews much darker. The gang are all basically kind to each other for the most part, but their interactions with other characters often take bizarre, cruel turns. They mock a small, fat kid in a black suit for being bad at basketball early in the film and only start being nice to him once he tells them how he would strangle a baby and starts smashing the baby doll that the main female gang member carries with a hammer. (She rewards him by teaching him how to hide a razor blade in an apple and letting him hold the leash as one of the men drag them around in a wheelchair.) Later on, they visit two men in hospital gowns with some sort of hat made of rubber gloves connecting their heads and force them to eat a stack of pancakes covered in dish soap, though the hat twins weirdly seem to enjoy it. I don’t think Trash Humpers is a horror film exactly – I think people who think it is are letting the found footage trappings carry them away a bit – but the line between black comedy and horror is very blurry in several scenes and definitively crossed in the case of a homeless man in a French maid’s outfit the gang meet on a bridge. He earnestly reads them a poem about how much he admires them, while they whoop and laugh and throw firecrackers on the ground. In the very next scene, he’s dead on their kitchen floor next to a hammer, blood pooling from his head and splattered all over the gang member who killed him.
It’s very sudden and genuinely scary, especially if you’ve let yourself adjust to the gang’s strangeness and begun to see them as eccentric but largely harmless weirdos. It’s not just the very dark, realistic violence out of nowhere or the brutality of it or their indifference and glee at the scene. It’s not even the fact they did it to someone who called them his family just minutes before. The real horror of it is the eerie doubt it puts in your mind. It really starts to dawn on you that their complete rejection of the mainstream extends to not just propriety, but basic moral principles. It casts your mind back to a previous scene, where they seemed to stumble on a naked man passed out in a field. Was he passed out or dead? Did they just stumble on him or did they leave him there? Sometime after the murder of the man in the maid outfit, a shot of three pairs of bloody runners bursts through for a few seconds before disappearing, like it was taped over. What fucked-up shit are they hiding there? You begin to realise that, much like when Dr Frank-N-Furter brutally murders his zombie ex-boyfriend with an ice axe in Rocky Horror, these freaks aren’t just a little weird and their sinister vibe isn’t just an act. There’s still something thrilling in the vision of radical freedom from social convention they offer, just as there’s something exhilarating in Frank-N-Furter’s sexual libertinism. But their ruthless pursuit of their own gratification has come at the expense of others. They’re monsters. Tragic monsters, perhaps. Guided by relatable ideals, maybe, at least initially. But monsters nonetheless.
The climactic philosophical statement of Frank-N-Furter, if not necessarily of Rocky Horror itself, comes as five words sung four times: “don’t dream it, be it”. It’s a strangely optimistic gloss on the possibility of living life on your own terms in a world hostile to the individual, especially given Frank is murdered by Riff Raff and Magenta immediately after the song ends. There’s no promise of safety or success, but it nevertheless insists you stop imagining the person you’d like to be one day and just be that person right now. Live while you can. The mantra of the gang from Trash Humpers is also five words, chanted as they prepare the pancakes for the hat twins: “make it, don’t fake it”. Authenticity is everything to the gang, but they’ve had to create a new way of living in order to not conform with mainstream society. “Make it, don’t fake it”, as a command, expresses the paradox of trying to manufacture something sincere. It’s the central psychic agony that plagues the characters in their lowest moments, the projected resentment of self that fuels the cruelties they inflict on other social rejects. They despise the phonies, but, like Holden Caulfield, that hatred returns threefold on themselves. They know no matter how far they push their nonconformity, no matter how much they reject the narrow confines of what society permits, they will be just as phony as anyone else. Fake in a different direction, but fake all the same.
Rocky Horror is tragic, but Trash Humpers is despairing. It’s extraordinarily melancholy, shot through with an overwhelming futility, an exhausting sense of defeat that builds slowly throughout the film before coming to a head in its closing minutes. The only character who could be described as going through anything resembling an arc in the film is the primary female member of the gang, played by Rachel Korine. Everyone else has their quiet moments, where the sheer effort of how they choose to live their lives catches up with them for a moment and they just seem tired. But Momma, as several sources give her name, is more than just tired. Over the course of the film, she becomes visibly disillusioned with the whole enterprise (which, given she barely speaks and has to act under a fairly inexpressive mask, is an incredible feat of acting from Korine). The last ten minutes of the film focus pretty much entirely on her. She cycles around some wasteland dragging the baby doll behind her on a string, but her heart doesn’t seem in it. She stands in a ruined building, clutching a bottle of wine and speaks to the sky: “I don’t mean to do wrong, Lord. Why don’t you guide me? I don’t know which way I’m going.” There are more shots of her riding the bike, harder this time, doing tai chi outside a tiny house, and passing out drunk on various surfaces. She sings a sad song about a single girl who “goes just where she please”.
What happens to someone who defines themselves in opposition to mainstream society when they find themselves earnestly desiring things that society condones? What happens when your moral instincts catch up with you and you feel the urge to seek the moral good, one of the least instant and least gratifying things you can desire? What happens if the lifestyle you’ve built your entire identity around just isn’t doing it for you anymore?
What happens if you want a child?
For Momma, the answer is you kidnap a baby. She sneaks into a house while the child’s parent is in the shower and snatches them from their cradle. It’s a really horrifying scene, not only because the idea of the gang getting their hands on a baby is just scary all on its own, but because of every scene with the baby doll before. Cheering on the suit boy as he smashed it with a hammer. Dragging it on the ground behind a bike. Nailing it to a wooden post.
But she doesn’t hurt the baby. Not that we see anyway. She just cradles it and sings to it and pushes it around in a pram. Like Hi and Ed in Raising Arizona, it’s fucked-up she stole a baby, but her apparently sincere love for the child is also disarmingly sweet. Even if she expresses it in a reprehensible way, there is a sense of hope in Momma acknowledging and pursuing her desire to be a mother. She’s clearly no longer happy as a trash humper and if she’s admitted to herself and the rest of the gang that she wants something more out of life, it seems like a good first step toward some sort of redemption. Maybe. She could just as easily decide to smash it with a hammer. Maybe that was the baby’s blood splattered on all those runners. The chronology of events isn’t exactly clear. But I choose to hear the words of her lullaby as sincere. As a promise.
Goin’ to sleep is goin’ to be fine
Goin’ to sleep is on my mind
Goin’ to sleep and sleep through the night
You’re gonna be alright
Sleep, my darling, and don’t you wake
‘Til morning comes and the day breaks
Sleep, my darling, and don’t you wake
‘Til morning shines through
Sleep, my darling, and it’s gon’ be fine
You will see that you will be mine
Sleep, my baby, all the night through
And don’t let the bedbugs bite you
Sleep, my darling, and don’t you wake
Until the morn comes, until the day breaks
Sleep, my baby, the whole night through
And know that I love you
1. It’s ambiguous whether the gang is supposed to be interpreted as freaks in old person masks or actual old people. The masks aren’t “convincing”, but that’s not why I read them as masks in the reality of the film. The devil costume in Méliès’ The Devil and the Statue is also “unconvincing”, but I still interpret the character played by the actor wearing it as Satan. I think either interpretation of Trash Humpers is reasonable, but I choose to read them as masks, partially because I think it makes their situation more hopeful, but mostly because I think it’s funnier.