Lloyd Kaufman (The Toxic Avenger) Talks Riley Stearns’ Faults

The veteran cult filmmaker turns his attention to a new indie release, fittingly about a man who deprograms cult members.

Faults, by first-time director Riley Stearns, is a very well-made movie. It’s clever, well produced, well acted, contains beautiful imagery and has an intriguing story resting at its center. I’m writing this as both a critic and a filmmaker. I cannot help but admire the genius of the mechanics behind this modestly budgeted, yet very good-looking independent production. More about this later. Unfortunately, problems, or faults, if you’ll pardon the shitty and obvious wordplay — stem from certain gaps in logic embedded in the character arcs. The viewer is ultimately left with a number of unanswered questions about the plot and the filmmaker’s motivations for taking on the project.

The first shot is of a man in a suit and tie, sitting alone, quietly enjoying breakfast. He is soon confronted by hotel management for attempting to reuse a complementary meal ticket from the night before. They want money, he has none. A struggle ensues and management tosses his ass out. This is Ansel Roth, a man once widely regarded for his book and television show, both of which centered on his great ability to “deprogram” brainwashed cult members. Bonus points! I’m a cult filmmaker, so you know I enjoy me some movies about cults!

Anyway, despite hard times and an extremely diminished fan base, Ansel continues to plug away at his career. During a conference where he’s schlepping for his new book, an audience member accuses Ansel of performing a botched deprogramming session, and ends up punching him in the face. With this, it seems, Ansel has totally fallen from grace. Luckily, the next morning a distraught married couple approach and offer to buy him breakfast. He accepts. They plead with Ansel to help deprogram their daughter. He agrees to do so, but only for a hefty sum. It’s best to leave the rest of the story a mystery as it contains some interesting twists and surprises.

Taking center stage here, in the role of Ansel, is Leland Orser. Orser is perhaps best known from David Fincher’s Se7en. You remember? He was the guy who was forced to fuck a woman to death with an insane-looking strap-on knife-cock. Anyway, that’s how I remember him! Rounding out the cast are a few other recognizable character actors: Lance Reddick (The Wire), Beth Grant (Donnie Darko), and Jon Gries (Napoleon Dynamite). Most notably, Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Live Free or Die Hard, Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof) plays the second lead, Claire, and also serves as the film’s producer.

Faults is brilliantly designed. There are valuable lessons here. The movie couldn’t have cost too much to make and succeeds in the same way that Cheap Thrills succeeded; it has few locations and probably only 10 speaking roles. Truthfully, Faults is so minimal that it could have been stripped down and produced as a theatre piece. There are no major stunts or special FX to speak of. The filmmakers landed talented, well-known actors in almost every major role. Riley Stearns and his team created a slick, good-looking movie on a modest budget, something Troma has never managed to do. In fact, this production must have been the polar opposite of a Troma set! We always juggle dozens of locations with hundreds of speaking roles and thousands of “actor persons” (our term for extras). It’s chaos. We bloat our shooting schedule with car crashes, complicated transformation scenes and special FX, among other difficult elements. I prefer to hire talented newcomers over well-known actors, which hurts sales to major media outlets like Walmart and HBO. It’s a wonder we have lasted for 40 years!

Back to Faults, though. After mostly singing its praises up to now, I do have some questions. With all the movies in the world that do not get made, how did this one manage to get made? It’s not really commercial in any way. The subject matter is not universal. Was this a passion project for the filmmakers? What was Riley Stearns’ agenda with the work? I’d love to interview him and find out. The movie has no clear message — not that it necessarily needs one. It’s neither pro-cult nor anti-cult. It really just happens, and then it’s over. Also, it was implausible at certain points and the characters make some dubious decisions. Why would the parents of a brainwashed girl ever hire Ansel, especially since they were in the audience when he was attacked for a botched deprogramming session? Ansel comes off like a major loser and a third-rate grifter. In this day and age, when Scientology is claiming our movie stars at an alarming rate, there have to be all sorts of reputable options in terms of “cult busters.” It makes no sense that they would choose him. Not to mention that Ansel’s choice of location for performing a five day deprogramming session is a seedy motel. That, to me, is just plain old dumb. You know how many times I’ve pressed my ear against a seedy motel wall to see if I can hear the people next door having sex? Thousands, that’s right, thousands. And I know I’m not the only one who does that, you bunch of depraved perverts.

Faults is a worthwhile viewing experience and kept my attention throughout, thanks to its excellent cast and smart production value, but in the end I was left asking myself, what was the point of this movie? I can’t really see Faults selling a ton of movie tickets around the world or setting the home-entertainment market on fire. Then again, I’m a 60-something cult filmmaker who makes movies chock full of mop-wielding mutants, head-crushings and penis monsters. Perhaps, just perhaps, I’m not the target audience for Faults. Finally, speaking of cults, I hope none of you send an Ansel to deprogram my Troma fans anytime soon. They must continue to drink the Kool-Aid until the release of Toxie 5: Grime and Punishment.

[Troma employee John Brennan also contributed to this piece.]

Lloyd Kaufman, co-founder of 41-year-old Troma Entertainment, directed many of their feature films, including The Toxic AvengerThe Class of Nuke ‘Em HighSgt. Kabukiman NYPDTromeo & Juliet and Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead. Kaufman has written six books and presented his “Make Your Own Damn Movie” masterclasses globally. His latest film, Return to Nuke ‘Em High Vol. 1, produced in association with Starz, premiered in 2014 and screened in The Contenders series at MoMA. He is currently working on Return to Nuke ‘Em High Vol. 2 and The Toxic Avenger Part V.