The Toxic Avenger (1984) – 24 Carat Crud…

Toxic 4

Woody Allen famously keeps a drawer full of ideas scribbled on bits of paper, which he dips into when he needs inspiration for a new movie. It’s not always successful – it seems like he forgot to add anything else before shooting Magic in the Moonlight.

I’d like to think Troma movies get made in a similar fashion. I can picture Lloyd Kaufman, Troma’s cartoonish co-founder, sitting in a hottub with a couple of poodle-permed babes, scribbling crazy titles on cocktail napkins and handing them to his butler for safekeeping.

Titles include A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell, Dumpster Baby, Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid, and Maniac Nurses Find Ecstasy. They’re friday night four-pack-and-a-pizza movies, and any VHS junkie from the ’80s and ’90s will be familiar with the lurid cover art of Troma’s oeuvre. They’ve been going for over forty years now, barfing a steady steam of lowbrow, z-grade schlock into existence – if it’s got aliens, monsters, psychos, guns and tits, all on the front of the video box, chances are it’s Troma.

The Toxic Avenger Poster

The mid-eighties was the studio’s highpoint with their masterpiece, The Toxic Avenger. Knocked out for around half a million dollars, it was nevertheless the strongest superhero movie to appear between Richard Donner’s first two Superman films and Tim Burton’s Batman. Its positioning in the Superhero firmament made it strangely prescient, parodying the Superhero genre before there was really a Superhero genre to make fun of. It plays well these days, in an era over-saturated with endless Marvel movies and grim reboots of the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel.

Set in Tromaville, the “toxic waste capital of the world”, the story concerns Melvin (Mark Torgl), a snivelling dweeb working as a mop boy at the local health club. The violent fitness freaks who treat the gym as their hangout hate Melvin, and play a mean prank on him which results in the tormented weakling taking a nose-dive out of a window. His fall is broken by a barrel of toxic waste, irresponsibly stored on the back of a flatbed truck with the lid off. The whole town turns out to laugh at Melvin, and the bubbling green gunk mutates him into the hulking Toxic Avenger.

Although played broadly, there is something very authentic about the cruelty levelled at Melvin. The prank – involving a pink tutu and a sheep wearing lipstick – has echoes of Sissy Spacek’s prom night humiliation in Brian De Palma’s Carrie. The film also draws a connection between the physical fitness boom of the ’80s and psychotic behaviour, an association Bret Easton Ellis would make in his cancerous satire of ’80s excess and materialis, American Psycho.

Toxic 1

This is especially apparent in the film’s infamous head crushing scene. The head bully Bozo (Gary Schneider) and his gang get turned on by performing hit-and-run fatalities on Tromaville’s citizens, and even have a point system. It’s twenty-eight points for a kid on a bike, and having failed to wipe out a twelve-year-old boy on the first pass, Bozo makes amends by reversing and splattering the stricken child’s head.

Setting up digs in the local dump, the monster (who would become affectionately known as “Toxie” in later installments) sets about cleaning up the scum-ridden streets of Tromaville, much in the fashion of Robocop a few years later. He rescues an honest copper from a gang of drug dealers, thwarts a restaurant robbery and saves a blind girl from rape. Naturally, Toxie’s rampage leads him towards the top man, the town’s repulsive mayor.

The Toxic Avenger is grade-A trash. It’s crude, juvenile and extremely violent, but has a ribald energy and inventiveness that makes many modern comic book adaptations look leaden, bloated and lazy (That’s you, Green Lantern & R.I.P.D).

Superhero comedies are hard to pull off, as anyone who’s seen the laugh-free Mystery Men or the repugnant My Super Ex-Girlfriend will attest. Perhaps the innate silliness of the superhero concept makes it hard to spoof, and comedic takes on the genre work best when the film has a clear identity of its own, like The Incredibles, Kick Ass, or Scott Pilgrim vs the World.

Toxic 2

The jokes in The Toxic Avenger are fart-level and childish – I lost track of how many punchlines involved someone getting their nuts battered – but work in the context of the film. Much of it makes the gross out humour of the Farrelly Brothers look like Oscar Wilde, but it’s honest, without the over-arching smugness of the Marvel movies.

The Toxic Avenger is a very robust piece of film making, one that captures the spirit of old comic books better than almost anything else.

By accident or design, Kaufman and co-director Michael Herz have created an incredibly visual piece of story telling. It operates at such an extreme level of heightened reality that you can pause the film almost at any point and imagine it as a comic book panel. Any moment involving Bozo, with eyes bulging and neck muscles straining, like he’s just sniffed some poppers. The barrels of bubbling radioactive gunk. Melvin’s horrific bathtub transformation. The truck drivers hoovering up pounds of nose candy from a huge sack. Any of these moments could be illustrated in old school four-colour print, and you can feel the grain of low grade comic paper.

Toxic 3

The Toxic Avenger isn’t for everybody – you need a certain level of trash-tolerance to handle its zany, sleazy vibe – but it reminds us that comic book movies are supposed to be fun. Things have gone a bit quiet on the remake front, which is shame since this year Marvel will be boring us to death with Phase Three of their tiresome Marvel Cinematic Universe. In lieu of a remake, wouldn’t it be great if Toxie could gatecrash that party, and maybe pummel Thor’s nuts like a speedbag?

 

 

 

 

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About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 15/01/2016, in action, blogging, Comedy, Entertainment, Film, Horror, Movies, Reviews, Superhero and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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