Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Toxic Avenger

The Toxic Avenger
Directed by: Lloyd Kaufman
USA, 1984
Distributed by: Troma Entertainment.

One ring to rule them all… nope, this isn’t a nod to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Ring’s trilogy, but merely a statement. Years before Jackson became the landmark of fantasy epics that he is today, he was the undergrounds’ leading name of splatter comedy. But today’s story goes deeper than any Hobbit hole, beyond Sumatran Rat-monkey's and rushes past vomit fuelled space aliens, because in my book the epitaph "lord of the splatter comedy" lies safe in the hands of one single man, Uncle Lloydie!

Melvin Ferd [Mark Torgl] the painfully uncool nerd who also goes under the name “Mop Boy” finally get’s pushed to far when a sinister and vile practical joke goes terribly wrong. Well at least you would think it went wrong, but as Melvin laid snap, crackling and popping in a vat of toxic waste the foul members of Tromaville Health Club still stood by laughing. Melvin was transformed into a hideously disfigured monster and chased out of town like all classic monsters are… In his lair of hiding – and with his new found love, the blind Sara [Andree Maranda], Melvin takes the name The Toxic Avenger [Mitch Cohen] and set’s about his personal revenge on his antagonists, and the corruption that has turned Tromaville into a nightmare for it’s citizens… It’s time to clean up!

I can still vividly remember the first time I ever set eyes on The Toxic Avenger. It was in the golden eighties. I’d just moved from home, I was in a new town, I was making new friends, I had a new girlfriend, I was sharing a room with my best mate, I was on top of the world, I knew everything and I had a new video store just across the road from my tiny student dorm. But knew fuck all about a four-year-old movie housed in a spunky puffy 3D cover called The Toxic Avenger that summoned me towards it like flies to shit.

Buddies since they where roomies at college, Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz nourished a dream of one day becoming filmmakers. Hustling tricks and churning out low budget sex-comedies at the end of the sixties early seventies under the name 15th Street Films, Kaufman literally worked his ass off. When not making his own low budget features, he was working on larger studio pics – such as Rocky 1976 and Saturday Night Fever 1977. Whilst location scouting for Rocky, Kaufman decided that the mainstream moviemaking wasn’t for him and whilst wandering around gyms he started toying with an idea for a horror flick situated in such a location; "Health Club Horror”. After a string of unsuccessful investments, his company 15th Street Films was bust and the odyssey of Lloyd Kaufman may have ended here – yeah right... It’s 1975, enter Joel M. Reed and his unfinished exploitation flick “Master Sardu and the Horror Trio”. Under their new name Troma Studios, Hertz and Kaufman shot new footage, re-edited it and finished the movie for a 1976 release as the now infamous Bloodsucking Freaks! Not an international phenomenon, but it did good enough to keep the studio afloat, and slowly, slowly they started making sexy themed comedies once again. Half a decade later the struggling studio took a chance shot at combining horror with sexy comedy and what better than the “Health Club Horror" story Kaufman had been thinking of a few years earlier. All that was needed was a better name, The Toxic Avenger. The rest is history and Troma have been the longest living most struggling independent studio on the face of the earth since then.

It would be easy to look at Troma’s output and merely laugh it off. But that would be wrong. Sure the movies may bee dorky and futile, but at least Troma dare distribute independence. They don’t negotiate with a filmmaker’s vision; they get it out there and to an audience. Which obviously is there, as they have managed to hang in there for somewhere near forty years.

I’ve said this before in my piece on Poultrygeist – Night of the Chicken Dead 2006, don’t knock the Troma team, because behind all the laughs, gasps, chuckles and big-titted women are some serious issues and damned fine storytelling traits awaiting for anyone observant enough to see them.

A few examples from the ever-great The Toxic Avenger;

Establishing the “ordinary world”. This is essential to genre film. If you establish the world the characters and beings live in, the world we are about to explore, the audience will have an easier time believing it. That’s why Ridley Scott's Alien 1979 has that long “space truckers at work” segment at the start of the movie, to establish an ordinary world. That’s why a lot of horror movies start with a bang, to establish the threat through an initial attack, and to establish the ordinary world. A place where this monster/killer/entity/etc. can be found, and pose a real threat to the characters. The Toxic Avenger does exactly this. It establishes the sick, foul world of Tromaville where hit and run car accidents are all sick games, where corrupted cops ignore crime and the major reaps all the benefits that he can lay his hands on. Even if it’s looking the other way whilst transgender mobsters beat up policemen and shoot blind women’s guide dogs.

Keep the monster in the dark. Again Alien is a brilliant example of this trait, and the longer you keep a being in the dark, the more we will mystify it. Toxie is kept off screen, or at least his disfigured face for a very long time after the accident, which creates him. The majority of his shots see his back and how interacting characters shrug in horror from him. Not until far past the mid-point and Melvin’s revenge get’s personal, does Kaufman reveal the disfigured face of vengeance!

Weak protagonist who finally rises to the occasion, well Melvin is possibly the single largest geek to ever have picked up a mop and gone to town on the evildoers who live there. Not to forget the splendid orgasmic orgy of gore and death that floods the movies climax. It’s a classic movie moment and a damn fine one too. The people of Tromaville embrace their hero and the real villain of the piece – the corrupted mayor - get’s his comeuppance in all it's gory glory.
You can say what you want but Troma movies, especially the Kaufman productions, play by all the rules and obviously know exactly how to use them.

Then there’s the gravy. Just take a look at those special effects, not only the infamous head crush scene – yes lads, this flick has a real infamous head crush scene It’s an impressive piece of shocking gore and effect wizardry. Not to forget the transformation of Melvin to Toxie which to this day manages to look awesome, the diner massacre still works and there’s many other great moments of onscreen carnage that elevate The Toxic Avenger way above your average low budget schlock.

This is the stuff that the house of Troma was built on, sexist gags, slapstick comedy gags, impressive effect work, and there’s a very clear reason why we all love the monster hero. Melvin is a likeable character, perhaps even more after his transformation, where he goes from geeky gimp to hefty super hero. And yes this is the kind of story we like, a rise to the occasion, an answer to the call, a hero that we all can identify with. Perhaps not as the buff mutated monster, but we can identify with the emotion of wanting to be that character who takes revenge for all the wrong done to us and the world we live in. Yes, you do, there’s no need denying it. If opportunity were giving, you’d take it in the blink of an eye.

Finally there are the themes. Kaufman written scripts and Kaufman directed movies usually have a critique towards several areas. The fast food industry (and ancient Indian burialgrounds) was the main area of focus in Poultrygeist– The Night of the Chicken Dead, The Toxic Avenger has, like Class of Nuke ‘em High 1986, a quite sublime anti nuclear power theme. Not surprising as nukes and toxic waste where a strong fear in the eighties. There’s also a comment on the fitness craze of the eighties. A health boom where anyone who meant anything was seen in leotards and sweatbands down the nearest gym. Last but not least, there’s the corruption. Every politician – and almost every cop - in Troma movies –well all forms of authority, corporations, officials, etc. all have a streak of corruption to them. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see this as a metaphor for mayor corporations – read Hollywood – a place that we perhaps should be grateful that Lloyd Kaufman decided to walk away from as there’s no way in hell they would have let him make the fantastic movies that hoe’s been making for the last forty years.

So go get The Toxic Avenger, make yourself a big bowl of pop-corn, listen to Mark Hoffman & Race’s power ballad, Is this Love, watch a beloved New York skyline that no longer exists and simply have one hell of a great time. The Toxic Avenger is still as fucking great as it was the first time it popped my Troma cherry twenty-five years ago! Now I need to get me a I love the Monster Hero T-shirt from the Troma store, as I await the debut of this definitive modern classic of genre cinema on BluRay! Troma has entered the BluRay game with Poultrygeist – Night of the Chicken Dead, Class of Nuke ‘Em High, and the epic Shakesperian Tromeo & Juliet 1996 all three very fine examples of Lloyd Kaufman and the Troma teams unique brand of entertainment.

4:3 1.33:1, Colour.

Dolby Digital 5.1. English dialogue.

Troma discs are always filled to the brim with fun and interesting stuff. This very early release of The Toxic Avenger is no exception. A fascinating commentary, with insight into the movie, it’s making by Lloyd Kaufman, deleted scenes, interview with Toxie, Theatrical trailer for The Toxic Avenger and other Troma flicks, Movie stills – including pictures of Marisa Tomei in her first role, Secrets of a Mop-boy, and much more.
Not an extra, but a novelty, the DVD I have is one of the initial 2000 limited signed edition which all came with a certificate of authenticity signed by Lloyd Kaufman himself. This was years before I got to meet Lloyd (both in New York, and in Stockholm some years later and had him sign shit-load of stuff everytime.) and the way he treated me on both occasions speaks the philosophy of Troma. Meet people with respect, and for that reason alone I’ll always love Troma and the Monster Hero.

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