The Toxic Avenger (1984)

I’ve had a surprisingly large number of people I discuss movies with recently mention their ignorance of Troma films. Maybe it’s only surprising to me, though, as I first saw this one over a decade ago, as a relative youth, simply perusing my father’s amassed pile of movies (some he liked, some he’d been given by friends and maybe didn’t like so much…) for anything that seemed to be about a superhero. After the disappointment of finding out Iceman was about a frozen caveman (for instance) and not the X-Man, and lacking the patience or interest in any film that wasn’t about big events involving nonhuman beings, I eventually stumbled across this one. Surely with a name like that, it couldn’t be anything else, right? Well, technically, it is, indeed, about a superhero.

Melvin Furd (Mark Torgl–what a name!, with “Furd” later retconned into “Junko” with the sequels that followed) is a geeky janitor at the Tromaville, NJ health club, the source of deririson and animosity for a gang of oversexed, psychotic and yet seemingly bored club members–Slug (Robert Prichard), Bozo (Gary Schneider), Julie (Cindy Manion), and Wanda (Jennifer Prichard, then Babtist–yes, she married her co-star). When they feel Melvin has just been too great a schmuck, Julie finally proposes a plan to “fix that mop boy’s wagon.” A mentally scarring but physically harmless prank that goes hideously wrong as Melvin goes careening out a window and into a barrel of toxic waste turns him into TOXIE! The Toxic Avenger! Forced by sheer instinct to stop all evildoing his senses tell him is occurring, Toxie first cleans up the gang of Cigarface (Dan Snow), Knuckles (Doug Isbecque) and Nipples (Charles Lee, Jr.) who are harassing the town’s only honest cop, Officer O’Clancy (Dick Martinsen). Soon newspapers are rolling with news of the town’s “monster hero”–to the chagrin of Mayor Peter Belgoody (Pat Ryan, Jr.) who is in control of the majority of the crime and corruption.

Reading that plot, it almost seems like changing the character names might make for a fairly normal superhero story, doesn’t it? If it weren’t for the ridiculous names, I think it would sound quite normal as such things go. That is the thing I think most people miss–especially the silly gits who refer to Troma as a source of movies “so bad they’re good.” I’ve railed against this idiotic phrase many a time–if you enjoy a film, why feel the need to deride it at the same time, unless it’s simply a smokescreen to make your enjoyment “acceptable”? I suppose in some cases, this enjoyment comes from amusement at a film’s supposed failings, but anyone who has seen a movie like Manos, the Hands of Fate untouched by any help or editing knows that a truly bad film is simply not enjoyable for its entire duration. It becomes intolerable and difficult to sit through. And of course it presupposes intention on a filmmaker’s part–something that, in this day and age, is a stupid thing to do. At some point, every convention has been subverted for whatever reason, even if it’s simple boredom with a convention being conventional. As such, numerous films have been made with their tongues planted firmly in their cheek. Anyone who thinks The Toxic Avenger is a movie so “poorly made it’s good,” so “laughable” and “pathetic” has missed the (incredibly obvious) point. It reminds me of Roger Ebert suggesting that Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn is a “satire” and only “Level Two” viewers will catch onto the humour. No. Anyone with eyes and ears should catch onto the obviously intentional humour in both of these films. Troma films are over-the-top and excessive in all ways. They’re fully aware of it. They became more aware after this first handful of films, admittedly (see: sequels to this film and Class of Nuke ‘Em High, which often maintain the gore and naked breasts but with a far more fourth-wall-breaking awareness of their lunacy) but even here it’s obviously not intended to be serious. It’s a janitor named Melvin in a health club for crying out loud. The villains are named “Slug” and “Bozo.” The mayor’s Chief of Police makes only vague attempts at hiding his Nazi origins. Come on. If you think this is serious, you’ve got a lot more movie-watching before you come back to it.

That said, I do make a point of emphasizing with all those unfamiliar that Troma films are not to be judged by the standards of other movies. They are inevitably something other. The low budget nature is an embraced charm–embraced by the makers as well as the fans. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that any laughter you derive from the effects is purely your superiority over film-making ineptness. And, of course, look at earlier films like this one–the violence can be pretty disturbing for all its flaws anyway. I always liked this tone most in Troma films, this very blackly humourous insanity, instead of the lighter-hearted, overtly goofy gorefests that followed. I enjoy those as well, but this one and its closest companion (Class of Nuke ‘Em High) are my favourite kind. They have that extra note that brings them halfway near serious that makes them interesting–like a Troma film infecting a regular one, instead of just being a pure Troma film (backwards logic, I suppose, since the “Troma film” I’m defining did not yet exist). I take them, then, as regular movies, but with an insane asthetic–they are fully enjoyable this way. Don’t waste time laughing at low budget effects (I think this is inherently a waste of time, with possible exceptions for clearly unskilled effects, no matter what the budget), you won’t see the real joy of this. It’s, well, it’s kind of like the ridiculous side of Garth Ennis taken to an extreme. Some mock the acting, too, but little of it has the actual clunk of BAD acting. It’s amateurish, and is not nuanced, nor careful or precise–but it isn’t supposed to be. While that could end up interesting (a Troma film with straight acting?!), it is inappropriate for what Herz and Kaufman were setting out to do. The editing and direction are also not so incompetent as some would have you believe. Again, they’re obviously the work of the inexperienced and not absolute masters, but they are not bad by any stretch. The movie would not hold its entertainment value if we were dealing with Troll 2 type acting (that is the odious clunk of BAD acting) or the direction or editing of Manos.

It’s not a train wreck, and it isn’t a bad movie. It’s great fun if you stop and relax and just enjoy the damn thing. Do yourself a favour (so long as you aren’t squeamish or easily offended, anyway) and watch it. Give Troma a chance to do their thing, and you’ll love it like I do.

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