October 6th, 2012
|11:13 pm - 31 Days of Halloween: The Toxic Avenger|
This is the story of a little film distributor called Troma, which began to make low-budget sexploitation features, and finally blossomed into a studio that made incredibly raunchy gross-out horror movies that appeal to the lowest common denominator of 14-year-old comic book fans.
That's it. That's the whole story. You can go home now.
I have a love/hate relationship with Troma, and the love part is mostly theoretical. Back when Troma was first described to me, I got entirely the wrong idea about the sort of movies they made. And when I finally saw some, I was both underwhelmed and disgusted. I was expecting something much cleverer. It didn't seem like the sort of thing adults should put their names on. Troma's slogan is "Movies of the future!", but "We make the movies you're too embarrassed to ask for" would be more appropriate.
Having said all of that, Troma's work isn't all bad. They started out as a distributor, and they're responsible for the availability of a large library of films that might otherwise have fallen into obscurity. They were Studio Ghibli's entry point into the U.S. market, and provided production support for Louis Malle's bona-fide snooty art film, My Dinner with Andre. Troma pioneered alternate distribution methods, and got in at the ground floor of the VHS, DVD, and digital distribution revolutions. They supported Sirius Publishing's (defunct) MovieCD standard. For better or worse, Troma is more or less responsible for direct-to-video marketing. They launched quite a few careers, and on top of everything else, they have produced a small number of movies which actually stand out as interesting historical documents. One or two of them are even pretty good.
The Toxic Avenger is one of these. Sure, it's asinine, offensive, and juvenile, but it's important for a couple of reasons. The first is that it really represents the genesis of modern Troma. Troma had been around since the early '70s, and produced a number of low-budget sex comedies and horror films before Lloyd Kaufman (Troma's frontman) decided to put together a low-budget horror film set in a health club. By its release in 1984, Health Club Horror had evolved into The Toxic Avenger, a screwball gross-out superhero movie. At this time, Troma wasn't on anybody's map, and the film was created practically in a vacuum. The Toxic Avenger represents Troma and Kaufman working under their own steam, without pandering to the expectations of any particular audience.
This would change almost immediately.
It took The Toxic Avenger awhile to build momentum. The film opened modestly in New York, and had a successful run in NYC's now-famous Bleecker Street Cinema, but most of its exposure came from cable television. The movie wasn't released straight to video, but it's considered a pioneer of home video marketing, and was certainly one of the first and most successful films to have made more profit on video than in theaters. Most people think of direct-to-video movies as a wasteland of mediocrity, but the fact is that it's really the only way that a lot of independent films (including the good ones) can make their money back, and The Toxic Avenger is largely responsible for that business model.
So, what's it about?
Well, Melvin Ferd III is a 98-lb. weakling who works as a janitor at the Tromaville Health Club and is the favorite target of Tromaville's bullies. One day they chase him into a vat of toxic waste which burns and disfigures him, transforming him into... The Toxic Avenger! Melvin vows to take out Tromaville's trash, including the bullies, organized crime, rustlers, cut throats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men-- and so on. He becomes a hero, gets the (blind) girl, saves the day, and tears out the evil mayor's intestines in the process.
That's about it, unless you want to talk about gay jokes, rape jokes, literally visceral gore, badly overdubbed voice acting, the terrible soundtrack, and a lot of topless women.
The Toxic Avenger is (obviously) not great art, but it is great trash. It's glorious trash, and it's just about the best trash Troma ever concocted. It's the test formula that worked, before their fans had any input into the process. That, I think, is why I keep coming back to The Toxic Avenger. It's the auteur theory, practiced at the extreme opposite end of the artistic spectrum. You know, the end that includes comedically excessive vomit, castration and beheadings played for laughs, and the more-than-occasional gratuitous hotdog-landing-in-the-cleavage shot.
It would make a nice double-feature with My Dinner with Andre. As a teetotaler, I cannot recommend a good wine to pair it with, but mixing together a little of everything in your parents' liquor cabinet in the hopes that they don't notice seems appropriate.
Here's the trailer.