Monday, September 10, 2007

The Toxic Avenger, based on a true story?

The Toxic Avenger was a more epochal event in 80s splatter film than Troma's subsequent groundbreaking distribution legacy or other in-house productions. It's the rare film you can actually claim is more offensive, more politically incorrect to mainstream tastes than the "worst" of it's benefactors - Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park, Team America: World Police, Troma's Cannibal! The Musical) Peter Jackson in his splatter period (Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, Dead Alive) Sam Raimi (Evil Dead II, Darkman) or Paul Verhoeven's Robocop. What it brought to the heady 80s days of special effects extreme violence in horror was evidence that comedy, however lowbrow or slapstick, could work cinematically and make a Times Square grindhouse company an international reputation. The days of extreme makeup effects violence for the sake of sheer visceral disgust coupled with sadistic comedy (dry or bawdy, though Toxic Avenger is the latter) were gone as a new era began. That such wave included Cronenberg, John Carpenter's The Thing and some horror with a more distanced and genteel inclusion of humor with the scary stuff - Joe Dante's The Howling, John Landis' An American Werewolf in London, Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist. Only Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead came close, but needed the Toxic Avenger example to reach the Three Stooges antics of the sequel.

Amazingly and to the film's lasting infamy, the film's impact remains in large part for an overlooked but seldom unmentioned scene which occurs as early as possible. The film was made infamous by a laundry list of graphically grotesque or absurd ultra-violence. Unlike Troma's subsequent productions moving into the 1990s, the absurd violence occurred in a film world relatively similar to a normal, mainstream film world's depiction of reality, adding critically to actual shock value. Despite the casts of characters being drawn in the Preston Sturges archetypal mold for armies of goony looking bit part actors, their violence could become ultra-sadistic just as easily as they could mug a goofy face. Contributed to that shock value were occasional acts of violence with realistic damage, meaning that instead of a comical and gory death the death could simply be gory and explicitly cruel.

To be honest, I don't know if this dichotomy were intentional on the behalf of writer Joe Ritter and director/empressario of Troma Lloyd Kaufman. The tonal obliviousness to sadistic cartoon violence and sadistic realistic violence with cartoonish tone is what makes The Toxic Avenger still shocking today, and more so than Troma's later films of complete absurd content and action. Avenger, but for the fact there is a mutant running around while bad guys do evil in a film world where innocent bystanders are in constant, actual threat of random cruelty (never happens in Hollywood flicks), feels like it could take place in the same aesthetic of a teenage sex comedy. That tonal shift which occurs when you least expect it is so jarring to the nerve endings that the more identifiably "super hero" films which employ the feeling are at the disadvantage of not being able to hide the emergence of violence itself (Robocop and Darkman particularly.) Black shows up better on White.

To that effect, the most jarring and inventively cruel scene in the film occurs after an opening scene which would not be out of place - in fact, was a timely recreation of - a teen sex comedy of the day: a hapless nerd being picked on by bullying jocks and their girlfriends of a small town health spa / gym.

Even the film's soundtrack, a toe-tapping synth and electric guitars routine, is pitch-perfect to the innocuous pop culture of the day. Again, different from Troma's later out-and-out freaky death metal and punk music scores. It's like an elaborate ruse to the upcoming horrors, while continuing them throughout.

One of the bullies and his girlfriend leave for the locker room to fuck, and mention the fun of going hit and run driving to kill pedestrians! Say what? Less than a minute later we've cross-dissolved into the real deal...

Here, because someone on YouTube went through the trouble, are the first seven minutes - what would've been Reel 1 at the drive-in. Then, that infamous scene which follows immediately after a cross-fade.

And behold! Not for the faint of heart!

So! Did you laugh your ass off or did your blood go thin? The scene tends to strike people like a rorschach test, some laughing to prove the limits of their capacity for humor in bad taste, others rightfully moved by the flagrant combination of realistic child mutilation with 80s partytime aesthetics...

There's a tidbit of information from Lloyd Kaufman's self-analysis/promotion of Troma Everything I Need To Know About Filmmaking I Learned From The Toxic Avenger (still in print) that's always fascinated and bothered me, excerpted here:

(Speaking of The Toxic Avenger's influences):

YOU WILL BE JUDGED ON A POINT SYSTEM: In the New York Post there was an article about some kids who had gotten arrested; they were playing a game, trying to hit people with their cars, and they got a certain amount of points for every person they hit. If you smashed your car into an old woman it was worth only 2 points, but a pregnant woman was worth 15. It was such a beautiful, touching American story - one about hte triumph of humanity and love over the travails of the postindustrial world - that I knew I had to somehow incorporate it into the film.

God, do I want to read that original Post article. Were these kids "real"? To what degree? When you're actually mowing down people for fun, the sky seems the limit. Whatever happened to them? Anyone know? Kaufman's never mentioned the article elsewhere, to my knowledge. I didn't have this question stuck in my head until after interning at the New York office.

Case in point to the "Preston Sturges goes to hell" feeling of the film: the next scene is one of the bullies putting a snake down someone's shirt at the gym. Talk about tone shift shock!

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