Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Toxic Avenger (1984, Lloyd Kaufman & Michael Herz)

For the supplementary interview with actor Robert Prichard about the making of The Toxic Avenger,

- French poster tagline

The Toxic Avenger was an epochal event in the history of exploitation movies.

Mainstream film historians like to point to Star Wars and Jaws as the films that propelled adolescent b-movie fantasies into mainstream adult acceptability. The success of Toxic indicated a similar, more subtle shift within the underground of cult, trash and horror flicks: a turning point when the depths of depravity felt mined to extinction and explicit violence was now high camp. This was helped by the coinciding emergence of home video, which brought the grindhouse to the living room and readily showed the average fan of the grotesque just how many internal organs had been spilled. What was left but to stop taking the bloodshed so seriously? In the second half of the 80s, horror films suddenly became exponentially gorier and funnier: Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II, Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste, Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead and Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator are all brilliant films trading on laughs and disgust in equal measure.

Freddy Krueger is the sea change of The Toxic Avenger expressed in mainstream terms: a hideously deformed man-monster with surreal and sadistic methods of murder who is loved for those very reasons. Wes Craven’s creation was the box into which America’s malls could contain the past 25 years of increasingly outrĂ© movie horrors in the wake of Psycho’s shower scene. Famously, Freddy Krueger quickly became a bad stand-up comedian. To be able to laugh at anything is to defang it. No one profited more from shock cinema’s re-invention as a safe joke than Krueger’s father when he directed Scream, a horror film whose reflexively smug irony summarizes the 1990s perfectly. The Toxic Avenger is a special film because although its influence led to films like Scream, it does not reside in the box where Scream and Freddy Krueger and the Michael Bay remakes of films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre reside. It doesn’t even live in the box that Troma built to contain their subsequent output, desperately trying to make lightning strike a second and third and fourth time.

This is a film that only comes out of a perfectly timed storm of ideas and participants that even the filmmakers didn’t see coming. The forces at play bubbled up from the unconscious of the exploitation independent world, and producer-director Lloyd Kaufman was their vessel. More than an extreme horror film or even “horror-comedy,” The Toxic Avenger is really the summation of every disreputable exploitation film subgenre that the mainstream tried to ignore. The most salient criticism of Troma is that they’re an exploitation film studio that exploits exploitation films - this is true, but Toxic has the palpable bold giddiness of trying such a confrontational joke on audiences for the first time.

In the beginning Troma was like any other exploitation independent staying alive in the golden era of drive-ins and dive theaters. The two-tier system created by the Supreme Court’s 1948 antitrust decision in U.S. v. Paramount Pictures, Inc allowed non-Hollywood films trading in sex and violence to flourish in theaters no longer owned by the big studios for over 30 years, until Reagan deregulated the industry again during his first term of office. During that period you weren’t likely to see Being There and I Drink Your Blood playing at the same location, so studios like Troma made films for venues interested in booking the latter. Lloyd Kaufman lasted by producing all variety of underground genres: gritty and violence action flicks, gory horror-thrillers, lighthearted teenage sex romps, outright pornography, and even avant-garde art house dramas.

The genesis of The Toxic Avenger was at first no more complicated than the decision to make a horror film set in the trendy location of a health club under the title “Health Club Horror.” The killer would be some kind of monster lurking in the building’s basement. The sole twist was that the monster would prey on “bad people” rather than virginal teenagers. At this point in Kaufman’s autobiographical Everything I Need to Know About Filmmaking I Learned From The Toxic Avenger - which is indispensable in researching the film’s creation - he had two epiphanies. First, if the victims in this horror film were bad, the monster therefore ought to be good - to be a misunderstood hero. Second, by 1983 the prospect of a slasher-style horror movie seemed so overdone that in order to make Health Club Horror stand out, the film should follow in the steps of Troma’s last several projects and be a zany, raunchy comedy.

The several pages of thematic influences on Toxic listed by Kaufman are as diverse as Charlie Chaplin and The Road Warrior, and were all made possible by this liberating conflation of horror and comedy. Before Toxic a “horror-comedy” meant a spoof of the horror genre. Dracula slipping on a banana peel. Having a horrific monster be the protagonist of an exploitation comedy film was a truly original idea and meant that anything was now possible - the tone could alternate from funny to horrific at any moment. This freedom to disregard the conventions of the horror and comedy genres also meant the opportunity for a broader scope of events: the monster hero didn’t just have to be confined to the health club, but could venture out into the surrounding town to have adventures righting wrongs in messily humorous ways.

Kaufman’s exploitation film to end them all was built on a foundation of knowledge gained from already having made every variety of rude film there was, then picking and choosing his favorite elements. These elements were then filtered through the worldview of a cynical New York Jew. The result is the whimsy of a compassionate psychopath. Only The New York Times film critic Stephen Holden caught onto Toxic’s initially baffling potpourri of genres as a satire of America through the eyes of a politically liberal trash-flick producer, calling it “maniacally farcical.” The monster’s crusade to fight evil starts with ne’er-do-wells at the health club but eventually reaches the highest offices of corrupt local politics as the monster becomes a folk hero to the little people, all within the context of an exploitation-film alternate reality where anything can happen - as long as it’s sexy, gross or stupid.

Stupid-smart is a hard act to pull off. Ask Mike Judge, whose cartoon Beavis & Butt-Head mercilessly satirized dumb teenage behavior while reveling in how funny it was. Appealing to both stupid and smart people simultaneously usually repels the latter, who as a matter of pride don’t want to share any similar sense of humor. The former party doesn’t care, and frequently misunderstands satire as celebration. Lloyd Kaufman went to Yale, and the stupidity of The Toxic Avenger is very much deliberate. This won’t convince anyone who regards the film as stupid unfunny trash to reconsider their view, because like Beavis & Butt-Head you either find the stupidity funny at face value or you don’t. The point is, both Judge and Kaufman knew what they were doing, and they don’t stop to wink at the audience and reassure their better intellectual conscience, thank goodness.

Consider the first two minutes of the film, which are as close as Kaufman comes to overtly acknowledging the stupid-smart machinations behind the upcoming outrageous goofiness.

There is a title card: “WARNING: ‘THE TOXIC AVENGER’ CONTAINS SCENES OF EXTREME VIOLENCE.” This warning is on one hand completely warranted; the film is one of the most violent ever made. But it’s also a bit funny that a movie would make such an official warning when the violence is what the audience presumably came to see. William Castle, an exploitation independent figure at the dawn of the U.S. v. Paramount era, famously placed warnings in the advertisements of his horror films for the exact same reason of tantalizing the audience’s taste buds for the blood feast to come.

The first shots are of the Manhattan skyline, as epic music swells in the background. A baritone narrator (who will be heard again later as the voice of The Toxic Avenger himself) speaks proudly of New York City as “the world capitol of culture and industry” before portending that the price to pay is pollution. You feel as if you might be watching an environmentalist educational film. The camera pans across the Hudson river to a New Jersey toxic dump and the narrator essentially states that all this unavoidable byproduct has gotta go somewhere, namely local towns like “Tromaville, the toxic waste capitol of the world.” Cut to kids playing in a park beside a sign that says exactly that. The fact the town is named after the film’s production company is a good clue that whatever this film is about, it’s a personal statement. In regard to the film’s satiric aims, this shifting of focus from glorious New York to ingloriously polluted New Jersey reflects the thought that we’re going to see part of reality’s dirty underside normally covered up politely from view.

Finally we see the Tromaville Health Club, of which the narrator helpfully mentions “our story begins here” and introduces its nerdy janitor Melvin Ferd (Mark Torgl, star of Troma’s prior sexy comedy The First Turn-On!!), an archetypal 98 pound weakling whose “entire life, in fact, entire being was changed by toxic chemical waste.” Cue the opening credits and montage of fitness nuts working out to Body Talk, one of several catchy original pop tunes on the film’s soundtrack. And so in a nutshell we have the film’s themes encapsulated impossibly quick before the opening credits: extreme violence, satire of modern industrial satire, stereotypical 1980s comedy, and on top of all that, the Marvel Comics-like setup of an unsuspecting teenage outcast about to be transformed into a powerful mutant.

Kaufman’s affection for America is iconic and patriotic while his personal politics are Marxist and personal tastes firmly gran guignol. The Toxic Avenger’s philosophy is therefore equal parts Preston Sturges, Bertold Brecht and H.G. Lewis.

The stream of consciousness which takes The Toxic Avenger himself out of the health club and into greater Tromaville introduces dozens of citizens cast in the mold of familiar movie types: scrappy idealistic kids, kindly old ladies, honest Irish cops, scoop-hungry newspaper reporters, goggle-eyed scientists, Jewish mothers - even the flamboyantly gay hairdressers are such old fashioned nancy queens it’s impossible to regard them as anything but harmlessly antiquated caricatures. The rub to this gentle familiarity is that the criminal elements are just as exaggerated in their villainy as the ordinary people in their innocence: there are leering rapists, trigger-happy gunmen, lascivious pimps, strung-out junkies and slimy mobsters who go about their crimes in gleeful pantomime. When violence is committed by the ridiculously evil upon the ridiculously good, the effect is rather like seeing Tom’s head start hemorrhaging blood when Jerry hits him with a frying pan.

An overlooked element of this deliberate juxtaposition between vaudevillian cartoon innocence and realistically rendered cartoon violence is that Kaufman’s escalation of violence was as much in reaction to the increasing extremity of mainstream films as well as non-mainstream horror films. Hollywood had begun appropriating exploitation violence in recent years by getting behind the distribution of the of the Friday the 13th series in mall multi-plexes all across America, and hiring horror directors like John Carpenter or Tobe Hooper to direct big studio films like The Thing and Poltergeist. The exponential advance of makeup special effects were adding new grisliness to otherwise straightforward action films and by the mid-1980s the body counts of bad guys in Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone films were not dissimilar in scale or viciousness compared to the latest Halloween sequel. Furthermore, the overblown style of acting by white punks and ethnic gang members about to be blown away by, say, Charles Bronson in Death Wish 3 was not any more appreciably subtle than the creeps of Toxic.

The good people of Tromaville live in such abject ignorance of their constant vulnerability to the rampant crime in their town that they resemble the fawnlike Eloi of H.G. Welles’ The Time Machine; living in carefree idyllic splendor only to be occasionally picked off by the underground Morlocks. Welles was satirizing the effete helplessness of English society’s sheltered elites in the face of underclass dangers, but Kaufman’s America is not Welles’ England. The emergence of an urban “Avenger” acting beyond the law to protect the innocent is the same right-wing fantasy that resonates from The Lone Ranger to Batman to Dirty Harry. Shortly after Melvin Ferd’s mishap with toxic waste births The Toxic Avenger, Kaufman establishes that the besieged state of Tromaville is due to a corrupt governing class with one hand in organized crime and the other in business interests that have turned Tromaville into the tri-state dumping ground for the very chemical waste that deformed Melvin. This fascistic conspiracy of what in his book Kaufman calls “the corporate, bureaucratic and labor elites” is embodied by the corpulent Mayor Belgoody (Pat Ryan, Jr.) against whom The Toxic Avenger will have to ultimately triumph. As an ugly “monster,” The Toxic Avenger is less an idealized strongman and more the Golem of Tromaville’s collective id, a mythical protector born of the proletariat’s unconscious despair over being exploited by the upperclass and murdered by the underclass and murdered by the "scum."

When asked to define his character’s resonance, Kaufman has admitted some degree of bafflement but has come pretty close by positing “Toxie” as both “fantasy fulfillment and nightmare.” The cost of superhuman strength is in this case an inhuman face - which, in keeping with the film’s horror roots, he melodramatically keeps hidden until a big reveal halfway through. In an acknowledged combination of Frankenstein and Chaplin’s City Lights, the monster’s sole confidant is a beautiful blind girl named Sarah (Andree Maranda) who becomes his girlfriend. Her beauty, innocence and blindness to the horrors around her are very much the soul of Tromaville that Toxie is fighting for. Before all the romantic melodrama, urban vigilante action and vivid class struggle, however, the film must jump off from the starting point of the health club.

If the town of Tromaville represents the happily ignorant state of America under siege by big business and organized crime, the Tromaville Health Club is a microcosm of America’s narcissistic hedonism which keeps the ignorant distracted and the wicked amused. Kaufman is basically on autopilot in these scenes, directing a locale full of extras doing quick visual gags as he did in Troma’s previous “straight” comedies. Fans of these earlier, lighter comedies will soon notice a dark underside. Even the opening credits musical montage of aerobics and exercise contains a sinister counterpoint to the frivolity display: for all the positive-thinking focus on fashioning the human body, this is a film about ripping the human body apart.

Tromaville Health Club’s regulars who constantly victimize Melvin the “mop boy” are a quartet of bullies who’ve crawled out of Kaufman’s fever dream of America and introduce the film’s dark heart. Bozo (Gary Schneider) and Slug (Robert Prichard) date Julie (Cindy Manion) and Wanda (Jennifer Babtist.) 

They’re attractive young people who work out obsessively and are played on a level of broad comedy befitting what would otherwise be a typically wacky teen sex comedy of the era. Wanda even bares her breasts at approximately the same time as any sexploitation comedy would give the first glimpse of gratuitous nudity. Anyone walking into the film during the first dialogue scene of these bullies picking on Melvin the dork would wonder if they were in the right theatre, expecting to see some kind of horror or action film based on the poster in the lobby. This misdirection is purely intentional. The film is mere minutes away from delivering on the promise of the pre-credits  “WARNING.”

These otherwise typically 1980s movie-bully cliches like to drive over people for fun.

Running over people with your car for fun may be the all-time great American sick joke. The most likely people to make it are teenagers; and it always goes the same way - so many points for kids, so many points for other helpless victims. There’s a deeply impersonal and detached attitude towards death inherent in the idea, which is why respected humanitarian sci-fi author Ray Bradbury included such a scene in his dystopic classic Fahrenheit 451, in which the illiterate society of the future experiences pleasure only from readily available sex, drugs and TV. In a brief scene late in the novel, the rebellious protagonist finds himself on the run and forced to dodge a swerving carload of kids attempting to mow him down for kicks. Bradbury was suggesting that in an intellectual and moral vacuum of a society, the childish urge to stamp on bugs for amusement eventually extends to other humans. As depicted by Kaufman, this is the fatal intersection of youthful entitlement and fast cars in a culture of instant gratification.

The most well known example is Roger Corman’s 1975 cult classic Death Race 2000, which also takes place in an inhuman, debased future addicted to bloody spectacle, but plays the acceptable vehicular homicide for comedy. Lest he be accused of plagiarism, Kaufman’s book actually cites a news article in the New York Post about “some kids” arrested for playing the hit-and-run game. I’d give anything to find out more about this supposedly true instance, because the hit-and-run game is such an obvious joke and yet so attainable to any actual disturbed minds that one assumes it must have happened at least once - much like any other urban legend in America.

If The Toxic Avenger is Troma’s masterpiece - and it is - then the hit and run scene is the masterpiece within, the Odessa Steps of Battleship Potemkin. When this set piece begins, the most apparent feature is the shift in content from what was mere minutes ago standard-issue comedic frivolity. The most apparent features as the scene unfolds is the sheer amount of thought the filmmakers have put into making it as offensive as possible. To begin with, the soundtrack plays yet another pop tune. Not an anthemic workout song like that of the opening credits, but still a cheerfully generic uptempo number. This adds a layer of mockery to what’s happening, as if you were still watching something so innocuous. Julie recites the “points” rules to Bozo, who’s drinking behind the wheel while Slug and Wanda make out in the backseat. Ridiculously, the most points are for “niggers” and other minorities, because hey, these guys wouldn’t be as loathsome if they ran over people for fun and weren’t racist, right?

Kaufman cuts to a little kid named Skippy being reminded to wear his helmet as he leaves for the last bike ride he’ll ever take. Snicker, snicker. Exacerbating the ominousness is the low-budget simplicity on display: the kid and his sister look like real people and the location looks like any average road on the outskirts of suburbia at night. The only parodic detail is the X-ed out human target decals on the side of Bozo’s car. As the crew drives alongside Skippy to mockingly wave to him and comment on how cute he is, first-time viewers may realize they’re being teased with the knowledge the film gave them at the outset, that this film has promised “extreme violence” and now the first blood is that of a total innocent with no possibility of rescue. The titular Avenger is still a ways away from rearing his ugly head.

There are many ways that the payoff could come and Kaufman brings it in the most disturbing way possible. One doesn’t merely watch this scene, one witnesses it like a crime being committed in real time. Your reactions probably tell you everything you need to know about your own limits of sick humor - it’s one thing to laugh at a “dead baby” joke, it’s another to see a “dead baby” joke dramatized realistically. Censored versions of this scene on TV and the R-rated cut of Toxic actually make it palatable to most people by simply reducing the length to one WHUMP sending Skippy over the hood of the car, end of scene. Even as an act of violence against a kid, it’s not inconceivable that a similar scene would be in a Mel Brooks movie. Kaufman’s gauntlet is escalating the cruelty in each successive moment after the kid is hit, and at a surprisingly high quality level of filmmaking - the whole thing is so well shot and edited that you can’t find mental refuge in disbelief. The key shots are that of Skippy bruised and bloodied on the road but not yet dead: this makes his suffering real and stands in stark contrast to moments of violence later in the film which are just as extreme but not as realistic, such as when a thug gets his arm ripped off and for comic effect does not immediately notice.

Bozo backs up over Skippy and the resulting brain-strewn mess on the pavement looks as real as the infamous old highway car wreck filmstrips of mangled bodies they used to scare new teenage drivers. The last turn of the screw is that the car stops while Julie and Wanda get out to laugh and take Polaroids of the kid’s dead body. The same motif of killers photographing their victims was seen in Mother’s Day, directed by Lloyd’s brother Charles, and the two seem to regard this as shorthand for ultimate depravity while aesthetically adding a layer of reality to their fiction. The photographed rape victim in Mother’s Day and murdered child of Toxic Avenger both feel uncomfortably real when seen on film-within-film in the hands of their attackers.

The actors playing these bullies may have had the most difficult roles in the history of weird movies. They’re playing buffoons who are also scarily psychotic killers within the context of a comedy, rotating between repulsive, funny and sexy like characters in a John Waters film. Bozo and Slug actually bear a likeness to the loutish fitness-obsessed brothers Ike and Addley from Mother's Day, but Toxic exists in that nebulous uncharted region beyond even the existence of humor in a genuinely scary horror film, where seemingly goofy movie characters lash out in eruptions of violence and filthy acts without warning.

When the film shifts back to the health club following the hit-and-run, the guys are dropping snakes down people’s shirts and the girls are still baring their breasts. Didn’t we just see them smash a kid’s head open? There’s no logical bridge between the tones of these scenes, so it’s just kind of ignored, nearly inducing vertigo in the viewer.

Melvin is pranked by these psychos and accidentally falls into the toxic waste, setting the rest of the film’s events in motion, but we know that at some point he must return to deal with Bozo, Slug, Wanda and Julie. From a storytelling perspective, the hit-and-run scene actually then has a dramatic point: killing mere bullies in revenge for the accident might be too harsh, but if they’re also secretly thrill-killers, it’s justified. Although Melvin / Toxie doesn’t return to the health club until much later in the film, Kaufman keeps the bullies on the radar by occasionally returning to them where possible. During Toxie’s “first night out” montage (a la Superman) he saves a kid from going under Bozo’s wheels. Before attacking Wanda, we see her masturbating to the murder photos, which is the one additional way in which their little habit could be any sicker.

Almost as difficult as Jennifer Babtist’s simulated masturbation onscreen is Cindy Manion’s final scene as Julie. She’s chased screaming through the health club basement by Toxie in a scene apparently parodying slasher film chases, and is playing it as a frightened victim, not a serial murderer who knows she’s about to get what’s coming.

The more consistent behavior belongs to Bozo and Slug, who are vanquished near the end of the film in an amazingly well made car chase sequence. Toxin is clinging to the roof of a car they’ve stolen from an old lady after beating her senseless, and there’s a brief reference to A Clockwork Orange as Slug starts belting out a tune while striking the old lady with her cane. Comparing the two films is illustrative of what Manny Farber termed the difference between “Termite Art” and “White Elephant Art,” broadly the difference between art that goes for broke and art which has the approval of future generations in mind. I’ve never been a big fan of Clockwork for the same reason as Anthony Burgess: Kubrick took a vindication of free will and made it an exaltation of the urge to sin. There’s something smarmy about the glamorization of violence in the film that wouldn’t have been possible if McDowell were not a handsome charismatic young actor and Kubrick not a talented director.

Bozo, Slug, Wanda and Julie are as passionate about their amorality as Alex, but Kaufman makes it a lot harder laugh with them - if anything, you can only act at theirs and Kaufman's nonchalance, compared with Kubrick's ostentatiousness. Clockwork's Alex is also glib, but Kubrick ultimately spares us the full unsightliness of his deeds while the art direction pardons the viewer from any reflection on their reactions to rape and violence. It's too easy to sit back and appreciate the aesthetics. Toxic is the more honest film about violence because its violence is designed to provoke on a gut level with humor only making it more horrific. Critics derided Clockwork upon its release as pornography of violence before eventually coming around to it's polished charms. With Toxic what you see is what you get, it's too off-handededly silly to be anything else. Both films allow you to laugh, or feel uncomfortable, or laugh uncomfortably, but Kaufman simply doesn't telegraph which of those things you should feel. He's braver in his lack of sophistication, in inviting the audience to that nebulous place where sick and stupid jokes exist for their own sake.

After killing Bozo, Slug, Wanda and Julie but before his confrontation with the corrupt Mayor Belgoody, Toxie kills a seemingly innocent old lady. Suspense is drawn out as the mayor plans to use this incident to turn Tromaville against their homegrown avenger. However, it turns out this old lady was really a white slaver, which is why Toxie attacked her: he's compelled to "destroy evil" - as a goggle eyed scientist puts it - and killed her without knowing why. To the rest of the Tromaville Health Club patrons, wouldn't it have looked as though Bozo & co. were also slaughtered for no reason? There was actually a scene cut for time in which Julie and Wanda show up at the police station, wounded and confessing to their crimes, but leaving their deaths implied in the final cut is at least equal treatment of evil across the gender line.

"I think I'm out of control!" bemoans Toxie to his blind girlfriend back at their makeshift junkyard domicile. In a confession that makes her flinch, he admits that he's really the "monster hero" everyone's been talking about. "Every day I go out and I mash people, I tear them apart and I can't stop!" With this, the film brings our hero around to his monstrous roots and the reality of what's been happening - yes, he's a super hero of sorts, and a good guy, yet his onscreen violence has been more or less as graphic as what his tormentors did to that poor kid on a bike at the start of the film. Only in the wake of evil ultra-violence does The Toxic Avenger's ultra-violence gain some kind of moral equillibrium. This scene lets the film step back to dwell on the feeling that any innocence in the world of movies has been lost, even outside the grindhouse.

Good guy Toxie's guilt over his appearance and violence that make him a "monster" implies that Kaufman's push to extremity was done in startled reaction to a culture of conspicuous excess. The bad guys of Tromaville are in love with their graphic acts of violence. What new breed of hero can fight them? Will we now cheer on any onscreen violence so long as the right people are dying those horrible deaths? The unthinking acclaim of vapidly sadistic and ignorantly nihilistic films like Kick-Ass (an "ultra-violent superhero movie," not coincidentally) is only the most recent mainstream embrace of such all-American violent fun that The Toxic Avenger satirized. The final moments of the film show Toxie ripping the stomach out of the villainous Mayor, to which the surrounding crowd of Tromavillians are horrified for a few seconds - before erupting into cheers and applause as Toxie then kisses Sarah and is at last fully embraced by the community.

Low budget horror films were more influenced by the direction Troma took after Toxic than Toxic itself. In attempting to repeat their own success, Troma rapidly began distributing and producing less shocking exploitation work like Bloodsucking Freaks, Combat Shock or The Story of a Junkie, and more campy fare with parodic titles that explained the joke: Surf Nazis Must Die, Rabid Grannies, Redneck Zombies, They Call Me Macho Woman. Unlike Toxic, these flicks had but a single subgenre of exploitation. Worse, the campiness became desperately self-referential and unfunny. The best example of any b-movie impresario humbled in the wake of Troma’s new brand of camp may have been the original “King of the B’s” himself, Roger Corman. As late as the mid-1980s, any humor in a Corman-produced horror or action film still had to be snuck in during filming - Death Race 2000 being the most successful aberration - as Corman still sincerely believed horror fans didn’t want laughs mixed into their creature features like Humanoids From The Deep. By the end of the decade, Corman was putting far more trust in directors like Jim Wynorski, whose artistic direction for Chopping Mall, Deathstalker II and Big Bad Mama II all amounted to the same thing: never let the actors take the premise seriously for one second, include as bare many breasts as the story allows, and throw a little extreme violence in for the gore-hounds. The only truly direct Toxic ripoff is the 1987 obscurity Street Trash, which exploits a grimy Brooklyn setting, Toxic actor Pat Ryan Jr., gory deaths for vulnerable members of society (in this case the homeless) and most pertinently, abrupt shifts between these death scenes and lowbrow Noo Yawk comedy routines. The mainstream influence could be seen directly afterwards in a few ultra-violent superhero or comic book films with jolting senses of humor in the immediate years, the most accomplished being the relatively low budget masterpiece Robocop and Sam Raimi's first large budgeted post-Batman film, Darkman. Incidentally, Robocop includes a man melted by toxic waste who is hit by a car minutes later. After a while, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez began openly dealing in comic attempts at graphic shlock violence, trying to capture something that was bent as far as it could until broken by The Toxic Avenger. By comparison, only Robocop resembles Toxic in terms of aims and results.

Troma’s creative implosion in the wake of Toxic’s success was understandable. If word of mouth said the film was popular because of how “ridiculous” it was, why not make every Troma film as ridiculous as possible? Flash-forward a few years to The Toxic Avenger Part II (1989), which opens with the citizens of Tromaville literally dancing in the street rather than merely being stereotypical small town folk going about their lives. There are new corporate villains from a company called “Apocalypse, Inc” whose CEO turns out to literally be Satan, rather than merely corrupt businessmen and politicians. And in the film’s first fight scene, Toxie rolls a midget into a human basketball and slam-dunks him. The delicate alchemy of realistically brutal violence intruding into a comedy-film world has been ruined; everything is now a kabuki show which doesn’t even resemble even normal movie-reality. Every actor now knew they were in a “Troma film” because Kaufman was probably yelling at them offside to act even wackier. He put himself in the unfavorable position of having to top a movie without precedent. There simply ceased to be any normalcy in Troma movies for the weird stuff to contrast against. Black doesn’t show up well on black. Their editors started going through scenes adding hacky sound effects. It wasn’t pretty.

Regarding the short-lived Toxic Crusaders cartoon show of the early 90s - as underground cartoonist Peter Bagge once asked, what’s the only thing worse than selling out? Selling out and failing! Perhaps the rumored PG-13 Hollywood remake will finally do the trick.

The sole exception to this precipitous drop from divine inspiration was the immediate sophomore effort Class of Nuke’Em High, made with most of Toxic’s cast and crew and playing with the exploitation genres of juvenile delinquency (i.e. Blackboard Jungle),  post-apocalyptic punk (i.e. Mad Max), and yet another popular 1980s comedy genre, the wacky high school flick. It may have been only a minor variation on the formula of Toxic, but it’s as close as the company has ever come to recapturing that kinetic excitement.

Please check back for the last essay in this trilogy, on Class Of Nuke'Em High (1986, Richard Haines & Lloyd Kaufman)


Anonymous said...

Ah, The Toxic Avenger. I rented this movie on VHS when I was like 11 years old. All alone. I can't believe the guy in the store would let me rent it! Well, the cover looked cute.

I watched the movie with a bowl of popcorn. When the movie was over, I went to the bathroom to puke.


Roland Saint-Laurent said...

This was a fantastic read. I grew up on the original Toxic Avenger, and when I was a kid it actually scared me more than made me laugh. Great job.