The Toxic Avenger

Troma Entertainment is an infamous independent film production and distribution company that generally focuses on a particular brand of crude, low-budget horror and comedy fare. The Toxic Avenger was their biggest success and it’s known as the film that “built the house of Troma.” As such, it was followed by several sequels and Toxie even became something of a mascot for the company.

Back in the 1990s, pay cable channels like Cinemax and HBO used to do more movie curation than they do today. Much like we have weekly themes for The Six Weeks of Halloween, they’d do weekly or monthly themes on various aspects of film. Sometimes, this would focus on a specific director or actor, but one I distinctly remember was Troma. That was my first exposure to the low-budget gutter trash that represents their house style. But it’s been thirty years. Would this sort of crude, juvenile schlock hold up now that I’m not twelve anymore?

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 5 – The Toxic Avenger

The Toxic Avenger – Clumsy mop boy Melvin falls prey to health club bullies who trick him into a vat of toxic waste. This has the effect of turning him into a superhero out to stop evildoers. As a spin on the typical wronged nerd gets revenge trope (think Terror Train or Slaughter High), it works surprisingly well.

One of the books I’ve been reading during the 6WH is Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, in which he expounds at length on what makes horror tick. One comment he made regarding the role of crossing into taboo subjects crystalized what makes The Toxic Avenger work so well. He says “stepping over the borderline into taboo country is as often apt to cause wild laughter as it is horror,” and that’s precisely the line that writer and director (and founder of Troma) Lloyd Kaufman walks throughout this movie.

There’s a lot of gross stuff going on in this movie. It’s full of inappropriate one-liners, slimy gore, punks running down kids on the road for points, gloopy toxic waste, street punk brawls, a blind woman has sex with Toxie, car explosions, boobs, the list goes on. And Kaufman manages to harness all that trash into comedy gold. What should be revolting ends up feeling funny, perhaps because there’s no mean spirit behind the inappropriate stuff. Of course, not everyone will see it that way, and I can’t really blame them. It’s a delicate balancing act they’re managing, and my tolerance for such nonsense is probably far too high.

The Toxic Avenger

That said, while we cheer Toxie on when he takes revenge of the bullies (the movie goes to great lengths to establish this group as true, irredeemable scum), the ending isn’t quite as effective because the narrative shifts to a more generalized fight against the corrupt local politician and his evil cronies. It works fine, but it’s reaching to make more of a statement that’s hard to take seriously given, you know, the absurd filth this movie is peddling. It’s a minor complaint here, but this will come up again and again as the series progresses.

Troma has never really been my thing, but I really enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I would. It’s clearly gutter trash, but it’s got a sorta low-budget charm that’s hard to define and quite frankly, I’ve spent far too much time trying to justify it. I’ll fully admit that I haven’t seen a huge portion of Troma’s catalog, but this is clearly my favorite, and one of the best bad movies out there. ***

The Toxic Avenger Part II – Alas, the symphony of chintzy taboo comedy the first film managed falls off a cliff in the second installment of the series. I usually try for a quick plot summary, but this is little more than a series of disjointed, barely connected sequences in which Toxie fights nameless throngs of bad guys.

Don’t get me wrong, some of the grungy low-fi appeal shines through at moments. The fights manage all manner of creative schlock, and there are some A+ bits scattered throughout. For instance, at once point a monologuing villain quotes Shakespeare to an old lady, who responds “Fuck you!” and attributes it to David Mamet. Another small one: a larval Michael Jai White playing one of the villain’s goons beats a homeless woman with a baguette. Toxie is still in love with a blind woman, but it’s a different one from the first movie and played by a different actress, who really goes for it. She’s not given a ton to do, but she plays the part to a tee (she’s played by Phoebe Legere, who is apparently a Juilliard trained musician and quite successful on that front.)

The Toxic Avenger Part II

I suppose this could have worked, but it’s too disconnected and weightless, and far, far too long. This is a common complaint with the standard 103 minute runtime, but for whatever reason, the version I rented was 109 minutes long, which makes a lot of these bits even more interminable. One of the reasons the first movie worked was that it clocked in at a lean 82 minutes. This just keeps droning on and on, and there’s this whole detour through Japan that just feels tacked on for no real reason (though I do like that he windsurfs from New Jersey to Japan somehow). Then there’s this dark rider villain meant to be kinda like the final boss battle of the movie, but he just shows up at the end without any idea who he is or what he’s doing.

The movie is supposedly organized around an evil corporation trying to retake Tromaville, and thus the whole thing is meant to be an incisive commentary on capitalism. As with the first film, this sort of explicit statement doesn’t quite jibe with the juvenile tone of the piece. It’s just hard to take anything about this movie seriously, which probably implies that it’s funnier than it actually is. For whatever reason, this one didn’t work for me, and it’s difficult to articulate why. Many of the ways I’d describe this movie sound the same as the first movie, yet everything just falls flat here. *

The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie – Filmed at the same time as Part II, apparently there was originally a 4 hour movie that got split into these two sequels. While not exactly a return to form, this one does represent a slight improvement over the excesses of Part II.

In part, this is due to a somewhat more cohesive, if still quite absurd, plot. Toxie wants to help his blind girlfriend regain her sight, but the surgery is so expensive that he has to go to work for the evil corporation. As blunt commentary on the evils of capitalism, it still rings a bit hollow, but the exploration of selling out and heroes becoming easily corrupted… well, it’s still not great, but there’s something there I guess.

The practical effects work, prosthetics, and gore in both of these sequels are great for sure, and there are some creative fight sequences throughout. Like Part II his movie is far too long, but there is a sequence where the CEO of the corporation literally turns into the devil and drives a school bus full of children through the suburbs, smashing everything in sight, so there’s that.

The Toxic Avenger III

I liked it more than Part II, but that’s not saying much. I dunno, maybe I can only take so much Troma schlock at once. **

Apparently Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV is the best entry since the original, but I didn’t figure that out until just now, writing this post. I’m sure I’ll get to it eventually. Hard to believe we’re already 5 weeks into the 6 Weeks of Halloween; stay tuned for next week, when we’ll cover some late Hitchcock (and maybe a rewatch of one of his classics). It should be, um, more respectable than this week.

1 thought on “The Toxic Avenger”

  1. I’m going to indulge in some Troma myself very soon. The Toxic Avenger is definitely something I appreciated more as a kid than I do now but the studio’s output still has a certain crude – in every meaning of the word – charm to it.

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