Far From Toxic - by Calum Waddell
Far From Toxic
Calum Waddell looks back at Troma's original and best flagship figurehead...
I have been writing quite a bit about Troma this month - including an eight page 'Complete Guide' in the new issue of Sci-Fi Now and an additional chat with Lloyd in next month's issue of The Dark Side - and it got me thinking about the original The Toxic Avenger (1984). Even seen now, almost 35 years since its debut, The Toxic Avenger is a solid bad taste romp that (with a mere 80-minute running time) never wears out its welcome. It is also easy to understand why Lloyd Kaufman wants to see it remade and further sequalised (with a part five on the cards) - the mythology of cinema's least-likely superhero still has a lot of potential even if the three sequels never quite exploited this to the bombastic levels of gore and gross-out gags that the first film specialised in. Troma movies can sometimes be disgusting but without the additional charm - but what really works with The Toxic Avenger is that the characters are oddly endearing and the main muscular monster is weirdly engaging. Even the not-entirely-convincing makeup work on the titular creature is all the more brilliant for lacking that special effects spit-shine.
Moreover, it is hard not to admire a ﬁlm that is so exhaustive in its attempt to shock. So much so that it is little wonder that - arriving just after the 'video nasties' scare - The Toxic Avenger found itself so heavily censored on VHS in the UK. With un-PC - and very eighties - humour prevailing throughout The Toxic Avenger, rest assured that there is something in this movie to offend just about everyone. Take the sequences where a blind lady has her guide dog shot dead in front of her: at the time this must have left audiences gasping for air - especially when it is played for slapstick guffaws. Was there a movie before The Toxic Avenger that could legitimately boast of an intentional 'cartoon-gore' atmosphere? Truthfully I am not entirely sure. Maybe The Toxic Avenger is the genre equivalent of 'The Aristocrats' - wherein every set-piece pushes the boundaries of what might be 'acceptable' to chuckle along with? Kaufman clearly found his calling with The Toxic Avenger - and it still presents the best of his company's ethos: to be independent, individual and to even try and present a style that makes the Troma brand 'stand out' (and like it or not, one almost always knows what they are going to get from one of the label's in-house productions).
As a result, even though it is hard not to leave The Toxic Avenger feeling slightly guilty for having laughed along with some of the most gutter-level jokes, it is also difﬁcult to remain disgusted for long - largely because no character really seems to suffer and the tone is consistently jovial and childishly positive (we really want the Tromaville residents to win out against corruption and crime). Nevertheless, this is surely a ﬁlm that even today will perhaps split people’s opinions in two. For instance, I still remember switching the movie on during my MA in Film, whilst someone doing a similar course tutted in snobby disbelief and eventually left the room telling me it was rubbish and nothing like Kubrick or Welles. To be fair, this ex-flatmate was such an abusive drunk that I moved out fairly soon thereafter, but the point is that, no, this is not Kubrick or Welles - and nor does it want to be. However, it is an insightful look at how to survive in a challenging industry. Whether one enjoys The Toxic Avenger or not, Troma has now been kicking around for 40 years and doing their thing to enough fan reception to remain that rare last American indie genre house that continues to occasionally provoke mainstream coverage and even acceptance. Can you learn about identifying an audience and keeping them interested from The Toxic Avenger and later Troma movies? Damn right - and Kaufman should be feted for having been able to accomplish this in an era where any sort of distribution is near impossible outside of the indiest of film festivals.
Probably the biggest influence on The Toxic Avenger is Herschell Gordon Lewis - the late horror-hack who cheapjack and darkly comic gore effects, however unrealistic, retained a certain power that somehow enraged censors (Lewis would famously find his work banned in the UK). Hence in The Toxic Avenger eyeballs are poked out, arms pulled off, guts ripped asunder, a young boy is run over twice – the second blow from the car crushing his head like a grapefruit – and a man has his face turned into an ice cream sundae. Such mayhem is graphic, but treated as a series of vignettes, Police Academy-style, with each attempting to outdo the next in regards to a laugh-out-loud 'yuck' factor. Herz and Kaufman even conclude the moment where a child is squashed in a hit-and-run with the “I have to go to church” punch-line, reminding the viewer not to take any of the ketchup-heavy 'horror' too seriously. As such, a man might lose his arms, but he is still up and ﬁghting, and when Tromaville’s mayor has his insides pulled out, he responds with a befuddled look and tries desperately to shovel them back into his wounded stomach. As I maintained earlier, this really is not for everyone - but it is somewhat heartening that so many of us 'got it' when The Toxic Avenger first made a splash. Even when someone is given a violent blow to the testicles, it does nothing but allow the man to speak in a high-pitched tone. This is the stuff of Tom and Jerry. And it is maybe for that reason that, on a personal note, I find the film to be so easy to revisit from time to time.
Kenneth Kessler lends his gentlemanly, English voice to the Toxic Avenger himself (yes, apparently being covered in toxic waste changes the way you speak as well!), and while the joke is somewhat obvious, it is also amusing - perhaps also a sly in-joke nod towards Kaufman's own Shakespearian knowledge and fondness. Likewise, despite an obvious low budget, the ﬁlm’s direction is assured and conﬁdent–certainly not ﬂashy, but neither does The Toxic Avenger ever give the impression of laziness, and the picture has obviously been crafted with at least some degree of thought and a cinematic ambition that puts it far above its reputation as a mere VHS 'hit' (the movie was a box office success too). With 88 Films having released all four films in the franchise on BluRay, it goes without saying that the time has never been better to catch up The Toxic Avenger. First time viewers may well be seduced - whilst seasoned Troma veterans surely owe it to themselves for a reminder of just why we fell in love with the 'monster hero' in the first place. It really is an essential eighties comic book caper.
- 88 Films