Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Film Appreciation - A Tromatized Superhero


Cody Hamman celebrates 30 years of The Toxic Avenger for Film Appreciation.

Many sources of inspiration contributed to Troma Entertainment head Lloyd Kaufman's creation of The Toxic Avenger. In 1971, Kaufman had co-written an unproduced screenplay with Marvel Comics' Stan Lee called Night of the Witch, about a vigilante spellcaster who would deal out deadly vengeance to evildoers. While working as a production supervisor on 1976's Rocky, he thought of how a health club could make a good setting for a horror movie. After reading an article in the early '80s that pronounced the horror genre to be dead, despite the fact that the genre was booming in the '80s, Kaufman was not deterred but rather driven to get Troma deeper into the horror business after years of primarily making comedies. He wanted to make a horror movie with a sympathetic monster like Frankenstein's Monster... And with all these ideas and influences bouncing around in his head, as well as environmental concerns and criminal activities drawn from the headlines, Kaufman wrote the story of The Toxic Avenger.

Kaufman's friend Joe Ritter, who typically worked in the camera department on movies, turned his story into a screenplay, which received additional tweaks by writers Stuart Strutin, who had previously worked with Troma on the comedies Stuck on You! and The First Turn-On!!, and Gay Terry.

The film, co-directed by Kaufman under the pseudonym Samuel Weil with Troma co-founder Michael Herz, is set in Tromaville, New Jersey, the toxic waste-dumping capital of the world, where the citizens tend to act in the distinctly ridiculous Troma way. Characters in Troma movies essentially act like they're in a live action version of an X-rated cartoon, and the movies usually lovingly depict the fluids and wastes produced by Tromaville residents as they spew and ooze from their bodies.

The story begins at the Tromaville Health Club, where a nerdy young man named Melvin Junko works as the mop boy. Melvin's dimwitted dorkiness, general ineptitude, and pervy leering draws the ire of a group of health club regulars, Bozo and Slug and their girlfriends Julie and Wanda. Bozo and Slug are actually the hit and run killers that have been terrorizing Tromaville lately; they speed around the streets of the city, mowing down unsuspecting pedestrians, racking up points based on their victims' age, race, physical condition, etc., much like in Death Race 2000. Julie and Wanda are their groupies, who cheer the boys on as they kill people with Bozo's car, excitedly taking Polaroid pictures of the mangled, bloody corpses, both so they can cherish these memories and also because Wanda uses the gory pictures as visual aid during her private time. They just can't stay out too late killing people on Saturday nights, because Slug has to go to church on Sunday mornings.

We're shown the group out on the town during one particular Saturday night when they run down a young boy on a bicycle. Even though it's common knowledge that the effect of the car's tires smashing the boy's head was achieved by having the car run over a melon, I still find this moment to be effectively disturbing and disgusting.

Fed up with Melvin, the group decides to play a prank on him. Julie convinces him that she wants to meet up for a kinky rendezvous that will require him to wear a pink tutu. Melvin dresses up appropriately, meets with Julie in a dark room... but when the lights are turned on, Melvin finds himself making out with a lipstick-wearing sheep while surrounded by health club members. The mortified Melvin is chased through the rooms and halls of the building by the mocking crowd, and soon finds that the only way to escape from them is to jump through a window.

Doing a two story swan dive into the street below might have killed Melvin... but at the moment he goes through the window, there is a semi truck parked below, its trailer loaded with open barrels full of toxic waste that were being taken to the local landfill. The waste disposal employees had made a stop outside the health club so they could snort some cocaine, unknowingly putting their haul in just the right position for Melvin to land headfirst in one of the barrels.

Being painfully physically transformed, even bursting into flames at one point, Melvin rushes home...
Much like being bitten by a radioactive spider turned Peter Parker into the physically fit Spider-Man, taking a header into the toxic waste turns geeky little Melvin into the tall, muscular, superhumanly strong Toxic Avenger. Unfortunately, it has also left him horribly disfigured.

Melvin's new looks cause his own mother to reject him at first, forcing him to move in to the landfill/toxic waste dump, but he does find love with sweet and naive blind girl Sara after rescuing her from a group of restaurant-robbing madmen.

Thwarting that robbery is only one of many good deeds Melvin does around town after becoming The Toxic Avenger. The chemicals he was exposed to didn't just alter his appearance but also his mind; he's now uncontrollably drawn to areas where crimes are being committed, and being in the presence of criminals sets him off into a violent rage. As Melvin Junko he cleaned the floors and windows of the health club, but as The Toxic Avenger he starts cleaning up the crime-ridden streets of Tromaville, including getting revenge on Bozo, Slug, Julie, and Wanda. While the grateful citizens of the city rally behind their monster hero, his crimefighting acts bring him into conflict with the corrupt police department and Tromaville Mayor Belgoody.

The Toxic Avenger was a huge hit for Troma, becoming an instant cult classic and generating a demand for multiple sequels, elevating Toxie himself to the status of company mascot.

I grew up watching Toxie, both rented on VHS and when it aired on cable, usually watching it with my maternal grandmother. Although the movie's gore and sexual content stands out to me now as something most kids probably wouldn't be allowed to watch, when I was young, in the low single digit ages, this was wholesome, family friendly entertainment. It was the '80s, cinematic sex and violence was no big deal, and to little comic book-loving me The Toxic Avenger was an awesome hero, right up there with the Marvel characters whose adventures I read regularly.

For a low budget film, it has some good action sequences and impressive production value. As comic book/superhero movies have grown in relevance at the box office, many of the big budget movies have still left fans wanting to see more moments in which the heroes go about their crimefighting duties, busting random nogoodniks. The Toxic Avenger doesn't skimp at all in that area, once Toxie gets out on the streets, the hits just keep on coming.

Some viewers would likely snobbily balk at the acting in this movie, but the fact is that it has a very silly sense of humor and the actors do well at delivering the over-the-top performances that were asked of them. Mark Torgl is memorable as the hopelessly dweeby Melvin, Mitch Cohen handles the action as The Toxic Avenger, while his deep, movie star voice is provided by Kenneth Kessler. Singer Andree Maranda is entertaining in the role of Sara, Pat Ryan is appropriately sleazy as Mayor Belgoody... and the standouts of the film for me are Gary Schneider as the stressed-out Bozo, Cindy Manion as his gleefully supportive girlfriend Julie, Robert Prichard as his yes man sidekick Slug, and Jennifer Babtist as the death-aroused gorehound Wanda.

Prichard and Babtist got married after meeting on this film, and as he pointed out in an interview I read, Babtist actually gives the most down-to-earth performance of the bunch, which makes her character the most disturbing, because while the rest of them are clearly living in a different world than ours, Wanda is someone who could really exist... and she masturbates to pictures of hit and run victims...

The Toxic Avenger is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year, and I'm sure its many adoring fans will be rewatching it in 2014 to mark the occasion. Revisiting it now, I find the film to be just as enjoyable as I did when I watched it as a little kid. It takes me back my childhood, while providing an edginess that I can appreciate more as an adult. I'm with the citizens of Tromaville - I love the monster hero!

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