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August 11, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #84 - The Toxic Avenger

If I can be serious for a moment, the likes of Troma Films and I don't always get along.  It's not their fault...if anyone's to blame, it's society.  Growing up in the rural Midwest, films like theirs weren't readily available to a budding cinephile.  Instead, I learned from a steady diet of mainstream cinema on HBO - along with the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Gene Hackman, and Robert De Niro whenever I could get them - which burned certain standards into my mind at a young age.  When you raise yourself on films directed by Hitch or Scorsese or Friedkin and starring the likes of Jimmy Stewart or De Niro or Hackman, you kind of start to put a premium on the Hollywood style.  To say that low budget companies like Troma break from that norm is nothing that anyone who's familiar with their output would disagree with.  And when that Hollywood norm is what you grow to consider the baseline for "good", a studio whose films can't reach that baseline just might rub you the wrong way.
Now that I've said that, I should point out that The Toxic Avenger - which kind of put that studio on the map back in the day - is about the most glorious argument against the standards of my youth that I've ever seen.  Unlike most dirt cheap genre trash out there, it's clear from start to finish that Toxie is a 100% B.S. free labor of love by a lot of people who a) were having a ton of fun and b) actually have a little bit of knowledge about how to make a film.  That second point gets overlooked sometimes, but I think it's the most important thing to note about this production.  I've seen my share of independent horror films that come from people who think they know what they're doing, but very few of them actually have their head in the right place.  It's sad, but it makes you appreciate the ones that get it right even more.
When I say that this movie is made by people who know about "making a film", I can't admit that I'm saying this looks like the kind of thing I'd have found in normal rotation on my TV screen when I was young.  But there are little things, things you don't often think about. that shine through in the work of the Troma team.  Their camera moves within the scene (most noticeably when Toxie takes on the drug dealer in the Tromaville Health Club and the camera cuts at least a dozen times in a few seconds to get the full effect), their lighting changes as needed to create mood (like the slasher-esque scene that leads to the sauna kill), and theor side jokes in the film aren't allowed to overpower the plot.
Too many independent makers of sleaze get caught up in doing things their own way and bucking the system that is in place without considering these kind of things. The folks behind The Toxic Avenger - Troma kingpin Lloyd Kaufman and his co-producer/director Michael Herz - seem to recognize that those who came before them have much to offer.  One could make the argument that some parts of the film are directly influenced by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and other parts of the film seem to owe a debt to comic book heroes across the globe.  Lots of people make films that are "inspired" by the things they love - but again, it only works if the people behind the film don't go too far and forget the little things.
Now, I suppose I should stop insinuating that the people behind The Toxic Avenger show restraint and fit the norms of Hollywood - because that would be terribly wrong.  This is a movie about a nerdy janitor who gets dumped in toxic waste and becomes a hulking mongoloid in a tutu who fights crime and falls in love with a blind babe - so it's not exactly Gone With the Wind.  The film offers maximum gore, over-the-top acting (I should add that the acting - as silly as it is - really sets the film's tone for us.  You can't really see a roided out freak like Bozo and not know what you're in for.), and some of the most random and silly scenes you'll ever see.  The nontraditional love story between our hero and the blind Sarah (who kind of looks like the '80s version of Sarah Michelle Gellar in all her wide eyed glory) is quite comical...but it's also kind of sweet in a weird way.
I've barely even talked about what the movie is all about - that sentence about the toxic waste and the mongoloid and the fighting crime basically sums it up - because I don't think that's what matters about The Toxic Avenger.  A lot of independent filmmakers think that the little movie their making is revolutionary because it bucks all the trends that one expects it to follow.  The Toxic Avenger is revolutionary because it accepts simple trends - like telling a hero's story and making your movie look like you thought the images on screen through ahead of time - and then creates its own ridiculous reality where carnage can reign supreme.  The Toxic Avenger rocks, but The Toxic Avenger rocks because it realizes that there are times when rocking too hard might cause it to rock less effectively.  No one else is gonna tell you this - and by spending so much time on it I've completely minimized just how bat-stuff crazy the film really is at times - but I think someone needs to point it out.
Putting that all aside, the bottom line should be that The Toxic Avenger is a masterpiece of independent trash, and that's why you should see it.  See it for its Frankensteiny bits, see it because it's a love story, see it because a kid's head gets run over by a speeding car full of a bunch of hooligans who drug and sex too much.  Don't see it because it conforms to the standards of real filmmaking....just keep an eye out for the signs that show you that Kaufman, Herz, and friends do actually care a little bit about that kind of stuff.  They're there, even if the rebels of Tromaville don't want you to see them.
Oh yeah, and see it because Marisa Tomei used to look like this. Creepy, right?


R.D. Penning said...

I have been a big fan of Troma for a long time. I just think there is so much love and passion for filmmaking put in to ever film that I can usually overlook the lower budget/effects. From Mother's Day to Killer Condom to Poultrygeist, I have always enjoyed their work. I'm glad you like Toxie. He is pretty much the spokesperson for Troma, and I was happy to find out that Toxie was selected to get remade next year. I don't usually agree with remakes, but I feel like this one has earned the right to a remake.

ON A SIDE NOTE: The other low budget company I LOVE is Full Moon Entertainment! Puppetmasters!

JohnBem said...

Troma is hit or miss for me: some of their films I loathe, others I love. Toxie is one of the films I love.

Bärrÿ said...

I owe my life to this film. The Toxic Avenger introduced me to Troma, mutants and breasts and I have never looked back. I remember meeting Kaufman a few years ago and telling him how I love Troma but forgetting to tell him that my life as I know it really began with this film.

What's funny is that I really started my love of film around 10 years old when I first saw this film and I think that's why I'm less than impressed by a lot of big Hollywood films and love Troma so much. They're like the Jennifer Jason Leigh of low budget filmmaking. It'll always be different with a strong possibility of breasts being shown. I also discovered Jennifer Jason Leigh being nude at 10...good times.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Great review! The Duke and I are also great Troma fans, for many of the reasons you point out here--the love, the joy, and the not-giving-a-fuck. Excellent point too about the actual technical skill involved in many Troma films. These are not people who *can't* make movies that conform to the accepted rule of what is "good" in Hollywood cinema--than can, but they reject the whole notion that that rule is the ONLY rule. And Uncle Lloyd, bless him, is not afraid to let his bitterness and freakiness shine. What a sadder, blander world it would be if Kaufmann and Troma did not exist! Vive la Toxie!

: said...

I've never been a huge Troma fan, but I've always loved THE TOXIC AVENGER. This one was never in-stock at my local video store, 'cause my friends and I used to keep it rented constantly -- we probably watched it twice a week for a year, at one point.

Classic trash (in a good way!). It doesn't get much . . . "better"?