The Toxic Avenger

The Toxic Avenger

****1/2

Reviewed by: Chris

A bespectacled nerd. The most awkward and socially inept guy on campus. Me. At 17, I had never kissed a girl. Even speaking to one of the fairer sex involved falling over my words and reaffirming my total uselessness. I had to change. I started wearing a multicoloured blanket as a fashion statement and a windshield on my cranky motorbike. I spent all my free periods at the art school next door. I even stopped masturbating. When she met me, I faked cool. I walked her home five miles each night just to hold her hand. She painted with gouache. Every guy was jealous of me. She was the prettiest girl on campus. And I was in love.

Surviving puberty without growing hairs on your hand can seem a big step. For Melvin, soon to be the Toxic Avenger, it seems insurmountable. But when a particularly wicked girl and her pals set out to humiliate him it leads to an unforeseen accident and the tables are turned.

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Blaming toxic waste on every type of sci-fi horror is standard for many mainstream movies. But The Toxic Avenger is a benchmark. A household name. It has influenced directors as diverse as Quentin Tarantino and Peter Jackson, the Farrelly Brothers and Takashi Miike. And not even because it’s any good – Toxic Avenger is trashy, in poor taste, uses recycled materials, glories in bad acting and poor production values – in other words it is almost totally devoid of any redeeming features. It was made for less than $500,000 and is the cornerstone movie that established Troma Entertainment, the anti-establishment, low-budget company that satirises both political values and the Hollywood machine.

Like many a cult movie, Toxic Avenger achieved notoriety only after long midnight movie runs. What turns rubbish, toxic or not, into a classic?

As someone who rates it much higher than moderately successful and respectably made comic-horrors such as Shaun Of The Dead or The Cottage, I probably have some explaining to do. But first, a bit more of the story (if you will indulge me...)

Melvin works as the mop-boy at the local gym in Tromaville, a town run by corrupt officials who make money off police scams, dodgy deals and celebrating the town’s commitment to toxic waste disposal. The film opens with a homily about the environment. Then we are introduced to the trendy young set at the gym. And the exceedingly un-trendy Melvin. The kids in Tromaville have little aim in life. Apart from working out (sometimes with cigarettes in hand), their extra-curricular activities include things like robbery, intimidation and snuff sex.

Lackadaisical lorry drivers transporting dangerous chemical waste have parked outside to enjoy some drugs. As Melvin is chased through the gym, he crashes through an upstairs window and falls into an open container of toxins that cause him to mutate. As the invincible Avenger (or simply ‘The Monster’), he goes about some vigilante work. He wipes out bad people and helps old ladies across the road. Soon he has not only a fan following among decent townsfolk but a beautiful girlfriend, the princess-like Sarah. Being blind, she does not recoil from him (he has just saved her from being gang raped). By the time she finds his features are less than perfect, she has already seen the goodness in him. Sarah and the Monster fall in love.

Observant readers will already have spotted story elements that reflect popular consciousness. As with Beauty And The Beast, Frankenstein or Romeo And Juliet, each of us wants to rise above our secret fears and shortcomings, to be recognised for who we are inside, or to meet the love of our lives in spite of any obstacles. The cheesy (but perfectly valid and heartwarming) subtext is obscured by gross-out verbal and visual display, which wears down resistance to the basic message of wholesome optimism that many teenagers would not be keen to admit. Pushing the limits of censorship draws in the thrillseekers, as well as those who support Troma’s rebellious stance. But where most exploitation movies stop short with such window-dressing, Toxie’s endurance, I suspect, owes much to the enduring nature of the values it represents. We can voyeuristically enjoy the sinful stuff, but come out identifying with the upright, misunderstood, and ultimately successful hero.

Toxie’s calm and educated voice – once he comes of age (also symbolised by his monstrously manly grunts) – is similar to that of Frank Henenlotter’s arguably classier Brain Damage monster a few years later. Just like Sarah, we feel our minds put at rest by its relaxed, almost hypnotic tone. It contrasts with the superficial whine of those in authority and the shrill tearaway arrogance of the youth gangs.

The Toxic Avenger is not for those of a nervous disposition or those who are easily offended. The gore is extreme and no group is safe from being satirised. Even Sarah’s blindness is mercilessly lampooned. She falls over things and puts oven cleaner on a sandwich. The pantomime offhandedness with which the yobbos commit their crimes (so many points for running over a boy on a bike – a sort of motorised happy-slapping) will be too much for some people. Lack of production values will cause some viewers to be dismissive, while others will appreciate the irony made more apparent by the resultant distancing.

Any given reading of a movie is to some extent personal. Those who dislike The Toxic Avenger will plead that it is trite and badly made; that any depth is attributed out of all proportion to its merit. Preconceptions or even prejudice can also close the window that any type of artistic endeavour tries to open. In the case of The Toxic Avenger, at least it will not have helped the big corporations that dominate what we see on our screens.

Reviewed on: 15 Mar 2008
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Transformed by toxic waste, a monster wreaks havoc among spoiled high school pupils.
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