Monday, October 6, 2014

Monster Serial: THE TOXIC AVENGER, 1984


There’s a scene in the 1984 film THE TOXIC AVENGER where armed robbers bend a blind woman over the counter of a fast food restaurant with the intention of sodomizing her. “I always did wanna cornhole me a blind bitch,” one of them declares.

A few years later, someone made a Saturday morning cartoon based on this movie. Not to be outdone, Marvel Comics (now a proud property of The Walt Disney Company!) produced a comicbook inspired by THE TOXIC AVENGER. God bless America.

While the idea of a TOXIC AVENGER children’s show seems misguided, at least Marvel had some experience with this kind of story. The film’s plot is a modern archetype of superheroism, the kind of thingmarvel had been doing well since the 1960s. In short, the film concerns a bullied loser who falls into a vat of toxic waste, turns into a lumpy hulk and becomes a misunderstood vigilante. Mayhem ensues.

It's like GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, only with more phlegm.
That the impulses of the movie's hero are almost always murderous doesn’t matter, because his hometown is Tromaville, N.J., a locale that makes MAD MAX look like PLEASANTVILLE. It’s a city where toxic waste is left parked in open containers in the streets, juvenile delinquents run over children for sport and the film’s criminal citizenry are as flamboyant as extras in a Michael Jackson video. Toxie, as his fans call him, is both the hero Tromaville needs, and the one it deserves.

THE TOXIC AVENGER remains the crown jewel in the scuzzy media empire of Lloyd Kaufman and Troma Entertainment. Troma was making films in the spirit of SHARKNADO and MEGA PYTHON VS. GATOROID years before those films’ creators were born. (At least, I presume that’s the case. Many of the directors of the modern “schlockbuster” have incomplete biographies on IMDB, which is either a result of shame or promotional inexperience.) But here’s something the creators of schlockbusters forget to include in their “so bad it’s good” formula: The “good.”

Despite what this photo suggests, Mickey Rourke is actually not in THE TOXIC AVENGER.
 What makes a Troma picture work is difficult to define. There’s a certain pandering to the audience involved, but at a level that transcends something as pedestrian as a goofy film title. Once you’ve heard the title of a film like SHARKNADO, you’ve pretty much experienced the entire film. It’s a concept that works like gangbusters on a two-dimensional movie poster, but falls flat when that third essential dimension is added for film. Schlockbusters are camp created by people who believe they’re above their own product, and delivered to an audience that shares that sentiment. If this isn’t true, then Debbie Gibson must be taking some world-class antidepressants, because her career rejuvenation would make Bela Lugosi look away in embarrassment.

Troma’s real competition has never been other studios or filmmakers. Instead, the studio is in competition with its low-minded fans, who buy their tickets with the understanding that they’re going to see something pretty goddamn disgusting. This isn’t “bottom of the barrel” entertainment; Troma is the entertainment that’s living in that cold, damp spot beneath the barrel. If Kaufman and crew can’t shock their own audience, then everybody’s time has been wasted. And that’s the secret to a good Troma film. It’s might also be the reason why the studio’s trademark brand of misanthropy ceased being interesting a long time ago: Troma simply collapsed under the weight of its own competitive aesthetic. Short of shooting an actual snuff movie, Troma had no place left to go.
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But, in 1984, Troma was still cranking out films that played like Wendy O. Williams’ nightmares. THE TOXIC AVENGER capitalizes on New Jersey’s less-than-stellar reputation by not only refusing to shoot the state from any of its good sides, but showcasing the dullest and grimiest areas of its location, Boonton, N.J. Curiously, Boonton’s official website makes no mention of its connection to THE TOXIC AVENGER. If you’re willing to go rooting around in the town’s historical society records, though, you’ll see the film mentioned in discussion as recently as 2013, during an explanation of the movies made in Boonton.

The public rape of a disabled woman is hardly the only reason Boonton is treating THE TOXIC AVENGER with the respect due an errant nose hair. The town’s fictional counterpart is branded with the sign “Welcome to Tromaville: Toxic Chemical Capital of the World,” which undoubtedly delighted the Boonton Chamber of Commerce. If that didn’t piss them off, here’s a brief recount of the film’s many crimes against taste:

•    A man is killed by being force-fed with a milkshake machine.
•    A dog is shot and killed.
•    A character named “Dr. Snodburger” appears and contributes nothing to the plot except for opportunity to use a name that sounds like “Dr. Snotburger.”
•    A child’s head is crushed under the wheels of a car.
•    An old lady is killed after being stuffed into an industrial-strength dryer. But she was the head of a “white slavery” ring, so that one’s OK.

Alone, these charges would be enough to earn THE TOXIC AVENGER a spot in some kind of “hall of fame,” but the film is an overachiever in every regard. THE TOXIC AVENGER is as thoroughly peppered (and maybe assaulted, haha? I’m sorry.) with groin punches, eye gouging, dismemberments and WTF? sex scenes to keep an entire movie franchise afloat. Clearly, this is sophisticated entertainment.

"What's the matter, pal? LACTOSE INTOLERANT?"
 It was the “milkshake scene” that first captured my imagination as a child. The movie garnered a tiny story in Twilight Zone Magazine that suggested its midnight movie status was waning, while also mentioning the “milkshake scene” with a quiet kind of reverence. Looking back, it’s possible the writer felt relatively safe mentioning that particular scene in the film without looking like too much of a weirdo. Bragging about your favorite scene in THE TOXIC AVENGER is a little like bragging about the best gangbang you ever took part in. If you feel compelled to mention it, it’s best to keep the details to a minimum.

(When he's not coining gangbang metaphors, Wallace McBride runs The Collinsport Historical Society.)

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