Saturday, June 12, 2010

Pass the Kool-Aid: The Toxic Avenger

Here is the first installment of another feature we hope to regularly update: Pass the Kool-Aid. With these posts we'll take a look at those flicks in the dubious and nebulous genre of "cult movies." Defining this genre is more difficult than one might first think, so I imagine it would be best to tackle that topic in the future. Besides, it tends to be a "know it when you see it" situation pretty often.

This week I thought I would share some thoughts on The Toxic Avenger. This is probably one of the more infamous cult movies out there. It's famous but not too famous. You probably know it, but chances are you haven't seen it - at least if I may generalize the demographic of our readers. You probably know it because after this small movie came out (it had a $500,000 budget), it spawned 3 sequels, a musical stage production, a cartoon, a line of toys, comics, and so forth. For a while there, "Toxie" was everywhere. Actually things may pick up again since a remake is in the works.

The Toxic Avenger was the break-out film for Troma Studios. Let me tell you - if you have never seen a Troma movie, it's a helluva experience. If I may again generalize, these movies typically feature Looney Tunes sensibilities, nudity, violence, some stereotypical horror elements (often involving some kind of mutation from toxic waste), are made on a fairly low budget and don't try to hide it, and at least a few scenes that probably leave "good taste" in a ditch somewhere. In other words, they are movies that make no qualms about their goal being to appeal to your inner 14-year-old boy. Troma's leader is Lloyd Kaufman. He's something of a minor demigod in indie filmmaking - mostly because that Troma formula has worked for him somewhat frequently for the past 25 years or so. Lloyd has also done some freelance crew work for Rocky, Saturday Night Fever, and My Dinner with Andre but you'll likely never hear about that stuff again. His legacy will be The Toxic Avenger, The Class of Nuke'em High, Poultrygeist, etc. etc. And I don't think he'd change that fact.

The Toxic Avenger has a pretty simple story: a nerdy kid, Melvin, gets seriously bullied by these homicidal teenagers until he falls into a vat of toxic waste which transforms him into this big, buff, mutated.....uhm...toxic avenger. From that point on he goes around fighting crime, vigilante style. Actually, he more than fights crime - he usually ends up killing the criminals. There are a crooked mayor and police captain, of course. Melvin, now unofficially "Toxie," also strikes up a romance with Sara....who happens to be blind. Ooooh, will she accept him when she finds out what he looks like and that he's that monster in the news????

I know that there are a lot of people who want nothing to do with this movie, but here I declare my appreciation for it....even those scenes that make the "morality" part of your brain feel kind of weird. It truly is like watching a live-action (and mature) cartoon. Because the filmmakers know what they're doing and are "in on it," they are able to get away with a lot (e.g. a little old lady getting steam-pressed to death). And in the end, it's an old-fashioned comic book story - good triumphs over evil. That kind of simple story-arc is a strength. Oh, and all the bad guys appear to have studied martial arts. The local YMCA must get a lot of business.

Lastly, here is my "reading-too-much-into-things" point: is it kosher that the good guy basically kills all the bad guys? I mean it definitely works in the movie, but its also kind of weird that the whole city seems to be supporting this vigilante who's killing all these people. Granted, they are "bad." What about prison and rehabilitation? Nah. Probably for the best.


agust symeon said...

We should discuss this film further. I liked some aspects of it but I was so thrown off by the erratic vibe of the film, like some of the filmmakers wanted to deliberately make a bad film while others were semi-serious about it. In any case, I think I'd much rather watch a film done in all seriousness where the filmmakers completely fail rather than a tongue-in-cheek one where you are getting winked at with every single shot or scene.

reid said...

Yeah, I know what you mean. But for some reason, this movie's style works for me. And it also works for me in three other Troma movies I've seen.
I'd maybe posit that the filmmakers are the kind of guys who grew up loving a variety of B-level exploitation movies and wanted to make something similar. Primarily, though, they want to entertain. Since I was entertained, I'll just assume this means I'm more low-brow than you.