The Toxic Avenger (Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz, 1984)

What a terrible disappointment. The Toxic Avenger was a film I watched when I was probably far too young to see such graphic violence. Sometimes, when you revisit films like this, you’re pleasantly surprised. Unfortunately, despite my anticipation, this wasn’t the case with The Toxic Avenger.

Set in Tromaville, the film stars Mark Torgl as Melvin Ferd, the janitor at a local fitness centre. Melvin is portrayed as a complete moron, with his low self-esteem trumped only by his lower intelligence. He is openly despised by everyone in the whole town for this, but in particular by two steroid-addicted gym-goers Bozo and Slug, who it is established early on are also murderers, of course. There’s a bit of a bit of light-hearted bullying where Melvin accidentally kisses a sheep whilst wearing a tutu, and he runs out of a window on the first floor, falling head-first into an inconveniently-positioned toxic waste lorry. From then on the story becomes really ridiculous. To cut a long story short, Melvin becomes a mutated unflinching powerhouse of a monster, and goes on a vigilante rampage across the town, killing anyone he deems to be immoral. They’re quite easy to spot, because they’re usually laughing sinisterly, holding a gun or a knife, doing Class A drugs, deliberately driving into children on bikes, or are doing all of these things and are called Bozo or Slug.

By the time he started dating Sara, who must be one of the worst-acted and most offensively-portrayed blind people in the history of cinema, I was contemplating turning it off. I just don’t know what the message was. Blind people can have a relationship too, as long as the person they are seeing has been hideously disfigured in a contrived toxic waste accident? People with bizarre deformities and burns scars could get lucky as long as the person they love is blind and doesn’t know what they look like? Either way, it’s a poor message.

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The story is unfathomably far-fetched, which I guess is the point, but it’s so poorly acted that it never looks anything more than a homemade film where someone with a camera has assembled a bunch of friends to act out his flimsy story. Everything is hammed up beyond comprehension, and the characters are so black and white you wonder whether directors Kaufman and Herz think everyone watching needs every detail to be spelled out as obviously as possible. Perhaps its enduring success as a B-Movie horror classic is down to the fact it is so mind-numbing, and that’s what the people who keep watching it are looking for.

The one saving grace for it is the special effects, which are clearly a cut above everything else on offer here. The transformation scene was pretty gruesome and realistic, and the scene where Bozo and Slug drive a poor child off his bike to his horrific death was startling and effective. It’s a shame that this is juxtaposed with such dreadful acting and some ridiculously chosen music, which is either camp 80s pop rock, or classical music. Nothing in between.

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It’s also interesting comparing the then-horrific violence to what is regularly on television today. In the preceding years, things like crushed skulls, burst eyeballs and dismembered bodies has gone from something that would potentially see a film banned to standard fair for the likes of The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. Clearly at the time a film like The Toxic Avenger would sell itself on the depicted violence, whereas now it is becoming a quirk of cinematic history as we become desensitised to what we deem shocking.

One good reason to buy is the plethora of bonus features on offer on this 88 Films release, including trailers, interviews, worthwhile commentary from the director, two lengthy introductions, and a whole different Japanese cut of the film. If you are a huge fan of the film then these would make it a worthy repurchase. There’s also the intro credits for the Toxic Crusader cartoon series, which I vividly remember from my childhood. Like the film, though, I ended up underwhelmed by my memory not living up to the reality.

I’m sure there’s something for someone in this, but I’m not that someone. I applaud 88 Films for releasing a home-video transfer worthy of the fans, but I can’t endorse the film because it’s just so bad. I really can’t believe that this film holds a rating more than 10% higher than, say, Home Alone on Rotten Tomatoes (65% to 54%). This is proof enough that you can’t account for taste. Or lack of.

The Toxic Avenger is available now on 88 Films Blu-ray.

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