July 2002

The Toxic Avenger

The Toxic Avenger This is the story of Melvin Junko, uber-nerd and mop boy for Tromaville Health Studios. Melvin really is am unbelievably dorky character - so much so that it really is difficult to muster any sympathy for him whatsoever as he faces constant victimisation from the body obsessed jocks Bozo and Slug. Fortunately, these two, along with their girlfriends, Wanda and Julie, are an irredeemably villainous bunch, getting their kicks from hit and runs.

Melvins victimisation culminates with his being tricked into wearing a pink tutu and trying to get off with a sheep in front of a roomful of jocks. Finally, he snaps and ends up leaping out of a window…

… into a vat of toxic waste.

The effect of this is to turn him from 90lb nerd to the Toxic Avenger, a seven foot monster driven to find and destroy evil. And there is a surprisingly large amount of it in the sleepy New Jersey town of Tromaville…

The Toxic Avenger was the film that defined Troma Studios. Previously, they had made several sex comedies - and had some success. But, by the early eighties, bigger studios had started moving into the same territory with the likes of Porkys, bringing with them higher production values and squeezing Troma out of their Niche.

Michael Herz, cofounder of Troma Studios had also started to become bored with the sex comedies and, now that they were becoming less commercially viable, was keen to try something new. Inspiration arrived with a copy of Weekly Variety and a headline that announced The Horror Film is Dead. So, looking for another trend to buck, Troma embarked upon their first horror film.

However, The Toxic Avenger isnt really a horror film. It would be much better described as a superhero movie. Granted, the Toxic Avenger (or the Monster as hes referred to throughout the film) does look like a monster and he does rack up a pretty respectable body count. On the other hand, he is the character with which the audience is expected to identify and he does spend the film chasing villains. Even with the nerd revenge scenes where he goes after Bozo, Slug, et al, it is because they are evil and not because of the way they treated Melvin.

We even have a master-criminal in the form of corrupt Mayor Belgoody, who decides to go after the Monster before it comes after him.

Of course, unable or unwilling to make a straight horror film - or a straight superhero movie, for that matter - Herz and Kaufman packed the script with jokes. Many of these are sick, a lot of them simply arent funny, but - proving that quantity is way more important than quality - the sheer number of jokes means that the film has enough laughs to keep the audiences attention.

The Toxic Avenger did start out as a horror film and, as such, it has plenty of gore. As is often the case, I find the most wince-inducing scenes to be the ones that show the least - the human imagination is capable of filling in the gaps much more effectively than any special effects expert, especially one on low budget shocker such as this. The most memorable example of this, for me, is the murder (execution?) of the drug dealer. We have a (very) long build up in which we are shown, repeatedly, what is about to happen, followed by a cut to the aftermath… its a very hard scene to watch.

Although The Toxic Avenger initially bombed, it very quickly developed a cult following, and its not difficult to see why. It throws together three very popular genres (horror, heroes and humour) and as an additional bonus, the film provides an escapist fantasy for anyone who feels left out, bullied or excluded - which is pretty much all teenagers. Although Melvin is not much of an identification character, his nemeses, in the form of Slug and Bozo are easily recognisable as the sort of self-obsessed, cliquey types who most of us would like to see brought down a peg or two.

All in all, The Toxic Avenger is a lot of fun and great film to watch over a few beers… even if youre not a Marylyn Manson fan.

High Heels and Low Lifes

Mel Smiths directorial career has seen some highs (The Tall Guy) and some lows (Bean). With High Heels and Low Lifes it looks like hes on an upswing.

Minnie Driver plays Shannon, an NHS nurse, dedicated, overworked and underpaid.

On arriving home on the evening of her birthday she finds that her nerd of a boyfriend, Ray has not only forgotten her birthday but is also more concerned with playing around with his eavesdropping equipment (a scanner attached to a sampler - hes an artist, you just dont understand) than with taking her out. The inevitable argument ensues, Ray storms out and Shannon heads out to find her friend Frances (Mary McCormack), a struggling American actress.

After a night on the town, the two women eventually stagger back to Shannons flat where they notice that Rays scanner is still switched on. So they listen in…

… And hear a mobile phone conversation describing a bank robbery nearby.

Their first reaction is to head to the local police station to report what theyve heard. Here they hit a brick wall - the duty sergeant is busy, overstretched and not inclined to listen to some story from a couple of drunken women. He largely ignores them until Shannon manages to drag Frances out of the station and back to her flat.

When the robbery is reported the following day, the two women eventually agree to try and extort some money out of the robbers. And this is where the fun begins…

I liked this film. Granted, its not the most original of plots - innocents get caught up in a caper, find themselves out of their depth, but come up trumps in the end - but its well executed. The jokes are funny and the villains are both realistic and menacing enough to be believable. Given the number of comedy-dramas Ive seen that are neither funny nor dramatic, this alone makes for a refreshing change.

The balance here is achieved by not trying to make all characters leap through all of the hoops. The two detectives, Tremaine and McGill (played by Mark Williams and Kevin Eldon), for example, are bumbling, incompetent and played entirely for laughs, leaving the likes of Kevin MacNally as ruthlessly sadistic gang leader Mason, to maintain the necessary tension.

All in all, High Heels and Low Lifes achieves what it intends to do, and provides 85 minutes of lightweight entertainment. If you are looking for an easygoing comedy thriller, you could do a lot worse than this one.