This ICHF was written by Casey, who you can find at http://riftwitch.tumblr.com/. I may have made a few touch ups and notes here and there, but the bulk of this entry is their work!
Art by Casey
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A weak, socially awkward, all around pathetic man is viciously bullied by everyone around him, only to suddenly transform into an unstoppable killing machine, and sets out to lay waste to those who wronged him.
The formula for slasher films(Though not necessarily Slasher Horror) is widely recognized: We spent twenty minutes with half a dozen unlikable caricatures of human beings before watching a faceless goon systematically slaughter them in gruesome, improbable ways.
Though classified as horror, the focus of these films is often not to terrify us, but to provide catharsis, presenting an irritation in the form of the supposed protagonists, then making a spectacle of destroying that irritation. The slasher may be a monster, but the evils of humanity are represented by the victims, while the slasher represents the audience’s base desire to see punishment done.
This formula actually has a lot in common with superhero and fantasy movies: You present an undesirable status quo, where evil people freely destroy lives and stamp out happiness, you show us this world just long enough to make us uncomfortable, then you bring in the hero to kick ass and restore hope. The story fundamentally exists to bring the audience catharsis.
I compare these two formulas, because our pal Toxie here is an example of a film crew trying to film a slasher-style horror movie, then realizing halfway through production that they were accidentally making a superhero movie.
Tromaville New Jersey is unkind on a good day, with crime running rampant, with everyone with any modicum of power having gotten it by stepping on someone else, with murder, rape, extortion, human trafficking and environmental devastation just a fact of life.
Melvin Ferd, or Melvin Junko, depending on which movie and/or episode you’re watching, is a 98-lb weakling with a low-paying, menial job, no prospects and no clue – and in Tromaville, that’s the absolute worst thing you can be!
Mercilessly bullied, Melvin soon finds himself the victim of a prank where one of the patrons of the health club he works at seduces him, convincing him to put on a loud, pink tutu and tricking him into kissing a goat in a dimly lit room, only for what must be the entire membership and staff of the club to barge into the room and photograph him. In a humiliated panic, Melvin flees to the second floor, the crowd in hot pursuit, until he finds himself cornered and dives head-first out of a window and into an uncovered barrel of toxic waste sitting on the bed of a conveniently parked truck.
Covered in industrial gunk so caustic it causes him to literally burst into flames, Melvin continues to flee, his panic stronger even than the pain. In the comfort of his own home, he undergoes a dramatic transformation, his skin bubbling into a sickly green and fusing to the remains of his tutu, his muscles swelling and erupting out, his face literally melting into a new shape. Now a Hideously Deformed Creature Of Superhuman Size And Strength(tm), he finds himself even more of an outcast than before, and flees his home, wandering the shady streets.
And it is here on these streets that Melvin finds his calling, as violence and corruption run rampant on all sides. Seeing a gang roughing up an officer after he refused to take a bribe, Melvin rips the offenders to pieces with his newfound strength, clearly taking pleasure in the act. And yet when he’s alone with the terrified officer, he calms down, no longer feeling the need to kill.
And so this spree continues, with Melvin charging into every horror Tromaville throws at him, from robbers to human traffickers to mafia goons.
In most stories, a monster going around dismembering criminals would still be played for horror. “How long til that mindless aggression gets turned on innocents,” we would ask. There would be a theme of justice vs revenge, of those fighting monsters becoming monsters themselves.
But again, The Toxic Avenger is, when all is said and done, a slasher without the pretense of being in a horror movie. And so, the villains he battles aren’t simply annoying, but are the absolute worst humanity has to offer. Every single person he kills has a scene leading up to this, where they run over children for sport, or beat seniors to death, or peddle children as sex workers, and in one particularly infamous scene, even shoot a blind woman’s seeing eye dog!
The Toxic Avenger is portrayed quite plainly as the product of his environment – No outside force brought him here. Tromaville’s corruption turned the entire city into a scuzzy, slimy, caustic dump of pollution, both industrial and human. Green slime coats the ground long before and long after the mutating chemicals serve their purpose. Garbage litters the streets, graffiti covers the walls, and everyone looks like they’ve been wearing the same outfit for a month. There’s no visual disconnect between the good guys and the bad guys, because everyone is filthy and barely scraping by. This is an environment where people are driven to do evil, and that evil eventually came to a head and created something that fought back.
Melvin was pathetic, but he never had a chance in this world. In becoming a monster, it became clear that he had nowhere left to fall, and so he made his own purpose: Creating a Tromaville where people didn’t have to live in constant fear, where evildoers know better than to act on their impulses, where there’s a slight chance you might NOT get cancer from breathing the air!
And Tromaville, having corroded away every last standard and pretense it could ever hold, embraced the new monster hero, because finally something was making a difference.
Toxie is explained as having an innate, biological need to destroy evil, but the nature of this is never explore in the movies. It’s simply a powerful rage he feels at the sight of evil people. This need(referred to as an energy called ‘tromatons’) is finally elaborated on in the novel, explained as sortof a bargain-bin Captain America serum, where whatever is already inside the subject is magnified. Melvin, for all his faults, doesn’t like seeing people suffer, and so his energies are devoted to stopping anything that would cause suffering – unless it’s to someone we really dislike, which is pretty much half of Tromaville.
This trait is a boon, as it allows him to see through villains’ disguises, but has also been exploited multiple times, causing him to react rashly, or to lash out without understanding why. Fundamentally though, he does what he does to protect the innocent, not because any weirdly named power is forcing him into it.
In a more traditional slasher story, The Toxic Avenger’s brutal methods would be used to explore the darkness of the human soul, and in many ways this was likely the film’s original intent. But the filmmakers created a town that was so utterly vile that the monster they created to rip it apart seemed the hero, causing them to change their approach mid-production, and instead tell the story of a little guy who hit rock bottom, and still decided to help people because no one else would. Here and there, you can still see bits of this, like how the overtly superheroic name ‘The Toxic Avenger’ is only ever uttered once, at the end via narrator.
While slasher movies, and slasher horror in general are often rooted in cynicism, knowing full well that they indulge the darkness inside us, Toxie paints a more upbeat, optimistic picture of this system. Battling evil is everyone’s responsibility, and this is one monster who shows us that sometimes our darker urges are still rooted in a good cause. The other guys can explain the ways this can be abused, they have it covered, let’s just beat a rapist to death with his own arm for a while!
Editor’s Note: The Toxic Avenger series made me realize that super-hero movies and slasher movies are a lot closer than you might think. Seriously, compare Tony Stark’s rampage in the cave in the first Iron Man movie to a Jason Voorhees scene, or Batman’s tactics with taking down criminals in Batman Begins to Michael Myers picking off teens. It’s weird how easily these two genres can dip into each other, and The Toxic Avenger is sort of the perfect blend of both.