‘The Strangler’ Review – New 2K Restoration Restores Moody, Arthouse 1970 Giallo

Horror

Over the course of its 50-year existence, Troma has helped launch the careers of filmmakers like Trey Parker & Matt Stone (South Park), James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy), and Eli Roth (Hostel), along with countless actors who went on to long careers, but their biggest export by any internal metric — financial success, brand recognition, franchisability, fan base — is 1984’s The Toxic Avenger.

The film is preceded by an “extreme violence” warning. The gore is indeed graphic — the first kill features a kid’s head being run over by a car, firmly establishing that no one is safe and nothing is off limits — but it could use about a dozen more trigger warnings by today’s standards. If you can be offended, you will be offended by the boundary-pushing content that includes (but is certainly not limited to) racism, homophobia, ableism, and sexual misconduct — yet there is substance behind the sleaze.

Set in Tromaville, New Jersey — the toxic waste dumping capital of the world — a prank gone wrong results in meek mop boy Melvin (Mark Torgl) taking a swan dive into a barrel of toxic waste. The “98-pound weakling” transforms into a hideously deformed creature of superhuman size and strength, The Toxic Avenger (played by Mitch Cohen, with Kenneth Kessler’s mellifluous voice). With his newfound powers, the monster hero cleans up the corrupt streets of Tromaville. Along the way, he finds love in a blind woman named Sara (Andree Maranda).

Starting at the top with co-directors/producers Lloyd Kaufman (under the pseudonym Samuel Weil) and Michael Herz, everyone is self-aware and fully committed to the on-screen insanity. Joe Ritter’s script is outrageous, and the actors push it even further. Many scenes go on longer than necessary, despite a scant 84-minute runtime, but sometimes that works to its advantage: the seemingly never-ending sequence of car stunts and the Mexican restaurant melee come back around to being funny again.

The Toxic Avenger became synonymous with Troma, setting a precedent for its signature blend of madcap exploitation, crass humor, outlandish violence, and social commentary. The over-the-top gore is schlocky but effective, and special makeup effects artist Jennifer Aspinall went on to win Emmy Awards for her work on Mad TV and Pam & Tommy. Future Academy Award winner Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny) makes a brief, uncredited appearance.

Toxie returned five years later in The Toxic Avenger Part II and The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie, both of which debuted in 1989. Originally intended to be one movie, Kaufman and Herz filmed so much material that they split it into two. Although there is a continuing story arc between them, neither one feels like only half a story (although Part II is rather anticlimactic). Even divided, however, both parts are overlong and monotonous.

Toxic Avenger remake

In Part II, Tromaville’s crime-free tranquility is shattered when the corrupt chemical company Apocalypse Inc. comes to town. Toxie (played by Ron Fazio and John Altamura) is tricked into traveling to Tokyo in search of his estranged father, leaving Tromaville vulnerable to the seedy villain syndicate. Japan provides a nice change of scenery, but the repetitive fish-out-of-water sequences fail to advance the plot. Toxie ultimately returns home to save the day… for now.

Part III opens with a wild video store sequence that serves as a thinly veiled allegory for Hollywood’s homogeny and greed. Toxie makes a Faustian bargain with Apocalypse Inc.’s chairman (Troma regular Rick Collins), becoming a corporate yuppie in exchange for the money needed for his girlfriend’s sight-restoring operation. His boss is revealed to be the devil, in a birthing sequence that remains a highlight of the franchise, and the two face off in a video game-inspired duel.

Toxie received a slight upgrade in the form of a mask that features a remote control eye, albeit one that is only occasionally functional. His beloved, still blind but now inexplicably named Claire rather than Sara, is played by musician Phoebe Legere. And Michael Jai White (Spawn) makes his film debut as an Apocalypse Inc. executive.

Long before multiverses and legacy sequels were fashionable, Troma made Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV in 2000. In the opening narration, the legendary Stan Lee declares it to be “the real sequel” to The Toxic Avenger after apologizing for the previous two “rotten” follow-ups. While Parts II and III leaned into the camp, Part IV is perhaps the most distasteful of the series. Look no further than the opening scene, in which gunmen take hostages at a special needs school on “Take a Mexican to Lunch Day.”

When the barrier between Tromaville and its diametrical opposite dimension counterpart, Amortville, is weakened, The Toxic Avenger (played by David Mattey, voiced by Clyde Lewis) inadvertently switches places with his evil counterpart, The Noxious Offender (Mattey). It also bridges the gap between Sara and Heidi (both played by Heidi Sjurse), positioning them as interdimensional doppelgängers. It culminates with an insane finale involving twins duking it out in a womb, an exploding penis creature, and recycled footage from the original film.

In addition to Lee’s voice-over, Citizen Toxie features cameos from adult film star Ron Jeremy as the ill-fated mayor of Tromaville, Corey Feldman (The Goonies) sporting a phony mustache as a gynecologist, The Howard Stern Show personality Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf as God, and Motörhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister as… Lemmy. (The threat of litigation forced Troma to cut Hugh Hefner’s appearance as the President, resulting in a “no thanks” in the end credits.)

A plethora of Troma regulars also appear, including Torgl reprising his role as Melvin, original Toxie actor Cohen as a redneck, James Gunn providing obligatory exposition as a Stephen Hawking parody, Eli Roth sharing the screen with Lemmy as a frightened Tromaville citizen, scream queens Debbie Rochon, Tiffany Shepis, and Julie Strain, fellow superhero Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D., and Kaufman in his underwear to bring the film to a close.

If nothing else, Citizen Toxie is more streamlined than the previous two entries. Kaufman directs solo this time around, working from a script he co-wrote with Trent Haaga (Cheap Thrills), Patrick Cassidy (Terror Firmer), and Gabriel Friedman (Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead). It addresses topical issues like abortion and school shootings in between the madness. Toxie’s makeup, back to facial appliances rather than a mask, is perhaps the best of the franchise.

The unrated director’s cuts of all four films have been newly restored in 4K from the original camera negatives by Vinegar Syndrome with HDR for Troma’s The Toxic Avenger Collection 4K UHD + Blu-ray box set. (A digital master was sourced for brief sequences missing from Part II’s negative.) The 4Ks’ picture quality and the DTS 2.0 Stereo audio offer significant improvements over the Blu-ray counterparts.

Kaufman shot new intros for each film and, as he’s wont to do, made each one quirky and unique. For Part I, he talks up the film, touting how it paved the way for the likes of Deadpool and Guardians of the Galaxy, from his cluttered office. For Part II, he microwaves sushi in Troma’s commissary since they shot in Japan. For Part III, he discusses the subtext of the film in Troma’s wardrobe department (one clothing rack). For Part IV, he sits outside the Troma office playing the oboe before explaining why he considers it to be the best of the franchise.

Kaufman’s existing commentary tracks on each movie consist of a worthwhile mix of practical filmmaking advice, behind-the-scenes anecdotes, and entertaining quips. The first film also has a comparatively slow track with actors Robert Prichard, Gary Schneider, and Dan Snow. Part III has a track with Troma regular Joe Fleishaker. Citizen Toxie has two additional commentaries: a hastily edited but entertaining cast track with Mattey, Sjursen, Haaga, Fleishaker, Michael Budinger, and Paul Kyrmse, and a lively track from editor Gabriel Friedman and associate editor Sean McGrath.

Many archival extras are included on the accompanying Blu-ray discs. Part I special features include: an archival intro by Kaufman; interviews with Herz, Cohen, Prichard, Snow, and actress Jennifer Baptist; a featurette in which Torgl shows off original props from the movie; American Cinematheque’s sizzle reel honoring 40 years of Troma; a slideshow of behind-the-scenes photos; and trailers.

Part II special features include: two archival intros by Kaufman; an interview with actress Lisa Gaye; a Japanese news report on the production; a short mockumentary titled At Home with Toxie; Radiation March, a public service announcement about pollution from Troma and the National Dance Institute; and trailers.

Part III special features include: an archival intro by Kaufman; “Make Your Own Damn Horror Film,” in which Kaufman interviews people (including horror icons Kane Hodder and Bill Moseley) on the set of the film Old 37; A Halloween Carol, Troma’s 2014 short reworking of A Christmas Carol starring Kaufman as himself; “TroMoMa,” which follows Kaufman and company to a prestige screening of Return to Nuke ‘Em High Volume 1 at the Museum of Modern Art; a Rabid Grannies infomercial; and trailers.

Part IV is accompanied by the 138-minute Apocalypse Soon: The Making of Citizen Toxie. A must-watch for any aspiring filmmaker, the exhaustive documentary provides a raw, honest look at the trials and tribulations of an independent production. Other special features include: an archival intro from Kaufman; a tribute to Lemmy’s Troma legacy; and Troma trailers.

With Troma celebrating 50 years of disrupting media, Toxie’s 40th anniversary coming up next year, and Macon Blair’s remake on the way, now is the perfect time to experience The Toxic Avenger franchise in 4K. It almost feels wrong to watch movies seemingly made for and by miscreants in ultra high definition, but beneath the virulent, subversive exteriors are sincere tales of an underdog triumphing over oppressors.

The Toxic Avenger Collection is available now.

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