The history of Troma is written in filth. By no means should that be taken as an insult; to the independent studio founded by Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz, that’s the highest of compliments. A studio specialized in low-budget, vulgar, often horror-comical films, Troma Entertainment’s crown jewel is 1984’s The Toxic Avenger. As these things tend to do, The Toxic Avenger gained cult notoriety for its bizarre fusion of superhero fanfare, horror, comedy, tons of swearing, gore, and a dash of softcore pornography. Remaking such a definitive B-movie is a fool’s errand. Enter writer-director Macon Blair (I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore), indie darling and frequent collaborator with Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room). Completely discarding an expectation for a more sanitized take on the character, Blair’s new vision for The Toxic Avenger is an unhinged off-color extravaganza just about guaranteed to divide audiences.
Winston Gooze (Peter Dinklage) is the widowed step-father of Wade (Jacob Tremblay), working as a downtrodden janitor at a comically unsafe chemical factory owned by playboy medical industrialist Bob Garbinger (Kevin Bacon). Macon Blair’s script immediately establishes a world gone crazy, where Garbinger’s products leave people dropping like flies, and rap-rock bands scour the streets as mercenaries. In St. Roma’s Village, danger is just around the corner, with the cheery ads by corporate overlord Bob Garbinger omnipresent. Within two minutes, it’s clear whether or not you’re going to vibe with what Blair is doing here. Nonetheless, even as some audience members will certainly start to jump ship, the film’s immersive commitment to being a filthy Saturday morning cartoon impresses.
On top of that, the satire is clear: it’s not hard to imagine a world where people are unreasonably and casually cruel to one another (an early scene where Gooze’s tap-dancing son is screamed at “you fucking suck!” at a school talent show is a hilarious example) and corporations actively work against society. It’s more Paul Verhoeven than Troma in this particular aspect. The city of St. Roma’s Villeneuve recalls the run-down Detroit of Robocop.
Fear not, the barrage of bad taste eventually comes and it comes hard. When Winston finds out he has cancer and that his insurance under Garbinger’s company won’t cover the treatment, he resorts to desperate measures, deciding to rip off his company to ensure he can pay. A simple robbery goes further than he expected when he stumbles upon a Garbinger family crime. To prevent word from getting out on their misdeeds, they throw Gooze into a vat of toxic waste.
And this is where the fun begins. Through a sequence that can only be described as extremely psychedelic, a cosmic transformation occurs. Macon Blair pulls out all the stops, making Gooze’s evolution into The Toxic Avenger, or “Toxie”, a damn near operatic spectacle. Then you see him. The make-up work on Toxie is unreal. A green-hued, mangled mass of flesh, skin bulging out in every direction and two eyes on completely different parts of the face, one of which glows red – you don’t know whether to laugh or recoil in abject terror at what you’re looking at. He is by far nastier-looking than the original creature, yet the movie treats him like he’s Superman. That’s perhaps the film’s greatest gag.
Equipped with a radioactive broom, Toxie turns his opponents into geysers of blood. Despite relying on not-great-looking CGI gore, the kills are utter insanity. Needlessly, gut-bustingly violent, made only more uncanny (and hilarious) by the chipper cheers of the citizens. A movie this divorced from reality and this gleeful with shoving its audience’s face in the filth puts itself in a position to alienate large swaths of viewers. The only close mainstream comparison one can muster is something like Freddy Got Fingered in its crude, “I don’t care what you think” approach. What holds everything together is that the cast is in on the joke, especially main star Peter Dinklage who’s been continuing to prove his comedic chops since his Game of Thrones days.
Dinklage manages to make Toxie, under all that grotesque make-up, a deeply earnest, likable figure, while also nailing the broad comedy desired of him. It takes a lot to make something that gross affable, no less to even act through all the make-up. However, Dinklage is up to the occasion, improbably imbuing his Toxie with a bit of badassery as well. Jacob Tremblay commits to the bit as a stereotypical whiny, disappointed youth who we’re constantly reminded just wants to follow his dream of dancing. It’s a stock character right out of a piece of ‘80s shlock. The same goes for Kevin Bacon’s smarmy villain, who is so over the top that the top is now the bottom.
Easily the standout would have to be Elijah Wood as Fritz Garbinger, Bob’s younger brother. His looks say it all – his hunched-over posture, stringy hair (or what’s left of it), and pale skin conjure up a visually repellent character, and Wood plays into that over-the-top villainy while also adding a surprising depth to him. Whenever he’s onscreen, it’s magnetic, and he gives way more to himself in the henchmen-type role than is required. Sadly, Taylour Paige as J.J. Doherty, an ex-employee of Garbinger looking to take down his operation, doesn’t get a whole lot to do. Her sarcastic delivery helps to smooth over a character who is let down by the script.
Or was it an intentional decision to write her so thin? It’s hard to say because 2023’s The Toxic Avenger is so unashamed of what it is. And what is it? It’s the type of divisive movie that Legendary Pictures will struggle to market. The type of deranged movie where a mutant Peter Dinklage does a musical number while dispatching an evil rock band in disturbing ways that are played for laughs. And just like the original film, its putridness is set for rigid debate amongst the genre heads. Ultimately, that makes it a runaway success. Macon Blair instills his The Toxic Avenger remake with classic Troma, bringing a deeply strange, disgusting prank at the expense of the audience to the silver screen. Audiences aren’t ready, nor might some ever be, but it’s best to just embrace the chaos. I know I sure have.