Last of the Monster Kids

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Wednesday, March 27, 2019

NO ENCORES: Nothing but Trouble (1991)

1. Nothing But Trouble
Director: Dan Aykroyd

Dan Aykroyd is an actor and comedian with a writer's spirit. The dude loves to build up elaborate mythologies around his creation. This is the same guy who originally envisioned “Ghostbusters” as an epic full of time-travel, alternate dimensions, and giant monsters. His commitment to the on-going lore of the Blues Brothers is such that he refuses to let that series die peacefully. His real-life belief in spiritualism, UFOs, and conspiracy theories – which extends to him hosting a cheesy “X-Files” rip-off in the late nineties or hocking vodka in skull-shaped bottles – represents a self-made mythology around himself. So it's odd that Aykroyd has never tried directing a movie... Except that one time he did.

Inspired by personal experiences and his dreams, and a jovial screening of “Hellraiser,” Dan Akyroyd wrote a horror/comedy. After John Hughes, John Landis, and Ivan Reitman declined, Akyroyd decided to direct himself. Old friends Chevy Chase and John Candy, despite neither liking the script, agreed to star. Filming was amicable but went wildly over budget. Negative test screenings saw the movie re-titled from “Valkenvania,” Aykroyd's preferred title, to the far more generic “Nothing But Trouble.” In hopes of attracting a larger audience, graphic gore was cut from the film, taking it from an R to a PG-13 rating. It didn't work. “Nothing But Trouble” flopped hard at the box office, grossing only eight million against a forty million dollar budget. More extreme were the reviews, many of which named the film the worst of the year. Roger Ebert hated it so much, he refuse to write a traditional review. This infamy only made me more curious. Surely, I wondered as I popped in the DVD, it can't be that bad?

Chris Thorne, a successful financial publisher in Manhattan, is bored with his life. He experiences an unexpected spark when running into Diane Lightson, a comely lawyer, at a party. He agrees to drive her to Atlantic City the next morning, as an excuse to get closer to her. After two of Chris’ obnoxious friends tag along, Fausto and Renaldo, the day is already ruined. Things get much worst when Chris takes a detour off the New Jersey turnpike into the impoverished village of Valkenvania. Caught speeding by a local cop, the foursome is dragged to an elaborate courthouse. There, they face the 106-year old town judge, Alvin Valkenheiser. The group is led further into the maze-like building, encountering more of the inbred Valkenheiser family, and uncovering a hundred year old murder mystery.

Looking at “Nothing But Trouble,” one can see familiar outlines. The movie belongs to a long horror tradition of a road trip going awry, of one wrong turn thrusting people into a nightmarish scenario. Most prominently, its story of a group of yuppies having car trouble and ending up in a creepy house with a weird family recalls “The Old Dark House” and modern descendants like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” There are elements of gothic horror, with the sprawling manner full of secret passageways, an incestuous brood, and a small town with a dark secret. The backwoods weirdos and house full of bones also brings “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” to mind. Akyroyd was clearly drawing from real life legends as well. Valkenvania is slowly being consumed by an undying coal fire burning underneath the town, an obvious reference to Centralia, Pennsylvania. Setting this story of inbred psychoses in the New Jersey backwoods, instead of the traditional Southern setting for such stories, was probably a reference to the Kallikak family.

As much as “Nothing But Trouble” nods at traditional horror concepts, the film never actually attempts to be scary. There’s plenty of horrific ideas in the film. The Valkenheiser family has been murdering any undesirables that pass through their town since the 1800s, the bones piling in and around the courthouse. They do this by sending victims through a giant razor-filled machine/rollercoaster called Mr. Bonestripper. Yet none of this is played for shocks or tension. Instead, “Nothing but Trouble” is an unerringly grotesque motion picture experience. The centennial Alvin is among cinema’s nastiest looking old men. His nose has rotten away and his leg pops up. A true puker of a scene involves him eating rotten-looking hot dogs, covered in disgusting condiments and delivered by toy train. Then there’s Bobo and Debbull, hideously ugly, moronic adult babies that enter late into the film. They blabber like fools, their fat bodies jiggling. There’s a lot of farting, screaming, occasional burping, and groddy substances in “Nothing but Trouble.”

None of it’s scary, just gross. “Nothing but Trouble” fails on the comedy side of the horror/comedy equation as well. This is a startlingly laughless movie. There are attempts at jokes. Fausto and his sister are obnoxiously petty Brazilians, a stereotype I was previously unfamiliar with. The aggravation they cause Chris is obviously meant to be humorous. So is a series of events that conclude with Chris getting married to Eldona, a huge mute woman played by John Candy in drag. The movie clearly confuses loud with funny, such as a random moment where Judge Valkenheiser jumps up from the bench and starts shouting nonsense.

Some of the comedic elements are so desperate for a laugh they come off as almost pathetic. Such as a fast-paced montage of Chevy Chase on a slide or the last scene, a cartoonish gag where someone leaves a perfectly shaped hole in the wall after running through it. Overdone slapstick is present in any scene involving the Bonestripper. In-between moments like this and wacky sound effects being inserted at random, it’s clear Aykroyd was eager to make people laugh. He fails every time. You know things are bad when one of the few semi-funny moments in the film is an extended cameo from Digital Underground. Humpty Hump’s complete bafflement at what’s happening around him made me chuckle and their musical number injects some energy.

It’s apparent that Aykroyd’s strength as a writer is his incredible imagination. However, expansive collection of ideas usually needs someone else to pare it down into a coherent, manageable whole. It’s very apparent no one filled that position on “Nothing But Trouble.” In fact, the writing is pretty sloppy here. For every semi-effective moment, like Chris and Diane stumbling upon a room full of newspaper stories related to the various murders, there’s another that barely contributes to the story at all. Like John Candy’s patrol cop, Dennis, pulling over a group of coked-up nuts that end up in the Bonestripper. (The leader of which is played by an Diceman-like Daniel Baldwin.) Sometimes, things happen in the story with barely any explanation. Dennis, Fausto, and Renalda disappear half-way through the film and are never mentioned again, save for a minor scene at the very end. Chris is saved from the Bonestripper when the machine fails for no apparent reason. After the heroes escape and bring the military to Valkenheiser, there’s a big twist that probably should’ve come much sooner. Narratively, “Nothing but Trouble” is a mess.

As objectively bad as “Nothing but Trouble” is, as clearly as it fails in its goal, there’s something fascinating about the film. The Valkenheiser’s universe is deeply unappealing but it is clearly defined. “Nothing but Trouble’s” world is lived-in, thought-out, and reflects the personalities of the people who exist there. You can see this in the movie’s genuinely impressive production design. A lot of time and talent went into creating this movie’s sets and locations. The courthouse is full of trap doors, secret slides, hidden tunnels, piles of bones. One of the film’s better moments involves a wall sliding into place until someone is nearly crushed. Behind the house is a huge scrapyard, including a coliseum made of stacked-up cars. The make-up effects, especially those used to create Alvin or the adult baby twins, are very well done. They move realistically and you get an idea of how they smell just from looking at them. It’s not a pleasant thought at all but the effects team did an excellent job creating these characters.

The cast seems made up of people who have little-to-no investment in the material and those that had way too much. Aykroyd originally wanted to play Chris but the studio insisted on Chevy Chase instead. Chase was supposedly combative throughout filming. This disinterest is evident in his performance, which seems bored and irritated. The only time Chase’s acting is effective is when Chris shows his self-loathing side. Read into that what you will. John Candy also doesn’t seem that interested in being here. He plays Dennis the cop as a stiff guy that is slightly unhinged but generally reasonable. It’s a boring performance. As Eldona, Dennis’ twin sister, he doesn’t speak but makes a series of easily read – if uninteresting – facial expressions.

In the “way too invested” column is Aykroyd himself. As Judge Valkenheiser, Dan seems to relish getting to play a totally insane, completely grotesque character. He unleashes all of his most broad tendencies as an actor. Aykroyd also plays Bobo, one of the adult babies, and is similarly unhinged there. Though not buried under any heavy make-up, Taylor Negron and Bertila Damas are similarly over-the-top as the Brazilian siblings. Valri Bromfield, usually wielding guns of some sort, also spends her screentime shrieking and yelling like a crazy person. About the only actor in “Nothing But Trouble” that is never visibly bored nor going totally nuts is Demi Moore as Diane. She acts like an actual human, having some decent chemistry with Chase and even coming off as sweet in her scenes with the adult babies.

“Nothing but Trouble” is unquestionably a bad movie, for reasons that are readily apparent. Yet it is an interesting bad movie. Ultimately, Aykroyd’s film is too aggressively weird to be boring. In fact, the freaks in this freak show are so convincingly created that you can’t help but be kind of intrigued by them. A good movie – probably a good horror movie, probably not a good comedy – could have easily been made from these parts. I’m not surprised the movie has found some defenders. You can easily imagine this one as an influence on Rob Zombie. Why Aykroyd never directed again is easy to guess. Directing while playing two roles in heavy make-up was a tall order and then, of course, the movie bombed hard. Yet “Nothing but Trouble” is a absorbing failure not totally without value. [6/10]

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