Phew, even by my usual lax standards, that was a long hiatus, huh? To try to make up for it, I did two little things. One, I gave Trash Culture a long overdue facelift, and two, I thought I would take an opportunity to discuss my own favorite movie that no one else likes and that consistently gets one-star ratings, Nothing But Trouble.
If nothing else, the movie deserves to be remembered as the oddest collaboration between most of the ’80s/’90s comedy brat pack of Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, and John Candy. (I’ve scoured the Internet for evidence that Bill Murray was nearly involved in some way, but no luck). Written by Peter Aykroyd, Dan’s brother, and the only film ever directed by Dan himself, it’s easy to dismiss this movie as a forgettable blunder birthed by pure nepotism, which many have. To me, though, I see Nothing But Trouble as a breath of fresh air, especially in a time when Hollywood (already rarely in its history a place that nourishes raw creativity) has become pathologically risk-averse.
I mean, it’s a comedy that just needs a tiny bit of tweaking to make it into a grindhouse horror movie. That’s basically both the premise and the sales pitch. New York financial expert Chris Thorne (Chevy Chase) hits on high-class divorce lawyer Diane (Demi Moore) and uses a trip she has to make to see a client in New Jersey as an excuse to accompany her on a day-long drive. Chris thinks the trip is already ruined when his wealthy Brazilian clients, siblings Fausto (Taylor Negron) and Renaldo (Bertila Damas), invite themselves along just to see how the primitives outside New York City live. Chris’ lustful plans take even more of a nosedive when they get pulled over by a cop in the decaying rural town of Valkenvania, which lies atop a perpetually burning coal mine. See, Valkenvania’s economy was forever ruined by a deal with corrupt bankers nearly a century ago, which also saddled them with the unstable, burning mine that threatens to one day cause the town to collapse into the ground. This sin against them has not been forgotten or forgiven by the Valkenheiser clan that runs the town like a fiefdom, especially the decrepit family patriarch, J.P. Valkenheiser a.k.a. the Judge, who just so happens to be the judge over Chris Thorne’s traffic case (and, in fact, the only judge in town!). A one-man Occupy Wall Street, Judge Valkenheiser is liable to not just throw the book at city slickers, especially ones with jobs having anything to do with banking, but if he’s in a particularly foul mood he’ll feed them to his roller coaster death trap, Mr. Bonestripper. The only hope for the four to escape without their bones stripped is the growing disgust the Judge’s grandson Dennis (John Candy) has with how his grandfather runs things, or the hots the Judge’s mute and super-strong granddaughter Eldona (also John Candy) has for Chris…
If the plot synopsis above makes the movie sound strange, there’s still plenty of details I left out. Like the fact that there’s a plot-relevant cameo by Digital Underground with a young Tupac Shakur, all as another group of defendants dragged before the Valkenheiser court, who break out a musical number with Dan Aykroyd as the Judge joining in. Or that the Valkenheiser clan includes two twins so deformed, Bobo and Debull, that they look like they were kidnapped from the set of an ’80s fantasy flick. Or that the climax involves Chris Thorne running through a wall in the style of a Looney Toons character.
To be honest, I might be biased, since I grew up watching this movie on network TV and USA Network on Saturday afternoons, in the mysterious Hyperbolean Age before streaming services. A child with a taste for horror, fantasy, and pure schlock like lil’ me was likely more receptive to a movie like this than your average movie-going adult who just wanted a good comedy starring the comedic A-list of the day. To drive home the point, the movie did flop terribly, even if it’s not exactly remembered as being a failure on the scale of Waterworld or The 13th Warrior. It lost $32 million and its reception even caused Dan Aykroyd to write a letter of apology to the entire cast, taking the blame for the movie’s failure. In his Year of Flops, Nathan Rabin, with the usual squeamishness of mainstream film critics when they’re forced to approach movies that are unapologetically weird but not at all pretentious, unequivocally denounced the whole thing, from the stereotypical depiction of the “Brazillionaires” to being about a “hideous, grotesque nightmare world.”
I can’t help but ask, somewhat indignantly, why is a “hideous, grotesque nightmare world” a problem for you?
For the sake of my own sanity, before writing this I scoured the Internet for just one positive review. I finally found one by Peter Trbovich, which deems Nothing But Trouble “a Kafkaesque pitch-black comedy that will be the first (and so far only) Industrial Gothic movie.” I think Rob Zombie has taken up that legacy, but, regardless, I generally agree and I believe Peter Trbovich hits on why I still like, even love, this movie despite the persistent hate-dom it gets. The way it straddles the line between trashy hillbilly horror in a Texas Chainsaw Massacre vein and a comedy that’s equal measures dry and goofy, the elaborate sets that invoke H.P. Lovecraft better than some Lovecraft adaptations, and the purely gross comedy around the Judge’s gruesome body that makes me think of what it would be like if Clive Barker made comedies instead of horror and dark fantasy…these are all reasons why I will stand against the whole world, or at least the whole Internet, to defend this hideous, unloved darling.
At the same time, I would never call anyone an unredeemable normie for hating it (although something about Nathan Rabin’s review, to be honest, rubs me the wrong way personally since he seems to be an awfully bad sport for someone who built his career on finding gems among flops and b-movies). Its tone slips and slides all over the place, Chevy Chase is giving his performance his usual Caddyshack II-style apathy, and, well, it really is perhaps too weird for its own good, especially if you’re still expecting a typical big-budget comedy from the era. Mr. Bonestripper, the backyard roller coaster of death, is easily the most famous concept of the movie, but it barely touches the iceberg of the bizarre that Nothing But Trouble has to offer.
Still, I can’t help but wonder if Nothing But Trouble has actually aged well, even if the core gag about yuppies being terrorized lost its relevance years ago (although arguably poverty-stricken, opioid-soaked, and wrecked-by-Wall Street rural America has become a bit more like Valkenvania, and I say that as a native of rural America). It’s hard to imagine a movie like this getting a sizeable studio budget in 1991, much less in 2017, when quirky and visionary “middle-budget” films are practically extinct and studios hedge their bets on existing franchises, remakes, reboots, and paint-by-numbers action films and comedies that can rely on either built-in fan bases, well-researched and poll-tested audiences, or on overseas markets. Nothing But Trouble definitely isn’t a movie made for any demographically concrete or studio researched audience, and I mean that as the highest compliment.