Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Nothing But Trouble

In the house of bones and rubber phalli

What's it about?

Tonight's Spooky Movie Tuesday pic is "Nothing But Trouble" (Warner Bros., 1991). Chris Thorne (Chevy Chase) has it all: A large apartment, fine cigars, wine, and more than enough money thanks to his job as a publisher of a financial analysis and advice newspaper.

Also, his doorman is the director's brother with an Irish accent, for some reason.

On his way to a party that he's hosting in his apartment he runs into lawyer Diane Lightson (Demi Moore) with whom he attempts to strike up a conversation only for her to see a file in his possession and freak out, taking the file and leaving him. As it happens a client (and her boyfriend) lied to her about a business deal and now he's avoiding her. She returns the file to Chris at his party and then asks if she can borrow his car to drive to Atlantic City to confront her client.
What kind of evil, manipulative, little... person asks a complete stranger to borrow his car?

Chris insists on driving her there instead and the two make plans to leave the next day, inadvertently inviting two of Chris's clients, Brazilian millionaire Fausto Squiriniszu (Taylor Negron) and his sister Renalda (Bertila Damas).
"Heeeey! We're the comic relief in a film mostly casted with comedians!"

The four set out the next day in Chris's vintage 1983 BMW 733i, a sporty sedan equipped with the latest communication and navigation equipment (specifically, a cellular car phone and an ETAK cartridge-based electronic atlas, as this was before civilian use of GPS was commonplace).
I cannot stress how sweet this car is.

This one scene sparked a love of vehicle-based navigation for a younger me.

The quartet decide to get off the highway and have a picnic, making a detour through the rustbelt village of "Valkenvania." While traveling through the village they discover a burned-out coal town with tough-looking poor residents. In their haste to get out of the area, they fail to stop at a stop sign, and are set upon by the local constable Dennis Valkenheiser (John Candy).
"Hi! You might remember me as the lovable Uncle Buck, or funny Del Griffith, but in this movie I'm "The Heavy.""

"Dot dot dot."

They attempt to outrun the law enforcement officer, whose souped-up car easily overtakes the BMW. Caught due to the intervention of a second constable, a machine-gun toting Miss Purdah (Valri Bromfield), the four are brought before the court in the heart of Valkenvania. There they meet Justice of the Peace Alvin Valkenheiser (Dan Aykroyd), a disfigured World War I veteran and engineer who has rigged his family's decrepit home/salvage yard/courthouse with many strange contraptions and frightening deathtraps to lure criminals into his lair and to their doom.
Despite the makeup, not as funny or as scary as Aykroyd thinks.

Can the four make it out alive, or will they succumb to the Judge and his monstrous offspring?

Some background

This film was developed and written by brothers Peter and Dan Aykroyd, based on an incident that Dan had experienced in the 1970s where he had been pulled over for speeding in rural New York State and brought before the local justice of the peace who kept him for tea afterwards. While Dan and Peter were attending a horror movie (Clive Barker's "Hellraiser" in 1987) with producer Robert K. Weiss, Weiss noticed people laughing in the audience and suggested that the trio make a horror comedy together, and the rest is history. More on that later.

Personal interest

I saw this film in theaters back in 1991. It looked interesting, the original SNL players were known for making bankable films at this time (Ghostbusters, anyone?), and there was a lot of buzz for it in fantasy and horror magazines of the time. How could I lose?

The good

While Aykroyd, Chase, Moore and Candy get the billing, the real star of this film is the setting.

Impressively horrific, and somewhat accurate.

Valkenvania is (loosely) based on the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania. Centralia is best known for the decades-long coal fires that were sparked in a mine there, and which burn underground until this very day, driving the residents away and making every step a potential literal descent into hell. The town of Valkenvania also embodies the rust belt, a corridor of rural land throughout the northeast U.S. in which a lot of old European farming communities were exploited by big business and converted to industrialized mechanization that quickly brought wealth to the people, then just as quickly died off, resulting in abandoned homes and rusting machinery dotting the landscape for hundreds of miles in every direction. You can just walk out in the woods in the seeming middle of nowhere and find an old truck, rotting steel cisterns, or something that looks like a medieval catapult. Every inch of the set designs drip with outmoded detail, rotting Americana, and rusted machinery.
The real monsters were the Pennsylvanians all along.

The "I.D. room" is very interesting.

Coupled with the Judge's horrific devices, it makes for a very frightening if not familiar (for me, at least) experience.
The "Mister Bonestripper" prop was made from a used $15,000 roller coaster.

Weird cameos by a Baldwin (Daniel Baldwin, specifically) and the hip-hop band Digital Underground (including Tupac Shakur) just add to the film's strangeness.
You even get a Baldwin as a drug dealer, though at this point in the 90s I'm not sure that he was acting.

Yep. That's Digital Underground.

There are a lot of top-notch makeup and latex effects in this movie, which sadly are used more for gross-out shock than for actual horror.
The horrific "Giant Babies" were apparently dreams that Dan Aykroyd was having at the time.

The bad, or at the very least malaise

I'm afraid that there's a lot of bad to cover. The film has extremely low ratings on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic now and garnered a lot of negative press back in the day (Roger Ebert claimed once that he encouraged teens talking loudly in the theater to keep it up so that he wouldn't have to hear the film). While I don't think that it's as bad as all that, the movie has problems. It's in this weird limbo where it's not quite horrific enough to be a true "horror" film, but not nearly funny enough to be a "comedy." The film only made a fraction of its $40,000,000 budget back and was a commercial failure for Warner Brothers. Rumor has it that no directors liked the script, and Dan Aykroyd took over directorial duties just to get the film made. Similarly, according to Aykroyd, he took double-duty roles as both Judge Valkenheiser and his grandson, the monstrous Bobo, simply because no one else wanted to deal with the level of makeup and costuming involved. There are parts of the script that are largely improvised because the fledgling director Aykroyd would not say "no" to anything that the crew or cast wanted to do, which increased production time and grossly inflated the budget. It's one of those films where they've casted comedy gold in the form of John Candy, and they made him play the "straight man" (this is an annoying trope at this point). Now, you might think that dual casting Candy as Dennis's sister "Eldona" would be a way to make up for that deficit, except that they made the character mute, so in this persona he has no lines and spends most of the film making "goo-goo" eyes at Chevy Chase.

The plot almost seems contrived to put Candy in a wedding dress.

The jokes fall flat, the cast of comedians isn't as funny as it should be, and the gross-out humor isn't so much horrific as it is gross. Weird hot dogs with messy condiments, old man farts, wooden legs; that sort of thing.

The music isn't anything to write home about. The score by Michael Kamen is serviceable but not memorable, but there's a lot of Warner Records properties awkwardly shoehorned in at every available moment to sell the soundtrack (a major part of the Hollywood business model back then). Even the Digital Underground song "Same Song" is forgettable, only charting its highest at number 61 on the Billboard Hot 100. In the context of the film, it goes on way too long, and is reprised during the ending credits.

More history: The reception was so universally bad that Dan Aykroyd never directed another film. He has many production credits and writing credits under his belt, but decided the stress of directing was too much for him. Apparently, he felt so bad about how the film was perceived that he wrote apology letters to everyone involved, although there is no concrete record of this beyond Aykroyd's anecdotes.

To sum up, if you're looking for a scare, look elsewhere. If you're looking for a funny comedy, look elsewhere. If you're looking for dramatic (or comedic) performances, look elsewhere. Getting the picture? However, I am fascinated by the sets and production design (even if some of it is just converted old western sets -- and they are), and if you have a similar interest, it is worth checking out.

This crushy hallway thing reminds me of so many local buildings...

Not safe for kids, but at least they'll appreciate the humor

This film is rated PG-13 for minor horror elements and implied death. There's no actual blood, gore, or viscera shown, but there are a lot of freshly-stripped skeletons and a few prosthetic rubber penises (I really wish that I was making that latter part up), so probably don't watch with young children, although they'll probably appreciate the humor more than someone with a fully fused skull. There is frequent tobacco use (Chevy Chase smokes cigars) and some drug use shown, though the drug dealers don't get out unscathed.

Where can you find it?

"Nothing But Trouble" is available on DVD and Blu-ray but is also available to rent or buy on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, or Vudu. It is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video for no extra cost with a subscription as of this publishing.

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