269. NOTHING BUT TROUBLE (1991)

“An adequate song score album for a movie that utterly failed to live up to its weird potential.”–Steven McDonald, reviewing the soundtrack to Nothing but Trouble

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Demi Moore

PLOT: Four carefree travelers go for a drive in New Jersey. They get pulled over in a small backwater town for running a stop sign and have to be escorted to the local judge. They are then imprisoned in a haunted-house like mansion that shares premises with a junkyard.

Still from Nothing But Trouble (1991)

BACKGROUND:

  • Dan Aykroyd’s background probably destined him to make at least one weird movie. Both of his parents were Spiritists, and he’s had a fascination with the occult since childhood that inspired him to create Ghostbusters, among other hits.
  • This is Aykroyd’s sole directing credit (he also wrote). Canadian-born Aykroyd was once pulled over for a speeding ticket while on his motorcycle in the States, and had to be escorted to a courthouse in a small town. Legend has it that this movie was inspired by that event.
  • The movie had a budget of $40 million and only pulled in $8.5 million. Critics panned it, including Roger Ebert, who declined to review it in written form. It also got nominated for the Razzies for Worst Picture, Worst Actress, Worst Supporting Actress (John Candy in drag), Worst Director, and Worst Screenplay, though it “won” only for Worst Supporting Actor (Akroyd).
  • Digital Underground worked their cameo in this movie into a music video for their 1991 single “Same Song,” which entered MTV rotation. It still shows up periodically on cable music stations.
  • After the movie flopped, Akroyd wrote an apology letter to the cast taking full credit for the film’s failure.
  • Pete Trbovich‘s Staff Pick for a Certified Weird movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a movie with no shortage of contenders, the scenes everybody leaves raving about are the ones with the Mr. Bonestripper ride. This is a backyard roller-coaster in which victims are given a final ride before being dumped into a leering cartoon maw with mechanical teeth which grind the victims down to shiny, polished bones, which are then ejected out the back towards a bullseye target painted on a metal fence. It even has its own theme song, courtesy of the band Damn Yankees. Are we having fun yet?

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Model train dining; subliminal penis nose; mutant junkyard fatties

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Nothing but Trouble invents its own genre, hereby known as Industrial Gothic, which plays on the horrors of Americana. These extend to labyrinthine freeway exits, small town hicks, Rust Belt ghost towns, corrupt law enforcement, class struggles between disenfranchised Main Street and out-of-touch Wall Street, welded-together death machines, compulsive hoarding, and a lack of mental health care. Take a Canadian-born comedian who’s had a scary run in with American law enforcement and let him make a Kafkaesque pitch-black comedy that will be the first (and so far only) Industrial Gothic movie, and this is exactly what you get.


Original trailer for Nothing but Trouble

COMMENTS: To be a fan of weird movies, your expectations must necessarily run along a different axis from the mainstream. Nothing but Trouble is a notorious box office flop that was widely panned by critics and audiences alike, but it has a tight cult of staunch fans who defend it. It turns out that most of the hate comes from the film not living up to the audience’s expectations for a comedy from the creators of Ghostbustsers and The Blues Brothers. Instead, it’s grotesque, creepy, unsettling, uneven, and even downright horrifying; it’s funny only if you take your comedy darker than espresso. Yet, if that was actually the auteur’s intention, then isn’t it actually a good effort? Make no mistake, Nothing but Trouble was made with very specific intentions, and they come through crystal clear on screen. It’s just that those intentions were from Mars when audiences wanted a movie from Venus. But a weird movie site should love that mismatch, and it is here this deformed baby of a film at last finds its true home.

Chris Thorne (Chevy Chase), a wealthy financial publisher, bumps into Diane Lightson (Demi Moore), a distraught lawyer who’s in urgent need of a ride to Atlantic City on some little-explained errand. Thorne agrees to drive her there, and two “Brazillionaires”—millionaires from Brazil campily portrayed by Taylor Negron and Bertila Damas—invite themselves along, thinking to turn the ride into a picnic. They take a leisurely detour off the Jersey Turnpike and run afoul of a local small town constable (John Candy) who catches them running a stop sign. And then we arrive at the courthouse of Valkevania, where our road trip participants will stand before one Judge Alvin ‘J.P’ Valkenheiser (Dan Aykroyd). Now the fun begins. This judge is of the hanging variety, except that he supplements the eccentricity of Judge Roy Bean with the imagination of Vlad the Impaler.

The Valkevania courthouse is a sprawling mansion of horrors filled with trapdoors, slides, conveyor belts, pits, dead ends, spinning beds, sliding walls, secret passages, mummies, gravestones, mountains of bones, and the world’s biggest and deadliest junkyard. God help you if you meet with the judge’s displeasure, and if you do, good luck with escaping, as he controls his booby-trapped facility with endless panels of buttons. The judge employs his equally strange family, comprised of daughter Eldona (John Candy again), Miss Purdah (Valri Bromfield) and a pair of giant rubbery babies Bobo and Lil’ Debbull. They aren’t allowed in the house, so they man the junkyard. It also turns out Valkevania is situated over an underground coal fire that’s been burning for decades, with smoking vents and frequent seismic upheavals. Finally, it is surrounded by a moat of toxic waste. Our protagonists spend most of the rest of the 94 minute running time frantically trying to survive the deathtraps, seek an escape, or plead with the staff for mercy. In between, we get to see what happens to other travelers caught in Valkevania’s speed traps, including a cameo appearance by the band Digital Underground (as themselves) with Tupac Shakur in tow, no less.

And with that out of the way, we still haven’t talked about the set decoration. It is simply the most god-forsaken pile of junk ever assembled in a film anywhere. It must have taken an army prowling flea markets, thrift stores, junkyards, and roadside folk art tourist attractions months to assemble. Outside, the cast runs pell-mell through piles of maniacally polished toasters, buses stacked like Legos, forests of Muffler Man statues, groves of junked cars, metal sculptures, oil barrels, discarded appliances, and signs which caution “no cussing”. The interiors are a hoarder’s dream, with dolls in this room, bats in that one, and piles of eclectic rubbish everywhere—quite a bit of it put to use for the judge’s toys, such as the model railroad built into the dining table which is deployed to dispense condiments and fire the occasional pickle. The amounts of rust and dust are impressive, to the point where you’re hoping the cast were caught up on their tetanus shots before filming.

The vortex of all this craziness is the judge, and you have to admit that Dan Aykroyd really threw his all into making a unique character—for better or for worse. His rubber-faced makeup is hideous, maybe not as bad as Freddy Kruger but definitely from the same gene pool. His manic energy devours set after set, dancing and gibbering dialogue that reads like Yosemite Sam with a meth habit. The rest of the cast turns in various shades of commitment, which is another off note in the movie. Perhaps it would have been better if Aykroyd had spread the fun around for the others. Instead it’s a Rocky Horror-like evening with a cast of straight deadpanners locked in with a rabid nutcake.

By turns horrifying, absurd, and surreal, Nothing but Trouble definitely marches to the beat of its own drummer, and perhaps even an entire orchestra that only it can hear. While it goes over the heads of many, the film in fact is a pastiche of fears all too real in America. The coal fire under Valkevania is based on the one under Centralia, Pennsylvania. The moat of toxic sludge around it is an echo of the Love Canal. There are real-life unincorporated areas in the States where justice is a slippery concept and citizens nurture their eccentricities to an unhealthy degree. Judge Valkenheiser tells a tragic backstory of buying stock in a failed company, invoking a familiar tale of financial ruin as the result of economic forces beyond one’s control. The judge is biased against Thorne for being “a banker,” an antagonism ripped from the headlines of yesterday’s (and  today’s) news of Wall Street shenanigans. The “dysfunctional families” trope is invoked by name. At one point, Thorne and Lightson chance upon a room festooned with thousands of IDs and documentation from missing persons, including Jimmy Hoffa. And of course, where would we be without daily news stories of police brutality and corrupt government officials? For the majority of American citizens, a traffic ticket is their solitary brush with the law, but no matter how good your driving record is and how well-insured you are, you will still feel that spike in adrenaline and a catch in the breath when rolling down the window to deal with that cop. We’ve also all had the experience of taking the wrong off ramp on a busy freeway, only to get lost in a maze of warehouses, suddenly thrust into a potentially hostile underworld that’s been right under our noses while we blew past it at 65 MPH Monday through Friday.

If this movie drew more than its share of dislike, of course it’s because viewers saw the names on the poster and went in expecting a lighthearted yuckfest like Caddyshack. But maybe, maybe it just might also be because the subject matter struck a raw nerve. After all, if we all owned our own Mr. Bonestripper, who wouldn’t be looking for any excuse to fire it up once in awhile? Man, that thing is cool!

G. Smalley adds: Ah, Nothing but Trouble, the movie that wouldn’t die, kept on life support after its box office crash by endless HBO replays. I originally dismissed it with the words, “[i]t turns out that what’s weird in Nothing but Trouble was originally intended to be funny, rather than uncanny. Who could tell?” I suppose that was premature, as readers continued to suggest this oddity occasionally, and Bryan Pike even went to bat for its battiness. With apologies to Pete and others who think the film is misunderstood, I still think it’s a pretty terrible movie—but it is a weird one, in ways both intentional and unintentional. It’s also unforgettable. At least, I can’t forget it. It rises in my gut like a bad meal of greasy sausages and hot Hawaiian Punch. I suppose the appearance by the Digital Underground (with a musical number with Dan Akroyd chipping in on organ) is enough to send this one over the top and onto the List. Never let it be said 366 Weird Movies isn’t democratic in its embrace of strange cinema!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Watching this yuppie nightmare fantasy, all you can think is, ‘How does a thing like this happen?'”–Hal Hinson, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

“Conceptually, it feels like a crazed collision between Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and the whole school of Backwoods Brutality films… The upshot is of a film that has wandered into a strange headspace almost by accident and never seems sure of what it is doing when it gets there.”–Richard Scheib, Moria: The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review

“Aykroyd here has lovingly, meticulously created a hideous, grotesque nightmare world nobody in their right mind would want to visit the first time around, let alone return to.”–Nathan Rabin, Onion A.V. Club

IMDB LINK: Nothing but Trouble (1991)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The 16 Most Traumatic Things About “Nothing But Trouble” – Buzzfeed listicle outlining the movie’s odder choices

Say Something Nice: NOTHING BUT TROUBLE (1991) – From the “Birth. Movies. Death.” series in which a writer selects one good scene from an otherwise bad movie

Episode 200 – Nothing but Trouble – The Flophouse Podcast on the movie

Everything You Need to Know About ‘Nothing But Trouble’ (1991) – Video review from William Capps of “House by the Video Store”

WORST MOMENT IN HIP-HOP HISTORY? TUPAC SHAKUR’S SCREEN DEBUT IN A GODAWFUL DAN AYKROYD MOVIE – The “Dangerous Minds” website nominates Tupak Shakur’s onscreen debut as one of the worst moments in hip-hop history; also noteworthy for the rare cover of “Starlog” magazine promoting the film

CAPSULE: NOTHING BUT TROUBLE (1991) – G. Smalley rashly dismisses the film in 366’s first official take

SECOND OPINION: NOTHING BUT TROUBLE (1991) – Bryan Pike defends the film from G. Smalley’s rash dismissal

DVD INFO: The 2004 Warner Brothers DVD (buy) has no special features, and is in full frame (4:3 aspect ratio) to boot. For extra pain, you could also buy it on a double feature disc with the Chevy Chase/Dan Akroyd comedy Spies Like Us (buy).

The movie can also be rented or purchased on demand, however (rent or buy on-demand).

2 thoughts on “269. NOTHING BUT TROUBLE (1991)”

  1. The Flop House podcast panned this movie, too. From what I remember it’s a fucked up horror movie, not a comedy, and it succeeds at that. It’s kinda interesting that the coal fire inspired the SILENT HILL games, and the latest RESIDENT EVIL movie is apparently set in a redneck horror mansion, so maybe it was just ahead of its time.

  2. Although I barely remember this, I fully support its election to the list. I have vague memories of watching scenes from this movie well after midnight on various cable movie channels, and I just can’t shake the feeling. It’s really damn weird. Really.

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