In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — seven from 1991 (the extra in a forthcoming double-feature column) and six from 2001. The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
A hopped-up, hallucinatory horror-comedy, 1991’s Nothing But Trouble represented yet another cash-hemorrhaging curiosity from Warner Brothers — this one inspired by Pennsylvania ghost towns, a rural traffic stop’s weird aftermath, the backwater terrors of Tobe Hooper and Dan Aykroyd’s dreams. Chris Thorne (Chevy Chase) and Diane Lightson (Demi Moore) are bellicose big-city buttwipes from New York who find themselves under the punitive thumb of Alvin Valkenheiser (Aykroyd), a 106-year-old judge in an unincorporated New Jersey bowel known as Valkenvania, and his four grandkids: Dennis, Eldona, Bobo and Lil’ Debbull, one of them played by Aykroyd and two of them played by John Candy (including the mute, amorous Eldona). To be clear about the losses Warner Brothers expected to cut here: They bumped Nothing But Trouble from a Christmas berth in favor of bad-idea poster child The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Generally considered a nadir for all involved, Nothing But Trouble got its genesis in 1978 when Aykroyd was stopped for speeding in upstate New York and stood trial before a nearby justice of the peace. After paying a $50 fine, the adjudicator invited Aykroyd to tea and he wound up sticking around for several hours. The comedian then sprinkled in his fascination with Pennsylvania’s burned-out coal country, where underground fires have raged since the 1960s and essentially wiped off the map towns like the officially condemned Centralia. As of 2017, five people lived under a state-negotiated deal to remain there until they die. The film’s feeling that someone could get decapitated at any moment stems from Aykroyd’s approach to make a more comedic version of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Morbidly obese, copiously greased, diaper-wearing, giant-baby twins named Bobo and Lil’ Debbull? Live from Aykroyd’s subconsciousness, it’s Saturday nightmares.
Alongside his brother, Aykroyd cobbled this together in a script that neither John Hughes nor John Landis accepted offers to make. But Warner Brothers pursued it as a vehicle for Candy. Aykroyd wanted to also play Chris, but the studio courted Chase (with whom Aykroyd had worked on Spies Like Us and Caddyshack II). Still without a director or anyone to play Bobo, Aykroyd agreed to those responsibilities, too. While it sounds patently insane for anyone to give Aykroyd (or anybody, really) $40 million to make this particular movie, he still had major clout from Ghostbusters and The Blues Brothers (the latter name-checked here with a song by the Elwood Blues Revue).
Chase proved a curmudgeon from the start, berating Moore’s work on set, mocking Aykroyd for commanding a lower paycheck than him and improvising dialogue to increasingly costly degrees. Look, Moore wasn’t going to deliver a Sigourney Weaver sort of surprise with an unexpected flair for this sort of thing. Doesn’t mean Chase needed to treat her like an asshole. Then again, maybe he was simply playing himself. Chase is introduced chomping on a cigar and delivering his first few lines from the side of his mouth. That clenched contempt comes out even when he’s full-throated. Chris shamelessly pursues getting Diane in bed, derisively barks financial advice at the poverty-stricken folks of Valkenvania from behind the wheel of his BMW, speaks in trilled-R gibberish to mock his Spanish-speaking friends, and lights up a stogie in willful defiance of the judge. Chase is the perfect choice for a prideful prick whom you’d like to see taste some pain.
Aykroyd also integrated any number of bizarre, incongruous and expensive ideas that his crew threw at him, like Mr. Bonestripper, a rollercoaster-cum-meat grinder with its own theme song by Damn Yankees, and a pickle-shooting miniature train that plays “Wabash Cannonball” as it circles the Valkenheiser dinner table. The latter factors into the same scene where it becomes clear from which dermatological nether-region Alvin has grafted his false nose and in which Aykroyd lasciviously shakes a gray frankfurter while shoveling it down his gullet.
In one minute, Alvin spouts folksy colloquialisms about spiders in birthday cakes and in the next roars with the furious colic of an ancient and aggrieved old coot. This judge hasn’t survived a century-plus because he’s some stamp-pad jockey. He dishes out justice rooted in pre-Magna Carta codes. And when he’s had enough of Chris’s guff, he drops these “city chickens” through the floor for a “run through Grandpa Alvin’s trick-house.” Aykroyd buries himself beneath prosthetics to play both this breathing liver spot and Bobo, the less-lascivious giant mutant baby. (Lil’ Debbull is creepily eager to “win” Diane as the spoils in a card game, and yes, there is a scene in which Moore adapts a baby-talk voice to connect with this pair of hideous flesh sacs.) What sounds like a miserable shoot certainly isn’t evident in Aykroyd’s ebullient turn as Alvin, seemingly belched forth from hell for a grand entrance in his motorized swivel chair. There’s even a music break where Alvin gets to jam out with Digital Underground, busting loose on an old pipe organ while fly girls grind on him and he gives Shock G’s Humpty Hump persona a pass (perhaps because of Humpty’s own fake schnoz). And yes, this means that on top of everything else going on here, Nothing But Trouble has a scene with Aykroyd, Chase and Tupac Shakur.
No one could figure out how to end Nothing But Trouble beyond a bizarre, incongruous Looney Tunes reference. And by the time Warner Brothers could intervene, it already had a Bonfire burning. So the studio generally left the movie — which previously went by Git, Road to Ruin, Trickhouse and Valkenvania — to take whatever amorphous shape it would. But the studio’s eight-figure bucks stopped at an R-rated early cut, and the film’s release was delayed to recut and achieve a PG-13. Sent into theaters with its most boring title, the film couldn’t even recoup a quarter of its budget and became the first time anyone directed himself to his own Golden Raspberry Award for acting. If you presume its failure meant no one ever let Aykroyd run rampant with his ideas again, well … let Blues Brothers 2000 cause your brain to liquefy and slowly drip through your nostrils.
By any objective measure, Nothing But Trouble is a calamity; at best, it’s a paltry comedy. Given the talent assembled, the surplus of dead air around its jokes is almost supernatural. When not even John Candy can make you laugh, the planet has truly tilted off its axis for a spell. And yet … and yet … the relentlessly repugnant energy here ceases to desist while you’re watching and continues to persist long after you’ve stopped, whether that is halfway through or at a perhaps bitter end. Colleagues remain angry, make that irate, that I have inflicted such an intentional irritant upon them. Not even those who rubberneck this pile-up with regret can forget it.
Also: What good are limbs if we can’t venture out onto them every so often with a chainsaw? Nothing But Trouble should have been Oscar-nominated in precisely one category: Best Production Design. I am very sorry you broke your computer after reading this. Now that you’ve found another device, let’s consider how it stacks up against that year’s actual competitors.
The Fisher King, Hook, Barton Fink. Legit and lavish mixtures of fantasy and reality. Keep them. Bugsy, that year’s winner? A lush look back at how gangsters lit up Las Vegas, so sure. But The Prince of Tides? C’mon. If the childish whimsy of the equally expensive and misguided Toys could work its way in one year later, there should’ve been room in 1991 for the grubby, sometimes panic-inducing work of William Sandell — bringing the same admirably demented eye for detail he did to RoboCop and Total Recall.
Adorned with the Latin phrase for “no tolerance,” Valkenvania’s police cruisers also sport an ironically bucolic, hastily scribbled drawing of a beautiful river flowing through its valley under a benevolent blue sky. A Jesus statue welcomes Chris and Diane as they enter Valkenvania (crossing the contemporary equivalent of a drawbridge). Scrawled on Jesus’s robe is a story of angels and saints who came to Earth to toast with iced colas and discovered the world to be a vile place worthy of condemnation. You’ll need to pause to observe that detail, prolonging your exposure to the film’s toxic blend, but again: You only rubberneck when something terrible catches your eye.
The cop-car crest represents an unmoored mind’s view of how Alvin idealizes his town … if only those blasted bureaucrats hadn’t bled his backwater borough dry before leaving it to burn. The Valkenheiser mansion has a circle drive, all right, just one around which Bobo and Lil’ Debbull have cleared a path bordered by cast-aside cast-iron appliances. The judge’s chambers themselves are a hoarder nightmare, papers strewn about and random scatterings of lord knows what else. Nothing But Trouble is a 90-minute trigger warning for those easily bothered by messes and piles, but these trash heaps breed trepidation among the audience and the characters, too. No one who truly respected life would spend theirs amid so much crap, some of it quite literal as there’s a room of shitting bats in this movie BECAUSE WHY NOT.
Sandell lends Nothing But Trouble a dust-caked dread and a musty odor that practically wafts off the screen. It’s as if the entire tri-state area’s trash blew into the Valkenheiser mansion like tumbleweeds over the last century. And if there’s any upside to the film not being all that funny, it’s a clearer view of the grotesqueries signified by all of its rampant garbage. Honestly, it’s impressive just how much this setting evokes that Massacre feel Aykroyd was after. The deeper Chris and Diane go inside the Valkenheiser mansion, the more claustrophobic it becomes and the more its Jenga towers of junk seem to defy scientific principles. Eventually, they find an inner-sanctum sporting gallery of all the lives Alvin has assailed over the years, decades of retaliation for the way his grandfather was “hog-gloddered and tubwrangled” into turning the entire town over to a coal mine that will someday consume the place. In that moment, the detritus comes to feel less like random clutter and more like rigorously accumulated evidence of broken promises and potential for someone to scour through when Valkenvania eventually sinks into the rubble. A reminder that it was once a real place left to rot.
If ever there were a call for a bloody, R-rated rich-eating romp, this could’ve been it. Even if the studio hadn’t intervened, Aykroyd’s commercial instincts likely would have prompted him to prune it back anyway. But for a Canuck, Aykroyd sure has a handle on American capitalism’s boom (as illustrated in Ghostbusters) and bust as shown here. Leave anything out in the sun for too long and it’s going to bloat and pop. Nothing But Trouble has a similarly persistent putrescence. One that lingers and lodges in the nostrils. One that never really leaves you.