Is it possible to find something good about Dan Aykroyd’s legendary horror/comedy bomb?
At one point during Ghostbusters , Dan Aykroyd’s character is discussing the bizarre architectural features of the apartment building where much of the supernatural action takes place and says “I mean, the architect was either a certified genius or an authentic wacko.” My guess is that there was a similar reaction among executives at Warner Brothers after they took a look at the screenplay for Aykroyd’s other elaborate and expensive horror-comedy vehicle for him and a number of his SNL and SCTV pals. I cannot say for certain which side those suits would have opted for but however they voted, they did pull the trigger on what would eventually become known as Nothing But Trouble , a peculiarity that would bomb so hard that it is now pretty much forgotten by everyone except of SNL alumni film completists and the few souls brave or foolhardy enough to—gulp—actually find good things to say about it.
Apparently inspired by an experience Aykroyd had after being pulled over for speeding in a rural town, the film starts off with a quartet of Manhattan Yuppies—financial publisher Chris Thorne (Chevy Chase), lawyer Diane Lightson (Demi Moore, whose character evidently majored in Low-Cut Law, based on her wardrobe) and flamboyant “Brazillionaire” siblings Fausto (Taylor Negron) and Renalda (Bertila Damas)—hitting the road in Chris’s BMW on a trip to Atlantic City. After making an ill-advised turn off the New Jersey Turnpike, they get lost and eventually find themselves in Valkenvania (the film’s original and frankly more interesting title), a former mining town that is now little more than a bombed-out shell seemingly populated by the road company of Deliverance.
While driving through, Chris inadvertently blows a stop sign and, when Sheriff Dennis Valkenheiser (John Candy) signals to pull him over, he attempts to escape. This move lands them all in front of Valkenvania’s de-facto leader, the honorable Judge Alvin Valkenheiser (Aykroyd), who is 106 years old, doesn’t like people committing traffic violations in his town and, because of a long-ago swindle involving his family, really hates anyone who has anything remotely to do with bankers or banking. His home and property is tricked out with any number of lethal doodads to deal with them, including a roller-coaster device that is dubbed “The Bonestripper,” and which comes as advertised.
In terms of plot development, there isn’t much more to the film as it goes along. From this point on, it mostly follows Chris and Diane as they try to escape the Judge’s clutches and continually stumble into the various traps laid out for them. There are a couple of additional Valkenheisers who turn up along the way, including Bobo (Aykroyd) and Lil’ Debbull (John Davekis), the Judge’s troll-like mutant grandsons who aren’t allowed in the house (which is saying something when you see the house), and who take a shine to Diane. Then there’s his fearsome mute granddaughter Eldona (Candy in drag), who takes enough of a shine to Chris to inspire the Judge to reconsider his hatred of banker types and let Chris live as long as he marries her.
My guess is that when the Warner executives read the script, they envisioned it as something along the lines of Beetlejuice, another weirdo supernatural comedy that they didn’t understand until it made gobs of money for them. To them, combining the cheerful weirdness of Tim Burton’s hit with the still-potent SNL touch represented by Chase and Aykroyd must have seemed like a no-brainer. Unfortunately for them, that was evidently not what Aykroyd had in mind for the film. Instead, his vision was far darker and funkier in tone than that, coming across more like a shotgun marriage between The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (the extended sequence where everyone sits down for a hot dog dinner seems a direct homage to the dinner table scene in the earlier film) and old haunted house comedies like The Ghost Breakers , You’ll Find Out and Scared Stiff.
You would have thought that alarm bells would have been going off at Warners once the footage started coming in—certainly once they got a look at the tip of the Judge’s deformed nose and discovered that yes, it was meant to look like a penis. Reportedly, the studio was so consumed by the troubled production of their highly publicized adaptation of The Bonfire of the Vanities (that other film in which moneyed New Yorkers get into all sorts of trouble after selecting the wrong off-ramp) that they didn’t really focus on what Aykroyd was doing until it was too late. Once they finally got a look at it, they panicked, demanded that Aykroyd tone down some of the more over-the-top moments in order to get a PG-13 rating and gave it its generic-as-can-be final title.
What finally emerged is—to put it very charitably—a mess. If you ever wondered what one of the decidedly bizarre sketches that tend to get the final slot of the week on SNL might be like if it was expanded to 95 minutes, this is probably as close as you will ever come. Alas, even if you didn’t know that there were production issues with the film, you would certainly get that sense while watching it—there are parts where whole scenes appear to be missing, and the shying away from any actual gore feels like a cop-out (look, if you’re going to spend the time and money to create something called The Bonestripper and then not show any actual bonestripping, you are literally asking for nothing but trouble.) Another major problem with the film, I fear, is that Chevy Chase is simply all wrong for the part of Chris. In that role, you want someone along the lines of Bob Hope in his heyday—equal parts brash and cowardly but ultimately likable in the end—but Chase instead goes through the motions in such a smug and lazy manner that you are actively rooting for his character to meet The Bonestripper throughout.
If you ever wondered what one of the decidedly bizarre sketches that tend to get the final slot of the week on SNL might be like if it was expanded to 95 minutes, this is probably as close as you will ever come.
And yet, no matter how messy and ungainly it is, I have to confess that I kind of enjoyed Nothing But Trouble when I saw first saw it during its extremely brief theatrical run, and still liked it enough during a recent rewatch. For starters, the film is undeniably a triumph of production design, especially once the action shifts to the Valkenheiser home, which is so crammed to the gills with bric-a-brac that it feels like one of those Mad Magazine pages where the gags literally extend past the panels and into the margins. There are a number of throwaway gags that I found funny, such as the electric train at the dinner table that dispenses condiments while playing “Wabash Cannonball,” to the revelation of what really happened to a certain one-time Teamsters boss. There is a delightful non-sequitur sequence in which hip-hop group Digital Underground (including an impossibly young Tupac Shakur) face the Judge but win favor after performing “Same Song” in his court.
While Chase is a pain and Moore is largely a non-entity, Candy manage to take the hoariest gag imaginable—a guy dressed as a woman—and gets some genuine laughs out of it. Likewise, Aykroyd is clearly having a grand time as the Judge, and, even despite the cuts and meddling, this film is clearly a product of the same unique sensibility that fueled so many memorably off-kilter SNL sketches back in the day. Rather than just make a formulaic comedy that would have been an easier sell, and which might have furthered his cinematic ambitions, he decided to shoot for the moon on a scale rarely granted to a first-time filmmaker. He may have ultimately struck out, commercially speaking, but based on the evidence, he sure went down swinging.
When Nothing But Trouble was released, the results were catastrophic: critics hated it and audiences flocked to its chief new competitor at the box-office that weekend, a little thing called The Silence of the Lambs. Ironically, Moore—who was just hitting superstar status at the time—was the only one who came out completely unscathed. After this one tanked, Chase’s days as a leading man were numbered, and Aykroyd would never get another opportunity to direct.
Nothing But Trouble is a true misfit movie, and even though I harbor an undeniable affection for it, I’m not sure that I would make a point of recommending it to anyone unless I knew them and their tastes fairly well. That said, I have seen any number of SNL-inspired comedies over the years that are so tired, boring and unfunny that merely sitting through them is a struggle. This one, on the other hand, is a shot of pure weirdness that is so far off the beaten comedic path that it does exert a strange fascination that cannot be denied. You may love it or hate it but either way, you won’t forget it.
BTW—it will always be Valkenvania to me.