Nothing but Trouble
Valkenvania’s a better title. Dan Aykroyd had that part right. He had to get something right in this monstrous misfire, which fails to ring the laughs or the horror, yet succeeds in being extremely grotesque, to the point of unpleasantness. Nothing but Trouble was a famous bomb, although one that’s now largely forgotten, since there were other more enormous bombs the same year, including Hudson Hawk and Highlander II: The Quickening. It also rather helped, along with Eddie Murphy’s Harlem Nights, to draw a line under that generation of SNL players as movie superstars (fortunately, Mike Myers was waiting in the wings). A revisit confirms it’s essentially the same mess it was the last time I saw it thirty years ago, but not without a certain repellent fascination.
The idea came from Aykroyd’s own speeding incident, whereby he was clocked in the middle of nowhere. It was written with his brother Peter, and Dan agreed to direct (and play dual roles) after Johns Hughes and Landis, and Ivan Reitman, rejected the screenplay. It seems Aykroyd was even angling to play the Chevy Chase role before Warner Bros suggested another name (and rejected Jeff Goldblum). Quite why they’d have been willing to put all their eggs in an Aykroyd basket is anyone’s guess. It wasn’t as if he’d proven himself a draw flying solo. So it may be they thought Chase – also not exactly setting the world on fire by that point, excepting any Vacation sequels – might ignite some kind of notional alchemy. After all, Aykroyd had been a co-player in a string of ’80s hits (The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, Ghostbusters x2, Spies Like Us, Dragnet). He’d also, as writer (The Blues Brothers, Ghostbusters, Spies Like Us, Dragnet), never scored less than a modest success.
And this was supernatural too. Aykroyd was like a Slimer in ectoplasm with supernatural fare. Plus, the public loved spooky comedies (Beetlejuice). That may have been the thinking, if any exec assessment was even that extensive. Of course, when you throw in references to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (one Aykroyd himself made), you’re on less solid footing. Horror comedies had a rich tradition, but gross-out ones? You needed to be Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson to have that (niche) appeal. Like any such movie, then, Nothing but Trouble has been rewarded with cult status, such that almost a fifth of IMDB reviews give it full marks (only eclipsed by the number of reviews giving it 1/10).
The finished picture’s release was pushed back from December 1990 to February 1991, in order to tone down the violence, but the queasy tone remains in full force. We see Daniel Baldwin and his drug-dealer pals made to take a ride on rollercoaster Mr Bonestripper, which does what it says on the tin. Later, Judge Alvin Valkenheiser (Aykroyd) serves up some very dubious-looking hotdog sausages to his “guests”.
It’s the prosthetics that are most nightmarish, however, with Chase’s Chris Thorne (subjectively?) seeing Alvin’s nose transform into a penis. Later, 106-year old Alvin removes his wig and nose as he goes to bed. Alvin’s grandchildren Bobo (Aykroyd) and Lil’ Debbull (John Daveikis) are six-foot mutant foetal mud babies. By comparison, Candy’s drag act (he plays Bobo’s son Dennis and daughter Eldona) is positively innocuous.
Aykroyd (per Starlog) had it that his world was the real deal: “What transpires in this film really comes from American life… I know that there are people like this out among us”. But even with ace DP Dean Cundey lensing Nothing but Trouble, he only extracts the sense of a movie shot on an expansive set. There’s none of the unsettling nature of Tobe Hooper’s film or The X-Files’ later Home: just cartoonishness without laughs.
There seems to be an idea threaded in here that the murder victims have it coming, hence the drug dealers, and headlines of “Ex-Nazi rocket scientist disappears”, “Escaped killer’s trail evaporates” and “Hoffa – still missing”; Thorne, Alvin believes, is a banker who deserves a similar fate (Thorne insists he is actually a financial publisher); if that’s the case, the “Busload of Hari Krishnas disappears” clipping is what, a gag? Like Miami Blues Krishna humour?
That would also be the reason the judge lets Digital Underground go (members including Shock-G and one Tupac Shakur). Whose performance of Same Song, in which Alvin joins in on the organ, is the movie’s absolute highlight. Aykroyd suddenly slides into a confident groove, and Nothing but Trouble is briefly delighted with its own strangeness in an absurdly infectious way.
Coming a close second is the third-act Invasion of the Body Snatchers-esque reveal that, when Thorne and Diane (Moore) lead the authorities to Valkenvania, the latter are all fully on board with the judge’s illicit activities (“Alvin is something, isn’t he? And since you know, what you know, we’re going to have to come to some kind of agreement”). That’s pretty much a slam dunk for the conspiracy minded, regardless of whether Alvin’s town was reprehensibly undone by the United Coke company; Nothing but Trouble suggests Elite-mandated cannibalism, a cabal of secret, covert degeneracy among the ruling classes, underground mutations and inbreeding. And since Aykroyd loves his conspiracy theories – besides being part of the Hollywood establishment so quite feasibly up to his armpits in the same; why else would you make a movie quite so distasteful? – that may well be intentional.
Elsewhere, no one is able to ignite a spark, although “Brazillionaires” Valri Bromfield (Miss Purdah) and Taylor Negron (Fausto Squiriniszu) do their best, employing eccentric South American accents. As Negron – much more effective as Milo in the same year’s Last Boy Scout – tells it, they also improvised their own dialogue. The mutant twins are just grim, and if Aykroyd’s clearly having a ball as the judge, it’s only in the Digital Underground scene that he becomes comically engaging (a point of comparison might be the also grotesque elder Lo Pan in Big Trouble in Little China, where the performance is transfixing rather than simply repulsive).
Chase is expectedly barely there. Apparently, he behaved appallingly on set, expressing himself through loud farts. Early on, there’s a hint of his trademark deadpan (“Thanks for the espresso maker. And the bag of shit”) but no one bothered to give him anything funny to do or say, and simply trying to let down Eldona down gently isn’t enough. Candy’s alternately affable (Dennis) and lightly amusing (Eldona), but again, the material doesn’t give him the best opportunity.
As for Demi, who has been suggested as prominent force in Hollywood’s satanic elite, with the messed-up kids to prove it, Ghost came out while Nothing but Trouble was still filming. It seems she was away to her trailer from the start (that, or attending sabbats). One can’t really blame her (the trailer part, I mean), but then, she was also married to Mr Prima Donna at that point, since hubby was able to lay claim to the year’s most spectacularly out-of-control movie.
Valkenvania is reported by Wiki as costing $40m and variously stated as having gone $5m over budget: “I joyously spent $80 million of Warner Bros money on the movie I directed” claimed Akyroyd, per Wild and Crazy Guys (Nick de Semlyen). Candy pal Bob Crane was on set and commented “It was pure excess. A huge production for Dan to bite off as his first directorial effort. The premise just got too far out, the egos were rampant, and they were given to much money. They were in way over their heads”. Not helping matters was Aykroyd, initially at any rate, encouraging directing by committee, with each star having their own monitor and calling for retakes.
He was sanguine about the picture’s failure, incorrectly blaming the proximity of Sleeping with the Enemy and The Silence of the Lambs and suggesting, with Moore’s star power – the truth being, as the year’s other Demi toppers The Butcher’s Wife and Mortal Thoughts proved, she had none – it should have done better. Even without the subject matter, it’s debatable a comedy headlining Chase and Aykroyd would have struck gold at this point. Another year, and Wayne’s World was where comedy tastes lay. Dan was still eking out movie success, but in supporting turns, rather than Coneheads. And Chase was finished (see Memoirs of an Invisible Man). Valkenvania deserved to bomb, but it also deserves discovery as a curiosity; it’s one yielding unsettling subtexts, while being a fair way off from a cult commodity of quality.
First published by Now in Full Color on 29/03/22.