The Most Misunderstood Movie: 1991's Nothing but Trouble
We've been debating for awhile which should be the first movie we should write about here on Movie Meanings. And many films earn the distinction of being included in our hallowed halls, but this film gets to be first. Nothing But Trouble is a work that notoriously divides audiences since its 1991 release. On the one hand, it's a cult classic. On the other hand, it gets loud raspberries from the people who expected something else. Browse the viewer reviews at IMDB and you'll see both pan reviews from people who hated it, and tearful defense from fans who adored it.
One problem with this film is that people came to it expecting something else. It starred Chevy Chase and John Candy, with Dan Aykroyd doing triple duty writing, directing, and playing a major role as the antagonist. By those credits, you should expect a light-hearted laugh-fest mashup of Ghostbusters and the SCTV TV series. Instead you get a pitch-black nightmare that borders on real horror.
Make no mistake, the comedy here is on the midnight end of the sliding scale of dark to light comedy. To start with, there's this roller coaster that kills victims by dumping them onto a conveyor belt feeding into a grinding machine, affectionately called "Mr. Bonestripper." A damsel in distress (did we mention Demi Moore?) is chained to a palette minutes away from being diced by falling heavy blades that look like they could chop through a car. Various rooms open their doors to reveal tombstones, walls of crying baby dolls, the mummy in the basement from Alfred Hitchcock's em>Psycho, and the state IDs of thousands of former victims. A slide ride ends in a headfirst crash into a pile of human femur bones.
It is also irrepressibly weird. For starters, John Candy plays dual roles, one of them as a mute female. The male role he plays is absolutely straight, even starting off as a villain but becoming sympathetic and earning a happy ending for himself. The main funny comes from Chase and Aykroyd, and of course the indescribably bizarre setting and circumstances.
It's about time we told you the plot: Chase, Moore, and two Brazilian tag-alongs get together for a business trip that turns into an attempt at a picnic, but they get lost and take a wrong turn into weird country. When Chase runs a stop sign, the local constable pulls him over after a brief chase and takes him in to see the judge. This turns out to be a life-altering event for all four protagonists, because the judge (Aykroyd) is a chaotic evil Lovecraftian entity presiding from a mansion of horrors best described as "Frankenstein's steampunk junkyard" (this will make sense after you see it). The judge is a hanging one of the kind that would give Roy Bean the shivers and even give Vlad the Impaler a run for his money for his sadistic inventiveness. The judge's mansion is a combination of funhouse and slaghterhouse, with pits, conveyor belts, deadly traps, and secret passages at every turn. There is apparently no escape for the protagonists, who will have to fight for their lives to survive the judge's madness and his weird redneck family relentlessly hunting them down.
If this sounds like they blew out the budget on the crazy, you haven't heard the half of it yet. The sets are the first word in Industrial Gothic, with amazing piles of crap everywhere. Schoolbusses stacked like Legos, piles of toasters, a forest of those giant Muffler Man statues, and basically every junkyard in New Jersey dumped together in a pile form the surrounding terrain, presided over by two ridiculous twins, depicted as grisly giant babies in rubber suits and diapers.
OK, now what the heck does this movie mean?
In the first place, it does for psychological horror movies what Ghostbusters did for supernatural horror movies. We weren't kidding when we said "Industrial Gothic"; it practically invents the style. It's also a parody that only a true-blood horror movie buff would get. There's homages to everything from Hitchcock to John Carpenter here. Every spooky movie cliche, from mechanized death traps to secret passages behind sliding bookshelves to the old eyes-cut-out-of-a-painting with somebody peeping through them bit, is played deadpan straight.
What's really going on here is a cultural showcase of the horrors of the Industrial Age. Set in New Jersey, and yet wandering into a lost, disenfranchised, anarchic zone in the middle of it thanks to one wrong turn, the story evokes back-woods horror classics such as Deliverance. The underground coal fire that's been burning for years? There's a real one like it in Centralia, Pennsylvania. The moat of toxic sludge surrounding the place? That's the Love Canal. And of course, the judge, who goes beyond abusing his authority to becoming a demented count ruling a small feifdom (and whom continues to practice with the silent approval of the US legal system), invokes every story of police and legal brutality you've been hearing about for decades.
It is one of the most uniquely American horror movies ever made, and a big old sloppy valentine to the Gothic side of the Rust Belt at that. What Terry Gilliam's Brazil did for 20th-century bureaucracy, Nothing But Trouble did for 20th century law enforcement.
But yeah, it's still a comedy. A dark, dark, friggin' DARK comedy made all the darker because you can half-way identify if you've ever had to deal with traffic court (Aykroyd was supposedly inspired by getting a real-life traffic ticket), but comedy none the less.
On a side note: Yes, there is a famous musical cameo thrown into the movie featuring (this is out of nowhere) Digital Underground with Tupac Shakur! It's probably the best-known aspect of the movie now. It's pitched in mainly to fill space and because Digital Underground seemed to need some publicity, but the cameo makes the movie better because it provided a refreshing break from the grisly insanity and the band gets in some of the best lines.
It also adds yet another monkey wrench to this film. Even its fans will admit that it has some flaws, most notably being too cerebral to appeal to the masses and too gross-out to appeal to the eggheads. What it is, more than anything, is just plain crazy, and it's kind of a shame that original, one-of-a-kind freaks like this don't get made more often.