The Lost World of Valkenvania: Celebrating Dan Aykroyd’s ‘Nothing but Trouble’

by Chris van Dijk
Nothing but Trouble

The 15th of February marked the 30th anniversary of Nothing but Trouble, which to date, is Dan Aykroyd’s only directorial feature. Hailed as both a critical and commercial flop at the time, I do have a feeling it’s starting to accumulate a tiny cult following. Looking back on it, I strongly believe this film deserves a reappraisal.

It’s certainly not some misunderstood masterpiece, but it’s a film that continually fascinates me. It’s also one of those films that was compromised mightily by the studio after poor test screenings. But even in its compromised form, the film remains a fascinatingly wacky and slightly macabre comedy that to this day, still hasn’t received a proper Blu-ray release.

One wishes that this film would one day receive the exclusive Blu-ray treatment from a company like Shout Factory. The disc would be filled with extras, interviews from the surviving cast and crew — though it’s highly unlikely Chevy Chase would make himself available for this. Naturally, there would also be a commentary track by Aykroyd himself.

Even better, the original cut would be restored in HD form. We would see Aykroyd’s vision as it was meant to be. It probably will never happen, but even so, even a barebones release would be nice.

So join me, as I celebrate the 30th anniversary of this fascinatingly bizarre, insanely creative, funhouse horror-comedy, Nothing but Trouble.

The Origins of Valkenvania

If you have never seen the film, or have forgotten it completely, here is a short synopsis for some context: Chris Thorne (Chevy Chase), a financial publisher, is asked by a high-priced lawyer, Diane (Demi Moore) to drive her to meet some clients in Atlantic City. Two rich Brazilian siblings, Fausto (Taylor Negron) and Miss Purdah (Valri Bromfield) join them on the way. These four yuppies drive into a strange, little town called Valkenvania.

After being pulled over for speeding by a local cop, Dennis (John Candy), the four are forced to stand trial in the mansion of the local Justice of the Peace. Once they arrive there, they meet the film’s decrepit antagonist, the 106-year old Judge Alvin Valkenheiser (Dan Aykroyd), who wields his own brand of macabre justice. It soon becomes clear that leaving Valkenvania is no easy task, especially when the Judge takes a particular interest in Chris.

The story of Nothing but Trouble (a generic title apparently chosen by studio executives) was concocted by Peter Aykroyd with the script written by brother Dan. The initial inspiration came from an incident in 1977, when Aykroyd was pulled over for speeding in a small town in Upstate New York. Instead of paying for the ticket and moving along, he was brought to the local Justice of the Peace, where he received a fine for speeding. Afterward, he spent the afternoon drinking tea with the Judge. As you can see, this became the genesis of the NBT’s plot.

Aykroyd wanted to make a horror-comedy, in the style of Beetlejuice and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Surface-wise, the plot does resemble a horror film, with a group of people stuck in a nightmarish mansion hosted by a murderous judge. But in Aykroyd’s hands, you get something far, far weirder.

It’s not scary, but it’s memorably grotesque. If you’ve never seen this film, you’ve likely seen glimpses of the infamous hotdog scene. The original cut was darker, reportedly even more graphic. It would have given this film an R rating and it would have likely steered the film a little closer to horror.

The overall film is closer to an absurdist comedy. It’s a film that bombards you with so much weirdness. There’s Mr. Bonestripper, a rollercoaster/means of capital punishment, where the unfortunate souls who ride the rollercoaster to the end will have their flesh stripped from their bones (notice the haughty laughter by the Bonestripper after it has ripped the flesh of its victims). There’s Bobo and L’il Debbull — gigantic mutant manbabies who like to play cards; the fun rap-fueled interlude (which includes the film debut of Tupac Shakur); there’s John Candy in drag; there’s Dan Aykroyd with a penis for a nose. All this weirdness came straight from Aykroyd’s insane creativity — and the freedom he gave the crew to create the unforgettable world of Valkenvania.

The Wonderful Character of Dan Aykroyd

Nothing but Trouble came in $5 million over budget. The reason for this is because Dan gave his crew free rein to design whatever was on their mind. Since the malicious Judge Valkenheiser had a mechanical engineering degree, the crew filled his mansion with gadgets and props. From the design of the Bonestripper to the train set carrying the phone condiments, all of this was permitted by Aykroyd.

Normally the studio — Warner Bros. in this case — would put a stop to this, but lucky for Aykroyd and his crew, they were too busy dealing with the behind-the-scenes madness of their big-budgeted adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of Vanities.

Even though the finished cut was compromised by the studio, what’s on the screen is the result of the enormous creative freedom Aykroyd permitted to the cast and crew.

Needless to say, the crew loved working with Aykroyd, except for one particularly difficult man…

The Troublesome Character of Chevy Chase

Admittedly, Nothing but Trouble has its problems, starting with its leading man, Chevy Chase. When Chase was offered the script, he didn’t even like it. But the thought of working with his friend and fellow Spies Like Us co-star intrigued him. The studio loved the idea of having Chase star in the film. At the time, Chase was still considered a decent box-office draw, though his career would stagnate swiftly after Nothing but Trouble, especially with his ill-attempt at being a late-show host. He was paid substantially more than any other cast member of the film.

If you don’t know, Chase is infamous for being difficult to work with — and basically being a pain in the ass. This started after he left SNL in its first year, in 1975, to begin his Hollywood career, and the success he accumulated led to some notorious prima-donna behavior. When he returned to SNL in 1978 for a guest-host appearance, he acted like a big bully, ordering people around or demeaning them for no sensible reason. John Belushi hated him and so did Bill Murray, who famously even got into a physical altercation with Chase, who was then hailed by The New York Magazine as “the heir apparent of Johnny Carson”, praise that surely didn’t help Chase’s already bloated ego.

As Chase’s success increased during the eighties, his character didn’t improve much. The moniker “difficult to work with” followed him around, continuing well into 1991 on the set of Nothing but Trouble. Reportedly, he was verbally abusive to the crew. He yelled at Aykroyd, telling the first-time director he was worthless since Chase’s paycheck was three times greater.

This might be somewhat forgivable to the viewer if his performance was noteworthy, but alas, it’s clear from Chase’s detached performance that he had no faith in the film. Some blame could be given to the inexperience of Dan Aykroyd as a director, since Aykroyd gave free rein to the actors to direct their own performance. But in comparison to the rest of the case, Chase stands out as the weak link.

As a protagonist, Chris Thorne is wholly unlikeable. The typical smarmy delivery from Chase works against him, and you find yourself rooting for the Judge rather than Chris. Perhaps it was the intention for the character to be unlikable, especially with his upper-class status, yet for a story like this, you need to empathize at some level with the protagonist. This is a character who suddenly finds himself surrounded by madmen, trying to escape a place that seems committed to keeping him there. It’s similar to the surreal journey of Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours. Paul isn’t necessarily a typically nice person, yet you kind of feel for him in such a situation.

There’s no intensity to Chase’s performance, no sense that he fears for his life. Perhaps his burgeoning on-screen romance between Diane and him saving her life, was to make him more likable, but the utter lack of chemistry between Chase and Demi Moore completely ruins this.

Occasionally, Chase has a funny moment, especially in that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment when the Judge’s nose suddenly looks like a penis. But overall, Chase is definitely the weak link of the cast.

Unfortunately, Chase would continue his bad behavior, right onto the set of the acclaimed TV show, Community. As fans of the show will know, his eventual departure from the show was caused by his behavior against the cast and crew. It seems that Chevy will never learn. (Also, he’s notoriously mean to certain fans, as comedian Rob Huebel can attest to.)

All That Was Lost

Watching Nothing but Trouble now, I do mourn the scenes that were cut from the studio. I couldn’t find much information on what exactly was cut, but if I were to guess, we would probably have seen more of John Candy’s character Dennis and the Brazillionaires, as well as some more grotesque imagery and confirmation that the hotdogs were made out of human flesh. In my mind, it would only make the film even more memorable — and possibly might have given it a better critical reception.

But due to the bad reception, and the effort it takes to assemble the deleted scenes (even if they weren’t destroyed), Aykroyd is probably not interested in revisiting this forgotten oddity. But who knows, stranger things have happened — we did actually get a Deadwood film.

All this nonsense about #ReleaseTheSnyderCut — who cares!? Bring us Dan Aykroyd’s original cut of Nothing but Trouble! Whoever is reading this, if you know Aykroyd, tell him the good people want to see more! Give us more scenes with the immortal John Candy. Give us more of Valkenvania. The Bonestripper is waiting for those who waste the Judge’s time, Mr. Aykroyd.

You don’t want to keep the Judge waiting too long now, do you?


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1 comment

Nick Kush February 23, 2021 - 9:43 am

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