1987 Week: ‘The Garbage Pail Kids Movie’ is an exercise in miserable ugliness

This week on Vanyaland we are celebrating all things 1987 with a look back at moments, trends, and icons in the worlds of music and film. Follow along #V87.

Seven years before artist Art Spiegelman would win the Pulitzer Prize for his comic masterpiece Maus and usher in the age of “the graphic novel,” he joined his longtime employers, the trading card company Topps, with whom he’d previously created the Wacky Packages series of cards in the 1960s, to make a parody of the then-popular Cabbage Patch Kids dolls. They were full of gross-out puns based around topical things, meant to appeal to children with the kind of wonderfully scatalogical sense of humor that’s forever defined adolescence to culture at large, and of course, they became a colossal hit. The Garbage Pail Kids would hit the stands in 1985, and they’d become a cultural phenomenon for much of the ’80s. Teachers hated them, and claimed they were a massive distraction in the classroom. Parents hated them too, for pretty obvious reasons, but still they endured. And, like all things popular with children in the ’80s, pretty soon after a movie followed.

The Garbage Pail Kids Movie is an exercise in miserable ugliness, made possible by adults misunderstanding the quick-chuckle appeal of these cards and attempting to graft a narrative around them in what might be the creepiest way possible. It’s directed by journeyman hack Rod Amateau, who brought nothing to the picture beyond his utter disgust and boredom. There’s a tactile grossness in every single frame of this film, something that might actually be appealing, perhaps, to an audience inoculated by prior exposure to true trash cinema, but would most likely send children running down the aisles, shitting themselves with fear. And frankly, it’s only been eclipsed in awfulness by Leonard Part 6 because the star of that film allegedly drugged and sexually assaulted a ton of women, which adds a whole new layer of grime on an already sordid affair there. But for sheer tactile awfulness, it’s hard to think of another movie that comes close. A friend who gracefully decided to come over and watch this dumpster fire with me described it as “Kuso for kids,” but Kuso has so much good stuff in it! This… this is nothing like that.

You’d think The Garbage Pail Kids Movie would tell a story about one of the featured kids on the cards, but you’d be miserably wrong. Instead, we’re introduced to bullied teen Dodger (Mackenzie Astin, who later would go on to be a moderately successful character actor in films like Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco), who gets his lunch money stolen by a cool-ass meathead named Juice (Ron MacLachlan) who wears fingerless driving gloves and pink t-shirts under blazers and smokes cigarettes in the way that all quintessential ’80s villains do.

Let’s just cut it short: I love Juice and his gang, because they should be out there in the world getting mixed up with Goth Vampires who like Sax Solos instead of settling for the three bucks a week that this twerp earns at his crummy day job. Anyways, after a particularly bad bullying sesh where he’s tossed in a mud puddle, Dodger heads back to the Antique Shop that he works at, which is run by an old magician named Captain Manzini (Anthony Newley, the English songwriter who wrote, amongst other things, “Feeling Good” and the soundtrack to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and co-wrote “Goldfinger”), where the good magician gets him to take off his clothes so he can clean them with magic (ewwww). This begins a semiotically fraught relationship between Dodger and the significantly older Manzini, and boy, does the subtext here get to be a little much over the course of the film.

Manzini’s got a trashcan in his junk shack for whatever reason, and he doesn’t want whatever’s in it to get out. A few days (or hours?) later, the bullies show up again after Dodger flirts with Juice’s best girl, and beat the living hell out of him, knocking the trash can over, right before they throw him into the sewers. There’s some fun Mad Magazine-style humor in this sequence, where different pipes in the sewer are labelled depending on what kind of shit they’re carrying — “Primetime TV” reads one — and the bullies open up a sewage pipe and let the shit rain down on top of Dodger, who’s out for the count. The residents of the trashcan, the Garbage Pail Kids themselves, come down and save our boy Dodger’s life, and proceed to start fucking things up from the minute they appear in the film. They’re played by little people in horrible prosthetics, and I’ll give you a roll-call of all of the personas that appear in this film. We’ve got:

Greaser Greg, who’s basically an asshole version of the Fonz, who likes to gut motherfuckers with his switchblade and molest other members of the gang while playing “doctor”;

Valerie Vomit, whom I bet you can’t guess what she does, and who has a crush on Dodger,
Ali Gator, the half-alligator, half-man hybrid with a knack for trouble and the consumption of other human beings (who also works well as a literal depiction of what it’s like to be in Gainesville on a fall Saturday afternoon);

Foul Phil, a big ol’ baby who’s always searching for his mother;

Nat Nerd, a pustule-packed geek who dresses like Superman and pisses himself at any opportunity;

Windy Winston, who farts hard;

And Messy Tessy, who’s full of oozing snot and dresses like she lives on the prairie in pioneer days.

Christ help us all.

For me, the problem isn’t with the vomiting or the pissing or the farting or the snot or any of the gross characteristics that these characters are given in lieu of actual personalities, it’s the horrific approach to actualizing an art style that was never meant to be displayed physically. There’s a genre on the the internet of art like this, pictures meant for you to see how gross it’d look for a human being to actually have Homer Simpson’s features as they’re rendered in the show, or how terrifying it’d be to encounter Ren and Stimpy out there in the world; and this might be the first example of it. The Kids have ugly misshapen heads, and their features are cold and lifeless in the most nightmarish way imaginable. Their mouths can barely move, and their eyes are utterly devoid of anything resembling human emotion. They’re just walking monsters, hard to stomach or look at, and even though the film wants you to take their side, to root against them going to the State Home for the Ugly (an actual location in the film itself), it’s hard not to just turn the fucking television off moments after they appear for the first time.

Of course, instead of burning down the shop and running away in horror, Dodger decides that he’s gonna use his newfound friends as a sweatshop to try and impress the girl he likes, Tangerine (Katie Barberi), the abused girlfriend of Juice and an amateur clothing designer who sells her wares in front of a nightclub. Seriously! There must have once been an earnest attempt for the movie to link blow and clothing at one point — hell, it’s the fabulous ’80s — but nothing ever really comes of it. Anyways, the Kids put themselves to work, and make them shitloads of clothing, while singing a goofy little song about how if they work together they can do anything they want to. It’s a criminally lazy musical number with just awful choreography, and it’s perhaps the least endearing thing you could do at that moment. You’re fucking space aliens from outer space, Kids! Rise up! Don’t help this kid out with his love life or anything else! They only things you have to lose are your chains!

And sure enough, they do! They sneak out in trenchcoats and blue-blockers to go to the movies, where a Three Stooges short plays on the screen behind them as they wreak havoc upon the patrons of the theater. This is a half-hearted attempt to suggest that their gross-out humor is in the same league as the slapstick masters, and would, perhaps, be more valid or funny if the movie itself weren’t anything but a shameless cash-in on the unexpected success of some trading cards. They get in bar fights afterwards, and our boy Dodger continues to be a fashion hero for whatever reason, and things build towards a climax so underwhelming and boring that those that haven’t already thrown the DVD out the window will probably want to. It’s just… horrible!

I normally have a hard time understanding people who freak out about the death of cinema because of product placement — i.e., the critics who insisted that something like Transformers: The Movie would be the end of the world — but that film looks like Citizen Kane compared to this, in stature and intelligence. Sure enough, movies like this will always exist, and will always come and go across our screens: Just look at The Emoji Movie, which came out what feels like a year ago at this point. Very rarely, however, will they be this memorably empty and ugly and shameless.

Congratulations, 1987. Between this and everything else I’ve written about this week, it’s hard not to condemn you as one of the worst years for cinema in history. Sure! Sure! There’s loads of good stuff. But it’s not ‘86, or ‘99, or ‘07, which saw their fair share of bad movie as well, but ultimately gave us a lot of really great work from some master directors and some up-and-coming talent. The Garbage Pail Kids is the nadir of ’80s filmmaking; a rare synthesis of everything that people hate about the movies of that era offered up as tribute to the dark god Mammon, so potent that each time you watch it, you let a few demons back into the world. And thank Christ that era’s over.

Oh, no. They’re thinking of rebooting it.

Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.