**/**** Image B+ Sound C
starring Anthony Newley, Mackenzie Astin, Katie Barbieri, "The Garbage Gang"
screenplay by Melinda Palmer & Rod Amateau
directed by Rod Amateau
by Alex Jackson I don't think that there is any getting around the fact that any true connoisseur of trash cinema has to see Rodney Amateau's The Garbage Pail Kids Movie. This was, after all, the feature film debut of Mackenzie Astin, a.k.a. the horny kid from "The Facts of Life", and of Spanish soap star Katie Barbieri. Just as the picture marked the start of a career for some, it marked the end of a career for others. The presence of child star, singer, and Joan Collins's bitchy ex-husband Anthony Newley is a chief selling point in the film's trailer, but he was on his way out. And The Garbage Pail Kids Movie was the last feature from television director Amateau, who seems to have viewed it as his own personal Fanny and Alexander, taking on writing and producing chores in addition to casting other Amateaus (J.P. and Chloe) in minor roles.
Most notably (to me, at least), the special effects and make-up were the product of John Carl Buechler, the B-movie veteran who had directed Troll the year previous and went on to helm Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood the following year. Little-person actor Phil Fondacaro, also a veteran of B horror movies (having starred as the troll in Troll under Buechler's direction!), plays the "Garbage Pail Kid" Greaser Greg. Of course, the film's strangest credit has to be "A Topps Chewing Gum Production." Children's entertainment in the 1980s was hardly top-of-the-line. When we weren't getting cartoons imported from France or live-action programming imported from Canada, we had entire television series based on action figures--basically half-hour long commercials for Mattel that actively blurred the line between the product and the promotion. The Garbage Pail Kids Movie is a film in the same model: it's a feature-length film based on a series of trading cards, and as such it serves as handy specimen of a corporate mindset that has nothing but contempt for the nation's youth--and nothing but greed for their allowance money.
Nothing I have written about the film up to this point indicates that I have actually watched The Garbage Pail Kids Movie so much as simply investigated the credits on the IMDb and gushed over them. The reason I've done this, of course, is that the actual content of The Garbage Pail Kids Movie is utterly irrelevant when measured against the very novelty of its existence. Astin, Barbieri, Newley, and Fondacaro needn't do anything interesting in the film, they simply have to grace us with their presence. A movie about the Garbage Pail Kids needn't do anything interesting with them, as long as it actually contains Garbage Pail Kids and uses the title The Garbage Pail Kids Movie. In line with its collector's-item roots, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie is a true fetish object. While its value is probably significantly reduced now that it has gone from out-of-print VHS title to widely-available DVD, one could still safely say that it's infinitely more fun to own it than it is to watch it.
Dodger (Astin) is in love with Tangerine (Barbieri), but she thinks he is a total geek! What's more, Tangerine is going with Juice (Ron MacLachlan), who is prone to insane bouts of jealousy and freely beats up and humiliates Dodger for the slightest infraction. One afternoon, Dodger spots Tangerine window-shopping at the antique shop where he works. He invites her in and is trying to sell her some knick-knacks in an attempt to get her to stay when Juice spots the two of them. In the resulting battle, Juice knocks over a magic garbage pail that is to never be opened. And so are released the Garbage Pail Kids: mutant children each with a unique disgusting habit. Messy Tessie has a constantly running nose, Ali Gator is an alligator that eats toes, Foul Phil is a baby with really bad breath, Windy Winston farts, Valerie Vomit vomits, Nat Nerd wets himself, and Greaser Greg is a '50s greaser. The kids decide to help Dodger win Tangerine if he will agree to help them find their friends at the State Home for the Ugly.
I must say there is a lot in this movie that is bad in a fruitful way. Juice is roughly fifteen years older than Dodger and in his first scene hangs him up by his feet and steals the money out of his wallet. Juice seems to need a lot of money. He takes all of Tangerine's earnings from selling clothes and later captures and turns in the Garbage Pail Kids to the State Home for the Ugly for bounty. The '80s-centric music, clothes, and hairstyles have a sincerity that makes them ripe for derision, especially the clothes, since they're integral to the plot (Tangerine sells them, and the Garbage Pail Kids manufacture them to help Dodger impress her) and the characters therefore have to regard them as cool and stylish. The highlight of the picture is easily a musical number that appears halfway through and genuinely shocks for its sheer needlessness. The film does exhibit some wit, though. Just a little bit. If you look quick, you'll see that the guy in the State Home for the Ugly labelled "Too Short" is Toulouse-Lautrec.
But there is also a whole lot in the film that is bad in a just-bad way. Despite their innately archetypal nature, the Garbage Pail Kids don't have distinguishable personalities, and Amateau derives very little humour from them. A scene in a movie theatre is an utter waste of celluloid, lacking in the most basic internal logic: the Garbage Pail Kids torment the other moviegoers, who never seem to really react. Do they understand that the Garbage Pail Kids are not human? If so, then why aren't they alarmed? Most of the jokes are just plain lame. The guy in the State Home for the Ugly labelled "Too Fat" is Santa Claus. After ugly-people catchers from the State Home for the Ugly catch a little girl, she reveals that she was wearing a mask. The catchers tell her that she should only wear masks on Halloween. In addition to this more innocent brand of stupidity, there is the usual lot of fart jokes, booger jokes, pee jokes, et cetera. (I mean, this is The Garbage Pail Kids Movie.) Gross-out humour can work well if used right, of course. The original card series, designed to parody the sickly sweet and insanely popular Cabbage Patch Kids dolls, had an angry, nasty charge. They were iconoclastic for the sake of being iconoclastic--like the current work of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, they had no real political consciousness and would break down aesthetic and moral institutions without rebuilding new ones. Ah, but they worked pretty well for what they were. It was a big fuck-you to the Cabbage Patch Kids and everything they represented. Punk rock for kiddies.
The film of course neutralizes much of what made the trading cards so daring and (un)attractive. An obsession with death and body mutilation has been simplified into an obsession with farts and pee, and despite frequent references to cannibalism in the series, the only people-eater that surfaces on-screen is an alligator. Even more problematic, the filmmakers half-heartedly try to lay on a message about true ugliness being on the inside. I suppose they felt a responsibility to make the film at least somewhat nourishing, but they've wound up losing their cake and not getting to eat it. The Garbage Pail Kids must, on some level, be regarded as rebels, and to do this they must also be moderately ugly on the inside--thus compromising the supposed message of the picture. But the very presence of the "true ugliness is on the inside" moral keeps the filmmakers from having the Kids ever doing anything truly despicable, preventing them from fulfilling their intended purpose. Anybody who really believes that ugliness is on the inside will still consider the insides of these kids pretty unappealing, while anybody who likes the Garbage Pail Kids for their repulsiveness is sure to find this movie version pretty soggy.
At the end of the picture, Tangerine, having betrayed the Garbage Pail Kids and exploited Dodger, comes crawling on her hands and knees back to him asking for forgiveness. He refutes her, saying, "I don't think you're pretty anymore." This somehow feels a little cruel, considering that we see that Tangerine is caught in a very abusive relationship and is trying to earn enough money to leave town (and probably Juice) to pursue her dreams. That she puts this above Dodger's feelings is hardly excusable, but it's understandable. There is a modicum of complexity here. Given the weakness of the film's supposed moral, I'm not convinced that Dodger is refuting Tangerine simply because she has a black heart.
Usually with a plot like this, the hero learns that the unobtainable woman was never worth obtaining and will end up with the nice obtainable woman he now realizes is really great. There is no nice obtainable woman in The Garbage Pail Kids Movie; Dodger's happy ending is celibacy. I think, then, that the real reason Dodger refutes Tangerine is because he has learned that sexual desire, all sexual desire, leads to nothing but trouble. This explains, I think, why he pulls away into the shadows in terror when he sees Tangerine remove her shirt. It also explains what, exactly, the Garbage Pail Kids are rebelling against when they redirect a sewage pipe into the drain of a bathing couple's hot tub. It seems that Juice, Tangerine, and their circle of friends are not hated merely because they're mean, but because their tank tops and Jersey hair represent an evil sexual charge, too. After all, the film doesn't offer any model for a positive form of sexuality. (Admittedly, this doesn't explain why Amateau has Messy Tessie and Greaser Greg play doctor off-screen. I can only offer that I wish there were more scenes like that--and given that Messy Tessie refutes him, perhaps it's Greaser Greg's sexual desires and not his rude way of going about them that is his real "dirty habit.")
In the aftermath of the recent "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" debacle, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie serves as a reminder of how deep our fear of any hint of sexuality in even the most subversive of children's entertainment really goes. It's like the final frontier, the one thing that is totally off-limits for children to think about or orient themselves with in any regard. (There is, notably, no sexual content in the card series, either.) The hidden message of The Garbage Pail Kids Movie is that boogers and urine may be gross, but sex goes beyond gross: it's evil. Whatever else you kids do, all is easily forgiven as long as you have your cherry intact. Only in America, folks.
The image quality of MGM's bare-bones DVD release of The Garbage Pail Kids is actually pretty good, better than I would want to give it credit for. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is most comfortable with deep colours, and the black backgrounds and blue skies have a great vibrant clarity. The stuff in-between, however, is rather undistinguished. The Dolby 2.0 mono track is clear but utterly lacking in any oomph, unfortunately dating the picture instantly. One glance at the condition of the film's trailer (the disc's only extra), however, confirms that the presentation could've looked and sounded much worse.
Now if they'd just put The Gong Show Movie on DVD. Originally published: July 25, 2005.