A couple of people have asked about the avatar I use, the Venetian plague mask icon, but it’s nothing to do with recent news developments; I chose it way back in 2016. The reasoning was that a critic is, in some way, like a poison taster, letting the public know what is safe to eat. There’s lots of bad criticism, to be sure, but also an illustrious history of essential writing about culture, from James Agee to Clive James, from Lindsay Anderson to Pauline Kael. Critics have a responsibility to educate, to amuse, to share and to chip away at this amorphous entity we call popular culture, to enable us to make the best decisions about what we watch.
Which brings me to 1987’s The Garbage Pail Kids: The Movie. Writer/director Rod Amateau had worked with stars like David Niven and Peter Sellers in the 70’s, and was able to persuade Anthony Newley to star; Newley was a British musical icon in the 1960’s, responsible for the James Bond theme Goldfinger as well as the Oscar-nominated score for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Bad choices and worse drinking diminished Newley’s considerable talent, and by 1987, he was a spent force; his performance in The Garbage Pail Kids is limp, rote and unenthusiastic, and yet he’s the best thing in it.
The worst thing in it is the Garbage Pail kids themselves, played by small people with large plastic heads which barely register any expression. Each has a revolting function; one sneezes vicious snot, another has acne and urinates over himself, one farts like a trumpet, one is an alligator (called Ali-Gator) with a foot-fetish, you get the idea. They come from outer space in a garbage pail kept in an urban antiques shop run by Captain Manzini (Newley).
Amateau appears to be aiming for some kind of Rabelaisian humour, blowing a hole in societal norms and emphasising the base-line of humour that in some sense unites humanity. The plot of this movie revolves around Dodger (Mackenzie Astin), a likable scamp who is being bullied; a precocious 15 year old, Dodger has eyes on the bully’s girlfriend Tangerine (Katie Barberi), and decides to win her heart by creating an designing his own range of clothes, which he persuades the Garbage Pail Kids to make. Yes, the garbage-pail kids movie is set in the world of fashion, and climaxes with the kids invading a fashion show, toppling pre-existing codes of beauty and acceptability and striking a blow for the neglected child in us all.
Newley doesn’t sing, in fact, his contribution is minimal; two songs, however, can be referenced as badges of honour for those who choose to sit through this film. ‘You Can Be A Garbage Pail Kid’ takes an Eye of the Tiger aspirational angle, while ‘We Can Do Anything By Working With Each Other’ is a whistle-while-you-work song that the kids sing in their sweatshop. Both, like a sidelong glimpse at a traffic accident, are impossible to forget; like a genie, or the garbage-pail kids themselves, you can’t get them back inside their container.
The Garbage Pail Kids: The Movie has the reputation as one of the worst films ever made; it’s certainly one of the most misguided. Doubling down on the bodily functions, it’s enough to appal parents and children alike, but there’s also a strange sexualisation here that makes for an uncomfortable watch; Dodger is constantly ogling and objectifying women, and Tangerine’s attempts to seduce him don’t sit well given that he’s 15. There are no redeeming moments or qualities in this film, and yet it’s deservedly built up a reputation as a rites of passage for masochists; ‘You can’t change the world by hiding yourself away,’ explains one of the kids in the final scene, a line that lands somewhat ironically given that circa 2020 the world is about to try doing exactly that.