A review requested by Andrew Johnson, with thanks to supporting Alternate Ending as a donor through Patreon.

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There is an internal crisis that probably just about every film reviewer who uses a rating scale encounters at one point or another. We could perhaps call it a calibration problem; less fussily, it's about drawing the lines between mediocrity, badness, and sheer ineptitude. One doesn't want to give drab, lifeless, even unwatchable films bonus points simply because they are functional cinematic objects. At the same time, there is value in keeping one's powder dry, and only reserving the lowest tiers for truly dismal, poisonously bad films, to make the extent of their wretchedness all the more obvious. To put it in concrete terms, nobody wants to go around pretending that The Book of Henry is anything but an outrage, by inflating it up to simple mediocrity, D+ or C- territory; at the same time, The Book of Henry is at least intelligible and aesthetically proficient. It is graspable.

I bring this up in the context of 1987's The Garbage Pail Kids Movie for exactly the reason you might suppose: this is the kind of film that urgently forces a recalibration. If we are to call this a half-star movie (and at Alternate Ending, our layout doesn't allow for 0 stars. No rating, sure, but not 0 stars), then it makes the criteria for descending to half-star status awfully rarefied indeed. I gave three films released in 2018 half-star ratings; all of them are an order of magnitude better than The Garbage Pail Kids Movie. To apply a normalised rating to The Garbage Pail Kids Movie is to mock the very idea of ratings. It would be like writing a Yelp review of a funeral.

This film is uncommonly vile. Even the very best things about it still seem like grotesque flotsam. It began its life as a series of trading cards that were introduced in 1985, as a parody of the white-hot toy fad of Cabbage Patch Kids dolls, which had just crested in popularity. The cards depicted round-faced children who were in some way socially dysfunctional, hideously deformed, merely gross, or some combination; their names were obnoxious puns. Coming at exactly the sweet spot for children who had just grown out of the age range for Cabbage Patch Kids and were looking to prove their cool superiority over the toys of an unimaginably distant year or prior, the Garbage Pail Kids cards were a major fad in their own right (I was a year or two too young for that fad, though I remember it with vividness. I hated it then, too). I would say a movie was inevitable; but was it? These were goddamn trading cards. The 1980s had managed to make movies and TV series out of just about every sort of object you could imagine, but they hadn't yet tried to make trading cards into a movie (they had, in fairness, turned greeting cards into a movie, but there were toys and storybooks before the movies). The high-water mark of the "movies based on trading cards" genre, Tim Burton's Mars Attacks!, was nine years in the future yet, and so Garbage Pail Kids had to forge its own path.

The path taken leads through a poisonous bog and over a cliff. The plot built around seven of the cards focuses not on any of them but on a normal human child: Dodger (Mackenzie Astin), a scrawny weakling who has gotten on the bad side of a gang of teenage hoodlums led by a mean sort of bastard named Juice (Ron MacLachlan). Compounding matters - at least it will, it's not an issue quiet yet at the start - Dodger has a huge crush on Juice's girlfriend, Tangerine (Katie Barberi), who has only one goal in the world: to become a famous fashion designer. Now, Dodger works at an antique shop, owned by aging eccentric and magic-user Captain Manzini (Anthony Newley, who is, for the solitary time in his career, the best thing about a movie), and this antique shop holds a secret object: an ancient garbage can from space, filled with bright green slime. When the lid is removed from the can, the slime coalesces into seven homunculi, appalling foam-rubber monstrosities themed around gross-out humor, and these figures turn out to be geniuses at doing the sort of fashion design that can help Tangerine jump-start her career. While they seek to help Dodger win her not-even-at-all-obviously-untrustworthy heart, Manzini tries to find the magic spell that will allow them to re-enter the can (the opening scene indicates that they can do so voluntarily, which makes the rest of the plot nonsensical), before they're caught and sent to the State Home for the Ugly, where they will probably be euthanised.

Obviously, that plot summary gets more objectionable as it goes along, but it's actually the opening bits that really pissed me off. When the film was shot, Astin was a young-looking 13/14, and Barberi was an old-looking 15. It is in principle possible to parse them as a high school freshman and sophomore, which is likely what the film intended, but in practice, it looks like a prepubescent boy lusting after a college student, who for her part cynically encourages his affections. It's gross as hell, all the more gross given how unduly fascinated the film is with Dodger's libido. And not just his libido; early on, the Kids rescue him from a sewer and give him a bath, and there is an unambiguous shot of one of them hungrily checking out his junk.

It is, anyway, a revulsive thing to have in a movie, especially a movie that presumably must be for children, given that nobody else would be able to tolerate the crass, broad jokes. The Garbage Pail Kids come in a few different forms, but four of the seven are exclusively based on bodily excretion humor (snot, vomit, farts, halitosis) and a fifth is an all-purpose social misfit whose primary characteristic is that he keeps pissing himself (the other two are a violent '50s greaser and a reasonably level-headed kid who is, for some reason, also an alligator). The jokes in the film all play out the same way: a kid will do the thing that their entirely identity has been built around, and the other six will react with comically exaggerated disgust (the film fancies that it has a "don't judge by looks" message, but boy, is it eager to foreground how appalling the kids are). It's droning and unfunny, but it's actually kind of soothing to retrench to something normally bad like violent snot jokes after all of the 13-year-old sex comedy.

What's not soothing is the kids themselves, unfathomably hideous four-foot-tall bobbleheads with grotesque, distended faces. Besides being simply unpleasant to look at as objects, the kid suits are horribly ill-engineered: the mouths move sluggishly and not in any tied to the words being tinnily pumped in atop the visuals. They also haven't been properly rigged with eye-holes for the actors wearing them, which results in a lot of uncertain shuffling around in space as they try mightily (and not always successfully) to avoid smacking into each other and the set. It's bad enough when they're all simply sitting in a room, and when the film forces them into musical numbers or action scenes, the immobility of the suits creates an overwhelming feeling of off-putting grotesqueness. Loving close-ups of pooling urine are merely disgusting; the chunky, deformed beasts meant to be funny objects of loving ridicule, are profoundly wrong, distressing and discomfiting and perversely inhuman.

Every aspect of the film's mise en scène is deeply unpleasant, magnified by the harsh lighting of Harvey Genkins's cinematography, and blocked in flat, indifferent slabs by director Rod Amateau. When the kids are onscreen, one painfully wishes to be with anything else; when the action switches to Dodger's starry-eyed prepubescent flirtation with the chilly, calculating Tangerine, one realises what a horrid mistake it was to wish away the kids. The film is only 100 minutes long, but every one of them is an agony to get through, offering no pleasure, no hint of good humor, nothing that's merely boring as opposed to excruciating. Calling this one of the worst movies ever made is insufficient; it's barely a movie at all, more like a calculated exercise in how the worst impulses and worst execution can combine into one of the most dismal assaults on human dignity ever perpetrated by motion pictures.