1. Capsule Review (1993)
It is not by accident that Martin Scorsese's remake of Cape Fear (1991) contains a conspicuous clip from this seemingly innocuous and trivial Dennis the Menace-style comedy. After all, Problem Child was itself alluding to Kubrick's tale of a disintegrating nuclear family, The Shining (1980).
Scorsese merely makes dramatically Gothic what is here served up for laughs: a family with a 'monster child' (Michael Oliver) about to explode, a father (John Ritter) with severe anxieties about his proper masculine role, and a psycho killer (the extraordinary comedian Michael Richards) who gets it on with the flighty, materialistic mother of this unhappy home.
It may not be much of a movie, but it's an undoubted highpoint in the decline and fall of Western civilisation.
Problem Child is a charmingly infantile film in its sense of humour: like Dennis the Menace (all media, all incarnations) or the immortal George Winslow (Hawks, Tashlin, etc, within an amazing six-year screen career), this devilish problem child (Michael Oliver as Junior, at the start of his five-year career) is full of smart antics and corny wisecracks. There are many silly gags: a nun with a melanoma and hairs sprouting from it …
References: Boys Town, “Donald”, The Shining – but little else. It’s intriguing that kid (as distinct from teen) movies have, in this loose, vague tradition, little of the cultural obsession for quotation. An assumption of lesser “knowingness” on the part of the target-spectator! And only a sprinkle of stuff for the adults in attendance.
More work is going on with the soundtrack songs: George Thorogood and the Destroyers’ “Bad to the Bone”, Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild”, Iggy Pop’s mid ‘80s “Real Wild Child” (his take on the song we Aussies know best as Johnny O’Keefe’s 1958 “Wild One”).
There’s a soul link between this monster child and the “regressed” psycho killer, Beck (Michael Richards) – a curious echo here of ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, the post Pee-wee comedian from UHF (1989). But this aspect of the film is never really elaborated, or followed up.
It’s another father/son story – with a good/bad father optional choice. (John Ritter is Ben, the Good Father.) And a stunningly explicit getting-rid of the adoptive mother-figure (Amy Yasbeck as Flo), who doesn’t get to come around to a better semantic place.
A rivalry between fathers: between Ben and the hyper-natural Super Dad.
And then there’s a really bad father-figure: Ben’s own Dad, “Big Ben” (Jack Warden), who sells, in his store, All-American sporting goods to the Japanese. Big Ben is undone by the media (à la Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, 1957), showing his arse to the ordinary voters. (We don’t even need to see his end, as it were.)
The mother, for her part, is the repository of all materialistic values and ills: envy (“Being a parent means power”); social acceptability; and compulsive shopping. The extraordinary bit (pre Scorsese’s Cape Fear) where this Mom actually gets it on with the serial killer!
In a way, the tagging of pop culture and consumer society values (bad) can still get displaced/freighted onto this figure of woman – while man again becomes the repository of humanism, human values. Even here!
So there’s still a spectre of feminisation, a dread for men, in the icky embrace of pop culture as (as Jean Baudrillard described it) an “all-consuming consumption”. Panic stations!
All that is played out in a dramatic way in Joe Dante’s much better Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), a film that revisits the very male cartoon tradition that invents grotesque sex-women (in the vein of Miss Piggy or Pepe Le Pew’s skunk lover). At the end of Dante’s film, the male hero merges comically/horrifically with this female figure, giving a classic “Why the hell not?”/”Nobody’s perfect” shrug.
© Adrian Martin September 1990 / January 1993