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Meet The Hollowheads
(1989)
 

Director: Tom Burman            
Cast:
John Glover, Nancy Mette, Lisa Morton


Meet the Hollowheads... a family who make the "Married... With Children" clan look sane! Mom's a worse cook than Peg Bundy; Dad (John Glover, Gremlins 2) makes Al look like a corporate head; daughter Cindy has Kelly looking like a virgin; and Billy makes Bud seem downright angelic. Anne Ramsey (Throw Mama From The Train) is also on hand as Babbleaxe, a horror unto herself. "Just say 'no' to butt polish" (watch the film and you'll understand!) and Meet The Hollowheads... they'll make your own family seem like The Brady Bunch!

                                       - Back cover blurb for Meet The Hollowheads

Tell me, dear reader, what are your thought upon reading all that? I don't know about you, but to me it sounds like sheer desperation, especially after having watching the movie myself. There is, of course, the mention of well-known movies two of the stars have also been seen in, though that kind of thing nowadays is expected and pretty much accepted. Less so are the name-droppings of two famous TV shows that have no connection to any of the actors or the people Hoser!who worked behind-the-scenes. Even the attempt to compare the characters of one of those TV shows to the characters in the movie is erroneous. Dear old dad may come across as somewhat naive, but he's definitely more competent and hard-working than Al. Mom (Nancy Mette) certainly whips up dishes that are odd to look at, but nobody even makes a suggestion that they are not acceptable to the palate. While Cindy (played by the 16 year-old future star Juliette Lewis) may dress provocatively, she doesn't give any other signs of a slutty personality (at least when she is sober.) And her young brother Billy (Just The Ten Of Us' Matt Shakeman) may be mischievous, it's at a level no higher than a typical boy of his age. The extent of the box writer's desperateness is made clear by not just writing all of those untruths, but by also "neglecting" to mention that there is actually a third child in the family, played by Lewis' real-life brother Lightfield Lewis. (Ironically, his character's name is "Bud".)

If you are familiar with this kind of intentional fudging on video boxes (which I got into previously in my review of Viewer Discretion Advised), almost assuredly you will have guessed that Meet The Hollowheads, like other movies that resort to this desperate measure on their video boxes, must not be a good movie - and you would be right. Though in this case when I say it's not "a good movie", I am not saying it's instead an aggressively bad one or is more likely lame all around; there is some genuine imagination and creativity on display here. And though the movie may not work as a vehicle for delivering entertainment, it all the same retains a strange compelling factor that gets you to not only watch it in its entirety, but giving the viewer little discomfort during the entire running time. The closest I can compare it to is watching two cars collide with each other during a race - they weren't supposed to do that, but the results undoubtedly are interesting to watch. Though even that comparison is a little harsh, since the results that come from the movie's miscalculations can hardly be called momentous disasters; Meet The Hollowheads was never intended to be something big, but instead a more or less quiet but offbeat distraction. It's hard to royally screw up something like that, and inevitably something good has to float up. In fact, while I personally didn't think there was quite enough of that stuff here to make this qualify as "a good movie" in my books, I genuinely think certain individuals will find this a sufficient amount to call it that, and will find  themselves genuinely charmed and amused.

It's a strange world (a parallel universe?) where the events of Meet The Hollowheads take place, repeatedly made clear even though we only spend it in one small corner of this world for less than twenty-four hours. It's a world where telephones are a cross between a vacuum cleaner and the nipple of a baby's I know some people who look like that in the morningbottle; where a typical musical instrument is a mix between a trombone, a rubber chicken, and an accordion; where food is ripped off rolls like paper towels, or comes through pipes (in tentacle form or in bile-like fluids of various colors) that travel for miles underground to homes in this same pitch-black underground environment. The pipes and their contents are built and maintained by the prestigious United Umbilical Company; this is where the Hollowhead patriarch Henry has been working as a meter reader for 14 years without a promotion. But this night, luck seems to be on his side; his new boss Marty Crabneck (Richard Portnow, The Sopranos) has suddenly invited himself to have dinner at the Hollowhead residence, and Henry sees this as the opportunity he's been waiting for all these years. This sudden news doesn't sit completely well with Henry's wife Miriam, since she is now stuck with having to whip up a feast fit for a husband's boss in just a few hours. Plus she has to balance this with her son Billy coming home with his equally rambunctious best friend, Bud playing his loud avant-garde music in preparation for an upcoming performance, and having to try and convince daughter Cindy, preparing for a special date, that she may be too young to use "softening jelly".

What is "softening jelly"? Well, it's obviously indicated that it's a jelly used to soften something on the human body, but exactly what part of the body, and why do women want to soften it?  Well, Miriam has a long heart-to-heart talk with her daughter that has the flavor of similar discussions about leg shaving or brassieres, but even afterwards we still have no idea what softening jelly is or why there ever would be a fuss about it. While we're on the subject of things that are never properly explained, take also the subsequent scene where Cindy meets her date, where he gives a token of his feelings towards her with the gift of... something. The closest I can describe it is a mutant piece of red broccoli. Cindy is happy to get this gift, but once again, we are never told what this featured item is. These two scenes are typical of the major way Meet The Hollowheads constantly fails to meet its mark. Yes, in its attempt to make a quirky and off-beat world, the movie is constantly bringing up and showing off bizarre gadgets, weird locations, and characters doing what would be considered crazy actions in this world. And yes, you do indeed have to do all those things if you want to make a quirky and off-beat world you could almost believe exists in some tucked-away parallel universe.

However, it is a serious miscalculation to believe one can throw up a lot of various insanities on the screen and expect that the audience will immediately accept however the movie chooses to be crazy. Even for a world of insanity that the Hollowheads lives in needs to be depicted with some kind of logic to it, to have some kind of (twisted) explanation for every unconventional gadget, location, and action. Otherwise, such a world is simply "How about I wear this suit to court, Mr. Soprano?"weird for weird's sake, with no point and no purpose except seemingly to put up as many bizarre things all chained together in a stream that could be best described as non-sequitur. It not only gets tired very quickly, it's a frustrating experience; frustrating because not only does the movie seem determined not to properly define this word, but that throughout the movie you can't help but see a great deal of comic potential. Why, for example, do the Hollowheads keep their grandfather in their basement? It is hinted that it's illegal, but if so, why is it illegal? For that matter, why do they keep him strapped to a chair, and why do all the family members dread it being their time to feed him, especially when said task doesn't seem to take that long nor be particularly disgusting? If there had been proper explanations for these questions, this (seemingly pointless, by the way) subplot could not only given more light onto the Hollowhead universe, it could have provided additional zaniness to the movie - and zaniness with some actual meat to it, since it would have been plot-driven than driven by randomness.

Occasionally the movie does find an appropriate way to show off something wacky, and these particular scenes are the highlights. Take an early scene when Billy comes home with a black eye, and his mother insists he let her give him a home treatment for it with a gadget despite his objections. Though it's a throwaway scene, it manages to deliver some laughs; the scene has a clear objective (the removal of a black eye), a gadget with a purpose that is clear, and we are given enough information about this device to know more or less how it works (in a gleefully queasy way.) With no questions in our mind after all this explanation, there is nothing left to potentially get in our way from finding amusement. Though as I said before, most scenes never get close to their comic potential. While that's the main problem with Meet The Hollowheads, there are also a number of other smaller problems that get in the way. The biggest of these is that the movie is cheap. No, I don't mean it's the typical low-budget genre movie that can't quite stretch its budget enough - I mean it's cheap. The Hollowhead residence not only looks like it was built by high school students, it looks like it was built and slapped together with duct tape on their auditorium's stage; you feel like any second a wall will fall down or you'll see spotlights on the ceiling. I realize an expensive and glossy look would have been counterproductive, depriving the movie of a lived-in look that would have made this world more believable, but a few extra dollars would have created the happy medium this movie needs to be in.

The rest of the minor problems generally occur just once or twice and don't really need to be detailed, except maybe for Anne Ramsey's cameo (her last screen appearance before her death of throat cancer.) Though Ramsey was having voice problems near the end of her career, she was still understandable in her I never expected a parallel universe to be so.. so.. eighties!speech, making me wonder why her performance here was graced with the vaguely-insulting use of subtitles. I say "vaguely", since it's not just her who gets subtitles in this scene, but everyone else for no particular reason, unless there was some equal opportunity enactment imposed on the movie during production. Still, despite this and any other problems (minor or major) that come up between the beginning and ending, the movie remains strangely watchable all the same. Though the problems generally stem from a poorly written screenplay, it is boosted considerably by being performed by a likable cast. Even the cast members who show weaknesses in their acting (Glover seems somewhat bewildered to be in this environment) still give enough warmth to charm us. One exception is Portnow, though not in a negative way. Playing a rather despicable lout, he goes all-out to make his character utterly rude and heartless, yet so over the top that you can't help but laugh at him doing things like slapping Billy around or chasing Henry all over the living room.

While the members of the Hollowhead family may not be anywhere as rambunctious, or do anything that is really memorable, you do feel something about that that you don't always get the feeling about regarding families in other movies, serious or not - that they are a family. Sure, the siblings might argue or even blackmail each other, but yet you never sense any real hate, and you can tell that they would be there for each other if it really mattered. These characters are all dressed up and ready, but they have nowhere to go, forced into going through the motions in a screenplay seemingly more determined to mystify its audience than entertain or tell a real story. Or ever get around to explaining things in passing like what "butt polish" is... or why it's called that... or...
 


UPDATE: I got this letter from Markus Risser of badmovies.de:

"Greetings Greywizard!

"Finally I have reason to send you another e-mail (I *could* send you a mail full of praise after each review, but I think you get enough spam mail <g>), this time regarding your Meet the Hollowheads review. As usual, very nice review although you seem to like this film a lot less than I do (well, that's not a crime - yet [laughs maniacally and pats his "Idiot's Guide to World Domination])...

"Anyway, when I reviewed the film (which, surprisingly enough, got a theatrical release over here in Germany, as well as an early sell-through home video, back in the days when you had to shell out Real Money (TM) for a lousy VHS...) a couple of years ago for my site I had a little e-mail conversation with Lisa Morton, co-scriptwriter, and learned some (hopefully) interesting tidbits, which I am glad to share...

"Meet the Hollowheads was, according to Lisa, subject to post-production changes entirely made by the producers (neither Tom Burman nor Lisa Morton knew about the changes until they got invited to a screening a year after they had finished the movie). Following changes were made:

- The title got changed from Life on the Edge to Meet the Hollowheads (in Germany the film is titled Rohr frei für Familie Hollowhead, roughly translated Pipe Clear For The Hollowhead Family, which, ironically enough, is a title that Lisa likes more than Meet the Hollowheads

- The rap song in the opening titles sequence was added, a sound montage that Lisa and Tom really liked got thrown out

- The voice-over commentary was added

- The "walk on the edge" sequence (when Billy is sent to the pump station) was shortened. The sequence was originally much longer and "more creepy", with more bizarre sights and creatures

- The subtitles for Anne Ramsey's dialogue was added

- A movement of Crabneck during the finale got sped up for no particular reason

as well as a lot of smaller changes during the entire film.

"Personally, I very much like the notion of the film not to explain certain things (like Grandpa in the basement). It creates (for me) a vague, unsettling atmosphere that builds a nice contrast to the general sitcom-like story and characters (a possible "dark" interpretation is that the Hollowheads themselves do not know why certain things are the way they are, why it is illegal to keep Grandpa in the house, why they should feel disgusted when feeding him etc., which in turn could be seen as a commentary on our society, in that case the "youth-craze" that started in the 80's). That being, of course, only my 2 cents worth <g>.

"Hope you find that trivia somewhat useful <g>

"PS: There's a fan (well, okay, change that to "I like to watch 'em, although I don't really know why") of PM Entertainment over here, too. Our cheap-ass DVD publishers crank out PM discs like there's no tomorrow..."
 


UPDATE 2: Robert Hubbard sent this in:

"Saw the review on Meet The Hollowheads... have something to add. Lisa Morton did an extensive recounting of the making of the film, then known as LIFE ON THE EDGE on her site, the link provided here... those interested in production journals will find this fascinating. It also goes into the post-production snafu that ended up with the film being recut without the participation of the director (makeup wiz Tom Burman) or Morton. http://www.lisamorton.com/edgewise.html"

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See also: Dr. Caligari, Fantasy Mission Force, Let My Puppets Come

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