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GUEST REVIEW: MEET THE HOLLOWHEADS (1989)

Guest review by “Penguin” Pete Trbovich

AKA Life on the Edge

DIRECTED BY: Thomas R. Burman

FEATURING: , John Glover, Richard Portnow

PLOT: Henry Hollowhead works as the top meter reader for United Umbilical, and today’s his lucky break: his boss wants to come over for dinner, which Henry hopes will lead to a promotion. His wife Miriam fusses over making dinner for the special occasion, while the three Hollowhead children scamper about getting up to antics.

Meet the Hollowheads

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: We’ll let this quote from Keith Bailey’s Unknown Movies speak to it’s qualifications: “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.” When a person whose whole gig is reviewing the most obscure movies possible levels the “weirdness for weirdness’ sake” accusation, you know it’s not your average cup of tea. On its own, the movie is an onslaught of colorful, even cheerful, but disturbing images. The highly cliched plot just lets its style take over the stage.

SUGGESTED INDELIBLE IMAGE: You could throw a dart at most any frame of this movie, but one scene defines it early on: eldest Hollowhead son Bud practices music in his room, playing an instrument that looks part trombone, part accordion, and part rubber chicken. Daughter Cindy enters to “tell Bud to choke it” but ends up singing along in accompaniment. As she sings “I feel good about myself; would not be anyone else,” the movie has by this time firmly established its stride and at the same time is bluntly telling us that it doesn’t care beans for our rulebook.

SUGGESTED THREE WEIRD THINGS: Tentacle for dinner; pulling the bugs off Spike; feeding grandpa

COMMENTS: Unlike many of the 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made, Meet the Hollowheads is very easy to describe: it is a 1950’s sitcom from an alternate dimension. There, we’re actually done! If you take any TV saccharine slice of suburbia, from “Leave It To Beaver” to “The Brady Bunch” to “The Honeymooners,” then run it through the filter of (pick one) , Terry Gilliam, or David Cronenberg, everything you’re imagining in that description is 90% of what you’re going to see. This movie starts with that premise and stays fearlessly committed to it to the last scene.

The Hollowheads’s world is a claustrophobic—perhaps even underground—domain defined by their household, other households whom we never visit, a corporation called “United Umbilical” which seems to provide every necessity of life, and two policemen who may even work for United Umbilical. There they dwell, in a colorful “Peewee’s Playhouse” set apparently taken over by Cthulhu: their lives revolve around tubes, pipes, ducts, tentacles, squishy life forms, valves, spigots, sludge, slime, industry, and “The Edge,” an apparent hazard spoken of in whispers by two of the younger cast and sternly invoked by mother Miriam, who warns them not to fall off as she sends them out for an errand. Dialogue is festooned with references to plumbing, sewage, and other mucky slang. A tentacle with an eyeball on the end lies untidily piled in a glass jar in the Hollowheads’s home, silently watching the events; we know not whether it’s a pet or an appliance.

When the boss shows up for dinner and begins the second half of the film, the evening degenerates into everything that can possibly go wrong going wrong. There’s a few laughs to be had, but nothing enough to point to this as a comedy. It’s more of an exercise in the avant-garde. Because our familiar frame of reference has been yanked out from under us in this alien environment, we have no clue as to how outrageous any character’s behavior is in this universe. Boss Mr. Crabneck is nasty and vile almost beyond description, and Station Master Mrs. Battleaxe at United Umbilical barely fills the kids’ order while threatening them with all kinds of slimy fates, but everybody seems to take these behaviors in stride.

The tilted world also affords a heap of innuendo. When Mrs. Battleaxe sneers “I suppose your mother thinks it’s our fault that her tubes are blocked?,” or when police advise the Hollowheads to have their drugged-out daughter “pumped,” or when Mrs. Hollowhead has to conquer a phallic section of waggling tentacle coming out of her kitchen dispenser before castrating—oops, we mean slicing—it to chop up for an ingredient, we can’t escape the feeling that this movie wants us to snicker at it. We haven’t even mentioned “softening jelly,” a substance treated as scandalous here, but we have no idea what it is.

But it’s too strange to be fully funny. If anything, this is a very punk style applied to a sitcom world. Like Repo Man or Tank Girl, it mixes the familiar with the bizarre, getting us to accept the perverse because all of the characters accept the perversity. Like the best of weird movies, it makes no attempt to explain or justify itself. We have intercepted a sitcom from another reality, and we’re not being given a peak into the rest of that universe. You’re free to come up with your own point or even dismiss it as having no point. But this movie does assure us that the people in its universe would no doubt find our own world equally baffling, were the interception reversed.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A weird and wonderful cinematic misfire, alternately repulsive and ridiculous…”–Steven Puchalski, Shock Cinema (VHS)

 

 

187. NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994)

“The ancients had visions, we have television.”–Octavio Paz (quote cited by Oliver Stone as one of his inspirations for making Natural Born Killers)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Oliver Stone

FEATURING: , , Tom Sizemore, Tommy Lee Jones, Rodney Dangerfield

PLOT: Mass murderers (and lovers) Mickey and Mallory stalk the Southwestern U.S., slaughtering innocents who cross their path but always leaving one victim alive to spread their legend. The television show “American Maniacs” tracks their adventures, and they have a large cult of followers. The pair are finally apprehended, but a live television interview scheduled to air after the Super Bowl gives them a narrow window to escape.

Still from Natural Born Killers (1994)
BACKGROUND:

  • Natural Born Killers was based on a screenplay written by , who was an unknown when the script was optioned for $10,000. By the time Oliver Stone was finished rewriting the script, so little of his original concept remained that Tarantino disassociated himself from the project. In the original script, “American Maniacs” host Wayne Gale was the main character, not Mickey and Mallory. Tarantino publicly stated that he was not disappointed with the direction Stone took the script, but simply felt that the finished project represented the director’s vision rather than his own. According to Jane Hamsher’s tell-all book about the production, Tarantino was upset that he was not allowed to purchase the rights back after he became a hot Hollywood commodity and tried to get the project scuttled behind the scenes, going so far as to tell and Tim Roth that he would never cast them in anything again if they accepted a role in the film.
  • Stone originally conceived of the project as an action picture, a simple movie that he could produce as a break from his serious works of social realism, but the script turned much darker as he worked on it.
  • Shot in only 56 days, but editing took almost a year. The ultra-fast pacing required almost 3,000 edits.
  • According to Oliver Stone. 155 cuts were imposed on the movie by the MPAA in order to receive an “R” rating (a crucial imprimatur for commercial purposes, since many newspapers at the time would not advertise NC-17 or unrated movies). All of this material is restored in the director’s cut. Despite the large number of total cuts, the restored footage only amounts to about 3-4 minutes of screen time.
  • A number of murders, mostly committed by teenagers, were said to be inspired by the film. In 1995, convenience store clerk Patsy Byers, who was paralyzed for life after being shot by a pair of young lovers who had dropped acid and watched Natural Born Killers all night on a continuous loop, instigated a product liability lawsuit against distributor Time Warner and Oliver Stone on the grounds that they “knew, or should have known that the film would cause and inspire people […] to commit crimes…” After a series of court hearings, the case was finally disposed of in 2001 on First Amendment grounds.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Natural Born Killers is about the power of images, making isolating a single frame from this nonstop barrage of psychedelic American carnage quite the challenge. Nonetheless, we located one picture which encapsulates the movie’s theme perfectly. Since Oliver Stone is not exactly noted for his subtlety, he garishly splashes his key insights over his characters’ tight tank-tops when a Navajo shaman sees the pair through spiritual eyes: words appear on Harrelson’s torso announcing him as a “demon,” then, even more tellingly, reading “too much t.v.”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: As if the story was being viewed through a remote control with a stuck channel button where every station is fixated on telling the story of celebrity killers Mickey and Mallory, the visual style of Natural Born Killers changes every few seconds. Disorientation, the substituted and enhanced reality of manipulated images, is the baseline reality of this ever-shifting nightmare vision of an America trapped inside a banal, violence-obsessed TV tube.


Original trailer for Natural Born Killers

COMMENTS: There is no way to reasonably discuss Natural Born Continue reading 187. NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994)

CAPSULE: FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: George Clooney,  , , , Ernest Liu, Fred Williamson, , Cheech Marin, ,

PLOT: Two vicious criminals take a preacher’s family hostage and head for a rendezvous at a biker bar in Mexico, but it turns out that the establishment is run by the undead.

Still from From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: From Dusk Till Dawn is really two different movies: it starts out as a gritty killers-on-the-lam flick, then turns into a campy horror film once dusk falls. Unfortunately, the first movie really sucks, and the second one has some great set pieces, but is spotty. And, although the collision of these two sensibilities is somewhat weird (though perhaps a better word is “jarring”), neither movie standing alone is bizarre enough for our tastes.

COMMENTS: As the first serious collaboration between two exploitation enfants terribles Robert Rodriguez (who directs here) and Quentin Tarantino (who wrote the screenplay and acts), From Dusk Till Dawn was a hugely anticipated project. You can tell by the lineup of talent eager to work with the duo: big-time star Harvey Keitel was joined by up-and-comers George Clooney, Juliette Lewis and Salma Hayek, with a cool comeback appearance by Fred Williamson and an exotic presence in the person of Cheech Marin (who plays three roles, for no particular reason). The triumph of Pulp Fiction was fresh in everyone’s mind, while Rodriguez was still considered of an indie legend for making El Mariachi for $7,000. The thought of these two collaborating on a vampire movie made hip 1990s cineastes salivate.

I have to say that at the time I was disappointed at the results, however, and in the two decades since my opinion of the film has only softened a little bit. It seems that Tarantino, unquestionably a genius director, envisioned Dusk as his big acting break. Casting himself as a sadistic nerd (so he wouldn’t have to stretch—zing!), QT wrote himself a role that dominates the early half of the film. He plays the live-wire with the itchy trigger finger who complcates the plot by killing everyone in sight, much to the exasperation of cooler-headed Clooney. The problem is, Tarantino is whiny-sounding and even whiny-looking, and rather than fearing him as a dangerously unhinged psychopath, you just want to slap him with the back of your hand (perhaps realizing this would be audience’s natural reaction, Tarantino scripted a scene where Clooney knocks him out with one swift backhand to his impossible-to-miss forehead).

Tarantino does do a good job of making you despise his character, but the problem with the film’s (completely unnecessary) first ten minutes is that it sets you up to despise everyone: Tarantino, Clooney, and most of their victims, including a ranger who goes on a rant about “Mongoloids” in the food service industry. The movie gets better when Harvey Keitel enters, and even better when Tarantino leaves. As a preacher of lapsed faith, Keitel is the first decent person to appear in Dusk—why wait until almost 20 minutes have passed to introduce the first likable character? Although almost half the movie is over at this point, things improve greatly once the killers and their hostages reach the”Titty Twister,” a South-of-the-Border den with enough sin stored up behind its Hellfire-spouting portals to put the entire city of Tijuana out of business. Inside, “Santanico Pandemonium” (how much better of a stripper name is that than “Kandy” or “Neveah”?) puts on a dance that’s so hot, she doesn’t even have to take her bikini off to make Tarantino’s eyes glaze over, and soon sexual tension leads to hot vampire action as a brood of bloodsuckers descend to feed on the assembled truckers and bikers. Unfortunately for the vampires, they decided to locate their lair in a bar with wooden chairs whose breakaway legs make for hundreds of perfect stakes, leading to vampire genocide on a massive scale. I would have gone with Naugahyde booths, but then vampires never ask me for decorating tips.

Williamson and Savini are a treat as a pair of badasses and natural vampire killers. Savini has a crotch gun and kickboxing moves, Williamson has a cigar and the fact that he’s freakin’ Fred Williamson. Unlike Tarantino’s pedophile rapist, they are both exactly the type of characters that a fun B-movie romp needs. It’s great to see the undead meet their doom at the hands of stereotypical macho men—much more fun than it was too see innocent people tormented by a believable sex pervert in the movie’s opening reels. If From Dusk Till Dawn had started soon after Keitel made the scene and progressed more quickly to the Titty Twister, the movie could have earned a recommendation.  As it is, it’s a curious failure that has been surprisingly overrated by people who remember the vampire-stabbing fun of the pre-dawn finale, but forget the  incongruous and unpleasant pre-dusk sequences.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A deliriously trashy, exuberantly vulgar, lavishly appointed exploitation picture, this weird combo of roadkill movie and martial-arts vampire gorefest is made to order for the stimulation of teenage boys.”–Todd McCarthy, Variety (contemporaneous)