You know what they say about people who work in movies as some job other than director: they really want to direct. It happens to actors, it happens to writers, it happens to Mel Gibson’s hairdresser who directed PAPARAZZI. It also happens to special effects makeup artists. Tom Savini directed the quite good NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD remake. Stan Winston directed PUMPKINHEAD and A GNOME NAMED GNORM and Michael Jackson’s GHOSTS. John Carl Buechler directed TROLL and FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VII and a bunch of other stuff. Kevin Yagher (partially) directed HELLRAISER: BLOODLINE. Of all these, the weirdest is the one that Tom Burman did, MEET THE HOLLOWHEADS.
Maybe Burman isn’t as well known as some of those other guys. In recent years his work has been on hospital-set TV shows – Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Chicago Hope, Nip/Tuck. Good work if you can get it. But he’s been in the business since the ’70s, creating the titular heads of THE THING WITH TWO HEADS, doing makeup for FROGS, THE BOY WHO CRIED WEREWOLF, THE FOOD OF THE GODS, THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, and the Wookiees in The Star Wars Holiday Special. His work spans from classic gore moments (MY BLOODY VALENTINE, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, HALLOWEEN III) to werewolves (TEEN WOLF) to fantasy (SCROOGED) to action movies (DIE HARD 2, THE LAST ACTION HERO, CON AIR). He worked on Sloth in THE GOONIES, the monster in HOWARD THE DUCK and the Supreme Leader in CAPTAIN EO.
But in the late ’80s he decided to make his own movie to exercise and showcase the skills of The Burman Studios, the company he ran with his sons Barney and Rob. I remember it was on the cover of Fangoria under the title LIFE ON THE EDGE, and that might be the only reason I was aware of it.
Remember when AVATAR came out and movie writers started talking about “world building” all the time? This one is more world building than anything else. It’s about a suburban type family living in what I believe is a post-apocalyptic future. They spend most of their lives indoors because outside is dangerous – they say you might walk off “The Edge,” which is vaguely defined and possibly a myth. But this doesn’t get humanity down. They love their homes and seem to believe they live in a great time, because all the conveniences they demand are literally piped into their homes.
That’s what made me remember this and want to watch it again. It seemed, from my memory, like it was kind of prescient. There are so many things people do now without leaving their homes thanks to Netflix, Amazon, Amazon Fresh, Postmates, etc. In the world of THE HOLLOWHEADS, “there’s a pipe for that.” Food comes to them through a pipe. When little Billy Hollowhead (Matt Shakman, who was on Just the 10 of Us and directed CUT BANK and two episodes of Fargo) comes home beat up, his mom Miriam Hollowhead (Nancy Mette, RETURN OF THE SEACAUCUS SEVEN) pulls a weird tentacle out of a tube and uses it to suck out his black eye.
When teenage daughter Cindy (Juliette Lewis in her second feature) gets ready for a date, even her makeup comes through a pipe. She just puts her face into this machine:
…and it sprays right on her. Pretty convenient! The hair still takes forever, though. She uses curlers and everything.
But watching it again I don’t really see this as very similar to our current version of a tube-based society. In fact, their lifestyles seem more influenced by mutations that exist in their world. They chop up weird slugs for food, and they have a dog who Billy’s not supposed to let inside because of radiation. But he and his shithead friend Joey (Joshua Miller from NEAR DARK and RIVER’S EDGE, now writer of THE FINAL GIRLS) sneak him in so they can pick huge bugs off his skin and use them for a popular game where they catapult them at a target.
The dog is one of the cooler special effects in the movie. At first he’s this puppet:
So I was thrown off when sudden he ran into the house:
Until I figured out they dressed up a dog in a costume! They tried to do something like that for the baby xenomorph in ALIEN 3 and couldn’t get it to work. MEET THE HOLLOWHEADS got it to work.
The oldest Hollowhead, Bud (Lightfield Lewis, brother of Juliette, Gilbert in the TV version of REVENGE OF THE NERDS) is some kind of new wave musician who jams out on a trumpet/keyboard hybrid with a mutant chicken attached to it.
And throughout the movie it will cut to the other family pet, an eyeball attached to some sort of an intestine thing living inside a big jar.
That’s a pretty good character to use for reaction shots.
The boss is kind of the villain, and he has a fashion sense that seems to predict Joel Schumacher’s version of Two Face, especially after he gets half of his face burnt up.
There are a couple notable faces of ’80s cinema that pop up briefly. When something’s wrong with the pipes Billy has to go out to a pumping station and complain to Babbleax, played by Anne Ramsey from THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN and THE GOONIES. She’s so hard to understand that they subtitled her whole scene. This was her third-to-last movie, but it came out after her death, so it’s “lovingly dedicated” to her.
Bobcat Goldthwait also appears as “Cop #1,” and credited as “Jack Cheese.” I’m guessing maybe he met Burman on SCROOGED, which was his movie before this.
There’s a reason that I’m only now mentioning the plot of the movie. The Hollowhead family patriarch Henry (John Glover, GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH) is hoping to get a big promotion at work, and invites his boss Mr. Crabneck (Richard Portnow, KINDERGARTEN COP) over for dinner. Miriam works hard to make an impressive meal, then has to dodge the boss man’s sleazy advances. Everything gets out of control and there is mutilation and hiding a crime from Bobcat Goldthwait and etc.
If you’re too young to remember the ’80s, one thing you have to understand is that people then were obsessed with re-litigating the ’50s. Dark comedies and punk rock album covers were often about showing the sinister secrets hidden behind the oversized smiles of black and white sitcom moms or idealized magazine illustrations. The idea was that we’d been sold a bill of goods – that we could not believe in a family as functional as the Cleavers, that the perfect homemaker wife and mom was a lie, that beautiful homes couldn’t bring us happiness. In the ’90s the same sort of idea would become the philosophies of Tyler Durden. (“We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t.”)
So the Hollowheads have a cartoonish look and lifestyle based in American culture of 30+ years earlier. You have the big-haired housewife who almost never leaves the kitchen, the kiss-ass husband nervous to impress the sleazy asshole boss in hopes of getting a way, way, way overdue promotion, the wife thinking she has to put up with the boss’s groping and sexual innuendo. But I’m not sure it has a clear idea about how to subvert the morals of the past. Cindy being drugged and being inappropriately lusty to every adult male she comes across is a type of ’80s humor unrelated to that theme, other than in a “this’ll take the starch out of their collars” type of way. And since Mr. Crabneck is such an asshole and the Hollowhead parents act so naive, it seems like we’re supposed to side with them when they accidentally kill him. But they’re not exactly kind people or they wouldn’t have Grandpa (Shotgun Britton, a makeup artist who worked on GUNGA DIN and CITIZEN KANE!) strapped to a chair in their dank basement. He has to be fed, kinda like grandpa in TEXAS CHAIN SAW, except by squirting goop into his mouth with a giant hand pump. That’s Cindy’s least favorite chore.
MEET THE HOLLOWHEADS seemed pretty obscure when I originally saw it in the VHS era. Then it took many years to come to DVD in a poorly transferred, no extras “Collector’s Edition” that someone is currently offering for $114.90 (plus shipping) on Amazon.
It’s not worth that. But being a rarity is kind of a good fit – it’s probly better as a bizarre memory from a quarter century ago or a mythical movie you heard is floating out there than an actual thing to sit and watch. But if you can, give it a shot. This time I really didn’t think it was funny, but at least it never stops being crazy. I can’t say I’ve seen anything else like it.
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.