Meet The Hollowheads (1989) — AKA Life On The Edge

“Good shift!”

Flinthart’s rating: I’m giving it five out of six squirming tentacle ‘specials’

Flinthart’s review: I’m just going to say it: This little-known 1989 SF comedy is a work of genius. Seriously. Meet the Hollowheads is so far out there, so deeply odd yet simultaneously so firmly grounded in its own internally consistent logic that it can only have been created by someone operating on a higher plane than most of us. I’m guessing it’s writer/director Thomas Burman, as this appears to have been his only stint as a director. Mostly, he’s known for make-up and effects, and once you’ve seen this film you’ll know why.

Not that it’s a bad film. Indeed, quite the opposite. I’m dead serious when I say it’s a work of genius. It’s simply that the film is – well, it’s like it came from another world.

Try to imagine something like an episode of Leave It To Beaver. The mother is a classic housewife. The father works at a big factory, but he’s intimidated by his aggressive, self-serving boss (who only has the job because his family owns the place). There are two teenage kids – male and female – who serve to provide teen hijinks that fill out the B-story, and then there’s the central character: the smart-ass 12-year-old with a good heart.

Now, in this classic fifties-style sitcom we have a classic, fifties-style plot. Father calls home and tells mother that the boss is coming home for dinner, and she’s got zero time to prepare. Meanwhile, the two teens are off to a party which promises to be a little bit wilder than they let on to mother.

The stage is set. The hijinks unfold.

So far, so very predictable. But now you must imagine another world in which, for some reason, humanity lives deep underground. It is a world where electrical technology plays an equal role with biochemical, pneumatic, hydraulic, and even biological technologies. It’s a world of bright primary colours and plasticated fifties hairstyles, with retrofuturistic bio-fitted kitchens and dark, deep cellars where aged grandparents are maintained in complex restraint chairs. It’s a world where an errand to retrieve ingredients for mother leads the smart-ass son through a strange, featureless underground labyrinth not unlike a gigantic sewer, never seeing the light of day.

And absolutely every detail is nailed. That’s the core of what makes this film a freaky, unnerving work of genius. The players stay completely in character. The dialogue reflects the bizarro-world in which they live. The peculiar little items such as ‘softening jelly,’ or snacks made from living tentacles extruded from the kitchen walls, or ‘punitration boxes’ which fill out this world are never explained, never explored. They simply are, and they demand that the viewer use their own imagination to fill in the background.

And oh, how horrific and creepy some of those things are. For my money, it’s a toss-up between the unnerving tentacle bio-tech which Miriam uses to treat Billy’s black eye, and the huge hypodermic thing which is the centrepiece prop for the ‘feeding grampa’ scene. Just try forgetting that shit later, eh?

It’s the very best kind of world-building. By putting the off-beat dialogue and the bizarre décor and the freaky home devices onscreen without comment and without exposition, Burman and his people force us to become part of the show. As we watch and wonder, we instinctively flesh out the wild, weird stuff with our own even wilder, even weirder suppositions. The film’s made on a very low budget, with few sets and no exteriors – but by sticking to its own internal logic and remaining completely consistent with its worldbuilding, it insists that we must devise an equally believable framework, a wider world in which this sitcom could exist.

And that is seriously unnerving — which I loved. The weirdness of this film and the world it implies gave me the kind of skin-crawling, creepy sensation that I’ve had from very, very few horror films. It’s brilliant.

The cast is great. The teen daughter Cindy Hollowhead is played by Juliette Lewis in one of her earliest speaking roles, and she’s very good indeed. Cindy comes across with just the right balance of naivete and nascent sexuality, and when she’s brought home from the party wrecked on ‘softening jelly’ and ‘highly restricted vapours’, her drunken flirtatiousness and the discomfort of the two police officers who bring her home (one of whom is played by Bobcat Goldthwait!) delivers a sleazy little story all its own with tremendous economy.

Meanwhile, genre-TV stalwart John Glover plays father Henry Hollowhead as a textbook fifties/sixties sitcom dad. You could unplug him from this movie and slot him straight into something like Bewitched and he’d be on the money. Nancy Mette is perhaps even better as Miriam Hollowhead, the stressed housewife dealing with drunk kids, timid husband, overbearing sex-pest boss, deranged bio-kitchen equipment, and much more. Even young Matt Shakman (now a producer/director sort) is excellent as young Billy Hollowhead – just the right mixture of smugness, smarts, naivete and childish mischief layered over an essential decency that makes the character practically a poster-boy for the values of an era that never really existed outside the imagination of Ronald Reagan and his ilk back in the fifties and sixties. Oh! And one ‘Lightfield Lewis’ plays Bud Hollowhead, brother to his real-life sister Juliette. Nice casting!

Back to the plot? Oh, sure. Why not? I mean, it’s not the important or interesting thing, but it does deliver a story for all the weirdness to live in. Billy brings home his trouble-maker friend Joey (Joshua John Miller) and they try out Billy’s new ‘splatspray’ game. But when they run out of pellets, Joey suggests that they pull blood-filled parasites off of the family ‘dog’ (one of the most horrifying bits of puppetry/animatronics I’ve ever seen) and use them instead, creating a colossal mess that ramps up Miriam Hollowhead’s stress even farther.

Then when boss Marty Crabneck (Richard Portnow) shows up for dinner, he turns out to be a sociopathic alpha-male with an eye to getting real close to Miriam. As Marty’s behaviour deteriorates into violence, the Hollowheads respond in self-defence, leaving Marty apparently dead in the kitchen – just about the time that Bud staggers in from the party. There’s barely time to deal with Bud before the cops arrive with Cindy – and a whole load of difficult questions. In the end, only Billy’s quick thinking saves the day, seeing off the police and setting the scene for a perfect ‘fifties sitcom-ending.

But don’t watch it for the plot. Watch it, and pay attention to what it does to your head as you try to place all the insane, incredible, bizarre but consistent details into some kind of rational framework. Watch it, and wonder, and shudder…


  • Oh, Bog. What… IS that in the kitchen?
  • Gyahh! That’s the most horrific black eye treatment I’ve ever seen!
  • How does her hair do that?
  • Station Master Babbleaxe? Didn’t she get Thrown From The Train in a better-known film?
  • Yeah, we know what floats to the top!
  • Punitration box?
  • Depenetration?
  • Softening Jelly?
  • Wait… wait… that musical instrument Bud is playing. Is that… it is! It’s a live chicken (well, animatronic/puppet) squawking away in the middle. A musical instrument with a live chicken in it?
  • Feeding grampa… eeeeyyyyeewww!
  • What the hell is that? Some sort of… telescoping microwave cooker thing? Wow, it sure did a number on that guy’s face.
  • “He’s not your boy… er… I mean, he’s your little man, now!”
  • And remember, folks: just say ‘no’ to butt polish!

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