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Let’s give these insects a taste of human justice!

Meet the Applegates
(1990)

(SPOILERS) A good few Michael Lehmann movies are probably best forgotten, but his first three are not among them. The in-betweener, Meet the Applegates, passed virtually unnoticed, missing out on the acclaim that greeted Heathers and the (undeserved) infamy reserved for Hudson Hawk. It has remained in an off-the-radar state, bereft of even a DVD release, making it something of a highly prized cult movie. Applegates is a broad, rambunctious satire of the American way of life, picking at the corrupting influences lurking beneath the idealised surface. Lehmann’s energy and glee at the task in hand are irresistible, and so he delivers a fully-formed picture that might be mistaken for the absurdist progeny of Joe Dante and John Waters.


No one could accuse Meet the Applegates of subtlety, but that’s part of its colourful appeal. This is a one-joke set-up of a movie, making the well-sustained results all the more surprising; it only peters out when required to gather in its threads and cobble together a conclusion. Lehmann’s only screenplay credit (with Redbeard Simmons, who wrote his 1985 short, Beaver Gets a Boner), he may well have been inspired by the savage black comedy of Daniel Waters’ Heathers screenplay. If Applegates is unable to ascend to those rarefied heights, it takes similar satisfaction in disassembling readily accepted mores and values.


The eccentric plot follows a family of Brazilian Cocorada (praying mantises) dispatched to suburban Ohio on a mission to sabotage a nuclear power station after their habitat comes under threat; insects being the ones to survive a nuclear catastrophe, of course. Ostensibly Applegates bears an eco-theme, then, but Lehmann and Simmons are far too anarchic to burden themselves with po-faced moralising. The makeshift conclusion finds the threat (to humans) eliminated, with Ohio residents visiting the Applegates in the jungle; “a little radiation did seep through the cracks” we are told, as the trio remove their headgear to reveal copious hair loss. The conservation theme is a trigger, but becomes merely one of a handful of targets, swiping at the ugliness festering beneath the veneer of traditional values.


Usually reserved for role reversal morality plays involving the interrogation of prejudice or ignorance, the picture embraces comparative perspectives to humorous effect, as we see the mistreatment of insects through the Applegates’ eyes. This culminates in a lynch mob (“Let’s give these insects a taste of human justice!”) where the only defender is Roger Aaron Brown’s African American sheriff (“Bug lover!”) Most definitely not subtle, then, which also applies to next door neighbour Greg Samson (Glen Shadix, Father Ripper from Heathers and Otho in Beetlejuice), a bug exterminator who masks a vindictive edge beneath his welcoming smile (“We take Sunday off to honour God and the baby Jesus”; he accuses the Applegates of being Satanists, communists or just plain evil).


The Applegates, Richard P (Ed Begley, Jr) Jane (Stockard Channing), Sally (Camille Cooper) and Johnny (Robert Jayne), accompanied by Spot the dog/bug, have assumed their identities through studying Janet and John books, diligently ensuring they meet precise average statistics as verified by Family Bazaar magazine. They’re the model American family, and thus highly prone to moral debasement.


Richard goes to work in the power plant (“You come glowingly recommended”), where he receives initially unwanted attention from secretary Dottie (Savannah Smith Boucher); inevitably, the faithful husband embarks on an affair, leading to a particularly outrageous liaison accidentally broadcast across the power station floor (“Ride the baloney pony, baby! I’m going to splay you, like a Cornish game hen!”)


His infidelity is just part of a mounting testament to the general untrustworthiness of (human) men. In the most protracted, near-the-knuckle subplot, Sally is date-raped by Greg’s jock-cock son Vince (Adam Biesk), discovers she is pregnant, and becomes a lesbian (“I’ve learned a lot in the last few weeks. Like all men care about is pussy”; “Ain’t that the truth!”, concurs her mother). Following which, her new-born is stamped on by the horrified reps from Family Bazaar.


At every turn of confronting human depravity, cocooned bodies pile up in the Applegate house (in contrast to the humans – “Sally, keep away from that boy. His father’s a killer”, Dick instructs of Vince – the Applegates don’t actually kill anyone), either as a consequence of revealing their true form or due to financial pressures. Sally bugs-out during Greg’s assault (“Stop, or I’ll make you stop”), and, having taken in teen pregnancy, Lehmann and Redbeard naturally want to cover drug abuse too; Johnny quickly becomes a stoner (“Hand me that roach, man”) and transforms during a particularly heavy session. Before long, the model children have become rude, disrespectful, engaging in acts of larceny and estranged from their parents; they’re the most normal family in America.


Jane becomes addicted to shopping (“Its been awful, Opal Withers made me wallow in decadent consumerism”), equipped with a credit card (“Another vile human custom”), the home shopping network and no willpower to stop (she proceeds to shift blame, not unlike Johnny’s excuse for becoming an addict; “It wasn’t my fault. They made me take drugs and I couldn’t stop”). Jane then resorts to robbing convenience stores and eventually has to stuff the sheriff in the basement when he catches her. Dick does the same thing with Dottie (behind the drinks cabinet) when she threatens blackmail over their affair; it’s only by taking off in an RV and getting back to nature that they re-connect with their true, unsullied insect-inside selves.


Lehmann and Simmons make great capital from a string of bug-human perspective gags, and again, it’s surprising how consistently they land. From dietary habits (“Johnny, eat some more sugar. You’re still growing”; desert is a particular treat as, “I happened to find a pile of rancid trash in a dumpster beside the 7-Eleven”), to pornography (Dick inspecting insect pictures in a copy of Scientific American), to activating a sonic bug repellent at a fete (Dick and Jane are the only ones who hear it, of course), to a series of one liners; “Blubbing like a day-old larva”; “You know, I used to think you had queen potential, you little piss-ant”; “Who knows what filthy human diseases you’ve picked up”; requesting, as Sally goes into labour, “Warm mud and a bag of fertiliser”.


Much of the picture’s success is down to the performances. Electric car proselytiser Begley Jr and former Greaser Channing are absolute perfection as the initially adoring couple, hatching out their characters’ less respectable sides with infectious relish, culminating in Jane smashing a bottle over Dick’s head (“What did I do, you crazy bitch?”) Jayne and Cooper (who appears to have retired from acting) are also very good; all involved exactly get the heightened tone Lehmann is aiming for. This is a world next door to Dante and Burton’s offbeat suburbias, just somewhat coarser. 


The bug designs are appealingly exaggerated too, from camera point-of-view shots with dangling feelers and arms, to full puppets (there’s even a Thing-esque transformation for Spot when Johnny forces him to inhale).


As noted, Lehmann and Simmons were evidently taking a leaf out of Heathers’ book in pointing out predilections for parochialism and bigotry. In particular, casting doubt on the jock’s masculinity is a direct steal (“Do you think there might have been any homosexual activity?”), while Shaddix is used to spout unsubtle and intemperate views in both. In both too, shows of support over traumatic local events are organised; the townsfolk decide to put on a musical in aid of the vanishing residents, People are Neat, all about “peace, love, brotherhood and the free market system”.


The movie’s trump card is casting Dabney Coleman as the antagonistic, military-minded leader of the mantises. This kind of character is preferably used in small doses, and Lehmann knows Coleman needs only to open his mouth to get a laugh. As Aunt Bea, the moustachioed queen of the Cocorada colony, Coleman gets many of the best lines, and the best frocks. Calling a builder who pinches her arse “You homo sapien scum”, then reflecting “Oh nothing, nothing. Just, er, some asshole just tried to rape me”, being ignored while hitchhiking (“You cocksucker!”) or, battered but not bowed, wheel chairing into the distance during the end credits (“Yeah, get a job pal”, she instructs an approaching beggar), Coleman is an instant win.


Admittedly, Meet the Applegates rather goes off the boil during the last 15 minutes or so, ironically when Aunt Bea shows up to take control, but it’s brief and pacy enough (at under 90 minutes) that it’s never in danger of outstaying its welcome (see for yourself; a poor quality version can currently be found on YouTube). Most likely its exuberantly scattershot approach would be tempered somewhat if it were made today, so missing out on its unrepentant appeal; amid the crudity and zest there’s a lacerating sharpness.


It makes you wonder just where it all went wrong for Lehmann. Maybe it’s merely that the satire game doesn’t serve its members well (Dante finds it hard to get a gig these days); Lehmann’s last few pictures have been forgettable, and his most recent was nearly a decade ago. Like many a director in the industry, he’s opted for steady TV work, some of it on quality shows (Californication, True Blood, Dexter), but it’s a shame his once-distinctive sensibility, one that pegged him out as a potential Dante or Burton, appears to have been doused.



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