Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Head of the Family (1996): or, You Can't Pick Your Family, Nor Your Hat Size

Ah, Full Moon Entertainment. How would I have made it through all those lonely college weekends without you? Many's the night I came back from my local Hastings video with an armload of 49¢ VHS rentals, hoping for another jewel like Trancers or Meridian among the dreck-pile Dollman vs. Demonic Toys and the seemingly endless series of Puppet Master variations. Every time I got angry with you, like when you wasted Jeffrey Combs in the silly and demeaning Dr. Mordrid, I had to forgive you because you'd also given me Combs/Crampton goodness in the wonderful Castle Freak. You'd dash my hopes for joining passions for horror and for original MTV VJ Martha Quinn, then make up for it with more Tim Thomerson badassery or the mostly above-average vampire tales of Subspecies. That's why even after countless disappointments and diminishing returns, I just can't quit you, Charlie!

And really, it's an easy call to make. In the days between the video boom's beginnings in the 80s to the everyone's a horror filmmaker saturation of the aughts, Charles Band and company were out there producing straight-to-video horror to feed what was obviously a voracious hunger in the guts of the horror-loving audience. If they missed much more often than they hit, what of it? You could almost always count on them to deliver good-to-goofy practical effects, stories that were often silly but seldom boring, and enough glorious nekkidity to keep your thumb over the fast forward button rather than shifting over to "stop."

Of course the insatiable demand for horror features I reference took its toll. Looking at some of their less well-known titles, it's clear that sometimes the Full Moon crew was really reaching for a subject to build a movie around. I like to picture Charles Band in 1996, trying to come up with a new Full Moon feature idea while working on his taxes. Always looking for material, his visionary eye alights on the checkbox next to the question about his filing status. His gaze goes distant--the wheels start to turn--and by the end of the day he's on the phone with writer Benjamin Carr, hashing out the script for one of his more unusual and improbably entertaining efforts: Head of the Family (1996).

The Duke's new vanity plate. The Mazda gets better mileage than the Coach & Four.

In a small town in Florida, local business owner Lance (Blake Adams) has a problem. Tough-guy biker and drug dealer Howard Oates (a gloriously be-mulleted Gordon Jennison Noice) has decided to become a "partner" in his grocery store/old-fashioned diner, helping himself to 50% of the profits and all the greasy burgers he can nom. But then, Lance has been helping himself to sweaty backroom sex with the biker's unhappy and impossibly hawt wife Loretta Oates (played by perky blonde Jacqueline Lovell, about whom more in a minute)--so maybe it kind of evens out. Still, big-thinking entrepreneur Lance is none too happy about handing over his hard-earned loot to a denim-wearing, malapropism-spouting Harley humper, so he and Loretta (who likes to be called "Scarlett" in the throes of stockroom passion) start dreaming up ways they might get rid of the big lunk once and for all.

Of course no cinematic Southern town is without its eccentric families, and this one has the Stackpools, a trio of mostly mute siblings who walk around town like the Children of the Damned, minus the platinum blond bowl-cuts and scintillating charisma. Wheeler (James Jones) is a wiry scarecrow-type with the fashion sense of Ichabod Crane and dark, old-fashioned sunglasses he never removes. Brother Otis (Bob Schott) is a Tor Johnson-style ogre with the muscles and flyaway yellow hair of a semi-retired WWE mid-carder. And sister Ernestina--played by Alexandria Quinn, whose lengthy filmography includes such intriguing credits as Real Female Orgasms, Sodomania Slop Shots 9, and the 2008 opus Load Warriors-- is...well, about what you'd expect given that resume.

The Stackpools: Some Stacked Better Than Others

Taking advantage of Howard's absence on some supply-related errand, Lance and Loretta are on their way home to wash off the sex stank when they notice a Wile E. Coyote-style roadblock on a completely undamaged highway. Ever the curious one, Lance goes to check it out, and soon finds himself in the driveway of the Stackpool estate, watching Otis lay a fatal Smackdown on a hapless, nondescript motorist (though he does have a vanity license plate reading "HUNKALUV," so maybe he's a little descript). Quickly reasoning that when life gives you info on a horrifying serial murder scheme, it's time to make blackmail-ade, Lance confronts the Stackpools in town the next day, threatening to go to the cops if they don't talk to him. The siblings stay silent, but that night Otis busts in and snatches Lance out of bed (though luckily not out of his purple satin jammies) and drags him back to the house to meet the senior ranking member of this particular familial unit.

Yes, there's another Stackpool brother in town, and that brother is Myron (J.W. Perra), a gigantic, veined head with tiny little feet and Swedish Chef hands. Myron explains that he and his siblings are quadruplets, "all from the same egg!", and the last survivors of their Plantation-rich family line. Acknowledging that ordinarily identical quadruplets would be...you know, identical--Myron further informs us that they are all mutants with special powers, each with an ordinary human ability expanded to an unimaginable degree. Otis, for instance, is super-strong, his muscles hard as steel and possibly bulletproof. Wheeler has eyes sharper than an eagle's (he removes his glasses to display some Killers from Space-worthy orbs) and smell and hearing to match. And Ernestina--"Well, I needn't tell you what hear special ability is!" Myron demurs. (Personally, I'm guessing it's a preternatural sense of balance that prevents her toppling forward every time she takes a step.)

"You may force me to wobble, but as God is my witness, I WILL NOT FALL DOWN!"

Of course Myron's got BRAIN POWER, and uses his special familial link to control his siblings' every thought and move, making them automatons to serve his will. Not content with living by proxy, Myron has been researching the human brain, looking for a way he can transfer his intellect into a more craniallyl compact form. This is why they've been kidnapping motorists, so that Myron can perform experimental surgery on them pursuant to this goal. Smart as he is, he's apparently crap as a neurosurgeon, since the basement dungeon is full of brain-dead rejects Myron keeps around for their "entertainment value." They're all set to add Lance to the tally, but then the quick-thinking country boy pulls out his trump card.

Not having fallen off the tater truck yesterday, Lance has written down his suspicions and mailed them to an unnamed lawyer, who will give the information to the police if Lance doesn't check in regularly. Unable to take the chance of inviting an investigation, the Stackpools reluctantly agree to take care of Lance's little problem for him. All this takes is Ernestina flashing her irresistible muscular gams at Howard from the side of the road, and one single-axe-handle smash from Otis later, Howard is having his brain stirred through his empty eye socket and thereafter joins the crew of catatonics in the Stackpool cellar.

After a few nights of unrestrained sex with Loretta--in a bed, for a change (a scene where Lance pours champagne over Lovell's nubile nakedness is one for the Illustrated History of Zang)--Lance has to decide the direction his life will take from here on out. Having never read an issue of Tales from the Crypt, apparently, Lance decides to give in to his baser instincts and continue blackmailing the Freaky Foursome, shaking them down to the tune of two grand a week. This doesn't sit well with Myron, who deploys his mobile crib-mates to retrieve the letter by any means necessary and remove Lance's sole bargaining chip. They succeed surprisingly easily, and before long Lance is on the operating table and Loretta is begging for her life, even attempting to seduce Myron and letting him lick her exposed nipple with a Freddy Kruger-length tongue! It doesn't work, but it's a heck of a visual.

Jacqueline wasn't the first to be struck speechless by the Vicar's Self-Removing Trousers™, nor would she be the last.

It'll surprise no one that things go off the rails a bit in the finale, as Lance claims the existence of another letter to buy time, and Myron attempts to force it out of him by having Loretta perform in a stage version of Joan of Arc along with his troupe of lobotomized thespians, in a scene reminiscent of Marat/Sade, but dumber. Though again, having a naked Jacqueline Lovell tied to the stake is not a directorial decision I would ever second-guess. Betrayals occur as Lance is mesmerized by Ernestina's bodacious mutant abilities and Loretta hightails it with Otis, whose love for the "Pretty Girl..Pretty...Pretty Girl" enables him to break free of Myron's mental shackles. As for the Head Cheese--whose supercharged brain power has never been a match for bumpkin Lance's tricksterish schemes ONCE in the flick--he performs a one-man rendition of the classic fairy tale Humpty Dumpty, bringing an end to his reign of error.

So the movie is extremely goofy, a one-joke skit filled out to feature length, but somehow director Charles Band (here credited as Rob Talbot) manages to keep it moving briskly almost throughout the entire running time, and to his credit never lets the the unserious tone sink into nudge-wink-hardee-har-har hokiness. The script is actually pretty good, for what it is--there's a lot of entertaining if not exactly cerebral banter between Lance and Loretta, and even an early running gag in which Howard can never think of the right word and Loretta suggests smart-ass synonyms isn't leaned on hard enough to wear out its welcome. In fact, I'd go so far as to say Head of the Family is pretty funny--intentionally so, even--with more comedic restraint than your average SNL episode (faint praise though that may be). And the score by Richard Band is carnivalesque and creepy as usual, adding another level of enjoyment.

I'm the same way after four double-espressos.

Band is aided by some good performances from his charismatic cast. Blake Adams as Lance plays the Southern trickster hero with enthusiasm and a fair amount of skill, grading on a rather precipitous curve, of course. He also has some real comic chemistry with Jacqueline Lovell, not least during their backroom sex/dialogue scenes, which are always fun to watch. Lovell is a charming actress here beyond her gobsmacking gorgeousness, and a veteran of many 90s b-movies, including Full Moon's Hideous! and The Killer Eye, along with erotic DTV company Surrender Cinema's The Exotic House of Wax, which I found to be a cheerful time waster. (She was also one of the top nude models of the early 90s under her nom de guerre Sara St. James, specializing in softcore lesbian videos and photospreads. To sum up: zang.) And J. W. Perra turns in a great performance as Bighead Myron, just the right mix of condescending Old South aristocrat and mad science mutant.

In short, Head of the Family is light, entertaining horror/comedy fare, and easy to recommend with a 2.25 thumb rating. It's not likely to become any movie buff's favorite piece of cinema ever, but it has a fun story, some good practical effects (the makeup job on Myron is quite a piece of work, as are a few of the surgery-aftermath applicatons), a decent script, and plenty of Grade-A nudity to boot. If you're feeling nostalgic for the glory days of three-for-a-dollar VHS rentals, or just want something a little less mentally and emotionally taxing than the latest French "punish me for watching your movie!" flick, Head of the Family is a good bet.

The World Laughs with Him--OR ELSE.

A few more images from Head of the Family (1996):

Lance never maligned Otis's choice of sanitary napkins again.

"You wanna put it where?"

Beautiful Plumage

"Hey, now that we've got him upside down, whattaya say we get out the really bumpy cucumbers?

Don't say I never gave you nothin'.

Here, have another. It's on me.

NOT Bill Moseley, surprisingly

"Fuck me, Duke, I'm yours!"

Heavy Hangs the Head



J. Astro said...

Aaaah, yes, we enjoyed this one many times over on my buddy's satellite dish during late weekend evenings in our formative years. I even ordered it on disc for sheer nostalgia value a few months back. Haven't found the courage, or the right moment, to pop it in again, but this review may have been just the kick in the rear I needed. :)

Steve Miller said...

This was, is, and always will be one of my favorite movies.

Which is probably a contributing factor to why I will be forever single.

The Duke of DVD said...

I believe I watched this movie while drunk once. The Otis character haunts my dreams still. Bravo on the fantastic review, as usual, Vicar!

Bonus points for the sanitary napkin caption.

JamiSings said...

Now I'm wondering if that episode of the X-Files with the family of inbreds with the mom under the bed isn't in a way related to this movie.

Armando H. said...

Hey it has tits, I'll watch it.

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