Horror in the 90s: Meet the Applegates

One of the weirdest, wildest, movies of the 90s is the horror/comedy follow up to Heathers from director Michael Lehmann.


Meet the Applegates (1991)

Directed by Michael Lehmann

Written by Michael Lehmann, Redbeard Simmons

Starring Ed Begley Jr, Stockard Channing, Dabney Coleman

Release Date February 1st, 1991

Box Office $485,000

Writer-Director Michael Lehmann is to be respected for his… big choices. After making a splashy debut with Heathers, a now beloved cult classic, Lehmann continued taking big risks with his follow up feature, Meet the Applegates. Then, Hollywood came calling and things changed dramatically. Lehmann made Hudson Hawk and star Bruce Willis walked all over him while no one could agree on what the movie should be. The film became a legendary failure and Lehmann’s Hudson Hawk experience led him down a path to directing some of the most conventional yet memorable comedies of the late 90s, movies like Airheads and The Truth About Cats and Dogs. Though, it’s relatively clear that Hudson Hawk chased the weird out of Michael Lehmann.

My thesis statement for that observation is Lehmann’s other pre-Hudson Hawk endeavor, Meet the Applegates. While Heathers is remembered for its wild dark humor and unexpected levels of deathly violence, Lehmann took things a step further and a step stranger in Meet the Applegates. Despite having a cast led by three veteran actors of remarkable reputation, Ed Begley Jr., Stockard Channing, and Dabney Coleman, Meet the Applegates is one of the most bizarre, awkward, and peculiar movies ever made.

In the jungles of South America, a remarkably racist and bleakly comic scene unfolds. Missionaries are teaching a collection of horrifying stereotypes about what America is like. The lesson tells the story of a family of four, parents Dick and Jane and their kids, Sally and Johnny. These four people, who don’t exist, are the ideal ‘nuclear family.’ Just as the missionaries are completing their lesson, a construction crew breaks through and begins clearing the jungle. They are tearing down the rainforest and strip mining the place.

In this process however, the construction crew unleashes a dormant type bug with… unique powers. These bugs, the Brazilian Cocorada, use chameleon-like powers to impersonate other species. In this case, the species they choose is human. Finding the book about the perfect nuclear family, four of the bugs take on the personas of Dick (Ed Begley Jr.), Jane (Stockard Channing), Sally (Camille Cooper) and Johnny (Robert Jayne). Using these human shells, the bugs move to the American suburbs with a plan to destroy America in revenge for the destruction of the rainforest.

This is all inferred on my part. The film quite jarringly shows the bugs murdering the missionaries and then credits. Then we are in the suburbs and a few visual clues tell us that these are the bugs in human form. Their mission becomes clear only after an expository conversation with Aunt Bea (Dabney Coleman). Aunt Bea is also a bug in disguise and he/she acts as the handler for the Applegates, giving them their mission and helping them to carry it out. Dabney Coleman in a dress is a haunting visual that should be funny but never is.

From there, the film enacts a series of culture clash gags about nosy neighbors, consumer culture, and sexual harassment in the workplace. It’s all pitched a high comic tone, quite similar to Heathers, but none of it is funny. The whole of Meet the Applegates is one jarringly incongruous encounter after another. The horror comedy aspect emerges as the family appears to murder anyone who finds out that they are bugs in disguise or threaten them in any way. Cocooned bodies begin piling up in the basement even as the family is being honored for being ‘the most normal family in America.’ That sounds much funnier than it plays in the movie.

In a deeply uncomfortable choice. Michael Lehmann and co-screenwriter Redbeard Simmons latched onto the phrase ‘rough trade’ as something they seem to think is very funny. Contextually, the phrase is used to describe the attempted forcible rape of Sally by the boy next door Football Captain. The kid says more than once, in his two attempts to force Sally into sex, that he enjoys ‘Rough Trade.’ Now, if you know what that term actually refers to, you might laugh at the misunderstanding of the term. Either way, whether you get it or not, the jokes are related to two scenes of sexual assault that are simply not funny under any context.

The first two acts of Meet the Applegates are wildly scattershot. The establishment of the premise is rushed and confounding, the gags about consumerism and sex range from awkward to awful, and we get little sense of who the Applegates are other than being the vehicles for Michael Lehmann’s shotgun blast style of modern satire. I can sense what Lehmann was trying to do, he’s attempting to mesh a modern to the 1990s style of detached, ironic, dark humor with a 1950s style sci-fi story, but that intention doesn’t really take shape until the third act and by then, if you’ve lasted that long, you have struggled to get there.

Then, the final act of Meet the Applegates arrives and the film picks up the pace to a bizarre degree. The change in pace, the rush to get this over with, as jarring as it is, gives the movie a little life. Scenes in the final act begin to ratchet up the absurdity, like a church that just happens to have nooses at the ready for a hanging. That’s the kind of dark joke that plays from the director of Heathers. Then there is a truly farcical fight scene between two giant cockroaches. Ed Begley Jr’s Dick and Dabney Coleman’s Aunt Bea fight out the ending of the movie in their Cockroach form and it’s kind of brilliant.

The scene marries a bit of Lehmann’s modern black comedy with 50s style sci-fi and for just a moment you can see why Michael Lehmann was attracted to make Meet the Applegates. I can say the same of the preposterous ending wherein the Applegates have returned to Brazil to save the rainforest via non-violent protest and their neighbors come to visit, the same neighbors that had just attempted to hang them as a family in a previous scene. Now they are all eco-warriors, the Applegates are set to be grandparents to a number of eggsacks, and though their human friends lost their hair to radiation due to the partial meltdown of a nuclear power plant, everyone is happy as can be in the jungle.

It doesn’t all quite work, but I did go from fully deriding and dismissing Meet the Applegates to appreciating Michael Lehmann’s gutsy and deeply weird dedication to the film. I don’t think that the movie works, I don’t think it reaches the potential that I think is there, the bad taste is often a little too bad, but I can’t help but sneakily admire some of Meet the Applegates. For a movie made in the early 90s, the bug suit creatures are really impressive. The giant cockroach fight is very entertaining and weird. If the whole movie had the energy of the final act, we might be talking about a true hidden gem.

As it is, the cheap jabs at consumerism, the scattershot environmental message, the parodies of stoner culture and even rape culture, doom the movie to being mostly subpar. But, at the very least, the film is bad in a very ambitious and impressive way. Michael Lehmann takes a very big swing. You have to admire his nerve, his guts, and his bizarre instincts. I can truly see a version of Meet the Applegates that could work. I think there are pieces of the movie that are genuinely great and there is an idea at the heart of the movie, that marriage of pitch black modern to the 90s irony crossed with the camp sci-fi of the 1950s, that comes ever so close to making the movie work. It doesn’t work but it might have and that makes it, at the very least, memorable.

This piece on 1991’s Meet the Applegates is a serialized piece from my book project, Horror in the 90s. I am writing a book about a couple hundred horror films released between January 1990 and December of 1999 that encapsulate the horror genre of the 1990s. It’s a decade in which horror reached to the heights of Oscar level greatness and reached the nadir of box office failure. Then came Scream in 1996 and the genre was reborn as one that film studios cared about again as a legitimate part of their business model. Horror in the 90s is a fascinating microcosm of the history of the horror genre and I am really loving digging into it.

That said, I can’t get to the finish of this project without your help. Consider subscribing to my writing here on Vocal. Share Horror in the 90s with your horror loving friends. And, if you could, support the book by making a monthly pledge here on Vocal or by leaving a one time tip. All donations will go toward making Horror in the 90s the book, and soon a companion podcast, a reality. You can make your donations here on Vocal or via my Ko-Fi account, linked here. Thanks!

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