Meet the Applegates (1991) ***

American sitcoms in the 1950s were aspirational. Leave it to Beaver, The Adventures of Ozzy and Harriet, and Father Knows Best were all about idealized families, living in idealized homes in idealized suburbs. Naturally they suffered conflicts every week, but they were all the kind of trifling issues that could be corrected in 30 minutes, usually with a small amount of paternal (or less frequently maternal) wisdom. Such hokey domestic bliss would draw the ire of later generations, who regarded all the ideals and values of the 1950s with a mix of suspicion and outright contempt. After all, the 1950s had been rife with racial and gender discrimination, so in the eyes of later-day reformers everything associated with the period (even the good things) were corrupted by these underlying injustices. The classic sit-com family, being the most visible symbol of 1950s values, was naturally among the first things to go up on the chopping block. By the 1980s the families featured on sitcoms had transformed into dysfunctional messes. Foremost among these dysfunctional family sitcoms were The Simpsons and Married with Children. Today’s film has the novel idea of following a family who begin as The Cleavers and end up as The Bundys. Oh, and they also happen to be giant praying mantises disguised as people on a mission to whip out the human race!

The titular Applegates are members of a hitherto undiscovered species of giant preying mantises who live in the Amazon Rain Forest. Unfortunately, intensive logging has endangered their natural habitat. While this film is first and foremost a sleazy exploitation movie we are going to be treated to more than a couple preachy environmental lectures. I get it, I get it; eat less meat, don’t pollute, don’t forget to recycle your old beer cans, take public transit whenever possible. I understand the importance of all that already; can’t I just enjoy a copious excess of sex and violence for an hour and half without worrying about the fate of the planet? But I digress, the giant mantises are sick of mankind’s encroachment into their territory, so the queen of the hive, Aunt Bee, decides the only reasonable course of action is to send her drones to infiltrate a nuclear power plant in Ohio and cause it to melt down. I don’t know, sounds like a nuclear meltdown will do a lot more damage to the environment than a bit of logging ever could, but I guess that kind of attitude is why I’m not queen. The Applegates are sent ahead to scout out the plant and come up with a strategy for destroying it; Aunt Bee and the rest of the hive will rendezvous with them later and carry out the plan.

This requires the Applegates to pose as humans for an extended period of time, they do so by wearing convincing flesh-suits, and adopting the persona of the statistically typical American family. They become Dick and Jane Applegate, with their children Sally and Johnny. I’m guessing that their research is a bit out date though, because when they arrive in Ohio they are the spitting image of the stereotypical 1950s sitcom family, right down to their goofy period-piece clothes. They might have picked a better spot to move into though, their next-door neighbor, Greg Sampson, is a particularly skilled exterminator. He views the whole undertaking as a religious act, and has a rare talent for putting himself in the mindset of his prey. If anybody is gonna come to the bat-shit insane conclusion that his neighbors are giant bugs masquerading as people, it’s Greg.

The Applegates can only maintain their perfect family façade for a short time though, almost immediately they are corrupted by modern American culture. Dick becomes increasingly horny, asking his wife to mate with him even when they are not in mating season. When he can’t get off that way he starts masturbating to National Geographic magazines with full-page color photos of insects. Later on he starts an affair with his secretary. This affair winds up costing him his job at the plant. Jane doesn’t fair much better, a friend introduces her to the wonders of excessive consumerism and before long Jane becomes a full-fledged shopping addict. When the bank refuses to advance her any more money, she has to take to a life of crime in order to fuel her shopping binges. Johnny Applegate falls in with the wrong set at school and starts smoking pot. In fine Applegate tradition he has no self-control and in short order he is a complete pothead. In the course of their debaucheries all of the Applegates wind up having to take human prisoners, which they spin up in cocoons and hide throughout the house. Dick takes his secretary captive once she demands a bribe for keeping quiet about their affair. Jane captures the police officer that catches her after one of her smash and grabs. While Johnny takes his two stoner friends captive after he gets high and involuntarily transforms back into a mantis.

As for Sally, her arch follows the rest of the family’s descent into dysfunction but it is grotesque enough as to warrant special attention. She attracts the interest of an asshole jock named Vince, who happens to be Greg Sampson’s son. At a neighborhood party Vince corners Sally in the cemetery and makes his interest in her known, mostly by some aggressive petting. When she fights back he announces his love of “rough trade” and continues to his sexual assault unabated. The next shot we see of Sally is her looking annoyed and dirty on the car ride home. Sally must have seen something in Vince that I missed though (well aside his perfect flowing locks of hair) because she agrees to meet up with him again. This is the part where I would wonder what she’s thinking, but I don’t want to be accused of victim blaming so I’ll just let it go. This time Vince is even less of a gentleman than before, he rapes Sally on a trampoline in the school gym (always a classy first date option). When he refuses to stop despite her pleading, Sally transforms into a giant mantis and decapitates him. She wraps the body up in a cocoon and hides it in her closet. The next time we see Sally she’s heavily pregnant with Vince’s baby and so hateful of men that she has become a lesbian.

The family is on the verge of falling apart, but a last ditch camping trip winds up pulling them all back together. For some inexplicable reason the Applegates decide to also abandon their mission and go back to the rain-forest without turning Ohio into a radioactive wasteland. Only problem is Aunt Bee has already arrived with the cavalry, and Aunt Bee doesn’t particularly care that the Applegates have gone soft, she’s going to blow up the power plant come hell or high water. Aunt Bee’s task force adapts surprisingly well to the fact her advance team has totally screwed up their mission, and within a scant week they’ve come up with a contingency plan. Why they even bothered to send the Applegates is beyond me. For the sake of narrative convenience it’s up to the inexplicably reformed Applegates to stop her.

Your reaction to Meet the Applegates will probably depend mostly on your tolerance for extremely dark and extremely juvenile humor. This is a film that plays a plotline of a teenage girl being sexually assaulted, raped, impregnated with a half-human/half-mantis abomination, and consequently turning into a lesbian out of hatred for the entire male gender, entirely for laughs. The fact that her happy ending includes a return to heterosexuality (albeit with a male praying mantis) will doubtlessly be more than some of the more inquisitorial social critics can handle. Personally, I like this kind of humor; especially the way the film presents it. Meet the Applegates has a goofy, slapstick tone that reduces the more vulgar and misogynistic gags to mere absurdities. Indeed, almost every sequence that actually involves the giant mantis invariably feels more like Warner Brothers cartoons than they do any serious social commentary.

This feeling of wackiness is further reinforced by the most determined commitment to puns that I’ve ever witnessed in an American movie. Dick Applegate poses as a computer programmer, but both he and the other characters in the film invariable refer to him as a “debugger.” Johnny Applegate is stunned into momentary silence when his stoner friends offer to pass him the “roach.” With suspicions about the Applgates mounting, neighbors insist that they “Wouldn’t hurt a fly.” When Sally goes to meet Vince for her date, she takes the family car: A Volkswagen “Beetle.” Etc. Etc. The puns of Meet the Applegates are a clear case of something that gets funnier as it goes on. The first few are groan inducing indeed, but with each passing pun my fondness for them grew and grew. It's all about commitment; a half-hearted attempt to do something silly is always more disappointing than ball-to-wall lunacy.

One thing that bothered me, and possibly only me, was the fact that the Applegates are complete pacifists when it comes to insects. Dick refuses to even swat a fly that is buzzing around his office, while the prospect of creating an insect collection for science class fills Johnny with a sense of dread. But they are all obviously preying mantises, and preying mantises eat smaller insects all the time. Indeed: grasshopper, houseflies, and other small bugs make up the bulk of their diet. Nor are mantis the only entomophagous insect, such behavior is common enough among insects. I understand that film is trying to pay some lip service to its theoretically eco-friendly premise, but the notion of intra-insect brotherhood is too absurd to tolerate.

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