Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Our ongoing Sesame Street Week has us thinking about movies starring puppets.
Peter Jackson’s Meet The Feebles uses puppets the way sexual abuse therapists do: to act out scenarios too stomach-churning to put in the non-felt-covered hands of people. Like taking a walk down a Sesame Street crowded with scabby prostitutes and discarded needles, the 1989 black comedy depicts a troupe of cracked-mirror-image Muppets who embody the exact opposite of every one of Jim Henson’s virtues. Selfish, scheming, riddled with disease and drug addiction, and given to bursting into song celebrating the joys of anal sex, the Feebles make the puppets of Broadway’s Avenue Q look positively saccharine. One imagines their puppeteers worked them with two layers of latex gloves.
Meet The Feebles was made during Jackson’s young and outrageous period, amid other viscous, viscera-filled comedies like Bad Taste and Dead Alive—the movies that left his earliest fans taken aback when it was announced that he’d been handed The Lord Of The Rings. It’s easy to read it as a direct parody of The Muppet Show: The Feebles’ assortment of animal characters are also mounting a variety show in hopes of landing a Muppets-like TV series, and the action similarly cuts between their on-stage musical numbers and their antics behind the curtain. But Jackson has coyly denied it being a direct takeoff, saying Meet The Feebles was really about “satirizing human behavior.” (Still, one can’t help but notice the Kermit The Frog lookalike who makes a cameo nailed to a crucifix.)
If Meet The Feebles really is Jackson’s way of mocking humans, he certainly has a pitch-black view of them. Save for a single, naïve hedgehog who serves as the audience surrogate, every member of the troupe is involved in terrible, disgusting shit—sometimes literally, like a tabloid reporter fly who both peddles and eats it up with a spoon. Heidi, the vain yet insecure hippo star of the show, is caught up in a love triangle with her director and Chuck Traynor-like svengali, Bletch, and her co-star Samantha that’s left her a sexually abused, binge-eating, farting wreck.
Meanwhile, Bletch is variously involved in drug-running and amateur pornography, supplying heroin to his junkie, Vietnam-scarred knife-thrower, and plotting with porno director Trevor to dope up an ingénue and film her being raped. Even the adorable bunny, Harry, is a sore-covered sex addict whose dalliances have left him riddled with STDs; his big number involves vomiting all over the stage. Every frame is crammed with spewing bodily fluids, puppet fucking, and general ghastliness, all leading up to its violent, Grand Guignol finale of bullets, blood, and fur.
Even by the standards of early Peter Jackson, it’s willfully disgusting, and its satire of showbiz tropes and innocent children’s entertainment is about as subtle as drawing dick-noses on Gonzo. But there’s a wickedly juvenile joy to watching Jackson, in his first collaboration with future wife Fran Walsh, set the bar so low from the film’s opening moments, then bury it deeper with every scene—and all through the gleeful perversion of innocent playthings. With Meet The Feebles, Jackson the puppeteer shoves his hand inside humanity’s deepest, darkest hole.