Movie: The Census Taker (1984)

Satirical black comedy is one of my favorite genres, but it is one of the most difficult to do successfully.  And 1984’s The Census Taker is a near-complete failure.

I was excited to Garrett Morris (Cooley High) as an annoying census taker who arrives at a suburban home at dinnertime.  He threatens them with fines and even imprisonment if they do not answer his in-depth questionnaire. 

His questions seem to go a bit beyond what one would normally expect from the census bureau, wandering into topics such as whether their children are legitimate, which illegal drugs they are doing and how often they engage in abnormal sexual practices.  He even measures their rooms with a measure tape, goes through their medicine chest and handles the wife’s vibrator.  That last bit results in a minor comic moment later when she and her husband frantically go around the house wiping fingerprints off everything including this marital aid.

The elimination of fingerprints is because the husband gets so fed up that he pulls a pellet riffle on Morris.  When Morris is inspired by this to start asking questions about the amount and nature of firearms in the house, the husband accidentally shoots him in the head, killing him instantly.

Now the couple tries to clean up the house and hide the body.  Compounding these difficulties is the arrival of the wife’s sister and her detective husband.  They are just there for dessert, but the detective quickly surmises something is amiss and starts investigating.  Needless to say, things won’t go well go for some of these people by the time the evening is over.

This is yet another movie that was on my radar for a long time only because of its soundtrack.  This was the first time the anonymous eccentrics of The Residents were commissioned to score a film.  The music used here is overwhelmingly selected from their album The Commercial Album and that was OK by me, as that is my favorite of theirs.  Unfortunately, the chosen selections often feel jarring alongside what they accompany on the screen.  Then again, I’m not sure what would have been appropriate.

One big issue is the performances, which are largely terrible.  And yet, one pleasant surprise was Timothy Bottoms, a long-established actor whose appearance here has to be as a favor to somebody.  Sporting a mustache, he acts tough and knowledgeable in an obvious attempt to obscure how inept he really is.  Much about his performance here had me wondering if somehow Kevin Kline was inspired by this for his character in A Fish Called Wanda.

But perhaps the one actor who fares best here is Meredith MacRae, who plays the wife in the murderous couple.  Funny that I’m entirely sure who Deborah Norville is, but MacRae’s performance reminded me of her, especially in the bizarrely matter-of-fact manner she rattles off morbid and bizarre information as if she was reading it off a teleprompter.

It is difficult to fault the performers when the material is this bad.  One such example of the satire on display is the husband taking the wife to task for wearing slacks, because he should be the one wearing the pants in the family.  Oh, what fresh and topical material!  What’s next—jokes about TV dinners and the tiny packages of peanuts on commercial flights?  The very beginning of the film has kids watching through a telescope as Morris goes door-to-door around town…cause that’s something kids definitely do.  At one house, he obviously services the woman who answers a door. That ol’ traveling salesman / farmer’s daughter bit was stale back in the 1930’s.

There is one funny scene here, though it isn’t enough to make me recommend the entire feature to anybody.  The scene where the two couples eat an obviously terrible cake starts with all four characters trying to talk while struggling to swallow and ends which so much footsie happening under the table that it becomes a weird foot orgy. 

The look of the film is also terrible.  Almost entirely confined to the house interior, which is an obvious set, it is as artlessly over-lit as sitcoms of the time.  I suspect the director would possibly defend this as an intentional choice, as if showing exactly the kind of material which is being parodied.  If so, that’s an explanation I wouldn’t buy.

At best, one could say The Census Taker looks like, and feels like, one of the more satirical episodes of Tales from the Darkside.  Similar to episodes of that series, the ending hinges on a turn darker than anything which preceded it, and in a pragmatic manner that makes it all the creepier.  Alas, this is an hour longer than one of those episodes would be.  A promising idea poorly executed, which could have been better served as a short film.

Dir: Bruce R. Cook

Starring Greg Mullavey, Meredith MacRae, Garrett Morris

Watched on Starpix