For my latest guilty pleasure, I want to take a look at Terror In The Family, a well-intentioned, out-of-control youth film from 1996.
Certain moments of Terror in the Family felt painfully familiar because, much like the film’s main character, Deena Marten (played by — yes, it’s true — Hilary Swank), I went through a period, when I was teenage, where I was seriously out-of-control. Much like Deena, I would sneak out of the house, I would hook up with guys who were obvious trouble, I had absolutely no impulse control, and I said and did a lot of hurtful and self-destructive things that I still would do anything to take back. I was 16 while, in the movie, Deena is portrayed as being 15. The main difference between me and Deena is that I was out-of-control because I was having an undiagnosed manic episode. Deena, however, is out-of-control because she comes from one of the most dysfunctional family in the history of dysfunctional families.
And that’s why, despite the fact that I can relate to the painful subject matter, Terror In The Family amuses me more than it disturbs me. Seriously, anything that can be wrong with a family is wrong with this family.
Father Todd Marten (Dan Lauria) spends all of his time down in the basement, making wooden bowls and then taking pictures of them. Usually, he avoids his family but when he’s finally forced to confront Deena, she ends up smashing his fingers with her bedroom door. “HOW CAN I WORK NOW!?” he bellows while holding up his bandaged hand.
Mother Cynthia Marten (Joanna Kerns) is an alcoholic who spends her spare time standing in front of a mirror and rehearsing being a disciplinarian. When Deena flees the house, Cynthia attempts to win her back by bringing her a huge, home-made pizza. “I made your favorite!” Cynthia drunkenly cries before accidentally dropping the pizza on the floor.
Grandmother Ivy (Nan Martin) is, without a doubt, one of the most evil and unpleasant characters that I have ever seen in a movie. When Cynthia tries to tell her about the difficulties of raising Deena, Ivy responds by literally punching her in the face.
Deena’s younger brother, Adam (Adam Hendershott), is a talented pianist who deals with his family by playing video games and literally sleeping with a bottle of vodka in his bed.
Finally, there’s Aunt Judith (Kathleen Wilhoite). Judith seems to be the only stable person in Deena’s family. That’s mostly because Judith left home when she was young and was apparently some sort of groupie for several years.
With this family, is it any wonder that Deena is spending all of her time with Garrett (Andy Kavovit), her 17 year-old boyfriend who, along with introducing her to drugs and sex, also speaks wistfully of killing his mother and her boyfriend? Garrett, not surprisingly, has a band and Deena soon finds herself staying out past curfew so she can perform with him at various seedy clubs. The film blames a lot of Deena’s bad behavior on Garrett but you know what? Back when I was 15, I would have been totally in love with Garrett too.
Seriously, Deena, you go girl!
Anyway, with all of this going on, can we really be shocked that Deena eventually ends up swinging a landline phone at her parents and demanding that they stay away?
Terror In The Family shows up on Lifetime occasionally and recently, for reasons that I don’t quite understand, it even turned up on Showtime, playing in between showings of Dexter and The Seduction of Misty Mundae. It’s worth watching because it really is the perfect marriage of good intentions, over-the-top melodrama, and intense cluelessness. For the most part, future Oscar winner Hilary Swank gives a good performance as Deena but the best parts of the films are the parts where she joins the rest of the cast in going totally and completely overboard.
The mix of melodrama and hindsight combine to make Terror In The Family into a true guilty pleasure.