Many movies in the past played with the use of puppets to portray darker and more adult themes. One of the first episodes of The Muppet Show was called “Sex and Violence,” and any child of the ’80s and ’90s grew up with the dark-fantasy films Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. Aside from Jim Henson’s workshop, creepy and inappropriate puppets have appeared in Peter Jackson’s Meet the Feebles, Stone and Parker’s Team America: World Police, and even the Broadway musical Avenue Q. Previous adult-puppet performances touched on sex, drug use, and some level of violence. Writer/director Jesse Blanchard took inspiration from the mature-puppet genre and decided to add some gore. A lot of gore, in fact. In this surprisingly ambitious film, FRANK AND ZED offers a lot of camp and a lot of heart when it comes to creativity and indie filmmaking.
At the start, a puppet tells viewers not to watch FRANK AND ZED because of the terrible premise and endless gore. Obviously, the warning only intrigues me and most viewers even more. Included with the opening segment, the director also treats us to a short film in which he sets the tone for the next hour and a half. In the short we see a barbershop quartet get dismembered during a bloody version of “Shine on Me.” The opening bit does not add to the story of FRANK AND ZED but serves as a gauge of what we will soon experience. For added appreciation, the director also shares how the bloody song took two months to film, while the full-length feature needed six years to complete.
For the first hour or so of the film, we have two stories unfolding and periodically overlapping. In the fairy tale kingdom, the royalty running the land made a pact 200 years ago to protect the citizens, but with the end of the family line, the land will no longer be safe. The most recent King dies leaving his young (and scared) son to prevent the demon from reappearing and killing everyone in an orgy of blood. Unfortunately, Prince Donny might not be up to the task to produce an heir, so the townsfolk grow even more concerned about their impending doom. Because if Donny does not have a child, then everyone dies. The plot actually proves a bit difficult to grasp because Blanchard attempts to put in too much story, and the connection of the dueling narratives does not seem clear for a good portion of the movie. The townsfolk worry about an heir, but an evil magistrate also shows up to cause problems, and then, of course, we have the story of Frank and Zed. We also get introduced to a lot of characters, which makes it hard to care about the townsfolk or even learn names.
However, outside of the town, the title characters live in a broken-down castle and go about their daily routine where they have created a symbiotic relationship and rely on each other for survival. Frank resembles Frankenstein’s monster with an exposed brain and mismatched body parts. His body sports stitches all over and he relies on electricity to continue functioning. His counterpart Zed looks more like a decayed and sinewy zombie with his bulging eyes and yellowing teeth protruding from his face. Frank and Zed do not speak aside from a few grunts, so we learn about their motivations mostly through flashbacks. Honestly, though, the two remind me of an undead version of Ernie and Bert from Sesame Street. The two rely on each other, with the taller character (Frank) obviously showing more responsibility, while Zed gives into more hedonistic tendencies. Yet, no matter how much Frank might groan because of his companion’s behavior or how many reminders Frank must use, the two stay strong friends and do not let others disrupt the bond. Overall, the story of Frank and Zed offers a sweetness, so we root for them even though their survival depends on the death of others.
As the angry prophet told us in the opening scene, the film ends with a Grand Guignol-style battle with lots of blood and gore. The sequence offers quite a bit of hack and slash (which comes off quite comical with puppets), but the director also comes up with some clever uses for entrails. And when a puppet dies, it does not squeeze out some bright red felt or merely crumble away. On the contrary, you will witness geysers of bloody liquid spraying everywhere. During the first watch-through, I kept wondering if they made multiple versions of the same puppet for multiple takes, or did they have to get the fountain of gore scenes perfect the first time because no puppet would be walking away from that bloodbath.
The entirety of FRANK AND ZED (especially the end credits) shows the dedication and creativity which went into crafting this obvious labor of love. The execution fell a bit short story-wise, and with space constraints, the types of camera shots came off as limited. However, the puppetry brings a unique appearance, and the splatter-gore just propels the film into a new level of puppet movies. For being filmed in a garage, the settings and puppetry far exceed the expectations. The characters both have such a unique look that their image alone could prove quite marketable. I personally would love a little Frank and Zed figure to keep on my desk at work.
FRANK AND ZED is being shown On-Demand at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.