By SHAWN MACOMBER
Starring Chet Siegel, David Littleton and Jeff Riddle
Written and directed by Matthew John Lawrence
On the eve of its first tour, fledgling punk power trio DUH has the requisite three chords and the truth. But the band doesn’t start truly cooking with the proverbial viscera-flecked grease until it unwittingly hires a grizzled old roadie named Peckerhead and leaving behind hotel rooms strewn with entrails rather than smashed television sets. Such is the delightfully deranged premise behind UNCLE PECKERHEAD (on VOD today)–a surprisingly affecting, improbably successful mashup of triumph-of-the-underdogs rock ’n’ roll flick, straight-up ’80s horror/comedy and transgressive absurdist caterwauling.
It’s something of a paradox: DUH bassist/vocalist Judy (Chet Siegel) is a bit high-strung yet wants to make punk rock–a liberating primal scream, both figuratively and literally here–her entire life. Indeed, while guitarist/quirky neurotic Max (Jeff Riddle) and drummer/sinister slacker Mel (Ruby McCollister) are killer players, it is Judy’s Type A determination that keeps the band inching forward. For example, when the DUH van is repo’ed just as they’re getting ready to blow their New Jersey popsicle stand a la “Thunder Road,” rather than drown her sorrows in cheap beer and congealed days-old pizza cheese, Judy festoons all the vans in town with flyers reading, “CAN WE BORROW YOUR VAN? PAID-ISH.”
By any rational standard, this ploy should not play. Luckily for DUH, however, there is an extremely unrational actor living in one of those vans. Enter the eponymous Uncle Peckerhead (David Littleton), an earnest and affable back-country gentleman who, far from treating his new gig as a “paid-ish” lark, becomes an instant, fiery true believer in the band. So much so that when a sleezy promotor screws the band on the very first show of their tour, Peckerhead tears the man limb from limb and eats his heart. Well, maybe not Peck (as he is soon affectionately dubbed) exactly, but a demon that seizes control of his body for a few minutes ’round midnight every evening and feeds on human prey.
In other industries, such cannibalism would be cause for termination or, at the very least, a lengthy suspension. The heavier realms of music, however, have always had a cozy relationship with theoretical demons and horrors–one of DUH’s primary influences, we learn, is the Misfits–and it proves a relatively tiny leap for the band to rationalize keeping Peckerhead on board as a sort of righteous vanquisher of the scumbags, posers and bullies that leech off true artists. Of course, as genre devotees are only all too aware, pacts with demons rarely remain static or tidy. As the disemboweled bodies pile ever higher and the tour hurtles toward a climatic opening slot that might change everything, the band is forced to reckon with its own soul-selling compromises as well as the demon in the van who will not be scuttled quietly.
There’s a lot to recommend writer/director Matthew John Lawrence’s debut feature. First and foremost, he has an impressively deft hand when it comes to balancing wildly different tones. The dramatic elements tied to the pursuit of dreams and the desire to build one’s life around something life-affirming and pure–as well as the ways fear of failure can pervert those desires–are truly beautiful. The raunchy road-comedy stuff is all on point and funny. And then the horror business, if we want to tie it back to the Misfits, is as wild, chaotic and grotesque as you’d hope.
Second, the DUH songs, as well as the live performance sequences, are legitimately awesome. Like, if the band had a for-real record, I would include a preorder link here and urge you to purchase it. Riddle, who wrote and recorded the songs in addition to playing Max, should maybe consider taking this show on the road.
Finally, Lawrence put together a fantastic cast. Siegel, in particular, demonstrates crazy range; she’s completely capable of knocking the over-the-top slapstick stuff out of the park, while bringing nuance and power when tapping into the emotional core of the film. Littleton is a wonderful cauldron of charisma and menace, Riddle is totally endearing as a punk who is only comfortable in his own skin when he’s channeling gloriously distorted riffs out of his guitar and McCollister is a hilariously untamed spirit.
Does every gag or twist in UNCLE PECKERHEAD gel? Not really. Weirdly, it might not work as well overall if it did. The film is a love letter to the punk-indie aesthetic and the search for ways to elevate imperfections into a place of acceptance, a place where sublime things can be mined. In that context, it would be difficult to describe UNCLE PECKERHEAD as anything other than an unqualified success–for its characters, creators and monsters.