By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring the voices of Jason Ropp, Steven Overton and Erin DeBray
Written and directed by Jesse Blanchard
It’s not every horror film that opens by homaging the creeping-shadow visuals of the silent classic NOSFERATU and ends with an act-long bloodbath on the order of Peter Jackson’s BRAINDEAD/DEAD ALIVE, but FRANK & ZED is, most decidedly, not every horror film. It’s an all-puppet feature (hand-manipulated, as opposed to the animated kind seen in the likes of CORALINE and PARANORMAN) that goes to extremes with that form not seen since…well, Jackson’s MEET THE FEEBLES.
This particular brand of artistry is typically employed to tell fairy tales, and FRANK & ZED follows suit by telling a particularly fractured one, complete with a prologue explaining how the residents of a small village in a vaguely medieval age came to be cursed. Years ago, a foreboding, twisted castle manifested in a nearby forest, from which the evil Moroi (it of the shadowy talons clutching at the landscape) emerged to threaten all their lives. A deal was struck with the God of Death to put an end to the Moroi, with a promise that if its gruesome terms weren’t met, an “Orgy of Blood” would befall the town. This is all described by a properly ominous narrator (Sam Mowry), who at times seems to have taken elocution lessons from the Wishmaster-ah.
It’s a great scene-setter, establishing an enveloping visual style–lush cinematography by Patrick Blevins, with sweeping music to match by Michael Richard Plowman–in which the detail in both the puppets and environments bespeaks this as a true labor of love. Writer/director Jesse Blanchard creates his own world here, and in the film’s present, the scheming Lord Titus and the local priest have decided they’d rather not fall victim to that prophesied Orgy. With the king dead (perhaps not by chance) and his son and heir to the throne Donny clearly not up for the job, the duo decide to take matters into their own hands regarding the latent evil dwelling in the castle. What they don’t know at first is that the only current residents there are the titular Frank, a monster in the mold of Mary Shelley’s creation, and Zed, a brain-eating ghoul, who take care of each other and haven’t been harming anyone–save the forest critters Frank harvests for Zed’s meals. (Anyone who’s sentimental about small furry animals is advised to skip this one.)
Frank is given his required daily jolts of electricity via a Rube Goldberg contraption whose intricate workings and industrial clanking sound effects further epitomize the care that has gone into the way FRANK & ZED looks and sounds. There are fun, morbid and morbidly fun details scattered throughout too, like the little carnivorous fish Frank keeps in a tank and the way the eyes of both people and animals become x’s after they’re killed. And there are a lot of folks slain along the way, as both Blanchard and Lord Titus have no compunctions about sending human lambs to the slaughter–which ultimately creates in imbalance in the film, as the endless wholesale carnage drowns out the rooting interest.
It is, in fact, entirely possible to truly admire the technical craft and effort that went into FRANK & ZED while wishing that equal care had been taken with the script. Even though they’re the title characters, Frank and Zed become supporting players in their own story, with too much time devoted to the human monsters and the villagers, who are given little but the most banal, functional dialogue and would-be laugh lines that are never as clever as they should be. There needed to be more scenes like the strangely touching sequence in which Frank uses parts of his own construction to fix up the injured Zed, and perhaps just a little less of the cannon-fodder townspeople being mangled and relieved of various parts of their anatomy. Just because a movie is entirely populated by puppets doesn’t mean it can’t have a strong human interest, and while FRANK & ZED successfully makes the point that its eponymous creatures are better “people” than the more “normal” ones opposing them, that notion ultimately struggles to stay afloat in the film’s sea of gore.