Every once in a while, a film comes along that poses the question: why in the hell do we not have more puppet horror movies?...
…There are obvious answers to that—the time it takes to make a movie with puppets is mind-boggling—but the fun to be had with puppet horror is limitless, as writer/director Jesse Blanchard proves with Frank and Zed, which just played at the Fantasia Film Festival.
Frank and Zed is a blood-spattered horror flick with puppets that follows Frank and Zed, a hulking creature made up of human body parts and a (mostly) brainless zombie, left to care for each other for centuries after the slaying of their master. Meanwhile, a Priest (Randolph F. Christen) conspires to start a war with the creatures, fulfilling an ancient prophecy promising an orgy of blood.
And my god, does Frank and Zed deliver on that bloody orgy. More on that in a second.
Frank and Zed is your classic sort of gothic horror tale with monsters and angry villagers sporting torches, but stuffed with a few unique twists that make it stand out among a pantheon of more traditional creature features. Mainly, the relationship between Frank and Zed. Though repetitive in presentation, the audience is treated to a sweet relationship between the two, built on a love that shows monsters don’t have to be human to have humanity. Frank spends his days chopping the heads off adorable puppet squirrels—leaving them with x’s for eyes—and serving their brains to Zed, who returns the favor by hooking Frank up to an electrical current to keep the heart encased in his rotten body pumping.
The fact that these two are also puppets just adds to the endearing nature of their friendship. Every monster kid at heart will want to be friends with Frank and Zed.
Akin to the Frankenstein movies of old, it is not the monsters of Frank and Zed that are the true villains, but the people. Namely, the Priest and his co-conspirators, who are hell-bent on preventing the rule of weakling heir, Donnie (Jonathan McLain), and enact a plan in which they are sending innocent victims to be de-brained by Frank, who is just looking for good brains to feed to Zed. Though Frank and Zed themselves are mindless monsters who kill only because they don’t know any better, the film is boiled down to a pretty basic concept of good vs evil, man vs beast, which also dumbs the characters down quite a bit. Outside our two monstrous heroes, the people that populate the film are one-dimensional tropes that can make the repetitive nature of the first half feel as if it’s shuffling along like a zombie.
But there is plenty in Frank and Zed to make up for that.
The filmmakers note that Frank and Zed took roughly six years to complete, and it shows. Everything from the spooky production design to the well-crafted puppets is an emblem of the dedication and care that went into creating this magical little movie. Frank and Zed may not have the eye-popping sets of such Netflix-backed productions as The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, but the passion of the creators howls all throughout. This film oozes a rich, gothic atmosphere that fans of old-fashioned horror will devour, with creepy castle settings, an always-present fog, and a village that seems trapped in a perpetual state of green, neon lighting. The human puppets all look great, with excellent costume design by Susan Blanchard that particularly stands out with the Priest character and his robe hood made to look like a fang-filled mouth. As you’d expect though, Frank and Zed are the standouts here. Frankenstein himself would scream “it’s alive” if he were to see these monsters, they appear so lively, with Frank’s bulging eyeballs and Zed’s extra-gooey brains slipping out of his skull.
Like Frankenstein told from the Creature’s point of view and made by Jim Henson’s demented cousin, Frank and Zed is a monster mash of creepy crawlies and ghoulish fiends. Badass demons, ravenous zombies, monstrous piranha…Frank and Zed is full of them and other strange things that will delight creature lovers. While not necessarily for kids, there is a storybook approach to Frank and Zed that is full of a childish wonder over scary things that strikes at the heart of nostalgia in us older fans. To the disappointment of Zed, it’s a bit of a brainless, simplistic story that doesn’t ask much of its viewers other than to sit back and enjoy the film’s oddball—and not always effective—sense of humor.
As for that orgy of blood? Frank and Zed promises an orgy of blood, and it delivers an orgy of blood.
Patience with the first half of the film is paid off in a big way with a second half that turns into an action-packed feast of gory, puppet mayhem. Puppets are bitten, beheaded, split in half, all with an Evil Dead 2 sensibility for gore and over-the-top geysers of blood. Apparently, puppets bleed too, and they bleed a whole hell of a lot. Frank and Zed is the blood-soaked puppet massacre you never knew you needed, and a welcome surprise for gore-hounds who may think they’re “too cool” for a horror movie with puppets. Puppet movies aren’t just for kids, and Frank and Zed is the nasty rope of intestine strangling the life out of the idea that they are.
Frank and Zed may be too braindead for some adults, and too violent for some kids, but it’s a charming, weird, wild ride for that very specific audience craving something stranger in their horror. It’s a bit clunky, and characters might’ve benefitted from more fleshing out, but Frank and Zed is still a gory good time fun for the whole monster-loving family.
By Matt Konopka