Indie horror is really having a major resurgence, as studios such as A24 and SpectreVision can attest. Hell, Blumhouse, which started as a microbudget horror studio, is basically one of the mini-majors at this point. But one of the hallmarks of these indie horror movies is a specific tone; you either have muted, often subdued action interspersed with intensity, or gonzo exercises in grindhouse excess. These are so common they’re a brand unto themselves. But Jesse Blanchard’s Frank & Zed, which premiered Saturday night as part of Nightstream, is something entirely new: Gory high-fantasy, warmly funny horror with puppets. It’s a revelation, honestly.
Clearly inspired by Jim Henson’s work on things like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, Blanchard brings a mix of handmade raggedness and detail-driven artistry to Frank & Zed. At no point are you going to think anything you’re looking at is “real” but the character the designers and puppeteers give the creations give it a beating heart which makes the final act “orgy of blood” elicit both cheers and dismay. They’re just puppets! And yet watching as they tear each other to pieces is surprisingly emotional.
In a faraway fantasy kingdom, centuries ago, a foul wizard’s tyranny was ended through the use of cursed weapons. His two undead servants remained in the castle as time crept on; Frank, a man made of human parts and brought to life with electricity, hunts squirrels to feed to Zed, a zombie. They help each other as their bodies slowly fall apart through time. But in the neighboring village, a warlord attempts to incite fear to grab power from the effete young King. Stirring up paranoia about the ancient curse, he leads a group of hapless villagers in a bid to destroy the evil. But it’s just Frank and Zed, and they’re mostly nice.
For a movie with puppets as the sole characters, there’s a surprising amount of action in Frank & Zed. It feels like Army of Darkness in style and setting with a bit of Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive once Zed’s cursed bite turns villagers into the undead. The filmmaking on display is frenetic and dynamic, and only a couple of times did it feel too cluttered to fully follow. Mainly we spend the movie charmed by the silly villagers and hoping no harm comes to Frank and Zed. Frank especially feels like a real capital-H-Hero at times as he wields his lassoed ax against the invaders.
And make no mistake, this movie does not shy away from the gore. As much detail as Blanchard and company put into the figures and the settings, they put the same level of care into the viscera. Eyeballs, intestines, severed limbs; it’s a true horror show and Blanchard doesn’t use the violence for laughs as much as the ridiculous characters’ often brutal and grisly demises are so shocking that you have to chuckle.
But the reason Frank & Zed truly works is the nearly wordless bond between the two heroes. It’s the kind of sweet, fraternal codependence we tend to see a lot more in softer, more intimate films. Here, maybe because the horror elements bleed into the fanciful so often, it feels at once like we’re watching a Henson film of old and a new Raimi masterwork. For all of it’s Wow factor, what works the most is craft and heart, on display in each and every frame.
Frank & Zed should go straight to the top of your watchlist if and when it gets distribution because, for horror fanatics, it’s a breath of delightfully rancid air.
4.5 out of 5
Featured Image: Puppetcore