Sunday 15 January 2012

Shrunken Heads (1994)

Director: Richard Elfman
Stars: Aeryk Egan, Becky Herbst, A J Damato, Bo Sharon, Darris Love, Meg Foster and Julius Harris

For Full Moon Entertainment's first theatrical release, Charles Band pulled out all the stops and went totally weird, helped to no small degree by bringing in Richard Elfman to direct. No, it isn't as far out there as Forbidden Zone, but it really thinks about trying it. After all, the hero of the film, for all intents and purposes, used to be a colonel in the Tonton Macoutes, the brutal secret police in Haiti under Papa Doc Duvalier. Now Mr Sumatra is in New York, running a newspaper and comic book stand, practicing voodoo on the side. No wonder the local kids think he's scary. Blaxploitation legend Julius Harris has fun in his last film, goggling his eyes at every opportunity. If that isn't strange enough for you, Meg Foster is the butch lesbian head honcho of the criminal underworld, Big Moe. Oh, and the main characters are the reanimated shrunken heads of three children, which fly through the streets seeking revenge on the gang that killed them.

Initially it isn't this wacky. It begins like a fifties family movie, with the bad kids bullying the good kids and a love triangle linking the two sides. The good kids are Tommy Larsen, Bill Turner and Freddie Thompson and, inspired by superheroes like Superman and the Green Lantern, take an ill advised stand for the powers of truth, justice and the American way. First, they take down the bad kids, the Vipers, by filming them stripping a car bare and handing the footage to the police. Then, after Big Moe bails out her boys and has the good kids brought to her, they escape with all her number running slips. That leads to the inevitable conclusion: she has Vinny and his Vipers shoot them dead. We're under half an hour in and the heroes are no more. What's going to happen now? Well, Mr Sumatra happens. He bubbles up his big cauldron and cooks up his Haitian black magic and Tommy and his friends are back as vengeance crazed shrunken heads.

With all these elements, this story could get particularly dark and twisted, but the music refuses to let that happen. Richard Band's score has a notably light hearted edge to it, more so than his usual scores for his brother's films. Director Richard Elfman brought in his brother Danny too, to compose the film's theme. Every time the film gets gruesomely dark, such as when the shrunken heads murder a pair of bad guys trying to rape a woman in a dark alley, it's followed up with the joyous discovery that these malefactors are turned into neighbourhood conscious zombies who weed gardens and pick up trash. If we need the point hammered home that that this is far more of a fantasy than a horror movie, we never lose sight of the romance angle, between Tommy and Sally Conway, who wasn't even fifteen when he was murdered. Hey, if the tween girls can go for sparkling vampires, why can't the teen girls go for shrunken heads? It works for me.
The dialogue is also notably over the top, meaning that there's no possible way we can take any part of it the remotest bit seriously. That doesn't work too well for the kids, because it obviously isn't really them talking but what they've become, mere tools of vengeance. On the other hand, it works wonderfully for the adult leads, because they revel in the roles. Meg Foster is a bizarre but inspired casting choice for Big Moe because it's the sort of role you'd expect to see someone like Al Pacino play. She plays it surprisingly quietly, spending more attention on chomping cigars or placating Mitzi, her dizzy blonde plaything, than running her empire. That seems to be taken utterly for granted. It's easy to see just how much fun Foster was having as her eyes sparkle with every tough as nails line that she delivers, but I wish she'd had more to do. Especially given how completely unlikely her character is, she deserved more of an opportunity to build it.

Julius Harris got the screen time he needed and he dominates here. I've always felt that with his darker skin, creased face and cold dead stare, Harris looked tougher than most of his colleagues in the blaxploitation era, even when playing alongside far better known names like Ron O'Neal or Fred 'The Hammer' Williamson. He's perfect for the part of Mr Sumatra, however often writer Matthew Bright changed the tone of the picture. I've never been able to buy into him as a good guy on screen, but Mr Sumatra is so far from the regular sort of hero that he doesn't have that trouble here. Freaky, scary and magnetic all at once, he'd have been even better if this story had been played out as a serious horror film rather than a quirky romantic comedy fantasy. He's gifted with a few memorable moments. 'You can run but you can't hide,' is close to the most clich├ęd line in the book but he makes it his own, even more than Vernon Wells in Mad Max 2.

As a picture, this has to be a love it or hate it movie. I can imagine a lot of people not making it to the end, purely because of how wild it becomes, but I'm pretty sure that anyone who does will love it. It's almost the definition of an underground cult film. Bright grew up with the Elfmans and it shows in their films that they make a good team, but this isn't just theirs. It's obvious that they tried to make a Charles Band movie here, albeit with a good deal of their own quirkiness brought to the table, but it doesn't quite make it. There are Elfman elements and Full Moon elements but it ends up being neither, more of a bastard hybrid that stands unashamedly alone, in equal parts a fifties Disney movie, a cheesy horror flick, a mind trip comedy and a foul mouthed JD picture. Enjoy it, or Mr Sumatra will pluck out your tongues with bull cutters and roast them, and take your brains and chill them for the purposes of garnishment. You don't want that, do you?


Anonymous said...

I agree with you it it is funny in a weird way. I would want to watch it again.

Unknown said...

I love this movie. I've watched it at least four times and I fail to grow tired of it.