Fantasia 2021: Hand It to Frank and Zed

I’ve just finished watching Frank and Zed and I cannot stop grinning: what an astounding piece of work. My fourteen-year-old joined me for the film and called it “the best film ever.” Granted, he says this about twice a week, but this time he said it within the first ten minutes of the film starting. Let me grab a coffee, come back down to Earth, and see what I can tell you.

Frank and Zed are two Universal-style monsters living co-dependently together in a dilapidated medieval castle since their evil master was defeated two hundred years ago. Frank hunts squirrels to feed brains to Zed, and Zed nails and stitches any parts of Frank that need repair. They would have carried on like this forever if Frank hadn’t bumped into one of the nearby villagers while out hunting one day. The rulers of the village live under the threat of a curse, though the resident peasants had more or less stopped believing in it until that encounter…which neatly fitted with the fearmongering that the ambitious priest had been spreading.

What I’ve not mentioned until now (though the pictures may have given away) is that every single one of these characters, serfs and squirrels alike, is a hand-puppet. So what happens when these worlds collide has to be seen to be believed. Frank and Zed is gory to the max; and I don’t mean explicitly realistic gore of course (these are puppets, after all), but the gooey, squishy, over-the-top kind. Imagine a blend of Celebrity Death Match, The Ren and Stimpy Show, Evil Dead II, and early Peter Jackson films, but peopled by Henson’s most meticulous crew. And it’s funny: even though none of it was “realistic” as such, I found myself so drawn into what I was watching that the blood and severed parts, etc. made me worried for the hands inside the puppets.

Frank preparing Zed's meal of fresh brains

I absolutely adored Frank and Zed. They were endearing and lovingly crafted, despite the decay. The bond between them was clear from the start, from how they would notice each other’s needs and sometimes repair some bodily damage with a part of themselves. They hardly spoke, mostly grunting instead, but that’s OK: their faces were expressive enough. With a little back story thrown in here and there via flashbacks, these undead protagonists have more than their share of humanity. The people living down in the village were a different matter. These puppets—although just as meticulously made—were strangely ugly in comparison; actually, now I think of it, the upper-class characters were uglier, as though their meanness showed on their faces. There is no way the two sides would have understood each other, and Mary Shelley would have sympathized as the villagers invaded the monsters’ quiet home.

Jesse Blanchard wrote and directed Frank and Zed and clearly the phrase “labor of love” is spot on (bringing to my mind last year’s Attack of the Demons). There was no script, but rather the writing was done by way of a shot-by-shot storyboard. Conventions from cartoons (such as eyes becoming crosses when a character is killed) and melodramas (Granny dropping her handiwork in slow motion on hearing of the grandson’s death) are applied liberally and affectionately. Blanchard offers fan-boy nods to classic horror stories with clichés and details, yet the story cannot be said to copy any other. Frank and Zed was produced over the course of six years and with the support of two crowdfunding campaigns. Oh, and Blanchard’s mother Susan was responsible for all the costumes.

The king and his advisors getting ready for battle

Frank and Zed is a very funny horror film, as well as cleverly made. Much of the humor comes from watching puppets carry out violent acts (just like the clay in Celebrity Death Match), and I found myself laughing louder and louder as the final battle became more ludicrous. Some of the visual humor is bittersweet, mind you, such as the way one of Frank’s fingers snapping just after Zed had repaired another. Occasionally, the dialogue too becomes funny (“oh no, my favorite arm! My other favorite arm!”) but these are sprinkled gems amongst what is largely situational and visual humor. For the most part, the tone is earnest with some sparingly applied sentiment; and just like Army of Darkness, that tone can sit comfortably with humor.

There were a couple of issues, of course. First of all, I can’t really call out any of the voice actors to praise, as somehow they nearly all sounded the same. The key problem (though still not a massive one) was the writing: the beginning was quite confusing, despite an opening narration, and I couldn’t tell what the monsters had to do with the village until the story really got going. That said, as my son told me “I don’t care: the visuals are fantastic.” Then there was that final battle (which took perhaps a third of the film’s duration), so full of detail that the overall direction became a little lost in the chaos. It was still utterly great fun, though.

Frank and Zed is a rare film to be populated entirely by puppets and using practical effects. The affection for the genre shines out of every scene: this is a film I’ll be recommending to every horror fan.

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Written by Alix Turner

Alix discovered both David Lynch and Hardware in 1990, and has been seeking out weird and nasty films ever since (though their tastes have become broader and more cosmopolitan). A few years ago, Alix discovered a fondness for genre festivals and a knack for writing about films, and now cannot seem to stop. They especially appreciate wit and representation on screen, and introducing old favourites to their teenage daughter.

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