There’s a recurring mini challenge on Ru Paul’s Drag Race in which the queens are tasked with making puppets of each other and then using them in a performance, typically while making inflammatory, and often hilarious statements. Why? Because, as the host herself meaningfully intones before each game begins, “Everybody loves puppets.” If you don’t – because you have no joy in your heart, whatever – then steer well clear of Frank and Zed. Jesse Blanchard’s anarchic, gory, and frequently insane film is filled to bursting point with chatty handmade creations. Aside from the puppets themselves, which are lovingly crafted and charmingly DIY, the sets are painstakingly handmade, too, their detailing clear in each swooping shot – as bizarre as this might sound, the film is beautifully captured, unlike something like Team America, which was filmed mostly static and head on to further emphasize the one joke they came up with (i.e., every character is a puppet).
Although Trey Parker and Matt Stone set out to offend with their take on marionettes gone wild, the filmmakers behind Frank and Zed clearly hold a genuine affection for their creations, which is most evident during the closing credits, when we’re offered a lively glimpse into the six-year-long making-of process, which took place mostly in a garage. The thing kicks off with a lively warning, delivered by a puppet naturally, that what we’re about to witness isn’t for the faint-hearted and may even come across a bit nonsensical. It’s a clever way of introducing the madcap tone, but hardly necessary since Blanchard, who also penned the screenplay, immediately and eloquently sets the scene with a rousing short featuring a barbershop quartet being done away with in increasingly gruesome fashion (in keeping with the level of attention to detail on display here, there’s a payoff for this sequence later in the movie, too).
Dracula-esque narration – think Sisqó playing Vladimir Kortensky in Sabrina, the Teenage Witch – establishes the medieval(?) setting where, in an isolated yet scenic mountain town, villagers go about their business unaware that in the castle overlooking their homes, two reanimated corpses spend each day hunting for food to keep themselves going as they undergo the painstaking process of staying alive for just one more day. These lovely lads are Frank and Zed, so-called because one looks a bit like Frankenstein’s monster while the other is a zombie. Far from being faceless drones, however, Frank and Zed have distinctive personalities and are well-designed to boot, with Frank’s melting face seemingly being taken from a G.I. Joe doll or something, while Zed’s tongue and teeth grotesquely pop out at wholly inopportune moments.
Legend has foretold that, as one villager succinctly puts it, someday “we’re all gonna die…in an orgy of blood!” Most of Frank and Zed’s zippy run-time is dedicated to waiting for the inevitable to happen, with the film’s press notes and indeed that opening warning promising a bloodbath in its final moments. To Blanchard’s great credit, the final battle more than lives up to this promise, but the journey to getting there is just as exciting. The sets are terrific, incredibly detailed and evocative, lit in gorgeous purples and greens with dreamy reams of smoke rolling in from the mountains. There’s also lightning spliced in here and there, setting the spooky scene even further. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, there are plenty of moments throughout Frank and Zed that will leave you awestruck, wondering just how did they do that?
The various puppets are, obviously, the film’s biggest selling point and suffice to say they’re super cute and expressive, while the voicework is solid throughout. The puppet animals are even sweeter, with squirrels, piranhas, bats, and even cats chasing rats leaving a huge impression thanks to their charmingly rickety movements. The world of Frank and Zed is fully realized, feeling worlds away from its humble origins. Getting lost in the world Blanchard and his game team have created is incredibly easy, with killer details like the Nosferatu-esque shadow hands on the walls to the way characters’ eyes turn to crosses after they die and the stained glass created, it appears, by shining a light through painted tracing paper, truly making it feel like a lived-in environment.
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Frank and Zed is funny, but not self-consciously so. There are no F-bombs dropped just for the sake of it, or (mercifully) puppet sex. Despite the violence, Blanchard’s story is a remarkably sweet one about moving forward even when the road ahead seems dark and scary. Frank and Zed’s friendship feels very real and well-observed, and their denouement, although seemingly inevitable, is surprisingly moving. Blanchard shows a remarkable control of tone in his feature debut, clearly a passion project for all concerned, and he truly makes us care about every little felt person featured onscreen. There are plenty of delightful gross-out moments too, of course, but Frank and Zed has a surprising, and hugely impressive, amount of heart, which is a major part of why it’s damn near impossible to resist. For horror fans though, the gore is truly something to behold.
Beautifully done, visceral, with sickly orange-red blood spraying from every orifice, the gore is outstanding. There’s even the classic watermelon-for-a-head smushing moment that never goes out of style and should be used more, to be fair. If only more filmmakers had the guts to just go for it. Gooey and gloopy and gross, it’s no wonder Blanchard dedicated the entire final act of his film to a bloodbath and watching how some of the most messed up sequences came to fruition further drives home just how much fun Frank and Zed was to make, and how much everybody cared about the finished product, too. This isn’t just gore, it’s gore with a purpose, which demonstrates what true underground, DIY, anarchic cinema really looks like. Frank and Zed may make you squeal with delight, gasp in disgust, and chuckle with reverence, but above all else, this bloody thing will make you feel.
WICKED RATING: 9/10