Frank & Zed (2020)

Sometimes there is no need for words between friends. Take Frank & Zed, who for many years have been eking out together their cameraderie and co-dependency, with little more than the occasional monosyllabic grunt shared between them, even as time takes its toll on their bodies. If the very title of writer/director Jesse Blanchard’s film is suggestive of a buddy comedy, Frank & Zed are nonetheless no ordinary double act, but a Frankenstein’s monster and a zombie (visually modelled on Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera). Overlooked by the mob of villagers that centuries earlier destroyed their evil master the necromancer Moroi, the pair has now been left to shuffle through an endless routine of braindead survival in their otherwise abandoned ‘foul castle’. Every day, Frank stitches up Zed’s wear and tear as best he can and provides him with squirrels’ brains to eat. Every night, Zed attaches electrodes to Frank’s head to recharge his heart. They are an old, odd couple in a symbiotic relationship – and Blanchard works hard to show their lasting care and affection for each other, beyond all the grotesquery of their circumstances and actions.

Meanwhile, the nearby village owes a ‘debt of blood’. For when, 200 years ago, the village king had conjured the demonic God of Death to help put an end to Moroi’s terror, the summoned demon imposed a baleful condition for his intervention: “When your line is spent, tenfold shall perish in an Orgy of Blood.” Now that the latest prince seems unlikely to produce an heir, and the Priest (voiced by Steven Overton) and Lord Titus (Jason Ropp, who also voices Frank, Zed and others) are conspiring to topple the royal family and usurp the throne for themselves, a fateful collision is set in motion between villagers and monsters that will lead to the fulfilment of the demon’s curse. There will be blood.

Seven years in the making, Frank & Zed is a horror fairytale – complete with storybook narrator (Sam Mowry) – all told through the medium of puppetry. Its roll call of Universal monsters recalls the stop-motion animation of Jules Bass’ Mad Monster Party? (1967), Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie (2012) and Sam Fell and Chris Butler’s ParaNorman (2012), while in formal terms, its beautifully hand-made puppetwork comes closer to being a monstrous Muppet movie or a less coarse – though equally gross Meet The Feebles (1989). Make no mistake: for all its felt-rendered stylisations (including crossed stitches on the eyes to mark characters as dead). this is definitely not a puppet show for young children. The villagers may be comically naïve, and the human villains may be moustache-twirlingly over-the-top, so that everything has the feel of a Python-esque pantomime, but once the promised bloodbath comes, the film’s third act, though certainly ridiculous, is also a relentless monster massacre, with levels of imaginative gore not seen since Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II (1987) and Army of Darkness (1992) and Peter Jackson’s Braindead (1992) – all of which are here duly referenced. 

Despite its madcap fun and visceral glee, Frank & Zed is also a political film about an uprising of the underclass against its oppressors. The wicked priest happily manipulates, mesmerises (with his demon-sent ‘Mindbender’) and even sometimes murders his fellow villagers (whom he scornfully calls ‘peasants’), all in the service of his own wicked ambitions – but the innocent villagers will prove braver and more resourceful than their selfish leaders, working together for each other. Meanwhile, both Frank and Zed are monsters made not born, and masterless slaves in search of a liberation that they do not fully comprehend. So the carnage in the film’s climax is also a revolutionary emancipation, paid for in the blood of the proletariat, and spawning a new, more equitable system of governance. Blanchard’s amiable, low-budget labour of love will have you smiling through the slaughter, while recognising that the real monsters are those power-hungry Svengalis and demagogues who make puppets of us all.

strap: Jesse Blanchard’s low-budget labour of love Frank & Zed will have you marvelling at its muppetry, while smiling through the slaughter.

© Anton Bitel