Frank & Zed

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Frank & Zed
"Bursting with creative energy."

Back in 1999, when a character in Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich proposed that the future of the arts lay in puppetry, everybody laughed. Amongst cinema fans there was general appreciation for the role of puppeteers in creating special effects, but little beyond that. Now, however, times have changed. The brilliant expansion of The Dark Crystal into a series awed viewers worldwide and reminded us of what great puppet work can achieve. It also restored the old tradition of using puppets to explore dark subjects. Jesse Blanchard's Frank & Zed takes that one step further, presenting us with an unalloyed horror tale.

It is set, like The Dark Crystal, in a fantasy world, and uses some similar animation techniques, but with the rougher edges one would expect from a project made without the backing of a big studio. The atmosphere here is folkloric. We have a village built around a hall where kings live, the liminal territory of the forest and a dreaded castle once inhabited by an evil being bent on destruction. To stop that being, the king at the time entered into a terrible pact with the god of death, and now, generations later, it seems that payment is due. The situation is not straightforward, however, as even in this deeply troubled time there are people trying to take political advantage rather than working with others to stave off the promised orgy of blood.

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At some remove from this are our ostensible heroes, Frank & Zed - heroes more because we're placed close to them than because of any obvious virtue, which is in keeping with the tradition of such tales. They were the servants of the vanquished evil entity and they dwell still in his castle eking out a living by hunting (primarily for brains) and consuming energising doses of lightning. Their centuries old routine is gradually getting harder to maintain as more and more bits of their bodies fall off. Though they once hid from humans, when a plot by some of those in the village creates the opportunity, they're happy to take human prey - an action that will lead to trouble for everyone.

Whilst there are few truly sympathetic characters in this film, Frank and Zed's plight gives them the pathos important to classic monster movies, and though it's sparingly addressed, the deep affection between them makes them endearing in spite of what they do. They are also by far the most developed characters in the film, which suffers from a problem common in works which have obviously taken a long time to assemble - that is, the creative team seem to know their other characters so well that they forget t introduce them and we get only a limited sense of who they are, with little reason to care about their fate. In a lesser film, this could be a fatal flaw, but there's so much else to admire and enjoy about this one that it is only a minor disappointment.

Much of what we see here is sustained by the same undercurrent of dark humour that characterised the original Muppets. As in their work, it's balanced by an appreciation for cute fuzzy things, though we never know for sure if they're going to survive. Should the film fail to make enough money to pay back its creators, they could always go into business making cute fluffy squirrels. These creatures appear frequently and take on a role not unlike that of a Greek chorus. We get the sense that they know the history of the place much better than any of its humanoid inhabitants.

For a horror filmmaker, one of the joys of working with puppets must be the ease with which they come apart - and, indeed, the many creative ways in which this can happen to them. Blanchard exploits this to the full, delivering bloody body horror which, even with modern CGI, would simply be impossible with a live action cast. We never forget that these are creatures made with fabric, stuffing and stitches as, indeed, all of these elements come into play as elements of that horror, but they're anthropomorphic to the point where, should you strain an ankle soon after watching, you'll be worried about your own stitches coming loose and your foot falling off.

Frank & Zed is clearly a labour of love and it's great to see this kind of film getting serious attention - it screened as part of Nightstream 2020. Though not a perfect film, it's bursting with creative energy and is unlike anything else to hit the horror scene this year. It's a natural cult favourite and one can only hope that it will lead to more, better funded work from this team. Move over, humans. The age of the puppet has arrived.

Reviewed on: 12 Oct 2020
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Two reanimated corpses, dependent on each other for survival, live a life of solitude until a power-hungry magistrate tricks a group of villagers into attacking their lonely castle, fulfilling an ancient prophecy: The Orgy of Blood.

Director: Jesse Blanchard

Writer: Jesse Blanchard

Starring: Jerry Bell Jr, Aaron Booth, Randolph F Christen, Chris Henry, Johnny Huang

Year: 2020

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: US

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