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Fantasia 2021: "Frank and Zed" Review

Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.

Frank and Zed was my introduction to writer, director, and puppet filmmaker extraordinaire Jesse Blanchard. The film debuted at the 25th edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival in 2021, and the virtual screening of the film came with a few incredible extras. A Fantasia introduction was added, which includes an old man puppet telling the audience how terrible the movie they’re about to watch is going to be. He goes on and on about the main characters never talking, only grunting and drooling. He also mentions that this is an indie horror film with puppets before exclaiming, “How pretentious can you be?” He then adds that the last half hour is filled with gore and guts and people dying and coming back to life again and again. “Don’t watch it!” He says before running off the screen.

The film also included Blanchard’s 2011 3-minute short, Shine. The short is nothing more than a puppet version of a barber shop quartet singing and continuing their routine as they’re dismembered in gruesome fashion. After Shine, some text reveals that Shine was made in two months while Frank and Zed took six years to complete.

Years ago, a demon known as The Moroy terrorized a small village and showed no sign of releasing the poor villagers from its grasp. The King of the village made a deal with the God of Death and used five weapons of power to kill The Moroy and return the village to its peaceful roots. Now as the King’s bloodline rests on the shoulders of a feeble coward, a prophecy is on the verge of coming true hinting at an Orgy of Blood. Remnants of The Moroy are said to still exist in the modern day. In a castle on the edge of the forest where The Moroy’s victims are said to be buried, there lives a Frankenstein kind-of-monster named Frank and his only friend, a brain hungry zombie named Zed.

According to a brief email exchange with Blanchard himself, Frank and Zed was mostly (if not entirely) made in Blanchard’s garage. This is astounding due to the amount of detail included in the film. Most of the effects are done practically over CGI, as well. You can see how some of the puppeteering was done during the end credits and the fact that actual fire was used around puppets is a feat in and of itself.

The detail of the puppets is surprisingly intricate. A lot of the human characters (puppet humans?) seem purposely crude and basic because they’re just going to be mutilated and torn apart anyway. The real gems are the monsters. The Moroy is never anything more than a shadow on the wall, but those claw-like hands are memorable for the entire film. The God of Death is also really cool. He looks kind of like The Lich from Adventure Time, but the green smoke he appears in (it’s likley a fog machine with green lighting, but it looks fantastic) certainly only adds to the character’s charisma. Also, notice how dead puppets get the black X’s over their eyes. It’s a cartoonishly delightful touch to show which puppets have passed. It’s even sillier when decapitated heads have the X’s as well.

All the time and effort obviously went in to designing Frank and Zed though, and for good reason. The top of Frank’s head looks like a clear glass fishbowl, so you can see his brain and all of the decaying liquids inside. He has one eye that’s bigger than the other one that is also bulging out of his eye socket, and all of his limbs and appendages look to be sewn on from different “donors.” Zed’s eyes are completely devoid of any color and yet you can still just barely make out his slightly discolored pupils. He has lime green skin, a hand that won’t stay attached to the wrist, sharp yellow teeth that are all going in different directions, and a piece of his skull is missing so he can dig at and eat his own brain from time to time.

The dialogue is also hilarious. Kevin being unable to operate a pulley as his friends mock him is surely the highlight. It’s only made better when Kevin exclaims (and I’m probably paraphrasing here), “I don’t know why I bothered to come to work today when we’re all going to die in an Orgy of Blood.” Later in the film, a man gets his arm ripped off by a zombie. Naturally, he says, “My favorite arm!” His other arm is then ripped off to which he replies, “My other favorite arm!”

These two monsters have spent centuries together and their relationship seems really simple, but it’s way more complicated than it first lets on. At first, Frank supplies Zed with fresh squirrel brains that he kills every morning. In exchange, Zed helps Frank charge his battery for the following day. Over the course of the film you realize that they care for one another. They’re friends, but they’re also brothers that they’d kill and eat the brains and flesh of others for.

Frank and Zed is a gory puppet massacre loaded with absurdity and ridiculousness and it’s all the more awesome and entertaining because of it. It’s surprisingly well written with folklore that feels like it was lifted straight out of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale with amusing dialogue that will make you laugh out loud. It has impressive special effects, glorious set pieces, wonderful lighting, wicked humor, and relentless puppet mutilation. Frank and Zed is an unbelievable achievement of horror and comedy cinema (puppet or otherwise).

© 2021 Chris Sawin

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