19 April 2010

Shrunken Heads

Shrunken Heads
United States – 1994
Director – Richard Elfman
Paramount Home Video, 1994, VHS
Run Time - 1 hour, 26 minutes

I recently watched The Forbidden Zone on a recommendation from Shelby Cobras over at Illogical Contraption and I immediately began to feel the stirrings of recognition deep in my gut. I had seen this sort of debauchery before in one of my favorite movies of the last decade; Shrunken Heads. A twisted locale like The Forbidden Zone is the only possible place to similarly conjure heroes out of fascist State policeman/senile graverobbing voodoo priests and their reanimated shrunken heads.

Tommy, Bill and the new neighborhood arrival Freddie are not quite old enough to be totally concerned with chasing girls. Instead they remain focused on candy and comic books. However, their tiny sugar and newsprint utopia is repeatedly harassed by an older generation in the persons of Eddie and The Vipers, a cheap not-quite-adult street-gang striving to assert its status as something no longer juvenile. Having suffered enough of their abuse, our nerdy heroes decide to document the Viper’s petty criminal activities and submit the evidence to the police. But the Vipers have their own niche in the generational pecking order and at the behest of their transgender crime boss Big Moe (Meg Foster) they haul the boys in for a discussion on “how the real world works,” which as we all know really means “how I, the adult, say the world works” and boils down to a brief delineation of the inevitable, dream crushing pragmatism of adulthood. To quote one of the babysitters of my own horrific childhood, “There are no what-ifs!” A truism she repeatedly drilled into our optimistic eight–year-old brains whenever we waxed fantastic.

But in a far more cuddly and understanding world Tommy, Bill and Freddy escape captivity and steal Big Moe’s daily numbers-slips. To get them back she orders the disillusioned middle generation to gun the boys down in the street. Understandably eager to prove their maturity and be treated as adults, the Vipers comply. But what could have become a typical soul crushing “learning experience” actually takes a sudden turn at the intersection of WTF? at the hands of Aristide Sumatra (veteran blaxploitation actor and cuddly old guy Julius Harris), ex member of the Tonton Macoute turned corner newsstand operator and source of Tommy, Bill and Freddy’s comic books and candy. Sumatra’s resounding answer to all the petty struggles of youth is to collapse the whole misguided intergenerational dialogue into a surreal comedy. He is the grandpa whose dementia clouded foul mouthed nonsense makes everybody laugh uncomfortably. A perfect excuse to get into trouble with the grandkids.

To revenge the innocence of youth upon the responsibilities that crushed it, he attends the tripartite funeral of our heroes, saws off their heads then "boils and lovingly dries them." But it’s only starting to get good, for he also reanimates them and trains each of them to use a special power with which to punish malefactors. Furthermore, their deceased victims revive as pants-shitting zombies compelled to perform community service. From start to finish it is a send-up of a whole mosaic of social taboos; death, race, underage sexuality and poop jokes, adult themes within a framework of childhood fantasy, the merging of Sumatra’s disregard for convention and the boys desire to keep from falling into it.

 Tommy gets some post-shrinkage lovin' from his new ladyfriend.

“Aristide Sumatra” also happens to be an alter-ego/nom de guerre of director Elfman, one of the founding members of The Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo and all around madman. The fact that he plays such a crucial role here both off-screen and hypothetically on-screen as well suggests that it is something of a pet project. The dissonant logic and mild discomfort of Shrunken Heads, while polished to appeal to a larger audience, clearly comes from the same distorted imaginations that created The Forbidden Zone. It is a kid’s film steeped in a rich dose of adult rebellion just barely on the safe side of excess; drunken Saturday morning cartoons in epic proportions.

“Mr. Sumatra, there’s been a terrible stench, coming from your apartment.”
“As you can see, this cat has not been well at all, that is the source of that terrible stench. But please, be patient, the doctor of cats has predicted that he will soon be bursting with health.”


Juan J. Espinoza said...

I'm still looking for the movie Elfman directed under the name of Aristide Sumatra, Streets of Rage.

Mimi Lesseos co-wrote and starred in the thing. Maybe you've seen it around...

Richard Elfman said...

As Tommy's wizened shrunken head nuzzles tenderly between Sally's pert young bosoms...

"Never has a head made so small, shown love or affection of this type!" Lt. Col. Aristide Pierre Lafite Sumatra, of the Ton Ton Macoute, ret.

The Goodkind said...

I knew I forgot to include one of those pictures. Bosom nuzzling added, sir. Thanks for catching my glaring omission.

Trekkie313 said...

I liked the movie until they started implying underage sex...then it just lost me. I have this on LaserDisc.