An astounding six years went into the making of Frank and Zed, writer-director Jesse Blanchard’s magnum opus of friendship and bloodshed. But this is no ordinary feature film, as Blanchard employs an all-puppet cast in telling his tale; the sets have all been meticulously crafted by hand, while the majority of the effects are practical, save for a few brief moments of CGI sprinkled throughout. While it would be easy to label the movie with a catchy logline like, “Jim Henson meets Evil Dead 2,” that would also be both a tad reductive and a great disservice to the obvious love and attention to detail present within each frame of its 95-minute runtime. On a technical level, Frank and Zed is an utterly stunning achievement, the kind rarely aimed for (let alone achieved) in present-day film, audacious and ambitious, even as it notably cribs from some of history’s more famous horror and adventure stories to deliver a final product that occasionally feels a little derivative.
As the yarn begins, an ancient village is plagued by a demon, one whose impending rage can only be stopped through a nefarious deal that will bring about an “orgy of blood” once the king’s bloodline comes to an end. That may happen sooner than expected due to the Machiavellian maneuverings of the King’s duplicitous underlings. Meanwhile, on a castle high on a mountain at the edge of the village, Frank, a creature not unlike Frankenstein’s monster, and brain-chomping zombie Zed have carved out both a friendship and an existence that soon become threatened when their paths cross with those of the violent townsfolk. The film’s resulting conflict, then, demonstrates what a feast for the eyes Frank and Zed is, each shot presenting yet another opportunity to take in the rich detail of the handmade sets and puppet cast, and the material is communicated with tongue planted firmly in cheek, tonally reminiscent of something from the likes of Troma. An example: each time an animal or human character dies, its eyes are replaced with little black Xs. Elsewhere, the phrase “orgy of blood” is hilariously repeated roughly 200 times. And Blanchard certainly doesn’t skimp when it comes to his main event, devoting 30 minutes to over-the-top bloodletting and brutal mayhem. Indeed, any conceivable act of violence you can dream up is perpetrated on these poor puppets, including decapitation and disembowelment. Each one of these barbarous incidents is accompanied by gallons upon gallons of fake blood, spurting and flowing across the screen like a sanguine river.
If it all becomes a bit much after a while, the saturation becoming somewhat numbing, it’s largely balanced by the film’s beating heart: the central friendship between its titular characters, one which engenders far more sympathy than any viewers are likely to anticipate given its broad conceit. There are pangs of genuine emotion as Blanchard’s tale comes to its bittersweet close, exhibiting a pathos most filmmakers can barely accomplish today with a flesh-and-blood cast, a quality that takes Frank and Zed from mere novelty to something altogether more affecting. Come for the technical wizardry and puppet eye-gougings, stay for the love — love of friends, love of storytelling, love of the creativity and freedom found within the medium of film itself. In a culture of retread, it’s nice to be reminded of that fact every now and again.
Published as part of Fantasia Fest 2021 — Dispatch 2.