Richard Elfman is the son of novelist Clare Elfman. He grew up in L.A., then worked as an Afro-Latin percussionist in the San Francisco musical theater troupe The Cockettes before moving to Paris to perform, and later returning to form the “commedia dell’arte ensemble” or “surrealist street theatre troupe” The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. They performed Cab Calloway covers and Russian ballet songs in whiteface, won an episode of The Gong Show, released a doo wop song about the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, and played demons in a hallucination scene in I NEVER PROMISED YOU A ROSE GARDEN. In the late ‘70s Elfman turned filmmaker, directing the Mystic Knights’ black and white cult musical FORBIDDEN ZONE (released in 1982).
It’s a pretty obnoxious and completely amazing movie, filmed on theatrical sets beautifully designed in a German expressionist/Max Fleischer cartoon style (and sometimes noticeably made of paper). It’s a short but unrelenting burlesque nightmare of tap dancing frogs and skeletons, adults dressed as children and/or only wearing underwear, lots of Mickey Mouse ears, fezzes and boobs, every single character (and there are tons of them) a weirdo or a grotesque caricature. They move bizarrely and at fast speed, lip sync to old timey big band jazz tunes, simulate humping. It stylishly switches to animation as they plummet to Hell or through the intestine shaped tunnel from the Hercules family’s basement to the Sixth Dimension, which is ruled by Susan Tyrrell as the Cruella-meets-drag-queen Queen Doris, and Herve Villechaize as her cheating husband King Fausto.
Elfman’s younger brother Danny made some great songs for it and has a scene as Satan, singing “Minnie the Moocher” with a band of hooded, lumpy ghouls. Joe Spinnell shows up as a sleazy, drunk sailor. To me it’s soiled by its use of historical racist imagery – I know this is vintage hipster irony or some shit, but opening with a blackface pimp character looking for his heroin is a problem. And you also have to be patient with the inside joke art school forced weirdness nonsense humor ethos that thinks it’s hilarious to have a main character named “Squeezit Henderson,” who has a twin sister played by the same actor, who is credited as “Toshiro Boloney.” (That’s actually Matthew Bright, better known for directing FREEWAY. His well-meaning drama TIPTOES, which infamously co-stars Gary Oldman as a little person, was inspired by the director’s friendship with Villechaize.)
Around that time Richard passed the creative direction of the Mystic Knights to Danny, who soon decided to ditch all the theatrics and strip down to the rock band Oingo Boingo. They became very popular and had songs on movies ranging from WEIRD SCIENCE to TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2. And during this time, of course, Tim Burton convinced Danny to score PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, which led to other scores, and all the sudden he was an A-list film composer.
Meanwhile, Richard directed a few of the band’s videos, but didn’t make any more movies until 1993, when he resurfaced with a silly but pretty straight forward Mimi Lesseos b-action vehicle I’ve already reviewed called STREETS OF RAGE. For that he was credited as “Aristide Sumatra,” which is the name of a character in his third movie, SHRUNKEN HEADS. Released in 1994, SHRUNKEN HEADS was written by Elfman’s old friend Bright (pre-FREEWAY) and produced by Charles Band and his company Full Moon Entertainment. So you better believe it has some tiny little guys in it. Shrunken, like the title says.
I’ve never quite figured out how the directorial work of Aristide Sumatra fits in with the Betty-Boop-meets-SPIDER-BABY sensibilities of those Mystic Knights, but SHRUNKEN HEADS definitely makes sense as what happens when someone from that world hooks up with the guy who makes the evil puppet movies. You know – it’s low budget and lowbrow, and has some little bastards that kill people. But it has a distinct sense of camp, style and absurdity that I’ve never seen in another Charles Band production. I’m convinced that’s all Elfman.
I love that it starts out as a wholesome, nostalgic kids movie. Teenage protagonist Tommy Larson (Aeryk Egan, the young version of Kiefer Sutherland’s character in FLATLINERS, later in DEAD MAN ON CAMPUS) is a Mackenzie Astin type who helps out at his dad (Paul Linke, MOTEL HELL)’s corner shop and obsesses over DC Comics with his best friend Bill Turner (Bo Sharon, Richie Cunningham Jr. on a Happy Days two-parter). After befriending Freddie Thompson (Darris Love, SUCKER FREE CITY, WAIST DEEP), an asthmatic nerd they see being bullied by a ’50s style adult street gang called The Vipers, the boys go to the newsstand to buy comics from their old man friend Mr. Sumatra (Julius Harris, SHAFT’S BIG SCORE, SUPER FLY, TROUBLE MAN, BLACK CAESAR, THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, FRIDAY FOSTER, HARLEY DAVIDSON AND THE MARLBORO MAN, MANIAC COP 3).
Tommy also has a longtime crush on crop-top-wearing Sally (Rebecca Herbst, Barbi Benton in HEFNER: UNAUTHORIZED), who breaks up with Vipers leader Vinnie Benedetti (A.J. Damato) and starts to fall for the nice kid. They kiss on the fire escape and hold hands and you see that he has a walkie talkie on his belt, so he’s still pretty much a Goonie. In fact, he and his goonie pals plot to get Vinnie and the Vipers in trouble by videotaping them stripping a car and giving the tape to a cop. They laugh about it to Vinnie’s face like it’s a great prank, an unconscionably stupid move that leads to them being abducted to a warehouse for a face-to-face with crimelord Big Moe (Meg Foster, THEY LIVE, BLIND FURY, BEST OF THE BEST 2).
Yes, that Meg Foster – Evil Lyn from MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE herself, she with the piercing eyes – plays a macho, pompadoured, cigar-chewing tough guy, bossing and threatening people, often with a babe named Mitzi (Leigh-Allyn Baker, LEPRECHAUN 3) on her knee. I always thought Foster might be intended as a male character rather than a butch one, but Wikipedia describes Big Moe as “a tough lesbian mob boss,” so I’ll go with that and use she/her pronouns.
Long story short, before the half hour mark the three kids are shot dead in the middle of the street and given an open casket funeral and then Mr. Sumatra breaks into the mortuary, saws off their heads and puts them in a big cauldron in his condo, stewing them with herbs and a dead cat, performing a ritual, and then they come back to life as hovering Mad Balls. He trains them to shoot electricity from their heads and practice biting on mannequins, then sends them out into the city to kill criminals who, in turn, become his zombies. Kind of like how THE PHANTOM and THE SHADOW get the people they help to aid them in their quests.
In order to properly appreciate SHRUNKEN HEADS you need to think of it as an insane take on the era’s super hero movies (here’s a good article by some asshole about the comic book movies of the ‘90s). Like DARKMAN, SHRUNKEN HEADS is kind of a horror movie, but inspired by comic books, telling the story of a guy who gets apparently killed by a gang, but comes back in a hideous new form with new abilities, which he uses to get revenge against the criminals who wronged him, and also he shows himself to the woman he loves, who comes to accept him in his new form but he has trouble reciprocating because it gets her kidnapped and/or he’s a tragic broody guy, etc.
And one very big thing SHRUNKEN HEADS has in common with DARKMAN, BATMAN and DICK TRACY is a main theme that’s unmistakably by Danny Elfman. It reminds me of the opening of “This Is Halloween” from THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, plus a little Tales From the Crypt and maybe NIGHTBREED. Obviously we can see how the director was able to hook that up, but it’s a huge boost to the movie. The rest of the score is by Charles Band’s brother Richard Band, which is of course not as good and way cheesier sounding because it’s not done with a full orchestra. But one thing I’ve always thought was really brilliant about it is that the love theme is pretty much a rehash of the theme from EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, and you have to wonder if Elfman asked for a rip off of his own brother’s music, if it was just presented to him that way; if it was meant as a joke, if he warned his brother about it before the premiere, etc. I don’t know of another movie that offers that particular type of mystery.
The super hero aspects of the movie include Mr. Sumatra summoning the team by blowing a horn from the balcony (his version of the bat signal) and Tommy having an emotional talk with Sally in the cemetery where she’s come to mourn him. Just watching a scene like this – a melodramatic talk between a regular human and a tiny flying head – played straight is wonderful, and then I love the visual of Tommy’s head floating over flashbacks to earlier in the movie as he explains to Sally what happened.
A more horror part is when they use the classic slasher trope of a p.o.v. shot sneaking up on a guy taking a shower, before two of the heads open the curtain and the other slashes and then zaps him while his friend is in the living room watching ROBOT JOX. (That’s obviously a Full Moon in-house product placement, but also some stop motion robot battles is the perfect thing to be playing on TV in this universe.)
You know how once every 2-3 months somebody tries to blow the internet’s fuckin mind with the flamin hot take that super heroes are fascist, as if this idea hasn’t already been explored in very famous comics and movies over the past 35 years? SHRUNKEN HEADS found a really funny and not-too-didactic way to make that point. Mr. Sumatra is presented as a kindly old man, but even before he does weird things with corpses he talks nostalgically about his days in the Tonton Macoute, the real life human rights abusing paramilitary force of Haitian dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who named themselves after a mythological boogeyman that eats children. Sumatra becomes the Shrunken Heads’ inspiration and mentor and sends them after what he (and then they) call “malefactors.” The movie surely knows how completely fucked up it is to treat this psychopath as its moral center, but it pretends like the whole thing should warm our hearts.
I should note that as far as I can tell in my research, shrunken heads have nothing to do with Haiti or Vodou, and that’s only one of the many reasons this isn’t a culturally sensitive portrayal. It seems so in line with the depictions of witch doctors and shit in the old comic books they’re playing off of that it seems forgivable to me, but then again the blackface in FORBIDDEN ZONE was clearly a reference to a specific period of racist entertainment, and that didn’t make it palatable to me. Anyway, Harris is really good playing Mr. Sumatra as an over-the-top character. It was his last movie, and there are definitely more boring roles to go out on.
It’s surprising to me that they were able to specifically mention DC Comics and feature some of the covers, plus a bunch of Superman and Batman memorabilia in Tommy’s bedroom. I don’t believe Full Moon had any kind of connection to DC Comics, and their Puppet Master comic book was from the smaller rival publisher Eternity. I don’t know if they technically need to get permission for something like that, but you usually don’t see it in movies of this ilk. And this was before Marvel had figured out movies, so Batman and Superman were by far the biggest thing comic books had going.
It’s also a world with fictional products: there’s a candy called Wizzo Beens. There are some movies with fictional products that just seem phony and are distracting; this is the kind that seems just the right type of phony for the stylized world being depicted. I like that.
Rewatching SHRUNKEN HEADS after all these years I have to admit that it’s not so much entertaining the whole time as it is one of those movies that just makes me so happy that it exists. That somebody came up with the idea, got the money to do it, and had the discipline to play it straight the whole time. In that sense it’s kind of a low budget cousin to ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER and PRIDE + PREJUDICE + ZOMBIES – movies that are intentionally ridiculous and ballsy enough to not nudge you in the ribs to make sure you know they know (even if the trailer for SHRUNKEN HEADS calls it an “outrageous horror comedy”). I don’t think this would be improved by having a larger budget like those ones. By far my favorite parts are any time the heads are flying around, FX that catch that perfect balance of chintzy and cool. You can tell it’s just the kids standing in front of a green screen most of the time, but the way they arc and float around and spin looks great.
(By the way, in FORBIDDEN ZONE, Squeezit gets decapitated and then there are a couple scenes where his head flies around like this.)
There are numerous green screen or POV shots that swoop through the city, which is obviously a model, but a huge model using a fancy motion control rig. So it’s high-low production value. And the more dated it gets the more cool it looks.
There’s one aspect of the movie that didn’t age as well, or at least it creeps me out as a middle aged man and I’m not sure I even noticed it when I was young: it’s the fact that Sally appears to be a very young teenager and is dating Vinnie, who appears to be a grown adult. I think it’s meant to be absurd that nobody mentions the age difference, and it’s an intentionally boyish idea that Tommy’s crush is dating not only a jerk, but an actual gang leader. (And I think the villainous pimp in STREETS OF RAGE pulled that shit too.) But even setting the adults aside, it’s pretty icky just how often they have her kissing Tommy or getting kidnapped and yanked around in her fancy dress or the other standard super-hero’s-girlfriend things that happen to her. I guess that’s the issue with making a movie about kids that parodies movies that normally star adults.
After SHRUNKEN HEADS and STREETS OF RAGE, Elfman directed four episodes of the ABC children’s horror show Bone Chillers, plus the Casper Van Dien movie MODERN VAMPIRES, the bellydance documentaries 28 DAYS TO VEGAS and 30 DAYS TO VEGAS, and apparently a 2019 sci-fi comedy called ALIENS, CLOWNS & GEEKS (I’m not sure that one has been released). His top credit on IMDb is “Actor, George of the Jungle (1997))”. He’s reportedly working on a FORBIDDEN ZONE 2, but Full Moon Pictures – who made franchises out of PUPPET MASTER, SUBSPECIES, DEMONIC TOYS, DOLLMAN, EVIL BONG and THE GINGERDEAD MAN – somehow never gave us a SHRUNKEN HEADS RETURN. And that’s too bad. It would’ve been pretty great to see the next one, where they have a whole sophisticated super hero operation going with sidekicks, gadgets, enemies, a very small Batcave, etc. Maybe it’s time for the deadpan Nolan-esque gritty reboot.