Beyond the Slimy Wall: Shrunken Heads
By Stephanie Star Smith
January 27, 2005
We here at BOP are an eclectic group, and our tastes in movies run from the serious cinephiles to the foreign-film aficionados to niche film lovers. Thus was born the idea for this weekly column, devoted to horror films of all shapes and sizes, but concentrating on those B- and C-grade films that mainstream reviewers disdain, but are the bread-and-butter of every spook movie lover's viewing. So come with me as we venture beyond the slimy wall, uncovering the treasures - and burying the time-wasting bombs - that await those who dare to love the scare.
The first offering of the New Year is a look at another film from Full Moon Productions and Charles Band.
Much like the legendary King of the Bs, Roger Corman - to whom he could be considered an heir apparent - Band has learned the lesson of making a good pic on a shoestring budget: pinch pennies in the areas it matters less and put the money where it’s most important, namely the writing, directing and acting. Of course, in the age of CGI, the effects you can get for next to nothing are far more impressive than those available to Corman in his heyday, but there’s still plenty of money to be saved to put towards the talent, and while it may not seem that B pictures are the place one would be able to find anyone terribly gifted, it bears repeating that such current icons as Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson and Ron Howard (as a director) cut their industry teeth under the aegis of Corman.
The other thing that putting the money into talent provides is unique takes on horror and science fiction standards. Sometimes this comes in the form of unusual storylines, and at others, different tellings of familiar fare. Shrunken Heads falls into both categories, for while some of the film’s elements are distinctive, others are creative versions of standard genre trappings.
As with all horror films - and quite a few in other genres as well - Shrunken Heads boils down to the basic of good versus evil. In this case, good is represented by three teenage boys, misfits of the neighborhood, who band together as friends as much for safety as for their common interest in comic books. Evil is represented by Vinnie, the local gang-leader and sadistic bully who picks on the boys as well as, along with his gang, committing various misdemeanors on their own and Class D felonies for the neighborhood crime boss, Big Moe. Larry, the putative leader of his ragtag posse of semi-loners, feels the only way to end the reign of terror imposed on the neighborhood by Vinnie and his lunkheads is to stand up to them. Larry also has hopes that Sally, Vinnie’s girl and requisite damsel-in-distress, will leave the Dark Side and hook up with him if he’s successful.
And so the stage is set for the forces of good to battle the forces of evil. Larry and his boys manage to get evidence linking Vinnie and his hooligans to some petty crimes; in retaliation, Vinnie and Company kidnap Larry and Friends and take them to Big Moe’s place, where the good guys promptly stage an escape with more incriminating evidence. This action costs our three heroes their lives, in a particularly graphic sequence, in the middle of the neighborhood with those safe inside their domiciles paying not one whit of attention.
Now in most films, this would be the end of the story, but since this is a spook movie, it’s only the beginning. As luck would have it, the neighborhood newsstand owner is also a voodoo priest. He decides to not only avenge the boys’ deaths, but also rid the neighborhood once and for all of Big Moe, Vinnie and their ilk (it helps that said proprietor, the wonderfully-named Mr Sumatra, is being hit up for protection money). Mr Sumatra secures the lads’ heads from the mortuary and proceeds to perform a voodoo ritual, resulting in the eponymous noggins. After some hysterical bits where the newly-created avengers learn how to manage the unique powers they received in the course of the voodoo ritual, the heads are ready to fly about the city, exacting vengeance.
As always, to go further into detail would spoil the remainder of the film, and as there is a great deal of fun to be had in watching how the boys’ work and what happens to the bad guys, it’s best to leave the plotline here and instead focus on how much fun the film is. Saying it’s the best shrunken heads-wreak-vengeance movie wouldn’t be saying much, since it’s pretty much one of a kind, but it definitely falls on the side of horror films worthy of your viewing time, and at a brisk 86 minutes, Shrunken Heads doesn’t wear out its welcome. There’s also a bit of not-what-they-seem going on with the characters, surprises that are, in retrospect, almost de rigueur, but come as a pleasant revelation nonetheless.
Bottom line, Shrunken Heads is a nice, tight little film that delivers on the supernatural goods whilst blending in (intentional) humor and an unexpected sweetness. Like most of the Full Moon oeuvre, it’s well worth acquiring on your next trip to your local video rental emporium.
I see by the shadows falling from my bust of Pallas that our time is up. Until next time, then, when we will once again venture Beyond the Slimy Wall.