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31 Days of Halloween: Shrunken Heads

Published Wednesday, October 20, 2021 at 8:59pm

I can't say I've ever been extremely fond of the output of Full Moon Entertainment or Full Moon Features or whatever they're calling themselves now. Under the control of Charles Band, Full Moon has made low-budget horror and science fiction movies, mostly direct-to-video, for more than thirty years. Their stuff tends to look pretty good, but it still aims for the lowest common denominator of their audience. Not all of their films are bad, though,

One of the better ones, maybe by virtue of its bizarreness, is Shrunken Heads (1994), which was directed by Richard Elfman. I wasn't sure what to expect; the only other Elfman film I'm familiar with is Forbidden Zone, an incredibly strange, ultra-low budget movie whose entire purpose was to document Oingo Boingo before they transitioned from performance art to rock music. Forbidden Zone is like a live-action version of those early musical cartoons where everything moves and sings (but much more offensive). Shrunken Heads is, for better or worse, much less weird. But it's still weird.

Tommy and Bill are young teens who spend their days reading comic books from the local newsstand and being hassled by the local gang. One day a new kid, Freddy, comes into the neighborhood, and they accept him as one of their own, introducing him to Mr. Sumatra (Julius Harris), the elderly, black man who runs the newsstand.

Mr. Sumatra is an interesting character. He seems to know everybody in the neighborhood, and stands up (more or less) to the local protection racket. He's also a practitioner of voodoo, or what passes for voodoo in movies written by white people. Shrunken Heads was written by Matthew Bright who played Squeezit in Forbidden Zone. Squeezit (who looks like Harold Lloyd with shaggy hair) is about as white as they come.

Tommy videotapes the gang taking apart a car to sell it and shows the tape to the cops. The gang spends a night in jail, but then they're out again and they kidnap the boys at the behest of the mob boss, Big Moe. Big Moe is played as a man by Meg Foster. Wikipedia says the character is supposed to be a lesbian. Regardless, it's an unexpected choice. The boys escape so Big Moe orders her top henchman, Vinnie, to execute them.

The funeral is a somber affair and Mr. Sumatra pays his respects to the boys, their families, and Sally, Vinnie's ex-girlfriend who had just developed a mutual crush on Tommy before he was shot. That night, Mr. Sumatra returns to the funeral home, lops off the boys' heads, and takes them back to his apartment where he dumps them into the bubbling cauldron he just happens to keep laying around.

A year later, the boys are back. Oh, sure, their heads have been shrunken down and they don't have bodies anymore, but Mr. Sumatra's magic has endowed them with super powers, and they're hungry for revenge.

Apparently this was Full Moon's first theatrical release and was made for about a million dollars, which is pretty good, given the look of the film. The only thing that really looked cheap to me was the digital effect used to achieve the flying heads. But this was 1994; anything digital was still a bit clunky. Richard Elfman was definitely calling in favors, though; his brother Danny (yes, that one) wrote the opening themes, and his son Bodhi plays one of the local hoods.

Julius Harris' Mr. Sumatra is easily the most interesting character in the movie and he really seems to relish delivering lines like "I will pluck out your tongues with bolt cutters and roast them, and I will take your brains and chill them for the purpose of garnishment." I imagine anyone who knows anything about real voodoo practices probably does a lot of eye rolling at his dialogue, though.

Also eye-roll worthy is Tommy's reunion with Sally. Mr. Sumatra maneuvers them together, Sally opens her shirt, Tommy's head nuzzles her breasts, and the audience cringes and wonders if it should turn the movie off. If you can get past that, though, there's a lot to enjoy about Shrunken Heads.

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