Director – Richard Elfman, Screenplay – Matthew Bright, Story/Producer – Charles Band, Photography – Stephen McNutt, Music – Richard Band, Main Theme – Danny Elfman, Visual Effects Supervisor – Paul Gentry, Digital Visual Effects – DHD Postimage, Full Moon VFX Digital & Praxis, Miniatures – Donald Pennington Inc, Special Effects Supervisor – John Cazin, Makeup/Mechanical Effects – Alchemy FX (Supervisor – Michael S. Deak), Production Design – Milo. Production Company – Full Moon Entertainment.
Julius Harris (Mr Sumatra/Lieutenant-Colonel Aristide Pierre Lafayette Sumatra), Becky Herbst (Sally Conway), Aeryk Egan (Tommy Larson), A.J. Damato (Vinnie Benedetti), Meg Foster (Big Moe), Bo Sharon (Bill Turner), Darris Love (Freddie Thompson), Bodhi Elfman (Booger Martin), Leigh-Allyn Baker (Mitzi), Troy Fromin (Pudowski), Paul Linke (Mr Larson)
When young Tommy Larson and his two friends Bill and Freddie videotape the neighbourhood gang The Vipers stripping a car and turn the tape over to the police, The Vipers swear vengeance. The three of them are captured and taken before the local mobster Big Moe. However, they manage to make an escape and steal Big Moe’s gambling receipts. Ordered to get the receipts back, The Vipers instead shoot Tommy and the others. Their friend, the Haitian comic-book dealer Mr Sumatra, a former member of the tonton macoute, sneaks into the funeral home, cuts off and shrinks the boys’ heads and then brings their spirits back to life inside the shrunken heads. Mr Sumatra then teaches the boys how to harness their powers and sends them out into the neighbourhood to seek vengeance against Big Moe and the Vipers.
Father and son Albert and Charles Band have made an extremely prolific output of direct-to-video horror films, which have include the various Ghoulies, Puppetmaster and Trancers series. Many of the Bands’ films – Dolls (1987), Dollman (1991), Demonic Toys (1992), The Creeps/Deformed Monsters (1997), Blood Dolls (1999), Doll Graveyard (2005) and, of course, the effort that Shrunken Heads most resembles, Puppetmaster (1989), which has so far spawned eleven sequels – have a fascination with dolls and toys come to life. Among these, Shrunken Heads, with its concept of shrunken heads returned to life and flying around to exact revenge against street thugs, is one of their more conceptually whacked out efforts.
Shrunken Heads comes from director Richard Elfman. Richard Elfman was one of the principal members of the alternate rock group Oingo Boingo and is the brother of the better known Danny Elfman, the composer celebrated for his scores for Tim Burton films like Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989), Edward Scissorhands (1990) and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and a host of other films, as well as creator of the theme tune for tv’s The Simpsons (1989– ). Richard has developed a minor cult as a director. His first film was the totally whacked-out Forbidden Zone (1980), an almost unclassifiable surrealist sf film. Subsequent to Shrunken Heads, Richard made a mediocre vampire film Modern Vampires (1998). At the same time as Shrunken Heads came out, Richard also made the juvenile crime thriller Street of Rage (1994), where he took the pseudonym of Aristide Sumatra, the chief voodoo practitioner here. (Richard Elfman can be seen in a cameo here as the person leading the people on the bus in a singalong during the climactic chase). Shrunken Heads was written by Matthew Bright, one of Elfman’s co-band members in Oingo Boingo. Matthew Bright went on to become one of the most exciting directors of the late 1990s with the likes of Freeway (1996), Freeway II: Confessions of a Trickbaby (1999) and Ted Bundy (2002).
Shrunken Heads alas proves to be a disappointment – in the sense that one expected more of a film with such a wacky premise. As it is, it is not much more than a B movie with a novelty concept – in fact, there is not much that sets Shrunken Heads apart from being another Puppetmaster sequel. The optical effects of the flying heads are mediocre – Elfman cuts between closeups of the actors’ faces and brief medium angles of the flying creatures so often that it is difficult to follow what is meant to be happening during the action.
As the central character of Mr Sumatra, Julius H. Harris, at age 71, often seems a bit beyond it and to be struggling with the requirements of the role. (Of considerable amusement is the character’s total hodgepodge of a background – he is said to be from Haiti but is called Mr Sumatra, which is one of the islands that comprise Indonesia; he swears by the name of Haile Selassie, who was the emperor of Ethiopia up until 1974 and most known as a convert to Rastafarianism; and claims to have been a member of the tonton macoute, which was at least Haitian but was a far less nicer organisation than the film would seem to have them – formed by Haitian dictator Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, it could be considered the Caribbean equivalent of Hitler’s SS). An unrecognisable Meg Foster is made up in a double-breasted suit as a cliché version of a mobster, although gets to play the part with unmistakeable overtones of a butch dyke.
For all Richard Elfman’s probably undeserved cult reputation, Shrunken Heads is ordinary in terms of its potential wackiness. There is an almost perverse scene where the head of the lead youth burrows down the top of Becky Herbst and between her cleavage. However, compared to the similar severed head scene in the Bands’ Re-Animator (1985), there is a singular lack of anything perverse or tongue-in-cheek to the scene. The tone is almost one of sweetness rather than anything kinky. Furthermore, the actress and head are never seen in conjunction, which considerably diminishes the effectiveness of the scene.