The Thursday Horror Picture Show starts off 2011 with Richard Elfman’s deliciously deranged and deliberately cheesy Shrunken Heads (1994)—one of the best comic-book movies ever made, even if it wasn’t based on a comic book (it looks, feels and plays like one). Elfman is best known for the cult classic Forbidden Zone (1981)—as well as for being Danny Elfman’s big brother—and while Shrunken Heads isn’t as outrageous as Forbidden Zone, it’s an appropriately screwy follow-up. This, after all, is a movie about a retired member of Haiti’s infamous Tonton Macoute, Mr. Sumatra (Julius Harris), who has become a newsstand owner and part-time voodoo witch doctor in New York City. It is he who reanimates the three shrunken heads of some nice kids who are killed in a gang-slaying, so the boys can have their revenge. There’s also an unrecognizable Meg Foster as a very butch lesbian crime boss named (what else?) Big Moe—and, of course, three flying shrunken heads. Who could ask for more?
Shrunken Heads was made for Charles Band’s Full Moon Productions and was apparently intended for a theatrical release, though if it had one, it must have been seriously limited. Frankly, it’s just too damned weird for mass consumption. It is, in fact, that rarest of all things—a deliberate cult film that actually works in that aim. The trick, I think, is that Richard Elfman and his writer Matthew Bright are simply incapable of not being quirky. Just as the Stuart Gordon Full Moon offerings are distinctly his, so is this pure Elfman. Danny Elfman may have only provided the theme music, but house composer Richard Band (brother of Charles) has never been at a loss of copying someone else’s style (right to the edge of plagiarism), so the end product sounds like a Danny Elfman score—an impression aided by the inclusion of an Oingo Boingo song, “No One Lives Forever,” on the soundtrack.
This isn’t a film for everyone. You have to be on its—or Elfman’s—wavelength. You have to be able to appreciate a certain sense of dry, dark humor. You have to enjoy a screwy premise for its own sake. And you have to find cheesy special effects entertaining. If those things apply to you, then this is right up your alley. And if it turns out otherwise, you can blame Justin Souther for tracking down a copy of the film as a Christmas present.