CAPSULE: SHRUNKEN HEADS (1994)

DIRECTED BY

FEATURING:  Aeryk Egan, Bo Sharon, Darris Love, Meg Foster, Julius Harris, Rebecca Herbst, A.J. Damato

PLOT:  In New York, three boys are murdered by gangsters and then resurrected as shrunken heads by a local Haitian voodoo practitioner.

COMMENTS:  In most suburbs during the 90’s, the video rental store was positioned precisely between a doughnut shop (laden with youths with hair parted down the middle playing “Area 51”) and a pizza place that sold greasy bags of bread sticks for $2.50.  Florescent lit and staffed by geeks who knew more about Windows 95 short cuts than personal hygiene, this type of independent video shop had a chemical smell from the profusion of plastics, but was air-conditioned and filled with R-rated flicks.  Hoping to poach a glimpse of babes in thongs on movie posters or barely-covered breasts on the covers of VHS tapes, the neighborhood boys, sweaty and short on quarters thanks to Tekken 2, stumbled upon tapes like Shrunken Heads.

Appealing to the preteen amygdala, Shrunken Heads initially frisks about like a typical teen drama, with young gents in stripes and khakis battling bullies, but it’s suddenly recast into a skittish horror film with hokey voodoo components. Watching it is like compulsive carbohydrate bingeing; one stops asking questions and simply indulges. It was most likely intended for the 10-12 year olds, Netscape hackers, AOL chatters and comic book store patrons of its time, but in 2021 it holds appeal to VHS collectors and horror enthusiasts alike.

The plot is uninteresting and filled with daffy material.  Meg Foster plays androgynous gangster Big Moe with a cigar, hat and trench coat. Sporting an exaggerated NYC accent, she hangs with crimped groupies and a warehouse full of cigarette smoking goons who play pool, and ends up crossing paths with some humdrum kids. One has asthma, one’s got red hair, and one is soft for neighborhood Sally (Rebecca Herbst, the only girl not in spandex), who looks great and truly holds it down, even though the script gives her no reason to. The boys slip up and get capped by big Moe’s thugs over a petty gripe, but luckily Mr. Sumatra (a Haitian voodoo priest played by Julius Harris) summons them from the dead in the form of shrunken heads so they can exact their revenge.

shrunken heads (1995) rebecca herbst
Pictured: Rebecca Herbst demonstrating proper use of denim over stripes.

The volatile story is made more chaotic by the tacky musical score which sounds more appropriate to 90’s cable television programming or afternoon soaps like “All My Children” than a horror film. The vivacious opening theme by Danny Elfman might be the film’s sensory highlight, but the remedying sounds of Casio tones that follow provide a soundtrack that’s exquisitely outré, a pariah to pair with the outlandish gag culture. These treasures don’t come free; there’s ample boredom to be endured, script-wise.

Even though half-baked bits of dialogue like “Bear witness as my life was so cruelly torn from me in the prime of my youth” remain forgettable, the movie’s cast retains its charm. Harris provides focus to glide through some of the preposterous scenes, such as when he drops a dead cat into a melting pot and the boys’ gasping heads are floating in glop. Beaming with demoniac glee, he looks to be relishing his own performance. Meg Foster is spunky as a lesbian gangster, especially when she pinches the face of a male henchmen or waves a lit cigar around. Rebecca Herbst seems to be the most grounded, hardly freaking out over dead friends coming back to life.

Benefiting from its kooky cast, Shrunken Heads grows even odder with aleatory makeup and dexterous effects. The kinetic scenes where the heads fly around New York City help enrich the boring script, and there’s also some mangy voodoo sets with dead goats and chickens. Further perked by snappy vocal effects from the re-animated heads, everything leads to a suitable climax featuring a punctual highway pursuit and frosty lightning effects. These ingredients make Shrunken Heads a passable success—although the experience can get knotted by juvenile regressions such as flatulent zombies, which makes other Full Moon releases like Arcade and Meridian look earnest in comparison. Heads still holds up, perhaps even coming in low-budget specialist Full Moon’s top ten.

Quality voodoo-themed films are scarce lately (excepting Bertrand Bonello’s outstanding Zombi Child), but in the realm of VHS tapes, every Weekend at Bernie’s 2 begets a charming dud like Shrunken Heads. The voodoo genre is adept at both intriguing viewers and snagging them in its foibles. Shrunken Heads is unique and a somewhat weird experience; there probably won’t be anything like it produced again. With its balmy voodoo plot, it flaunts a rare sense of laxity absent in the present day obsession with algorithmic, safe media. To thoroughly imbibe its fluky complexion, see it on grainy VHS while under the influence of a mild sedative.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a strange god awful movie, but one that affords itself some nostalgic value so while it is a waste of talent and resources, it’s not totally a waste of time.”–Felix J. Vasquez, Cinema Crazed

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