I generally think of shrunken heads as being more South American than Haitian, but if Hollywood says the contrary, it must be right! After all, it’s taught me that Jamaican Rastafarians practice voodoo (and get their asses kicked by Steven Seagal) and that Wilmer Valderrama invented the dozens. I need to go back and study my black history!
Cultural inaccuracies aside, the fact that Shrunken Heads revolves around flying, disembodied superheroes means that it isn’t to be taken seriously (thus, disregard the reference to Haile Selassie during the voodoo spell recitation). Directed by Richard Elfman, brother of composer Danny Elfman, it’s got a surreal sense of humor, with a street gang named the Vipers that’s straight out of Sha Na Na and a main “bad guy” named Big Moe who’s played by a woman (Meg Foster) with a pompadour.
In the film, three local comic book geek teenagers decide to stand up to these neighborhood toughs, only to get shot full of lead for their efforts. Good thing for them they befriended Mr. Sumatra (Julius Harris, AKA the guy with the hook hand in Live and Let Die), who runs the corner newsstand and happens to be a Haitian voodoo priest. Sumatra sneaks into the funeral parlor and lops off the kids’ heads, puts them in his living room cauldron, adds a touch of paprika, and voila, you have shrunken heads.
When he animates them, they somehow develop super powers: the ability to fly, plus each of them has an additional special talent: Tommy (Aeryk Egan) can shoot beams of electricity, Bill (Bo Sharon) can grow vampire-like fangs, and the lone black kid, Freddie (Darris Love), carries a switchblade in his mouth. The hell…? Is that even a super power? The ability to shank?
Despite this absurdity, it’s Harris who steals the show as Sumatra — although I doubt anyone who lived under the thumb of “Papa Doc” Duvalier would be sympathetic to the character’s ties to the dictator’s notorious Tonton Macoutes death squad. The writers obviously had fun concocting pompous lines for him, like, “I will pluck out your tongues with bull cutters and roast them, and I will take your brains and chill them for the purposes of garnishment.” A personal favorite of mine is when he asks Sally (Rebecca Herbst) if she’s a virgin by querying, “Is your maidenhead intact?” I’ve just found my new pick-up line!
The role apparently holds a special place for director Elfman, as he’s used the pseudonym Aristide Sumatra in films like George of the Jungle, Scarecrow, Demons at the Door and Cemetery Gates. Sumatra even has a page on IMDb. Just remember to keep your maidenhead intact, people.