There’s a strange irony in telling a human story and trying to convey the complexities of emotion and personal conflict through puppeteering or animation. Many films have done it successfully. Abruptio, directed by Evan Marlowe, attempts to do the same with the added caveat of a horror lens.
Having also written and edited the film, Marlowe’s nearly ten-year-long passion project blends bizarre visuals, lurid violence, and the dark personal drama of a troubled character. While the film executes the former joyously, the latter is left lacking despite a dynamite voice cast, which includes James Marsters, Hana Mae Lee, Sid Haig, Christopher McDonald, Jordan Peele, and Robert Englund.
Les Hackel (Marsters) is a recovering alcoholic who doesn’t have much going for him. He works a dead-end office job, still lives at home, and was recently dumped by his high-maintenance girlfriend, Allison (Kerry Marlowe). His meandering existence takes an abrupt turn with the discovery of an explosive implanted in his neck which will detonate if he doesn’t follow the orders of a mysterious entity. He must perform tasks that continuously escalate in depravity with the strange people he meets along the way, all the while trying to unravel what’s going on and how he fits into it.
The immediate takeaway from Abruptio is the puppets’ shockingly lifelike appearance and movements. Some have more caricatured appearances, making them more frightening or silly, especially those with stranger quirks. Les looks remarkably authentic, right down to his pores. The film is shot primarily in close-ups and above the waist, but wide shots show the characters walking and moving around.
Unfortunately, while the puppets are convincing in detail, they cannot convey emotion. Their faces have minimal articulation, which hurts the film when it hits the more emotional beats of the story. There are multiple points where characters are pleading for their lives or in deep personal distress, and while the actors give it their all, the puppets remain expressionless. That lack of visual emotion made it difficult to connect with the characters and made the heavier moments feel empty.
However, using puppets does lend itself to creating a world that feels disconnected from our own. There are many moments where Abruptio gets into abstract visuals that heighten the world’s reality with something as simple as the color bars of a television projected onto the wall of a city building or a woman birthing alien-like creatures, which are later grotesquely smashed. Substituting real actors for puppets makes the more depraved acts feel more acceptable, and the abstractions of the world feel appropriate.
That’s not to say the voice actors don’t give compelling performances. This film marks the final performance of Haig. His role as Sal, a psychopathic stand-up comedian, showcases the manic, excited energy he brought to every character in his career. The way he tells bad stage jokes while contemplating murder gives the film a darkly comedic edge while his character is on screen.
McDonald is the other standout, playing a police chief trying to get Les to confess to an unknown crime. While not overtly comedic, McDonald brings a dry wit to a character that could have otherwise been a standard hard-nosed cop trying to get a confession. Their back-and-forth about acquiring a lawyer is humorous and simultaneously builds tension. It’s obvious he’s toying with Les. He knows he will get what he wants, one way or another, and a lawyer won’t do Les much good.
Abruptio is a strange film that takes pride in how odd it is. While the facial work of the puppets leaves something to be desired, the sheer effort of the artisans who developed the puppets and those who brought them to life can’t be overlooked. People can do terrible things when their lives are on the line, and Marlowe uses an intriguing vessel to convey that.