The condemned: Uncle Peckerhead (2020)
The plot: Tale as old as time: Band meets homeless guy living in van. Guy offers to drive band around on its tour in exchange for gas, food, and lodging. Band learns that guy turns into snarling, flesh-eating monster every night at midnight, for exactly thirteen minutes. Guy agrees to be sedated every night on tour so as to avoid any unfortunate bloodthirsty murder sprees. Band eventually realizes maybe the murder sprees are gonna happen, after all. Who doesn’t have this particular children’s book? (Everyone. Everyone doesn’t.)
Honestly, that’s pretty much all you need to know about the plot of Uncle Peckerhead, a movie that genuinely took a look at that title and thought, “Yeah, that’ll bring in the crowds.” To quote The Ramones, Judy (Chet Siegel) is a punk rocker; she and her friends in the band Duh—drummer Mel (Ruby McCollister) and guitarist Max (Jeff Riddle)—are excited to hit the road for their first-ever tour, which of course means that’s the day their van is repossessed. Frantically searching for anyone to let them borrow some wheels and keep their planned schedule, the friends stumble upon a middle-aged man (David Littleton) living out of his van, who makes the aforementioned offer to get them from gig to gig and home again over the course of Duh’s weeklong tour. Agreeing out of desperation, they soon learn he calls himself “Peckerhead” (“That can’t be your real name.” “Only name my dad ever called me.”), and seems helpful enough to make the experience tolerable. (The “uncle” half of the title? No clue where that came from—no one so much as says the word throughout the film.)
Which is right around the time things get ridiculous. After the first night of tour ends with a shady promoter only giving the band three dollars (honestly, that’s not outside the realm of possibility for a punk band no one’s ever heard of playing to an empty room on a Tuesday night), “Peck” sees the despondency on his new travel companions’ faces, and, excusing himself, heads inside to use the bathroom. Or rather, that’s what he says he’s doing; when Judy goes to check on him, she discovers him, pale and disfigured, with claws for hands, ripping apart and devouring the promoter. Like any rational person, she screams and tries to run away. Which is when Peck comes running out, and provides the truth: He turns into a monster for 13 minutes every night at midnight. But beyond that, he seems like an earnest and friendly guy, explaining he normally keeps himself sedated via injections—but given their circumstances, he wanted to help. And now, they have enough money to finish the tour. Are they cool with this Faustian bargain?
They are. Max and Mel are won over by Peck’s generosity, kindness, and enthusiastic assistance. Eventually even Judy, who was horrified by the murder, and spends a lot of the film’s running time trying to find ways to ditch Peck, comes around on her older companion. Of course, eventually things come to a head, with another band trying to usurp Duh’s place on a potentially career-making bill, leading Peck to take drastic action. Will he go too far? Will Judy and her friends find the courage to do the right thing? Will there always be super-douchebag guys in bands who talk down to women sharing a bill with them? I think we know the same answer applies to all three questions.
Over-the-top box copy: Spare. There are a few glowing endorsements on the back (“great fun and a must-see!”, “a blood-soaked, ghastly good time of a road movie,” “a fun film full of outrageous gore and genuine heart”), but not even so much as a tagline on the front cover of the Blu-ray.
The descent: While the title alone was enough to make me set the thing aside for a number of months (even after having watched a movie called Uncle Peckerhead, I still do not want to watch a movie called Uncle Peckerhead), enough people mentioned to me that the movie actually takes its rock-band premise seriously that I was curious to check it out. Which is to say, most films about a “band” operate at Milli Vanilli-like levels of authenticity. I love Josie And The Pussycats, but at no point in the movie do I believe those three people are responsible for those sounds. By contrast, Jeff Riddle, the songwriter responsible for DUH’s music, is actually one of the leads, suggesting this is a film that wants to accurately portray what it looks and sounds like when a band is playing—especially to only half a dozen people or so.
The theoretically heavenly talent: Unless you’re a fan of The Chris Gethard Show, there’s no one involved in this micro-budgeted affair whose names would ring a bell. But for those who are, Gethard’s longtime guest Shannon O’Neill makes a brief appearance as the small record label owner with whom Judy is desperate to sign, and the Human Fish himself, David Bluvband, pops up in the opening scene to praise Judy’s scone-making abilities. It’s not exactly “Special Appearance By Morgan Freeman,” in the name-draw department.
The execution: I was pretty sure there was nothing that would make me like a film titled Uncle Peckerhead. I am generally not a fan of gross movies. By that, I don’t mean gory—far from it, in fact, as anyone who reads this column regularly could attest. I mean gross: puerile, potty humor, crass jokes, however you want to describe it, I probably hate it. Even as a kid this was true; when all my fellow schoolmates were dying laughing in the theater watching Jeff Daniels have violent diarrhea in Dumb And Dumber, I was the one looking around the darkened multiplex going, “Oh, come on, now.” (Why yes, I did spend a lot of time not being invited to parties as a young person, why do you ask?) The promise of such infantile antics is baked right into the title. I didn’t think I could get around it, much the same way I’m probably never going to intentionally listen to a band called King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard.
And for the first half hour or so, it seemed as though the movie was going to prove my suspicions correct. In both scripting and execution, Uncle Peckerhead’s early going practically screams “sketch-comedy team make a movie,” in everything from the just-point-the-camera-at-the-person-talking aesthetic to the repeated willingness to sacrifice plausibility and characterization for limp jokes. (Judy’s dictatorial tendencies and her bandmates’ general antipathy toward her are a textbook example of “these people didn’t exist prior to the start of this movie, let alone possess a long-established friendship.”) Here, just watch Judy’s fantasy of her band getting signed—it looks like nothing so much as a cutscene from a wannabe Lonely Island music skit.
But a funny thing happened en route to the bloody climax: Uncle Peckerhead started to win me over. Slowly but surely, the movie’s ramshackle charms start to assert themselves, with sturdier characterization and a determination to keep throwing absurdities at you until they begin connecting. In other words, it turns into the equivalent of one of Troma’s more successful outings, a Z-movie that is so good-naturedly stupid, it slowly wins you over through sheer fey likability. I think the moment it turned the corner for me was when a pair of obnoxious metalheads pull into the parking lot where our protagonists are getting ready to crash for the night (Judy is already asleep). Refusing to turn down their music, the two jerks instead lob a beer can and hit Max in the head. That’s enough to piss off Mel, who turns to their driver and utters a blunt, “Have at ’em, Peck.”
It goes on, and gets even better.
Speaking of fey likability, the casting of both Siegel and Littleton is arguably the movie’s secret weapon in this steady war of attrition on viewer’s defenses. Littleton sells Peck’s innate amiability in a way that helps to anchor the sheer absurdity of a few twentysomethings throwing in their lot with a brutal murderer. And Siegel’s one-woman charm offensive is the lodestone to the film; she has a Kate Micucci-esque appeal, wedded to a low-key suspicion that comes across like Tig Notaro as a wide-eyed millennial.
This comes in extra handy once the film starts to reveal that maybe Judy isn’t so likable, after all. Her control-freak tendencies grow progressively more obnoxious: She has a conniption whenever someone tries to play any music that isn’t one of her painstakingly assembled mix tapes in the van, literally insisting no one else should get to listen to anything but her tunes. And when a box of the demo tapes they’re selling on tour goes missing, she doesn’t miss a beat before accusing Mel of giving them away, a real Karen moment for the character. But Siegel is so charismatic, she keeps you from actively turning on the character, which becomes useful during scenes like the following, when an odiously sexist member of another touring act bums a smoke from her and begins to hold court on his band.
Actually, the above clip is exemplary of the way the film progressively enters you into its no-budget Troma-like reality, where time has no meaning (Judy mentions early on that the tour is “six shows in seven days,” yet by day five they’ve only done three gigs) and people who have gone their whole lives without committing a crime are suddenly cool with murder. If you can give yourself over to the fundamentally idiotic universe constructed by this movie, there are pleasures to be found in that back stretch. The touring douche Judy interacts with above? Yeah, we eventually get to see his band play, and it’s almost as good as Ghost World’s Blueshammer. Behold:
The Troma comparisons presumably aren’t lost on writer-director Matthew John Lawrence, as the band ends one evening on tour by literally watching The Toxic Avenger. And while much of the cast is of the clunky-actor variety, centering it around the genuinely talented Siegel and Littleton is what lets the movie succeed. It may be dumb, it may often be clumsily shot and edited for maximum cornball, dad-joke sensibilities, and it may occasionally resemble amateur-hour theater, but there’s a heart and pluck to Uncle Peckerhead that is undeniably winning, a rare case of watchability among the legions of no-budget wannabe horror-comedies slapping a bunch of swears and bad special effects together and calling it a day. If trashy cinema is your bailiwick, this one has it in spades.
Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: Like most Z-movies, there’s probably not enough of a successful quality-to-filler ratio to pull this into cult status. Then again, the same creative team has apparently already begun production on a sequel, Larry Gone Demon, described as “the second installment of the DUH trilogy,” which is nothing if not a testament to optimism.
Damnable commentary track or special features? The sequel is presumably being expanded from a short of the same name included on the Blu-ray. But the central bonus is one of those overstuff commentary tracks, where one too many people are on the mic, making it essentially impossible to keep track of who’s who. To their credit, the 2020 recording process can’t be easy: ““I should also mention this commentary is being recorded during a fucking pandemic,” director Lawrence says early on, and the Zoom-based weighing in from several actors, line producers, and more suffers from the expected stutters and stops. The overall tone is genial, with lots of rambling bits and throwaway humor in-between discussions of filming. There are good-natured reveals of continuity errors, failures of design, and more that illuminate the difficulties of micro-budget filmmaking. “Keep the disasters to yourself until production is over” is probably the most revealing comment made during the track.