One of three fiction movies and two documentaries put in limited release on the same day by Olive Films-a DVD company evidently going grand-opening with this initial theatrical flight-Woodenhead had been making the film-festival rounds since its 2003 debut in its native New Zealand in 2003. Like David Lynch's influential Eraserhead and such progeny as The American Astronaut, this black-and-white phantasmagoria combines a more-or-less linear narrative with dream logic for a singular vision. Less gripping than others of its ilk-with languid stretches that include a lengthy shot of a woman urinating in the woods and an interminable close-up of a tramp's face with snot dripping out of it-this is nonetheless an exquisitely photographed and earthily haunting film by a young German expatriate who didn't leave his Expressionist heritage behind. Nor that odd duck known as the German sense of humor.
Writer-director-producer Florian Habicht (portentously self-credited by first name only, except for his additional handheld-camera and co-editor credits) made the film to match a preexisting audio experiment-a soundtrack album with songs, dialogue and incidental music. It's unclear whether the voiceover narration (Margaret-Mary Hollins) was on the original album on newly recorded for the movie, but Habicht's once-upon-the-present-time, fairy-tale ambience and his naming a mostly offscreen carnival troupe the Grimm Brothers Circus serves fair warning of the kind of story to expect. That doesn't explain why Habicht made no effort to have his actors, all filmed silently and dubbed by others, try to lip-sync the dialogue. The result, oddly, isn't that disconcerting; it doesn't look or feel like some old, dubbed Japanese monster movie, but like narration over a tableau that just happens to move.
As in many fairy tales, there's a young peasant, a princess, and a journey. Also a donkey, which seems to figure into a lot of those stories. Gert (Nicholas Butler, with the strange, unforgettable face of some Robert Picardo-Harry Connick, Jr. lovechild, voiced by Steve Abel) works for Hugo (the so-credited Mr. Warwick Broadhead, self-voiced) at the hellish town dump of the village of Woodland. A capo-styled king in greasy overalls, Hugo assigns the innocent Gert to drive his daughter Plum (Teresa Peters, voiced by Mardi Potter) to nearby Maidenwood for an arranged wedding.
Losing his car and a replacement donkey along the way, Gert and Plum wind up wandering the woods at night, lured there by Hugo's magical manservant, Goerdal (Tony Bishop, voiced by Lutz Halbhubner). He wants Plum for himself, and manipulates her and Gert to a Hansel-and-Gretel-like cabin where, suffice to say, she and Gert break a cardinal rule Hugo had given Gert on penalty of death.
The meandering proceedings later involve Plum's abduction and rape by mute circus strongman Gustav (Matthew Sunderland), Goerdal having a goat lick Gert's ticklish feet for torture, some magic beans that have little to do with the story, and an ending that suggests the moral to be something Plum says early on, about only the naïve finding happiness.
Filmed throughout New Zealand's North Island for a reported $30,000, Woodenhead makes up for its go-nowhere stretches with the lovingly shot, terrible beauty of the land, along with indelible, if occasionally disgusting, imagery. Christopher Pryor's gorgeous videography looks as rich as film, except for the sunniest and most reflective scene, at an ocean, near the end. Not for all tastes, this Kiwi conjuration showcases what talent and a painterly eye can put on film with almost no money down, up, or anywhere else.