The development process for this oddity must have been quite something … and it’s a bit of a puzzler as to what the demographic is for a splattery horror-comedy based on a fifty-year-old Hanna-Barbera TV franchise. Oh, yes, come to think of it – me. I’m the demographic. I do wonder how many others there are, though. As it happens, this could as easily have worked with an entirely new-made kids’ TV show as a backdrop since there’s little specific to The Banana Splits beyond their catchy theme song (probably best known now for the speed punk cover featured in Hit-Girl’s introductory massacre in Kick-Ass) that sets them apart from new-made characters like Smoochy from Death to Smoochy or Teddy McGiggle from Little Monsters. So, is this a mess of fun for everyone … or just a mess?
In the real world, the furry parody of The Monkees ran from 1968 to 1970 – though the show was repackaged and repeated for decades after. In the alternative universe of this movie, The Banana Splits have been on the air for fifty years, and are only now flagging to the point of being cancelled by a new-promoted spotty network programming exec. Rather than being performers in baggy suits, they’re animatronics whose latest upgrade turns them into killbots. Writers Jed Ilinoff and Scott Thomas – who’ve scripted some Scooby-Doo projects and stuff like R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour – have at least dug out some old recordings and included mentions of the Sour Grapes Bunch (one of the oddest inventions in kids’ TV ever – a go-go dancing prepubescent girl gang and arch-enemies of the Splits) and a key plot point involving the Snorky Shuffle. It wouldn’t have hurt to toss in the catch-phrase ‘uh-oh Chongo’, but there’s still a frisson as an errant Dad is run over by a speeding banana buggy or a producer is slapsticked to death under a big colourful hammer.
In an aptly sit-com set-up, young Harley (Finlay Wojtak-Hissong) is perhaps the Splits’ biggest fan – though even kids his own age think the show is stupid – and his Mom Beth (Dani Kind) has scored tickets for a taping of what’s likely to be their last-ever show as a birthday treat, with slacker older brother Austin (Romeo Carere), co-opted not-really-a-friend kid Zoe (Maria Nash) and obnoxious, unfaithful Dad Mitch (Steve Lund) dragged along on the special day out to a credibly down-at-heel studio lot. Also in the audience are likely victims — a vlogger (Kiroshan Naidoo) and a pushy stage father (Keeno Lee Hector) who thinks his daughter (Lia Sachs) could be in the Sour Grapes Bunch. Paige the page (Naleda Majola) is the sole sympathetic member of the production staff, and – after dispensing some handy exposition – sides with the kids coveted by the splits as a literal captive audience. A sub-plot has Gepetto-like creator Karl (Lionel Newton) considering adding a female Split to the foursome – an owl named Hooty – though this doesn’t turn out as expected.
When the cancellation comes through, the Splits – Drooper, Fleegle, Bingo and Snorky – turn vengeful. Director Danishka Esterhazy (Level 16) plays up the clown and midnight aspect, and the film approaches creepiness best when the familiar, friendly, hyperactive characters step off their well-lit set and simply stand ominously in the shadows. Then, in pantomime fashion, stooges are executed in a parody of kids’ show games – with the cancel-happy exec fated to discover what ‘a banana split’ actually is – while Beth becomes the latest in a long line of Tiger Mom horror movie heroines and turns from doormat into action heroine to save her boy while other adults show their feckless uselessness. Made in South Africa – the go-to location for current revivals of more recent franchises (Lake Placid, Leprechaun, Critters, Tremors, etc) – with an unfamiliar, but decent cast. It’s mostly just a regular bots-run-wild horror with a pop culture spin on the evil showbiz premise usually applied to clowns or stage magicians, but it’s still an endearingly perverse effort. Man of the Match is instagram star ‘Poppy Larity’ (Celina Martin), who reacts interestingly to the carnage – and could well be the focus if sequels are required.