A Puff Before Dying premiered at SXSW Online 2021 as part of the Midnight Shorts Competition. It was directed by Mike Pinkney and Michael Reich and is presented by the Bob Baker Marionette Theater– that alone should tell you this one’s going to be weird! A Puff Before Dying is a spoof on all those graphic road safety videos like Red Asphalt, which were meant to scare young drivers into following road safety rules via horribly gory renditions of avoidable car accidents. I’m sure you can guess the catch– it’s a tongue-in-cheek marionette puppet show about the horrors of driving while stoned.
Angela (Annie Mebane), a typical teen as seen through the eyes of an afterschool special, is getting ready for a casual night out with her friends when her policeman father (James Kirkland) drops in to warn her about the dangers of driving while under the influence of marijuana, that ultimate destroyer of hopes and dreams. Angela takes her dad’s warning to heart, but not long after she’s behind the wheel her friends reveal that their plans have changed and Angela is peer pressured into taking a lethal puff of the devil’s lettuce. Dun dun dunnnnn! Vehicular carnage ensues.
This short is obviously more comedy than horror unless you have some deep-seated fear of puppets and the uncanny. James Kirkland’s performance was the highlight, as his flat line delivery and timing offer the funniest moments, especially when his puppet avatar stares directly into the camera–or as directly as he can given that his head supported by strings– and declares that the drug he hates the most is…marijuana. The scene where the teens get high in the car is also great, the stilted dialogue ribbing the source material’s often desperate feeling attempts to mimic actual young people. “Bong it up, bitch!” is a gem for sure.
The grisly crash itself is a bizarre exercise in puppeteering effects that includes decapitation, severed limbs, and ridiculous blood geysers. It felt vaguely reminiscent of the occasional gory Monty Python bits, and I love that the production team leaned into the weird humor inherent to the idea of a tragic high-speed crash involving marionettes. Kirkland gets a final great line when he responds to the scene of the accident just before we fade to black. All told, this wasn’t wall-to-wall laughs, but it definitely had its moments beyond the novelty of being a puppet show.
The entire team behind A Puff Before Dying deserves credit for what had to be a huge amount of work. Between the detailed felt-embellished sets, the ridiculous effects, the miniature props, and the general labor of puppeteering, this had to be an impressive undertaking. It’s a creative and fun spin on something that was likely truly scary for anyone that encountered it before heavy-handed scare tactic PSAs went out of style.