“I’m the master, and you’re the puppet!”
There was a time when films by Charles Band provided a notable portion of my movie consumption. Between Empire Pictures and Full Moon we got films like Ghoulies, Trancers, Subspecies, Robot Jox, and Puppet Master. (And, of course, Sorority Babes at the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama.) With some exceptions (Re-Animator being one), they were all fairly low budget genre affairs with wooden acting, low production values, cheap special effects and a little nudity/gore sprinkled on top for spice.
And yet… there was always something enjoyable about those films. It’s hard to pin down now, but at the time I first started renting movies I looked forward to any Empire/Full Moon tape that graced the shelves of my local video stores. In some ways they reminded me of older B movies, like the William Castle pictures. They were fun to watch and always had a little something extra that set them above their contemporaries, whether that was decent music, a good performance/character, some humor or – as with Puppet Master – interesting monsters.
Now generally I don’t find puppets (or dolls or mannequins) very scary or even interesting, but the title creatures of Puppet Master have a lot of personality and the manage to fall out of the dead zone in my head – a kind of anti-uncanny valley – an into being monsters that I can enjoy.
The movie I INTENDED to watch tonight was, actually, Tourist Trap – an early Empire/Charles Band production. I intended to watch it, but had pretty much talked myself out it. Again. I’ve avoided it for years because of my aforementioned lack of enjoyment of puppet/doll monsters, despite being a favorite of Stephen King’s. Then, when I was once again giving it a dispirited look, I finally realized that I recognized the director’s name – David Schmoeller. The same guy who wrote and directed Puppet Master, one of the few puppet related films I’d ever enjoyed.
So I DID finally get myself to watch Tourist Trap. But not before revisiting this old friend.
Puppet Master is available streaming on HBO and DirectTV for subs, and is available for rent or purchase on Amazon. There have been several releases over the years – and I understand many of the films are now available via Blu-ray. I’m not sure if this first film in the series is worth the upgrade – the cinematography is okay, but rarely above workmanlike. I guess it would depend on any extras. I’d love to hear about the creation of the puppets.
In 1930’s California a puppet maker named Andre Toulon (William Hickey) hides his living puppets and an Egyptian scroll in the wall of his hotel room, then takes his own life before Nazi spies break in.
There is no cutesy ‘are they or aren’t they’ about the puppets – they’re obviously self-animated. Toulon creates a new one – Jester – as part of this opening sequence and some of the others are seen moving around. Blade, a trench-coat-and-fedora wearing puppet with a hook hand and blades for eyes, spends a lot of time spying on the spies and running around the hotel’s oblivious clientele. While there’s no real follow up about the Nazis or Toulon in this film, later entries in the series flesh things out considerably. (And somewhat to the detriment of the series, if what I’ve heard about the most recent film is anything to go by.)
After the opening sequence we’re brought to present day, where a group of psychics are assembled at the very same hotel. They’re brought together by an old associate, Neil Gallagher (Jimmie Skaggs). None of them seem to have liked him much and when they meet his wife, Megan (Robin Frates), the general sentiment is that of disbelief that he would ever get married. That’s quickly forgotten when they discover that he has committed suicide, leaving Megan instructions for when the others arrive.
The characters are all given quick introductions – including a fun cameo with Barbara Crampton – that serve as character sketches and examples of their abilities. Frank (Matt Roe) seems to get psychic impressions or has telepathy. Clarissa (Kathryn O’Reilly) is a psychometrist, she reads impressions from objects (though she seems to focus mostly on sexual impressions). Dana (Irene Miracle) is a fortune-teller and general mystic (and carries her stuffed dog around with her). Alex (Paul Le Mat) has dreams of the future – including one in which Neil threatens Megan.
A strained dinner is disrupted when Dana’s crude remarks about Neil upset Megan and she storms away from the table. Alex follows her and explains that they had all been involved with Neil’s search for immortality and that most of them believe he found it in Toulon’s work – and that Neil then screwed them over.
That night, the puppets from Toulon’s trunk start killing the psychics in various ways, including drilling into their faces, vomiting up leeches, and trying to strangle them.
Up to this point, I’ll have to admit I was barely paying attention. It’s an okay setup – and moments like Dana sticking a huge hatpin into Neil’s corpse to prove he’s dead are fun – but the pacing is a little slow and the actors are a little bland. When the puppets finally start showing up, however, things immediately get a lot better. A LOT better. They’re just fantastic creations and animated extremely well. They’re fun to watch and their attacks are handled with skill and creativity. I’ve always been partial to Pinhead, a muscular puppet with human-sized hands and a tiny porcelain head, and the stop motion sequences with him are great.
Things move quickly after that, with Neil being revealed as the villain. He has indeed discovered Toulon’s secret – but it only works on inanimate things. Neil’s gotten around that by having himself re-animated AFTER he’s killed himself. And he intends to do the same with the psychics and Megan, as he’s tired of experimenting on the puppets.
Unfortunately for him, the puppets don’t take kindly to this betrayal.
The Bottom Line
Puppet Master is still not a great movie and not even my favorite of the line (which has always been Puppet Master III – which I’ll now have to track down). It’s still a FUN movie, though, and anytime the puppets are on screen is a blast. I was pleasantly surprised and the experience has encouraged me to track down a few of the other Empire/Full Moon films I loved when I was younger.
Puppet Master went on to spawn a whole series of films, of varying levels of quality, as well as comic books and toy lines. You’ll have to decide for yourself how deep you want to dive into the series, but I like both 2 and 3.