Puppet Master (1989)

Starring Paul Le Mat, William Hickey, Irene Miracle, Jimmie F. Skaggs, Robin Frates, Matt Roe, Kathryn O’Reilly, Mews Small, Barbara Crampton

Puppet Cast: Blade, Jester, Pinhead, Tunneler, Leech Woman

Directed by David Schmoeller

Expectations: High. It’s THE Full Moon movie.

On the general scale:
twostar

On the B-Movie scale:
threestar


The film that launched an empire! After the fall of Charles Band’s Empire International company he quickly regrouped and released Puppet Master, which was to be their next film, direct-to-video under the newly formed Full Moon Pictures banner. It’s a landmark film in the history of low-budget independent horror, but also one that divides me right down the middle. I love the premise. I love the puppets. I don’t love most of the human characters. This logic can be applied to many horror films with inhuman murderer protagonists, but there’s just something about Puppet Master that makes it hard to believe that this is the one the entire Full Moon company is built upon. Regardless, Puppet Master did gangbuster business at video shops across the country and just judging off of the box art and my love for the premise, it’s easy to see why. And to be fair, while this may be a lesser film in scope compared to most of the Empire films, it does deliver a lot a fun stuff in a much better way than a good portion of the direct-to-video fare I’ve seen over the years.

It’s the 1930s and puppet maker Andre Toulon crafts his newest creation, Jester, a puppet that can rotate its face in three sections. Some men in black come calling but before they can get to Toulon, he takes his own life. Cut to the present day, where the story picks up as a group of psychics come to the hotel where Toulon died. They are brought there by their overwhelming visions and dreams of grisly occurrences and the involvement of a former colleague, Neil Gallagher. Upon arriving they find that Neil has killed himself but he had been continuing the work they had all done to uncover Toulon’s secret of giving life to his puppets. It’s a bit complicated and a lot of the storytelling of the exposition is pretty loose, so don’t asks me for specifics.

From this point, the film continues on in the horror standard “people stuck in a location” manner, but there are a few surprises as these people are psychics so some of them can see into the future. Not that it helps them at all. So while the story is intriguing, especially with the inclusion of the Toulon prologue, most people watching Puppet Master are probably on board for the puppets. Thankfully in this department, Puppet Master soars. The first half is noticeably light on puppet action, but you get what you paid for in the second half and it is ridiculously fun. This isn’t a scary film, but the puppets are pretty creepy and the general tone is more serious than a lot of the later Full Moon offerings. The trademark humor is still around though, as puppets get thrown across rooms and against walls throughout the runtime. Apparently if a puppet is attacking you, the first line of defense is to throw it against a wall. Good to know.

Technically the film is pretty sound, but it does have a distinct direct-to-video feel that will likely turn off a lot of people. The production values are still high within that genre and the puppet FX are masterful, but the acting and writing give it away for what it is. None of this really hinders enjoyment of the film though as the puppets themselves are superb! Exquisitely designed and expertly animated by Dave Allen, each Puppet Master film has a slightly different lineup of puppets and the ones featured in the debut are a strong grouping. First off there’s Blade, one of the icons and most recognizable puppets of the series. The lead puppet if you will. Blade for one hand, hook for the other, you know the guy. Next there’s Jester, the puppet that can rotate its face. Jester doesn’t do a whole lot other than rotate his face, but he looks good while doing it so he gets a pass. Then there’s Pinhead, who has a large body and hands with a small head and bears no resemblance to Clive Barker’s Hellraiser character Pinhead. He’s the brute force of the group and gets lots of chances to tear out people’s ankles and the like. Next up is Tunneler, a strange-looking puppet with a big mining drill on his head. Needless to say, he uses this drill to kill, and while the gore isn’t enough to totally satisfy me, he is an effective puppet that uses his unique talent to help the team reach their goal. Finally we have Leech Woman, who is easily the creepiest of them all. She sneaks up on her victims and vomits out huge leeches onto their bodies in full-on gross, face-stretching action. It’s pretty nasty and awesome, never ceasing to amuse me every time she got the chance to do her thing.

There’s not a whole lot more I can say about this one. It’s pretty fun in spite of some boring human-centric scenes. This is definitely a “root for the puppets” film and it succeeds beautifully once it moves into the second half and the puppets get some hefty screen time. The finale is nothing short of awesome, delivering on the promise of the previous eighty-five minutes with a relentless attack on the villain by the entire gang of puppets. There’s also a quick cameo from genre-favorite Barbara Crampton too! If you enjoy low-budget horror, definitely give Puppet Master a look as it features some of the best examples of fluid stop-motion animation the genre has to offer.

Come back next Tuesday as I take a look at Puppet Master II! I expect they will only get more fun from here, with the groundwork laid and new inventive puppets to come!

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