1989’s Puppet Master was the face that launched a thousand horror flicks about tiny things for Charles Band’s Full Moon production house. The man had been kicking around the genre for a while, having helped bring vehicles like Ghoulies and Tourist Trap to the silver screen, but this tale of murderous marionettes was nothing short of a game changer. After making an unforeseen killing on VHS, Puppet Master soon bloomed into a full-fledged franchise, a property for Band to sequelize and spin off into a merchandising empire that’d make Todd McFarlane shed a tear. Now the series has endured its downs and ups (or, more fittingly, downs and less embarrassing downs), but how well has the one that started it all held up over the decades? Well, one can see how Puppet Master wrangled itself an audience, with production values better than the norm in the straight-to-video world and a distinct ensemble of pint-sized villains. It’s all still the cheesiest of messes, but unlike the bulk of its successors, the film maintains a few endearing qualities.
In 1939, kindly old Andre Toulon (William Hickey) cracked the secret of immortality…in a way. Using techniques from ancient Egypt, he managed to give life to his menagerie of small puppets, including the razor-sharp Blade to the even more self-explanatory Leech Woman. Toulon took his own life before the Nazis could catch up to him, but fifty years later, a group of psychics are about to learn the shocking truth themselves. Clairvoyant colleagues Alex (Paul Le Mat), Dana (Irene Miracle), and others are summoned to the seaside Bodega Bay Inn by an associate who has been searching for Toulon’s secrets. But not only do they arrive at the hotel to find their pal stone-cold dead, the troupe soon finds that the aforementioned puppets are alive, kicking, and extremely pissed off. As the night wears on, Alex and company are stalked, slashed, and sliced up by Toulon’s creations, resilient little buggers who’ll defend their turf no matter how deadly the cost. Could these tiny terrors be wreaking Toulon’s vengeance from beyond the grave, or could there be a new mastermind using them for his or her own nefarious goals?
With so many of its sequels comprised of stock footage from the movies that preceded them, it isn’t hard for the original Puppet Master to have an instant leg up. Don’t forget, this flick had to wrangle an audience on its own terms, and in that respect, it does offer a couple deviations from the formula that horror fans of the time had grown used to. Not that these tweaks are especially practical, because the picture’s non puppet-related gimmick — its psychic characters — doesn’t have the slightest bearing on the plot. Strip away all the mind-reading mumbo-jumbo, and you’re actually left with sort of an old-fashioned drawing room mystery, where a bunch of people in an isolated location get killed off one by one. Had it stuck to a more streamlined storyline, Puppet Master probably would’ve been better off, or at least avoided how eye-rollingly convenient it is that none of the psychic protagonists can foresee the truth behind what’s happening. But overall, the changes it makes are harmless and serve to spice up some well-worn cliches for horror fans; if a buxom beauty is to bare all for our amusement, why not make it be because she’s serving as a conduit for the hotel’s pent-up sexual energies?
But of course, Puppet Master‘s biggest draw is its gang of eponymous imps, all of whom bring unique ways of dispatching poor saps to the table. Jester does jack-all (establishing a precedent for the rest of the series), but the wee-noggined Pinhead is a tough little bruiser, Leech Woman is appropriately disgusting, and Blade simply looks really cool, owning the film like the franchise darling he is. They’re all brought to life with a combination of regular puppetry and stop-motion animation, and barring a few wonky sequences, the blend works fairly well. When all’s said and done, these teensy troublemakers (who might not be as outright evil as they appear) don’t have a hard time outshining the sentient cardboard standees that are the human characters. Le Mat is passable, and Miracle has a blast vamping it up and acting like a bitch on wheels, but everyone else don’t have a shred of charisma to their names. While I know these people hang around just to serve as puppet fodder, this is a particularly dull ensemble you won’t feel sorry to see whittled down.
Puppet Master didn’t trip my cult cinema trigger, but I can see what made genre buffs turn their heads. For a straight-to-video property, it has a professional look, the premise is novel enough, and director David Schmoeller (Crawlspace) displays more competence than most of the other schmoes who’d go on to take cracks at making sequel after inane sequel. It can be something of a snoozer at times, Puppet Master more or less sticks close to the entertaining side of corny.
Pupper Master (1989), directed by David Schmoeller.
Written by Charles Band, Kenneth J. Hall, David Schmoeller and J.S. Cardone.
Starring Paul Le Mat, William Hickey and Irene Miracle.
Puppet Master is the first installment of the Puppet Master franchise.
Tagline: “A box of little toys has just become a gang of little terrors. This is not child’s play…”
Released: 12 October 1989 (USA, VHS)
Certificate: 18 (UK) / R (USA)
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