So, when I announced this column I’m pretty sure that all of you expected me to do this one. Puppet Master is the first movie made by Full Moon and was directed by underrated genre director David Schmoeller and written by Charles Band. Even among fans of this franchise, the first movie is pretty universally reviled and I admit that I had no desire to revisit it.
We open on a hotel as an old man works on his living puppets, one of them is down below walking around (we see through its eyes) and despite the fact that it’s nearly a foot tall, nobody sees it as it trots through the hallways and lobby. The old man hides his puppets in the wall and commits suicide as two men in trench-coats (which the prequel/sequel Retro Puppetmaster will reveal are actually telekinetic Ancient Egyptian Nazi mummies who bleed sand) bust down the door.
Fast forward a few decades and a group of psychics meet up at the same hotel which has been renovated by an old acquaintance of theirs who has been looking for the secret of eternal life which the puppet master was said to possess. Naturally, the old man’s puppets begin picking the psychics off one by one and gee, I wonder who could be behind it?
Surprisingly, upon re-evaluation Puppet Master is quite a good movie. The acting is atrocious by all but Irene Miracle as the “bitchy” (her words) Southern fortune teller; Paul LeMat (sporting the worst haircut of all) is the worst by far and that’s inexcusable because I know for a fact that he can do better.
There’s some great dream sequences, some kitschy-but-effective kills, and a great deal more atmosphere than one would expect. The puppets themselves are all unique, though their deadliness is slightly suspect. There’s Blade (has a knife and a hook for hands), Pinhead (he’s super strong), Leech Woman (she vomits leeches on people, and it kills them someh0w), Tunneler (he has a drill on his head), and Jester (he does nothing.) The designs belong in a different film but the puppets are expressive and memorable and it’s understandable how an (admittedly much different) franchise was built around them.
On my re-watch, I wasn’t as bored as I was the first time (the fact that it was in HD and not “this VHS is only slightly fire damaged” quality helped) and I realized that the problem the first time I had watched this had not been with the movie, it had been with me. Puppet Master is creepy and atmospheric , David Schmoeller directed the hell out of this movie, and it’s actually really meticulously and expertly put together.
The flaw is that the puppets and their modes of murder are generally pretty campy and goofy, which is at odds with the more Gothic vibe of the movie. The thing is, anybody who decides to watch Puppet Master is expecting a silly movie about killer puppets, not a haunted house yarn that just swaps in puppets for poltergeists. That makes this movie the only Full Moon feature that disappoints its audience by actually being better than what they expected.
I urge old fans to revisit this one with a new outlook and an open mind and I urge those who haven’t seen this to give it a chance and evaluate it for what it is rather than what it’s perceived to be. Puppet Master is a much better movie than its pedigree would seem to indicate and on Blu-Ray it looks great.
Watch, Toss, Or Buy? I was ready to toss, but this is a solid buy.
If You Liked This, Watch: House on Haunted Hill (1959), House on Haunted Hill (1999), Thir13en Ghosts (2001), The Legend of Hell House (1973), Hellraiser (1987), Clue (1985), Demonic Toys (1992), The Haunting (1963), The Haunting (1999)