10/13/09

Puppet Master (1989) Really Pulls My Strings

There’s a fine line between stupid and genius when it comes to horror comedy, and perhaps no one was more willing, able, and crazy enough to ignore that line than Charles Band. Over the years Band has worn many hats, producer, director, writer, and been involved with many great films in the genre, like Re-Animator, Trancers, and Ghoulies just to name a few. However, there is one series of films that stands head and shoulders above the rest to be remembered as Charles Band’s legacy. No, I’m not talking about the Gingerdead Man, not The Erotic Time Machine, and not Prehysteria either. Just in case you didn’t read the title up there, I’m talking about Puppet Master.

The year was 1989, and after the demise of his company Empire Pictures, the outfit responsible for some of the greatest horror cheese of all time, Charles Band returned from Italy to form a new venture, Full Moon Productions. Band signed a contract to distribute direct to VHS films via Paramount Home Video, and his first release would come from director David Schmoeller. If you’ve been a long time reader for The Lair, you might remember Mr. Schmoeller from his film Crawlspace where Klaus Kinski got tarted up a bit. (His experience on that film spawned the very awesome short film Please Kill Mr. Kinski. If you haven’t seen it, hop on over to the review of that film and give it a watch.) Schmoeller came to the film world with quite a pedigree. He had studied with Jodorowski and Luis Brunel, was nominated for an Academy Award (Best Student Film which he lost to Robert Zemeckis, and then he adapted Band’s story into the film that would become Puppet Master.

As the film begins, the setting is a 1940’s California hotel, Bodega Bay to be exact (that place just can’t catch a break), and we meet Andre Toulon (William Hickey) who has discovered a way to bring puppets to life using an ancient Egyptian scroll. Unfortunately for him, Nazi’s are after his secret, and instead of being captured, he hides the puppets in the wall of his room and shoots himself in the head. Years later, the secret is discovered by Neil Gallagher, and he sends for his four psychic friends to join him at the hotel. Before they arrive, Gallagher kills himself, but the psychics stay to unravel the mystery of his death. The first night in the hotel they find themselves menaced by a coterie of puppets who use knives, drill heads, leeches, and anything else they can find to dispatch the nosy intruders.

Each time I watch this film, I get constantly surprised how quickly its 90 minute running time slips by. While it takes a moment to get going, the whole of the second act speeds by with one puppet attack after another, and the puppets are so damn interesting to watch. One would think with the low budget Puppet Master had that the animation on the little fellows would be cringe worthy. Strangely, their movements are pretty fluid, and this fluidity is what really makes the film. Each of the puppets is an amusing little character while still managing to be a bit disturbing. I’m sure everyone has one they like best, and it always seems that Blade is the perennial favorite. It should be noted that Blade was modeled off one of Schmoeller’s favorite actors (and massive pain in his ass) Klaus Kinski. It had never occurred to me until I read it recently, but now it’s all I can see when I look at his beady little eyes. I’m not sure I can pick a favorite though. Leech Woman’s power is so gross that I find her very interesting, Pinhead is no doubt the funniest looking one, Tunneler constantly reminds me of the Snow sisters from Freaks, and Jester puts Man-E-Faces to shame.

The stars of this film are the puppets. I’ve seen this film a dozen times or more, and except for character actor William Hickey in the opening scene, I generally can’t recall any of them until the next time I see them. All of the psychics are played pretty broadly, and each of them gets what they deserve. I barely recognized Paul Le Mat as the lead character Alex because of the massive mullet he rocks, but fans of American Graffiti might know him better as John Milner, the hot rodder who faces off against Harrison Ford’s Bob Falfa. Irene Miracle, who appears as Dana the flakiest of all the clairvoyants, got her start in the Aldo Lado exploitation film The Night Train Murders. While she gets violently raped in that film, she merely gets beat up by a thuggish puppet with a tiny head in this film. None of the other actors had anything really interesting on their résumés, and honestly they were there to get leeched, drilled, and otherwise pummeled by puppets.

If the stars were the puppets then a special nod has to go to puppeteer David Allen, who was Academy Award Nominated for his work on Young Sherlock Holmes. Using a variety of rod controlled puppets, stop motion, and stunt puppets, the film has a seamless quality to the marionette mayhem. Some of this might also be credited to cinematographer Sergio Salvati, perhaps best known for his work with Lucio Fulci. Salvati also previously worked on Crawlspace where he created a dense, claustrophobic feeling for Schmoeller’s film. With Puppet Master, Salvati crafted eerie dreams, shadowy corners for the puppets to hide in, and, working with David Allen, constructed shots that enhanced David Allen’s puppetry.

I feel like I might have shortchanged Mr. Schmoeller, but I certainly don’t mean to. Not only is this film endlessly amusing, it also created the most successful franchise Full Moon Productions would ever see. This film was a technical challenge, but it also presented another challenge. The puppets were going to be funny to look at, but they needed to be maniacal little bastards too. Schmoeller took Charles Band’s story and made it into a film that perfectly encapsulated what Full Moon would become. It’s a campy, bloody, silly little film, but one I will go back to time and time again.

As a little reminder, you know what Puppet Master has? A shit-ton of sequels, eight of them in fact. Maybe you love some of these sequels or maybe you love other Full Moon follow-ups like Gingerdead Man 2: The Passion of the Crust. No matter which ones you love, I want to hear about them. There’s still plenty of time to be part of Halloween Top 13: The Sequel. All you have to do is tell me what your favorite sequels are. For more info and my e-mail, check out the top of the sidebar on the left.

Bugg Rating

4 comments:

  1. I really need to revisit this series. Loved it as a kid and even have some of the special edition toys. The puppets have such a great moral ambiguity because ultimately, they're good guys fighting the Nazis, but then pesky humans have to just get in the way and die painful deaths.

    To your knowledge, is there a definitive boxed set floating around, or are all the movies sold separately?

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  2. Emily, thanks for the comment. As far as I know, Full Moon does have a new edition of the boxed set they released back in June. Looks like Amazon has it for 90bucks which i kind of steep, but you do get all the flicks.

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  3. $90 isn't terrible for a complete set (more than I'd pay at this moment in my bank account) but apparently, the lone special feature is an extra DVD of trailers. Hopefully this series will eventually get some better treatment.

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  4. I like Blade because he is so awesome he looks so cute and I always wanted a toy of him but they are in $ I will keep looking for him in the shops over here in the Uk swansea market I will be very happy if Blade got killed I will be very upset because he is my favourite one I also like all of them

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