Directed by David Schmoeller
While Roger Corman may be best known as the man who launched the B-movie movement in the 1950, it would be safe to say that Charles Band is definitely the man who kept the B-movie heart beating strong through 1980s and beyond. In 1989 Band launched Full Moon Features, which definitely celebrated the schlockier side of our beloved genre, releasing flicks like Demonic Toys, Gingerdead Man, Evil Bong and Killjoy throughout the years. But with eight official sequels and one unofficial installment to date, it’s Full Moon’s debut feature film that still remains its best and probably most beloved by fans everywhere- Puppet Master.
Puppet Master‘s story opens in 1939 at the Bodega Bay Inn in California, where a seemingly ordinary elderly man named Andre Toulon (Hickey) is busy working on the newest addition to his beloved collection of wooden puppets. But this old puppeteer is far from ordinary. You see, Toulon has a magical secret: He has the ability to grant his little friends life, and of course the Nazis get wise to his magic (isn’t that always the way?). After the Toulon gently hides his creations from the world, he decides to take drastic measures to keep his secret from falling into the hands of the Nazis.
Flash forward about fifty years, when we meet a group of four psychics named Alex (Le Mat), Dana (Miracle), Frank (Roe) and his love interest, Carlissa (O’Reilly), who receive troubling visions they believe were sent to them from a former colleague of theirs, Neil Gallagher (Skaggs). Obsessed with trying to unlock the mysteries of immortality, Gallagher’s quest has led him to the Bodega Bay Inn coincidentally, and when the team arrives, they learn from Neil’s wife, Megan (Frates), the tragic news that her husband has just recently committed suicide.
Puzzled by the tragic turn of events and their friend’s mysterious nuptials, the group decides to stay and pay their respects to Neil. But when the housekeeper goes missing and then the psychics start dying off, the remaining survivors will quickly discover that evil comes in all sizes and perhaps Gallagher’s death wasn’t a simple suicide after all.
Since discovering it on VHS back in 1990, Puppet Master has long remained one of my all-time guilty pleasures. Puppet Master isn’t what I would call a great film, but its heart is in the right place, and I’ve always been a huge fan of the evil doll subgenre of horror, making the film’s shortcomings easily forgivable. Director David Schmoeller’s Puppet Master screenplay (adapted from a story by Charles Band and Kenneth J. Hall) definitely has a unique spin to it, but overall the script itself is pretty weak and definitely drags a bit in the first act. The dialogue is campy and the acting is borderline silly, but I think that’s what makes the film ultimately work- playing it straight would not have worked well in the world of Puppet Master.
What elevated Puppet Master from being typical B-movie fare and made it a cult classic for more than two decades now was Schmoeller’s ability to set a great Gothic mood throughout his film and really tap into a Hammer-esque atmosphere with lavish set pieces bringing even more character and creepiness to Puppet Master. Coupled with that is the eerie theme composed by Richard Band (Charles’ brother) which brilliantly sets the tone for the movie and still remains an unforgettable piece of music.
The true stars of Puppet Master have always been the puppets themselves and rightly so- special effects designer David Allen created the iconic little toys including Blade, Pinhead, Tunneler, Jester and my personal favorite, Leech Woman, and being a fan of the old-school special effects techniques of days gone by, it’s still amazing to see all of the puppets brought to life via traditional puppetry, stop-motion techniques reminiscent of Ray Harryhausen’s work and a slew of other resourceful camera tricks. Regardless of your feelings about the quality of other aspects in the flick, there’s no denying that the puppets in Puppet Master absolutely rule and always will.
The sound and audio quality on the Puppet Master Blu-ray is a bit of a mixed bag. Unlike previous home video versions that were always presented in 1.33:1 full frame, this newest release is apparently the first time Puppet Master can be seen in 16 x 9 widescreen (with an 1.85:1 aspect ratio), which is great news for longtime fans. Sadly, though, the transfer itself isn’t great here with many moments looking ultra-grainy and scratched with a faded color palette to boot. It’s worth noting that Full Moon hasn’t always been a huge financial juggernaut of a production company so it’s not like they have major studio money behind their endeavors, making it easier to forgive the underwhelming HD presentation of Puppet Master. Besides, the Blu-ray is still infinitely better than any VHS or DVD presentation of the flick so let’s just be happy that we finally get enjoy the exploits of the tiny terrors of Puppet Master in HD at all.
In terms of bonus materials the Puppet Master Blu-ray features a new introduction by Band himself, a promotional video for Puppet Master: Axis of Evil and original trailers for the first 12 Full Moon features ever released. Some fun stuff there, sure, but the money shot here is “No Strings Attached”, a behind-the-scenes featurette on the making of Puppet Master that gives us a few short interview segments with director Schmoeller, actor Le Mat, a very young Charles Band and a few others about the production with behind-the-scenes footage for some of Allen’s special effects and puppetry work on the film. With a running time of just a bit over seven minutes, I could have sat through another seven minutes at least if given the opportunity as “No Strings Attached” feels like it only scratches the surface here. One glaring omission on the Puppet Master Blu-ray is a commentary track, which I imagine would have thrilled its fans, but for some reason there’s none to be found here.
After more than 20 years the original Puppet Master still remains the best Full Moon feature to date and will always be one of my own personal guilty pleasures. While the movie has terrific atmosphere and set designs, it’s the iconic posse of killer puppets that have cemented Puppet Master in horror history as a campy cult classic. And while Puppet Master may not be for everyone, longtime fans will definitely want to make the upgrade to the Puppet Master Blu-ray for their own collection as it is the best version of the film to date.
3 out of 5
2 1/2 out of 5