As far as cult films go, this was one of my favorites. In honor of the Halloween season, I’m coming back to give it another look! It’s a haunted house story with creepy puppets and a team of weird psychics, what’s not to love? But the real question is if this Full Moon Direct early project still as good as I remember. Let’s dive deep into my collection of b-movies on VHS and watch Puppet Master once more.
Puppet Master is probably the most well known series created by the Band Brothers back in 1989. Following the moderate success of this movie, the crew went on to create more in the series, as well as several others. This would eventually lead to a disappointing crossover with another franchise called, “Evil Toys.” Some could debate if this film is truly horror at all! It certainly has most of the elements; suspenseful peril, contending with oppressive environments, a sense of dread, and some kind of extraordinary force attacking the heroes… in addition to most of the main characters being unlikable as incentive to watch them get hacked off one by one.
So, what’s this weird movie about anyway? We start with a flashback where a famous ventriloquist seeking the powers of immortality has fled from Nazi spies somewhere within a coastal resort. Unfortunately, the spies catch up to him as the puppet-loving alchemist takes his secret to the grave through suicide. Jumping forward, a group of psychics receive all sorts of visions leading up to an invitation from the current owner of the old resort! Apparently, some weird haunted shit’s been going down recently. What’s worse is all of this happened not too long after the owner’s husband died. Throughout the night, the team of psychics discover that they’re being watched. The living puppets from the old ventriloquist are lurking through the halls, ready to strike against the trespassers of their master’s final resting place. As you’d expect, a lot of the character deaths could have easily been avoided, but happen none the less as the genre demands it! One of the few competent psychics, Alex, unravels a conspiracy involving the “dead” husband in his attempt to steal the old secrets that lie within the hotel. To prevent this film from having a downer ending, his plans are thwarted… but not quite in the manner you’d expect.
Beyond a couple scares, the film is more fantastical than filled with dread. The score throughout most of the film conveys more so a whimsical dream sequence than a buildup of system and terror. And, this isn’t because of its electronic nature. Some of the best scores in horror, as well as horror-related music outside of movies, is electronic after all. Without John Carpenter among others, I could debate that electronic-based horror music would be quite a bit different! That said, the themes throughout the film don’t do much to instill anxiety or panic within the world. They do add to the mysterious nature of the world though, which is certainly a plus. Not to mention, until the end of the movie, there wasn’t any particularly terrifying imagery either. Perhaps this is building on this false sense of security throughout the film, but I’m not quite sure. For one, you witness most of the puppets and their abilities early on. While it looked like the film could have avoided this, it chose not to. Also, for a creepy hotel, it’s pretty damn well lit and well maintained. Granted, the owners prided themselves in one day reopening the place. All of these factors make me wonder if the film should have been billed as a “dark urban fantasy” instead? It has that hidden mystery and magic to it, a sense of wonder, and magically animated puppets after all!
Besides the motifs and themes of the movie being quite flawed, everything in this movie looks pretty damn good! Getting beyond some scenes which look really rushed (you can’t see jack in the brief carnival sequence, for example), everything in and around the hotel looks pretty cool. From the foyer, to the rooms, the stretching halls, and even the abandoned upstairs wing; the set design is actively engaging and enticing to the eye. Combine this with the sleek and original designs for the puppets and you have pretty winning visuals throughout most of the film. The stop-motion photography really brings the puppets to life to, giving them this almost uncanny valley quality to them. While the film itself isn’t too scary, this made the puppets exceptionally disturbing. My only gripes in the visuals is the really hokey effects when it comes to the violence. The make up on the “dead bodies” toward the end of the film is plain awful and ruins an otherwise great and pretty scary scene!
Nothing really stands out in the acting, I’m afraid. The best actors are probably the puppets themselves! That and the brutal execution scene in the elevator, when the puppets get their revenge. While most of the acting was hammy or droll, a few of the performances stuck out pretty well. For one, the cameo by William Hickey (Uncle Lewis!) helps to make the film and sets the strange and dreamy atmosphere of the film as it progresses. One could say that his character displayed more dread from the spies than the other characters did as the puppets themselves attacked but, that’s the difference between big actors and B-listers, I suppose. To me, the puppets really stole the show. But, isn’t that the point of them being there? Despite only one of them having multiple facial expressions, they had a lot more character than the psychic group. In the end, they themselves became aware of their roll in the film and had their own arc of development in response to it. Plus, the puppets by themselves are cool. They’re not just devices for the plot, but an integral part of the surreal ambiance that haunts this hotel with an “inviting” masquerade to it.
All in all, this movie still holds a special place in my heart. It’s flawed, it’s corny, it’s kinda stupid! But, ya know what? I still enjoy it and watch the first couple of films whenever I get the chance. Despite its problems, there’s always something memorable I can find this film! And that’s what matters, right? Puppet Master gets a 6.5 stabs in the ankle (courtesy of Blade) out of 10!