Paul Le Mat - Alex Whitaker
William Hickey - Andre Toulon
Robin Frates - Megan Gallagher
Irene Miracle - Dana Hadley
Jimmie F. Skaggs - Neil Gallagher
Matt Roe - Frank Forrester
Kathryn O'Reilly - Carissa Stamford
Merrya Small - Theresa
Genre - Horror/Supernatural/Dolls & Toys
Running Time - 88 Minutes
For as long as horror films have existed, killer toys and/or dolls have existed. From 1920's silent horror film, THE GOLEM, to those two Twilight Zone episodes dealing with that creepy doll and that creepy dummy, to 1975's TRILOGY OF TERROR, to more modern stuff like 1988's CHILD'S PLAY and 1992's DOLLY DEAREST - watching harmless inanimate objects move by themselves and attack people can be pretty creepy. These are things we all grew up with as children. To have these products of our innocence turn into something more sinister is pretty scary, yet entertaining at the same time.
Charles Band felt the same way. The founder and producer at Empire Pictures during the 1980s, he contributed to a lot of iconic horror films such as RE-ANIMATOR, GHOULIES, and FROM BEYOND. One of Band's most popular productions was the Stuart Gordon directed, 1987's DOLLS. It was a cult hit that most likely helped in the success of a more popular killer doll film, 1988's CHILD'S PLAY featuring the infamous Chucky. In 1989, Band wanted to capitalize on CHILD'S PLAY mainstream success by writing his own killer doll film, but using the idea of handcrafted puppets that kill on their owner's command. So Band wrote the cult classic, PUPPETMASTER.
Going for a straight-to-video approach with the film [feeling he'd make more money on the video market - smart move], not only was the film successful enough to create a ten-film franchise, but it made Full Moon Pictures [the distributor of the film] into a money-making company that famously cranked out low budget b-movies to fans' delight. It's been over 21 years and PUPPETMASTER still has its audience, especially now that the film can be watched instantly on Netflix. But does it still hold up after all these years? Or did Charles Band pull the strings of horror audiences into believing this film was worth your money and time?
In 1939, a puppet maker named Andre Toulon (William Hickey) makes puppets, using magical powers to bring them to life. As Nazi agents are on the way to kill him, Toulon hides the puppets inside his hotel room and then takes his own life. Fast forward to 1989. A group of psychics [each having a different power] are called to the same hotel where Toulon took his life all those years ago. They unknowingly arrive during the funeral service of one of their own, Neil Gallagher (Jimmie F. Skaggs); most of them happy that Neil is dead and gone. Quickly after, the psychics start having nightmarish flashbacks and premonitions involving the history of the hotel. Pretty soon, the psychics are killed one-by-one by Toulon's puppets. Can anyone survive this puppet onslaught? Or will someone finally cut their strings once and for all [until the next sequel, that is]?
PUPPETMASTER is considered by many to be the franchise that has made Full Moon Pictures as popular as it is today [as well as being the company's most successful franchise]. And it's not hard to see why. Animated
puppets are always fun to watch, especially when they can kill stupid characters in really horrible ways. However, if the story isn't as strong as the presence of these puppets, then its potential could be lost. And while the screenplay by Charles Band isn't horrible, there are still issues that prevent PUPPETMASTER from becoming one of the greats. The narrative of PUPPETMASTER has so much potential, but it fails to do anything with it.
For me, the best part of the story is actually the first ten minutes with Andre Toulon. In a short time, we understand a lot of things. One, it takes place during World War II. Two, the Nazis are after him. Three, he loves his puppets enough to hide them away in order to protect their secret. There's not a lot of dialogue or exposition to get that info. Just from the direction, the acting, and the storytelling, you can tell it's a great setup. I will say that I don't understand how Toulon brought these puppets to life [it's mention a couple of times during the film and I'm sure it's explored more in the sequels], but it's still a great beginning and keeps you wanting to watch more.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film falters. It's not because the present day stuff isn't interesting. In fact, there are a few things I do like about what the majority of the story tells. For one, I love how the main characters are all psychics. Not only that, but they seem to be psychics in different fields. Alex dreams of the future. Dana can sense evil and see it in her mind. Carissa is an empath, feeling and sensing the history of the things and people she touches. And Frank...well, I'm not really sure what he does. Maybe he sells cars or something, I don't know. But I think having the protagonists all have powers is an interesting and almost novel concept for a horror film like this. I wish Band could have explored these powers more, but what we do get is enough.
I also liked the puppet characters. Jester [the leader who can change facial expressions], Blade [the hook and dagger one], Pinhead [the strong guy of the group with huge hands to strangle people], Tunneler [drill head], and Ms. Leech [leeches come out of her mouth - very slowly] all have distinct personalities and are fun and interesting to watch. They don't say a word, just letting their actions do the talking for them. And that's the problem with PUPPETMASTER - the puppets have more personality than the human characters. Boy, did these protagonists really stretch my tolerance level. Carissa and Frank were the stereotypical horndogs of the film [with a pretty funny sex scene by the way]. Dana and her horrible Southern accent talked to her and waved a feather around to prevent evil spirits. And Alex, our main character, had to be one of the dullest protagonists I have ever seen in my life. He did nothing of note really. The worst character was that maid, Theresa. She didn't die quick enough for me. What an annoying woman!
There was no one to root for here besides the puppets. And the puppets weren't in the film enough for audiences to cheer them on. These characters needed development badly! It's hard to watch 40 minutes of these people chatting and discussing issues concerning Neil Gallagher when you could give a rat's ass about them. I wouldn't be surprised if I learned that people fast-forwarded these scenes, or just turned off the film altogether. Being pushed to boredom is not entertainment.
The special effects by David Allen Productions is low budget, but it has a charm that makes me smile. Some of the effects are obviously stop-motion animation with a green screen involved, but they don't look that bad. Other effects involved the crew moving the puppets via strings, or even becoming one with the puppet as was the case with Pinhead's arms. Obviously it looks primitive, due to CGI being so heavily relied on for many years now. But I always loved old-school special effects because it shows the level of talent and patience the crew was willing to have to make the puppets look like they really came to life. Personally, I prefer these effects over CGI [usually most of it looks fake]. And for 1989 and low budget, these effects are still pretty good. I can't hate on them.
PUPPETMASTER also has a bit of violence and sexuality as well. We get a tame sex scene, a puppet sucking a dude's nipple, attempted rape, and some nice boobs as well. As for the bloodshed, we don't see much. But people get murdered in variety of ways, such as suicide, drilled through the mouth and neck, fingers cut off, bloodsucking leeches, and throats getting sliced open. Although puppets are usually children's entertainment, this film is anything but.
The direction by David Schmoeller, who's directed films like 1979's TOURIST TRAP, 1986's CRAWLSPACE, and 1982's THE SEDUCTION, is a mixed bag. The film, remastered both visually and aurally, looks great. There's some nice style going on here, especially with the POV shots from the puppets' perspectives. The death scenes are shot well. The editing is good. The stop-motion effects next to the live-action stuff mixes together more believably than it probably should.
My only major qualm is the pacing. PUPPETMASTER moves way too slow for much of its running time, only quickening the pace during the beginning scene and the last act. The scenes without the puppets' involvement just drag. Certain scenes, like when Ms. Leech attempts to murder Frank, seems to take forever. And while this scene was way too long, watching Alex get punched for like five minutes straight was a bit hilarious. Having your main character being beaten like a bitch - great screenwriting!
The acting is pretty meh as well. Paul Le Mat bored me as Alex. He's not a bad actor, but he didn't make me interested at all in his character. Not sure it was because of him or the script not giving him really anything to do. Robin Frates was just there was Megan Gallagher. She looked cute though. Irene Miracle [great name!] was okay as Dana Hadley. I'm not sure if her accent was fake or not, but it had a charm to it. She looked okay when she was scared. Matt Roe was sleazy looking as Frank and Kathryn O'Reilly had a nice rack as Carissa. Merrya Small annoyed me as Theresa. That voice...ugh. And William Hickey was classy as always as Andre Toulon. I was expecting a cat to crawl out of his mouth, but thankfully that didn't happen. And if you got that reference, you rock!
As for the DVD itself [the 20th Anniversary DVD, by the way], the video and audio has been remastered from the original print. The film looks and sounds really well. We also get a really short Behind-The-Scenes feature, an intro from Charles Band himself, and a bunch of trailers. It's not really loaded with stuff but at least it has something extra.
While not the greatest killer toy film I've seen, PUPPETMASTER is still a worthy look. It has more than its share of moments and the puppet characters are great to watch. Plus after 21 years, it still manages to hold up somewhat. I've never seen the sequels in this franchise, but I'm willing to take the chance on them. Even flawed, I guess I'm still under Andre Toulon's spell...