Puppetmaster. 1989. Directed & Written by David Schmoeller; from a story by Charles Band & Kenneth J. Hall.
Starring Paul Le Mat, William Hickey, Irene Miracle, Jimmie F. Skaggs, Robin Frates, Matt Roe, Kathryn O’Reilly, Mews Small, Barbara Crampton, David Boyd, Peter Frankland, Andrew Kimbrough, Ed Cook, Linda Cook, Tim Dornberg, Bert Rosario, & Michael Laide.
Full Moon Entertainment/Empire Pictures
Rated R. 90 minutes.
There’s an endless slew of slasher films in the 1980s, many great, some good, plenty are garbage, too. A sub-genre itself, the slasher, can further be broken down into various other sub-genres, including the ever infamous killer doll/toy sub-genre. Lots of those in the waters of horror, like chum for those willing to get a bit goofy with their hack-and-slash.
But there’s an eerie quality to dolls and toys, when they come alive. Puppetmaster plays on this fearsome concept. Mostly with camp, neat settings, a creepy atmosphere. This isn’t an outright slasher, it just operates within the same confines. When a master puppet maker kills himself to evade Nazis after his secrets, his island mansion is left to itself. Decades later, a group of psychics are led there to uncover whatever may remain. Only to find the puppets are there, ready to come alive again.
This might not be the greatest. It’s LOTS of fun, though. No denying that. With some weird, awesome puppets, a nice finale, and an interesting theme hovering over it all, Puppetmaster‘s a unique piece of the late ’80s, and I’m not in the least surprised that it soared on home video, spawning a franchise that continues as of this writing.
The basics, to begin. This film has a super unique setting, the house itself is a character almost. These elements give it an immediate feeling of the Gothic. Plus, there’s a mix of all kinds of elements: Nazi spies, suicide, living puppets, an Egyptian spell. Like the makings of a 20th-century fairy tale, a mysterious, magical story straight out of folklore from another country. Hands down one of the better, most unique setups in the decade for American horror flicks. When we get to the slasher-style elements it’s good fun, but starting out the way it does is different than many other killer doll horrors.
A strange, compelling mix and match of genres, going from the slasher to supernatural horror, to a story about people linked via psychic powers. Definitely a few flaws; overall, it works. Providing plenty of fun along the way. The Pinhead puppet – not to be confused with the Master of Pain from Hellraiser – is my favourite! Such awesome work, when he climbs out of the coffin.
My biggest issue with the film is its pacing. The whole mystery of the plot is exciting, just not overly so. Pacing keeps it from taking off until late in the game. By then it’s not as exciting as it could’ve been. Nevertheless, a grim dinner scene in the finale twenty minutes sends it into a creepy tailspin. All of a sudden we’re into “metaphysics” and the plot’s reveal. Not exactly pulse pounding. Interesting enough, all the same.
The best part about Puppetmaster is how it plays on our uneasiness with dolls, things fashioned to look like the living yet aren’t living. Toulon, the puppet master himself, brings the puppets to life with an Egyptian spell, a curse. While he brings them to life, and others do later, any master, eventually the puppets themselves become masters in their own right; rendering their former masters into puppets. Sort of how humans relate to dolls in real life, how they can hold power over us even as inanimate objects.
Somehow, this is central to the film. Not that they’re aiming for a high bar here, mainly concerned with the slasher and supernatural horror elements as scare tactics, which is fine. But underneath this film, and the series as a whole, is a concept about human nature within the killer toy framework. Perhaps it can be said of the whole sub-genre, too. Why Child’s Play (another fun horror franchise still going as I write) and other horror flicks featuring dolls scare us endlessly.
Because they wield influence over us while not even actually moving, let alone when filmmakers bring this fear to animated, usually murderous life. Through horror, the dolls, the toys, the puppets, they come to not control us simply on a mental level, they do so on a physical one. And that’s utterly horrific.
Puppetmaster isn’t perfect. Doesn’t change the fact it’s and hour and a half of horror movie fun, straight from the ’80s. If you find yourself scared of dolls, puppets (et cetera), even better. Because I’m not particularly frightened by them, yet a few scenes here got me creeped out real nice.
Aside from that there’s nice effects work at times, the performances aren’t all worthless and some hold the film up when the pacing lags. And it’s the puppets we want! Pinhead, the rest, they’re devious, they’re hilarious, and they’re bad little motherfuckers.
So around Halloween, pop this in, rent it, sit down with some friends and enjoy a quintessentially ’80s horror that should never be left off a horrorthon list. I waited years and years seeing this on VHS covers at my local rental shop, never actually diving in to see what the fuss was about. Kicking myself. I could’ve been revelling in the puppet mania for a long time, yet here I was, not giving it a chance. For any horror completist, Puppetmaster is a real must. OH! And Barbara Crampton has a brief cameo, can’t go wrong with anything featuring her, even if only for two minutes, right?