Halloween Endurance Test: Puppet Master (1989)
I like to think that I have a good memory. By no means photographic, but I never studied much in college. (I figured that if you do the required reading when it’s required, and attend the lectures, there’s really no reason to revisit the material. I mean, remembering the facts is your job in school!) But if there’s one film series that shamefully holds a beloved place in my mind, it’s Puppet Master. Revisiting these films today, it’s shocking how piss poor they are.
To be fair, my memory might not be flawed. I’m almost certain I did love them growing up. For this I blame the “GI Joe” effect. All male children of the 80s were victims of it. Required, by playground law, to repeatedly watch half-hour commercials for whatever action figure was currently in vogue. So it’s absolutely brilliant for Full Moon Entertainment to make a movie starring murderous action figures! Any maturing kid watched this was bitter that he didn’t have one.
(Also, in true made for video fashion, there was always a couple of boobs in each film. Which always helped to ease the pain.)
Unfortunately, nowadays Puppet Master is 90 minutes (too) long. Especially when you consider the (sad) fact that 80 of those minutes consists of floor level, shaky cam shoots, trying to reproduce what the puppets see. The other 10 minutes? Shots of the Bodega Bay hotel’s elevator going up and down.
Bodega Bay being the CA resort where the action doesn’t take place. We meet Andre Toulon (William Hickey) early on, see that he has live puppets, and watch as secret agents gun him down. (They’ll turn out to be Nazis in Part III.) Enter PENSA Research Inc., a group of psychics who are interested in tracking Toulon’s work down. They receive a psychic blast from one of their contemporaries (this was before cell phones), track it down, and find the sender, Neil Gallagher (Jimmie F. Skaggs) dead.
(It ultimately turns out that Gallagher is alive, brought back using Toulon’s ancient Egyptian methods. (A subtle nod to the Mummy?) “Metaphysically speaking,” he shot himself in the head so that he could live forever as some bizarre sort of human puppet. Sadly, when Toulon’s puppets tear him apart, he bleeds a Italian-dressing type liquid, and not sawdust.)
Pensa is quite a motley group. One psychic, Dana (Irene Miracle) brings her dead, stuffed dog with her. (You’d figure the dog’s spirit wouldn’t be happy with such a violation of its corpse, but maybe disgust is only a human emotion.) Another, Alex (Paul Le Mat), a “academic,” has the ugliest, shaggiest haircut seen in awhile. Though, as an academic, this might be forgivable, as I don’t remember professors ever being very fashionable. Rounding out the group is a husband/wife team notable for the fact that the wife seemingly only reads sexual impressions.
It might just be the cheap, budget print of the film I picked up, but all the colors are washed out. (Acceptable when we’re talking about Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, but not so much when the film’s just 20 years old.) I also don’t believe in psychic powers. Which wouldn’t be an issue if it didn’t take the puppets 45 minutes to start running amok. That’s 45 minutes of unending, pseudo-scientific, psycho-babble.
And when the puppets do “show up,” it’s the pretend, hiding behind a curtain, casting shadows bullshit. Sensible considering that our antagonists are puppets, but still frustratingly boring. Hitchcock could go 45 minutes without a murder, but director David Schmoeller is no Hitchcock. He’s barely a director, being how his cinematic repertoire consists of close-ups and shaky cams.
14 year-old ShenaniTims probably didn’t care about the film’s full frame-ness either, though such a condition is a godsend now. Giving me something to ponder while the movie plays out. I was originally mad about the lack of widescreen, but then I rationalized that this was probably due to Full Moon’s rental nature. As televisions weren’t rectangularly-shaped (yet), it would make sense for Full Moon to use the full screen. Except that the opening credits are clearly clipped; with the names all missing a letter or two.
Did Puppet Master have a theatrical run? I’d look it up on imdb if I wasn’t so preoccupied now with how the husband half of our sex psychics couldn’t figure out that is was Leech Woman kissing him, and not his wife. And how does having three leeches on his stomach kill him? Uncomfortable – yes, painful – maybe, but fatal? That’s a stretch that slipped right past my 8th grade intellect.
This murder is one of the film’s two memorable death scenes. (Other characters had died previously, but their deaths are so brief as to barely register. Or maybe they don’t register because you don’t care that the characters are dead. Who knows?) Which is a surprising ratio, given Puppet Master’s home video pedigree. Especially considering how long-lasting this series would prove to be.
(For the record, all screen grabs were taken after the 50 minute mark.)