Writers: Charles Band & Kenneth J. Hall
Cast: Paul Le Mat, William Hickey, Irene Miracle, Jimmie F. Skaggs, Robin Frates, Matt Roe, Mews Small, Barbara Crampton, Kathryn O’Reilly
Plot: Following an opening sequence comprised of close-up shots of various puppets, we begin with an old man (William Hickey) painting and talking to a series of puppets that are moving independently, intercut with scenes of what appears to be the point-of-view shot of another puppet trying to sneak into a hotel, the Bodega Bay Inn. The puppet, a hook-handed creature with black eyes (Blade, according to Wikipedia), eventually makes it to the old man’s room while evading a pair of men in trenchcoats. As the two men – Nazis, as it turn out – approach, the old man hides his puppets and kills himself.
Fifty years later, we meet Alex Whitaker (Paul Le Mat), a psychic plagued with dreams of violence. He contacts three other psychics: Dana Hadley (Irene Miracle) and the husband-wife team of Frank Forrester (Matt Roe) and Carissa Stanford (Kathryn O’Reilly). The four of them are summoned to the side of their old acquaintance Neil Gallagher (Jimmie F. Skaggs) to compare notes. Upon arriving at the Bodega Bay Inn, now owned by Neil’s wife Megan (Robin Frates), they find Neil has committed suicide.
That night a puppet with a tiny head (Pinhead, evidently) climbs out of Neil’s coffin and begins roaming the hotel. At dinner, Dana tells Megan that Neil only married her for her money, prompting Megan to leave. Alex follows her and apologizes, explaining how Neil called them together years ago to study an Egyptian secret for imbuing life to inanimate objects. Later, Pinhead murders the hotel’s housekeeper and Megan faints when she finds that someone has propped up Neil’s dead body in a chair. As the psychics retire to their rooms, the puppets begin to roam the hotel, murdering Frank and Carissa in the midst of a sex-fueled “psychic experiment.”
When Neil’s body again is moved, this time to Dana’s room, she tries using her skills as a fortune teller to put him to rest. She’s instead attacked by Pinhead, who breaks her ankle to slow her down. Pinhead chases her to the elevator, where Blade slices her throat. Alex has a dream about Megan dancing with a masked man – Neil, as it turns out — followed by a flash of the three other psychics dead, with their heads in his bed. The real Megan arrives and tells Alex she has something to show him, just as she did in his dream. She’s found the diary of the old Puppet Master, who calls his creations “harmless,” but fears what they will do in the wrong hands.
In the dining room, Alex and Megan find the murdered psychics propped up at the table. To their surprise, they find Neil seemingly alive and well. He explains that he did, in fact, commit suicide, but not before using the old Puppet Master’s secrets to grant his body immortality. He had to kill the others, he explains, because their psychic link would eventually have led them to him. He’s tired of the puppets, though, and he tosses one aside, shocking the others. He also confesses to killing Megan’s parents to manipulate her into marrying him, granting him access to their hotel and leaving him free to search for the old man’s secrets. The puppets revolt, turning on Neil and killing him for good.
Thoughts: This is an odd sort of film, the kind of movie that has something to it, but overreaches. It’s a clear attempt by Full Moon Entertainment to start off their own horror franchise in the vein of Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street, and it would seem to have been at least partially successful… after all, as of this writing there have been a whopping ten sequels to this movie. On the other hand, those sequels (and this original) have all been direct-to-video and have limited cultural impact. If you were to show the average person a picture of Blade, the franchise’s most iconic puppet, they wouldn’t have any idea what they were looking at, and may even mistake him for a creation from the Saw franchise.
That said, let’s talk a little bit about what this movie does right. First of all, the puppetry is honestly not bad. The close-ups of the puppets, all done in a 1989 before CGI took over the movie landscape, appear to be legitimate puppet work, and it’s impressive. It’s slow, and it’s creepy, and that works to the movie’s favor. The shots that require a full-figure puppet to walk around in the frame are all stop motion. It’s not as impressive as the puppetry, but it’s not terrible. The greenscreen used to add them into the scene, however, is pretty bad, full of nasty and highly visible artifacting that pulls you out of the reality of the moment, such as it is.
It’s this, more than anything else, that hurts the movie. The puppets stumbling around in stop-motion look like nothing so much as a cartoon, and a silly one. Once you start seeing that, the fear level drops. You’re already dealing with puppets, after all, you have to work to convince the audience that they’re threatening. Child’s Play did it fairly well, but this movie doesn’t. The scene where Dana throws the Pinhead doll across the elevator looks like exactly what it is – a woman chucking a doll. It robs the creatures of any menace they possess. Sadly, it doesn’t go quite far enough to reach the “so bad it’s good” level of entertainment.
The characters are all pretty bland. Megan and Alex are both completely dull and blank, Dana is a stereotypical bitch (she even refers to herself as much) with a tacked-on southern accent, and Frank and Carissa seem to exist only to throw in a quick sex scene prior to kicking off the murder spree. You don’t feel for them, you don’t get to know them, you don’t care when they die and you don’t care if they survive.
Neil, as a villain, is weak as well. We’ve got the standard immortality motive, with a tacked-on excuse for him to murder the others. Why did he need to murder the other psychics? Because they would have found out he hadn’t really killed himself. Well… okay… but why did he feel the need to fake his suicide in the first place? Did the magic that animated him need his “death” in order to take effect? Could they have made that a little clearer? Or did he just get off on killing people – he did murder Megan’s parents with no remorse long before he was immortal, after all. Or maybe – and I know I’m reaching here – maybe the screenwriter just didn’t think things through all that well.
There’s a weird sort of attempt here at a Twilight Zone-style morality play. Neil wants something mankind isn’t supposed to have, he employs some homemade monsters to try to get it, and in the end those same creations turn on him. But that said, it fails to live up to the standards of Rod Serling, with a half-assed attempt at an ironic moral that might actually have worked in a half-hour TV show, but loses its steam in the film’s 90 minute running time.
In the end, Puppet Master is the sort of movie that isn’t quite good enough to be good and isn’t quite bad enough to be fun, which is the saddest kind of film to watch. That said, I’ve got other films in the franchise amidst my collection of crappy movies, and those may well be worth the watch. It’s often from mediocrity like this that truly insanely bad movies, the ones that are a blast to make fun of, flow in future installments.
The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!