31 Days to Scare ~ Puppet Master (1989)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Psychics find themselves plotted against by a former colleague, who committed suicide after discovering animated, murderous puppets.

Stars: Paul Le Mat, William Hickey, Irene Miracle, Jimmie F. Skaggs, Robin Frates, Mews Small

Director: David Schmoeller

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: I would like, if I may, to take you back to the early ‘90s when the VHS market was a-boomin’.  The video rental business was at its zenith and stores like Blockbuster and its competitors were figuring out exactly what their customer base was and stocking their shelves accordingly.  Most conventional stores catered to mainstream releases, rarely (at least at first) offering easily accessible copies of the latest winner of the Cannes Film Festival.  For horror fans like myself, you often had to bike a little further to the smaller movie stores if you wanted to get your hands on the latest release from Full Moon Entertainment.  Ask any fright fan that came of age between 1990 and 1995 if they have heard of the indie distributor of schlocky horror and chances are their eyes will light up at the mere mention of its name.

Led by longtime low-budget horror producer Charles Band who had already made a decent name for himself with a run of movies for Empire Pictures, Full Moon was introduced to capitalize on the growing direct-to-video market and it came at the exact right time.  While the product from the studio may not be anywhere near the caliber of the finely tuned classics we look back on now with precious care, there is something downright scrappy about their stable of films, most especially their early ones.  As a bonus, Band was an early predictor of extra features on DVDs because after the movie was over there was a special VideoZone feature that had a making of the movie and, best of all, previews of upcoming attractions.  For me, it was sometimes worth the rental alone just to watch the VideoZones after just to see what they were working on next.  Full Moon knew their audience and gave them exactly what they wanted.  And it all started with one movie.  Puppet Master.

Opening in 1939 at the fancy Bodega Bay Inn, Puppet Master’s prologue introduces us to André Toulon (Oscar nominee William Hickey, The Sentinel) and his array of unique dolls, each with a particular talent.  Toulon soon meets an untimely end, but not before making sure his creations are stowed away in the walls of the hotel.  Jumping forward to the ‘present day’, a group of individuals with different psychic abilities is called together by one of their own to the Bodega Bay Inn with the promise of finally solving the mystery of André Toulon.  All is not as it appears to be, though, because the dolls have been released and are under orders from an unknown new master to dispose of the guests before they can identify who is picking them off one by one.

As an idea, Puppet Master is pretty slick and if we’re being totally truthful we each other (and we’re good friends so, I’m gonna be honest) I remember it being a lot better than it actually is.  It’s far too slow and poorly edited to keep any momentum going so there’s little tension to be had but it does have it’s moments that are campy fun.  Aside from the micro-budget that had guests supposedly staying in a luxe hotel roaming hallways with frayed carpet and obvious stains on the walls, the performances are all over the map with only a few of the actors understanding how to navigate the B-movie they’re in.  As the dramatic lead, Paul Le Mat (sporting a ghastly pseudo-mullet) is no fun at all while Kathryn O’Reilly and Matt Roe as a couple of empaths with a talent for the perverse are a little more in line with the drive-in movie feel of it all.  The real star of the piece is Irene Miracle as a weary southern belle fortune teller who nails every one of her heavily drawled lines.  She’s a hoot and director David Schmoeller was wise to spend as much time with her as possible.

Since this is a horror movie about killer puppets, you want to know how good the puppets are, right?  Well, they are pretty swell considering what they had to work with.  Impressive stop-motion and practical effects bring a variety of twisted terrors to life.  From a pinhead with adult sized hands to a woman that vomits up well, you’ll see, there’s a little trick to each one of them that gets a spotlight at some point in the movie.  Taking a page of Spielberg and Jaws, Schmoeller keeps the views of the puppets to a minimum, making their eventual reveals have that much more of an impact.  This is a prime example of how to do a lot with a little and with the first Puppet Master, Band and his merry group of troopers spent a considerable amount of time figuring out how to make these inanimate objects believably come to life without the benefit of computer animation.  The results, even now, are impressive.

Originally made with the intention of a theatrical release, Band opted instead to take advantage of the rental market and deliver the film straight to video stores.  It was a risk but one that paid off as the movie became a hot title and achieved an almost instant cult status, spawning a quick succession of sequels and cross-overs with other Full Moon titles.  This is clearly the crown jewel of the Full Moon line and over the years they’ve treated it as such, giving it their full attention and even rebooting it and remaking it!  It’s a cash cow for them and they are unabashedly pulling the strings on these puppets all the way to the bank.  I stopped watching these after the fourth or fifth one because it got too tangled for me but the first few are fun diversions – this one was slower than I remembered but an interesting start to a fledgling studio and franchise.