Oct 10, 2014

[Movies] Puppet Master (1989)

Well it's October, and that means it's also Halloween month. And as much as I'm not quite a big fan of horror movies, I have to admit that I've still seen a number of them over the years. More specifically, I had a weird period in my life when I happened to watch a lot of the strange creations of the direct-to-video group Full Moon Features, which seemed to specialize in cheesy, campy horror flicks.

Puppet Master was one of the Full Moon movies that I enjoyed a bit more than the others. Maybe it was the fun use of stop motion animation or perhaps the uniqueness of the different characters, but I totally enjoyed the franchise. Sure, it probably helped that these movies are far from great and thus not actually all that scary. But they certainly had a bit of entertaining charm that is unique to such movies.

Weird fact - I had actually first watched these movies on LaserDisc. No kidding. And while we never bought any discs, we did borrow a number of them from video rental places, and this is how we eventually ended up watching all these different Full Moon productions.

Synopsis: Puppet Master is a 1989 direct-to-video horror movie directed by David Schmoeller. The screenplay was written by Charles Band and Kenneth J. Hall for Full Moon Entertainment.

The movie begins in 1939 California, where we meet the titular Puppet Master, Andre Toulon (William Hickey) and his "living puppets." Toulon is busy finishing work on Shreddey Khan when two Nazi spies enter the inn where Toulon is located. The spies are quickly dispatched the puppet known as Blades. Andre uses the extra time to store the puppets away in a chest and then hides the entire chest in the wall just as Nazi agents start to break down the door. In order to protect his secrets, Toulon shoots himself in the head.

50 years later, a group of psychics gather because they suspect that one of them, Neil Gallagher (Jimmie F. Skaggs) may have indeed located the Andre Toulon's hiding place. Then all of the psychis see disturbing visions, many of them hinting at their possible deaths. The group then goes to the old Bodega Bay Inn that Neil now owns with his wife and proceed to investigate. But they soon find Neil dead. They receive more strange visions and now they need to investigate Neil's death. And of course, we the audience find that the living puppets are freely wandering about the inn at this point.

I don't know why the movie needed a whole group if psychics instead of just one, but I guess we just need to go with that premise. If anything, it was clever to include the fact that they specialized in different aspects of such powers such as one who can tell fortunes versus another who simply receives visions. Nice effort, but in the end it's not like their psychic powers were all that essential since in true campy horror movie fashion, most of them were fated to die.

The build-up of the movie turned out to be a lot slower than I had remembered it when I tried to watch the movie again. We spend a heck of a lot of time with the psychics essentially blundering around the inn and getting into silly horror movie cliche situations. I suppose all that is far since they're only really in the movie so that they can die and these puppets are designed to be ridiculously lethal.

And that's the only real redeeming factor of this movie - or perhaps the only true point of things. We watch this movie to see the puppets in action and the movie certainly drags it out. Initially they seemed to be these protective companions for Andre Toulon in the initial flashback. But in the movie proper, we see them pretty much kill without reason, and of course using their signature techniques and abilities. It's like some sort of an evil superhero story with completely silent characters.

I can appreciate how the puppets are never given the ability to speak in this movie. It kind of provides an extra sinister aura about them as they kill, often with a certain degree of relish. The animation quality is surprisingly good for the time and despite a few moments of sloppy effects as they fly across the room or something, in the end the effect is pretty cool. They're wicked-looking little characters and by the end of the movie it's pretty easy to buy into the notion that they are indeed capable of killing.

The movie also establishes that the puppets are not just mindless, um, puppets. They have their personalities and perhaps even their own motivations for following one master or another. Their initial loyalty to Toulon is practically akin to the relationship between a father and his children. And with Toulon dead in the movie's first act, one can imagine what goes through the minds as they find their way forward beyond that point. And I think that's part of what I've always enjoyed about them - that appear to be more than just mindless monsters or something.

Of course the movie really gets lost in its weird little psychic adventure and it takes a whole host of other movies to start to address the greater mythos behind these puppets and explain what the heck is going on. For now all we understand is that some sort of dark magic or ritual is what animates puppets and may offer a lot of options for a motivated enough individual.

It's hard to figure out how to rate a movie like Puppet Master since you kind of expect it to be bad given it's nature as a indie horror b-movie. The design was a little deliberate and so feelings of the movie being "bad" are part of the experience. But for those that can appreciate movies like this, I think it's fair to rate it as 3 savage puppet-orchestrated murders out of a possible 5.

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