Charles Band is a name that any fan of over-the-top, campy horror should be familiar with. His companies Empire Pictures and now Full Moon Features have been responsible for cult favorites such as ‘Re-Animator’, ‘Ghoulies’ and ‘The Gingerdead Man’, but his best known work remains the ‘Puppet Master’ series. Surprisingly, this low-budget straight-to-video franchise is one of the longest running series in all of horror, surpassing the ‘Elm Street’ saga and almost equaling ‘Friday the 13th’ with eleven installments to date (it must be said, of wildly varying quality). Later this year ‘Puppet Master’ will celebrate its 25th anniversary, so it’s a great time to head back to the beginning and the movie that started it all.
Aside from the weirdly lovable puppets of the title, one of my favorite aspects of ‘Puppet Master’ is the music, provided by Charles’ brother Richard Band. He has scored over 70 movies and was critically acclaimed for his work on ‘Re-Animator’ and ‘Masters Of Horror’, but his eerie, ridiculously catchy ‘Puppet Master’ theme is often overlooked and is in my opinion one of the all-time great horror themes.
Our prologue opens in the Bodega Bay Inn in California, 1939 where Andre Toulon (played by the much missed veteran actor William Hickey) is indulging in his passion for puppet making. Of course, Toulon’s puppets are more than a little out of the ordinary and we immediately see that they are effectively alive. Blade, the series’ signature puppet, and oriental puppet Shredder Khan appear to be keeping lookout while Andre finishes work on Jester, his latest creation. It turns out that Nazi spies have been tracking down Toulon and their arrival is imminent. Placing his puppets in a storage chest, Andre then takes his own life by gunshot as his would-be assailants enter the scene.
We then jump forward to 1989 and are introduced to the film’s main human characters, a group of four psychics. There’s Frank (Matt Roe) and his partner Carissa (Kathryn O’Reilly) who can discern events from contact with objects; Alex (Paul Le Mat), who has prophetic dreams and visions; and Dana (Irene Miracle), who tells fortunes – that is, when she’s not too busy being thoroughly dislikable and pointlessly antagonistic. The four venture to the Bodega Bay Inn in order to see another colleague, Neil, with whom they had been researching alchemy. The team had discovered that the ancient Egyptians had a method for instilling life into figurines, a secret passed down through generations – ending with Andre Toulon. Dana used her gift to determine Toulon’s last location, but since passing on this information to Neil the group has not heard from him and suspect he may be keeping the secret to himself.
Upon arriving to confront him however, our troupe are told by Neil’s wife Megan and housekeeper Theresa that Neil has recently killed himself – so recently, in fact that the body is still on the premises. A little later Dana, apparently believing it all to be a ruse, takes the opportunity to stab Neil’s corpse with a large pin, as you do. Despite Neil’s demise, the four still believe further investigation is required. The evening wears on and the group find themselves troubled by numerous foreboding visions including Neil attacking a woman in an elevator, however worse events are around the corner: we see that Toulon’s puppets (the aforementioned three, plus Pinhead, Leech Woman, Tunneler and Gengie) have awakened, intent upon putting their individual and gruesome talents to good use on their uninvited guests.
In much the same way as the more prominent slasher movies appear to choose their teen victims to be either airheads, dumb jocks, or self-centered idiots – thereby making their untimely exits all the more anticipated – ‘Puppet Master’ has at its center a group of people that most would struggle to find likeable. While this gets the audience on side with the puppets (who after all, share our masochism and are only doing what we paid to see) it does mean that the many, many dialogue heavy scenes can drag on and the unchanging setting (no doubt largely due to the constraints of the $400,000 budget) can feel stagnant. Fortunately the puppet effects are great and their designs creative and memorable enough that their appearances are worth sticking around for. It’s easy to see why they captured the imagination of viewers and inspire such loyal fandom that figures, models and masks continue to be sold year after year. Nevertheless after the 1939 opening, it’s fairly slow going until the last twenty minutes or so. Better things were to come in some of the sequels, particularly my favorite of the series ‘Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge’ which is set during World War II and delves more deeply into Andre’s background and may serve as a better introduction for newcomers to the franchise. As for the original, I give it a marginal recommendation.