Gather ’round, kiddies, I have a tale of the Before Times. Once video rental stores were as common as payday loan joints are now (depressingly). Even outside the big chains like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video, there were plenty of small local ones, and even department stores often had their own small rental section tucked away somewhere. I grew up in a rural area and even the gas station/restaurant down the road had a few shelves of movies to rent. So while my parents ran errands, I’d get a kick out of just browsing the sections, looking at the covers and reading the box descriptions. No wonder I ended up a b-movie aficionado. I particularly enjoyed tracing horror series, of which there were plenty in the ’80s and ’90s, and one of my favorites was this:
However, I only ever rented and watched the first installment which I was reintroduced to do recently. For someone like me, it seems never watching Puppet Master, the flagship series of Charles Band’s Full Moon Video, one of the all-time great b-movie producers and the best proof out there that one can make an entire media empire out of an obsession with little creatures. I decided to make up for this tragic oversight by watching the entire series.
This may end with me having a nervous breakdown, especially if the later sequels are of the same caliber as Full Moon’s more recent Gingerdead Man 3: Saturday Night Clever. …They are, aren’t they?
Anyway, that’s for Future Me to worry about. Let’s talk about a movie I know I do like, the original Puppet Master, or Puppetmaster as it’s presented in the opening credits.
Right away we get at what helped make this franchise so popular: its gloriously insane mythology. It’s 1939 and the titular puppet master Andre Toulon (played by “old man” character actor William Hickey) is holed up in the luxurious Bagoda Bay Inn somewhere on the California coast. As you could already guess, Toulon is not only able to bring his puppets to life, but make them sentient. Two of his puppets, Blade, and a nameless one who just sort of vanishes from he movie, warn him that two Nazi agents have arrived at the inn to kill him, but Toulon is resigned to his fate – even though he has puppets with a blade for its hand and even eyes, one with a skull-piercing drill on its head, and another one with physics-defying superstrength. I think throughout this whole series I’m going to have to keep wondering what exactly Andre Toulon, who comes across as your standard issue benevolent old man, did in his puppet shows. I can only imagine that his take on “Punch and Judy” was hardcore. Whatever glorious productions Toulon put on, it’s over now as Toulon hides the puppets behind his room’s walls and blows his brains out just as the Nazis storm his room.
For now, we jump 50 years ahead and go from Nazis to psychics: Dana, a woman with actual precognition abilities who nonetheless does a (really clumsy) cold reading of a gullible couple; Alex, a Yale professor in archaeology with a knack for prophetic dreams; and Clarissa and Frank, a couple whose main ability is supposedly Clarissa’s power to “read” the history of anything she touches but their power really seems to be their mutual perpetual horniness. They’re all brought together by a shared vision they have of their one-time colleague, Neil Gallagher, with whom they worked to uncover the secrets of Andre Toulon, hailed as the last great, authentic alchemist in history.
Even though their introductions get padded out explored thoroughly, they’re really just as much slasher movie canon fodder as any pot-smoking teens who sneak into an abandoned summer camp. The exception is Dana, who curiously is apparently a character the audience is not supposed to sympathize with yet ends up the only character who seems to have, well, more than one personality trait. She’s also the only one who seems to have a deep unspoken backstory – just why does she act like a second-rate psychic fraud when her powers are real (she accurately predicts both Megan’s maid’s death at the hands of the superstrong puppet Pinhead as well as her own demise)? And what is her undoubtedly unpleasant history with Neil Gallagher that keeps getting hinted at? Anyway, it’s hard not to love a character who takes walks at night while drinking and cradling her beloved stuffed dog.
The reunion hits a snag when the psychics arrive at Neil’s residence, which happens to be the Bagoda Bay Inn, and only find waiting for them Neil’s wife Megan, the hotel’s current owner, who tells them that Neil had recently shot himself in the head. (Dana, in another scene proving her awesomeness, tests Neil’s alleged state of biological non-existence by impaling him in the chest with a somewhat implausibly long hairpin.) Of course, no one, Dana especially, is particularly upset that Neil apparently committed suicide. To drive home why, there’s a scene where Clarissa gets a vision of Neil raping a woman in the hotel elevator. Let’s not be cynical here; I’m confident the scene was just to help establish what a monster Neil was, and not to have an extremely tasteless excuse to flash a boob at the audience.
It’s at this point that the movie abruptly shifts from being an odd kind of urban fantasy to being a slasher movie, albeit one with killer puppets, with – spoilers! – the blandly benevolent Alex and Megan as the Final Guy and Girl. Personally I think Dana should have had the honor, but according to the sacred rules of slasher films she seals her fate by mocking Megan for letting a man obviously only interested in her inheritance marry her (clearly the audience’s sympathies are supposed to be with the meek and naive Megan, but I was cheering on Dana, especially when she concludes her tirade with, “I’m not a cynic; I prefer to think of myself as a nasty bitch,” and tells the intervening Alex, “Fuck you, you Ivy League tight-ass.”) And, to be fair, Dana does get her licks in. When Neil’s corpse appears in her room, she doesn’t scream or even get unnerved, but only smirks at it. And she puts up a hell of a fight when she’s attacked by both Blade and Pinhead, so much so it’s actually a bummer when her fight ends with her getting her throat cut. I guess at least she can be consoled by the fact that she was finished off by the series mascot.
But probably the most famous death sequence in the movie is that of Clarissa and Frank, who get rudely targeted by the puppets mid-intimacy. The aptly named Driller takes out Clarissa rather easily and gruesomely, while Frank, who is conveniently tied to the bed post, is murdered by Leech Woman, who probably has the most impractical yet bizarre method for killing ever in the history of horror cinema.
Once Dana, Frank, and Clarissa become victims of puppet-on-human violence, that leaves Alex and Megan, who find that Neil is waiting for them in the dining room with the corpses of the dead psychics and the puppet Jester. Neil helpfully explains that his own suicide was step one in a plan to give himself an immortal body based on the Egyptian alchemy that Toulon had discovered and used to create his puppets (you’d think choosing to shoot himself in the head shows a lack of foresight, since the brain is kind of, sort of where a lot of important stuff is, but to be fair I’m not the expert in achieving eternal life through Egyptology). Since he originally enlisted Alex, Dana, Clarissa, and Frank for their help in uncovering Toulon’s techniques in the first place – since you need that many people to realize that the best place to look is where the person whose secrets you’re seeking originally died, apparently – they have to die so that no one else would know the truth behind Toulon’s reputation. Of course, during our admittedly brief intros to them, they didn’t seem all that worked up about it, but maybe the real reason for slaughtering them is just that Neil is a colossal dick.
Supporting the “colossal dick” hypothesis is the fact that Neil for no reason abuses Jester, which angers the other puppets as they watch. I can get why that alone would inspire them to turn on Neil, but the puppets, especially Jester (whose face shifts from his sinister face to his sad face) and even Blade, are also visibly agitated when Neil slaps Megan and starts beating up Alex. The most recent time I watched it I actually said aloud, “You just got done killing three people for no real reason!” Maybe their own brand of chivalry states it’s okay to drill through a woman’s skull but draws the line at slapping one’s wife, but really the whole thing raises another question: if the puppets obviously have free will, why were they working for Neil Gallagher for no obvious gain? Maybe it gets cleared up in the sequels (hmm, as I write this I swear I can almost hear someone who actually has watched the sequels laughing…).
Naturally, the puppets violently revolt against Neil and trap him in the elevator, where they enthusiastically test his boast that he can’t be killed again. In the end, it’s killer puppets – 1, newly immortal jerk – 0. In a sudden flashforward following Neil’s demise, we actually don’t even see what happens to the puppets. Alex contentedly leaves Megan to run the hotel and Megan has apparently used Toulon’s alchemy to resurrect Dana’s dog. I guess it’s meant to be implied that Megan is now the new puppetmaster, but I know enough about the next movie to know that’s not quite true (unless she too made the mistake of kicking around Jester…).
So as you could tell with my nitpicking this is a script with plot holes large enough to drive a tank through. This is the kind of movie that spends plenty of screen time detailing the careers of its murder victims and showing a puppet implausibly make his way mostly unseen through a crowded hotel, but not revealing why the puppets got into an alliance with the villain in the first place, making the villain’s whole plan vague at best or nonsensical at worst, or even neglecting to show what happens to the puppets in the end. I mean, I love the fact that this story throws together Nazis and Egyptian alchemy and psychics and killer puppets, but the script definitely could have used some stitching, or at least Driller should have been kept away from the drafts.
That said, this is a movie I personally still get a kick out of, and it’s clear why it became the cornerstone of Charles Band’s media empire. It has a unique atmosphere that invokes art deco, especially in Alex’s almost surreal dream sequences involving Megan and Neil, and even though back in the day the movie did get unfairly labelled as a rip-off of Child’s Play which had come out a year before (even though Puppet Master owes a lot more to the famous “Zulu doll” segment of 1975’s Trilogy of Terror), there really is little else like it, if only because it throws in so many disparate plot elements. But what really makes this movie is that the puppetry is genuinely excellent. Today a movie like this would be 100% CGI, but the efforts of David Allen Productions gives the puppets more personality than most of the human actors and more authenticity than you’d see in, well, pretty much any CGI-heavy movie.
So, let’s see how long I can keep up my spirit of appreciation before it’s inevitably killed by the dread disease of sequilitis…