If you came up watching Horror films in the 1980’s, there is no way you could have missed the title of this film. I can believe the possibility of not actually seeing it–not having never heard of it. I would have seen this around 1991 on cable television and even though I had not seen it since then I always remembered its vibe. Two simple words describe this vibe: Weird and Creepy. Fortunately enough, I’m a cut-out bin digger, which recently led to finding a Puppet Master 2xDVD set for five bucks and to my surprise there are nine of these things! Nine Puppet Masters?! I think I knew of the first three but not this many. Happiness abounds that I had no specific memories as going into something like this with a clean slate is beneficial, to say the least. However, I’m only going to be writing about the original film at this time. Why? To keep from losing my marbles on an over twelve hour journey of exploration, only to condense its affects on my psyche into a reasonably brief synopsis, of course! It is also worth giving this film its own moment of glory being the twenty-fifth anniversary!
From the beginning, this film is all about what’s on the screen. The opening credit sequence is constructed with images of the puppets we will be meeting, drifting in and out like a strange dream. The credits wrap up with a shot of the black holes that are Blade’s eyes, which is the first homage in Puppet Master to another Horror film, out of many, that fans may or may not catch. This particular shot zooms into the blackness of one of those eye sockets, swallowing the frame, which is identical to the way the opening credits end for Rick Rosenthal’s criminally underrated, Halloween II. (Of course, this is the only true Halloween II.) Entering the year, 1939, we are brought into California and the lovely Bodega Bay Hotel – which Classic Cinema fans will know as the town that Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds was set in. The hints just keep going from there. Upon entering this fine, seaside attraction, the viewer is introduced to character actor, William Hickey as Andre Toulan, The Puppet Master himself. We don’t really learn too much from this sequence, just that this guy is making puppets that happen to be alive and together they seem to share a ‘father with his children’ kind of reality. After another classic Hitchcock maneuver, we’re left wandering what the hell just happened and the film is nice to enough to wait a while to give a bit of an explanation. At least they were going for suspense, right? Several years go by and we’re brought to the present day. We meet a carnival Gypsy named Dana, (Irene Miracle) whom has an upsetting vision in the middle of working a couple of marks; a couple of horny E.S.P. doctors (Matt Roe, Kathryn O’Reilly) and our hero, Alex Whitaker (Paul Le Mat) whom is sleeping on the job and having bad dreams. He works at Yale, so perhaps this is a statement about where your money is going attending such institutions? That’s what I’m going to take from it, anyway. They are all psychically summoned from their lives on the East Coast to come to the Bodega Bay Hotel by a person named Neil Gallagher (Jimmie F. Skaggs) – which is foreshadowed by Miracle’s vision and Le Mat’s dream, though we don’t have this explained until a voice-over conversation between Roe and Le Mat. Once they arrive, we meet Mrs. Megan Gallagher (Robin Frates) and her annoying assistant Theresa (Merrya Small). We also meet the recently deceased Neil Gallagher. After some chatting around the coffin, we have a bit more information in our heads and the film begins to take its necessary turn into creepy and weird.
Now, I wouldn’t want to give away the whole film and besides, if you wanted to have the entire flick laid out for you, such exposure is available to you already. My function is to share just enough to get the neurons firing and make one into a hunter based on their own inspiration. But wait, you’re probably thinking, “What a schmuck! This clown hasn’t mentioned a thing about puppets! And what’s scary about puppets anyway?” We all know that dolls can be scary (Read Pricilla K’s review on the Tales from the Darkside episode The Geezenstacks to further explore this mentality) and these buggers were made to be both scary and effective in their homicidal duties. The honors of their creation go to David Allen Productions, who absolutely out did any expectations that could have existed then, or now. Let’s hope a CGI Puppet Master NEVER happens! Really, what can I possibly say about these charming little killers without ruining the fun of that ever-sacred “First Viewing”? One must witness for themselves what the Puppets in Puppet Master are all about! If you are new to this era of Horror (there always will be someone) and have lived completely unaware of this film, you may not believe this, yet, these are absolutely iconic characters in the pantheon of Horror Cinema. I would imagine every Horror fan alive knows what Blade looks like, even if they have no clue where he comes from. The fact that Puppet Master is still loved and sought after by Horror fans is a testament to its fun and quality as a Horror Film.
An interesting fact that I was unaware of until watching this again is that David Schmoeller is the director, whom also did one of my personal favorites, 1979’s Tourist Trap! When I started doing a little digging I learned there is a feud actually going on between Schmoeller and infamous Film Producer / Distributor, Charles Band, over, amongst a few things, who wrote this film. The opening credits give the writer titles to Band and Kenneth J. Hall, Schmoeller says otherwise. Apparently, there are even prints where Schmoeller’s name isn’t on it as director either, which is a tad odd. Ultimately, Band takes credit for the entire concept of Puppet Master, though to my point of view, this all feels like Schmoeller’s writing, although I’m basing this on comparing it to Tourist Trap, which he co-wrote with J. Larry Carrol. I also have a complaint about the score that makes me lean in Schmoeller’s direction. The music for Puppet Master is credited to Richard Band, whom scored over half of the Puppet Master films and a lot of others, and is brother to Charles. The problem is there is a definite piece of music directly stolen from Pino Donaggio’s score for Tourist Trap! It was pretty easy to spot, since it’s a repeating theme in Tourist Trap and I’ve seen it so many times! It’s always tragic when Art is messed with to shine in an undeserving fashion and this seems to be the case. Watch them back to back some time and try to see / hear what I mean.
All Hollywood nonsense aside, Puppet Master is a genuinely good film and has plenty of scares, clever killings and bad acting for the whole family to enjoy! Actually, I should give some respect to one particular actor, Irene Miracle. I must say, she plays Dana quite convincingly, especially when she’s being stalked by the puppets. Yeah, the fortune telling scene is corny, but it’s supposed to be! When she is portraying the terror that her character would surely be feeling in the Puppet-stalking-situation, she does so with enough realism to save the less than stellar performances we get from the others. She even does her Voodoo moves with the same wrist-flicks that the Haitian Witch Doctors use, which shows me that she actually cared about the performance. So let’s hear it for Irene Miracle! If you don’t believe me about the Voodoo, check out Maya Deren’s documentary film, Divine Horseman and compare the motions. Actually, you should watch all of Deren’s films, as she was one of the founding Mothers of American Avant Garde / Experimental Cinema and an absolute Master!
Now that I’ve spent a couple of days away from Blade and the gang, bring on part two!
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