Puppet Master (1989)

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It recently occurred to me that the Puppet Master series was still alive and well as of 2018, with a new spin-off movie planned. So I decided to pull out my compilation of movies 1-3 and give them a viewing. I’ve only ever fully watched the first one (and that was a long time ago) and only seen bits and pieces of the films…. 12 (!) subsequent related films. I’ve heard that the further along the sequels goes, the worse the movies get, so I’ll just be sticking to the first couple. If anyone is interested in anything further, you can suffer through those yourself.

In 1939, the titular Puppet Master, Andre Toulon, is hiding out in the high-end Bogada Bay Inn. Using some sort of ancient Egyptian secret, Toulon has somehow managed to bring the marionettes he creates to life. Two of his creations inform him that some sort of German assassins are coming for him. But Toulon is unconcerned and seems resigned to his fate.

After taking his dolls and hiding them in a secret compartment in his room, Toulon shoots himself in the face, just as his assailants storm the room.

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Now be good boys and girls and stay in here while daddy goes and kills himself.

We then jump to present day (aka 1989) and the film switches from pissed off Germans to a group of four psychics: The cynical Dana; Yale professor Alex; and Frank and Clarissa, a husband and wife pair of researchers . The four are psychically ‘called’ by their one-time colleague, Neil Gallagher, to the Bogada Bay Inn. The five had previously worked together to discover the secrets of the last great alchemist in history, Andre Toulon.

Except, when they get there, they find out from Neil’s wife, Megan, the current owner of the Inn, that Neil Gallagher is kinda, maybe, sorta….dead.

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Are you sure he’s dead? Let’s stab him a couple times to find out.

Neil’s wife graciously decides to allow them to stay at the Inn for the night. During the night, the residents are, naturally, picked off by Toulon’s murderous (and surprisingly efficient) puppets, one by one.

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Some of them, kinda gruesomely.

Based on the reputation of the many sequels, one wouldn’t suspect that the series had a decent start, but it did. Or at least it had a promising start. I think these days the movies just exist to sell various forms of memorabilia. But while the premise of the films comes across as incredibly silly, the first film, at least, is treated quite seriously. The movie wants you to buy into all of it. The psychics are treated as real people, not punch lines and effort is made to give the puppets unique personalities despite their short screen time.

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I like how they chose to use the point of view of the puppet for many camera angles. The use of perspective makes the puppets feel more like real characters and not just the props they are. The movie also incorporates the use of stop-motion in several scenes. Both show that sometimes the simple and most practical effects can be the most effective, especially when you’re on a small budget.

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The parts where the movie stumbles are with some of the characters and plot holes. The timid and benevolent character of Alex just comes across as so damn dull. I think he might have been going for some sort of perpetually haunted persona, but instead it just comes across as lethargic.

The other psychics come across as far more interesting, especially Dana. Dana is the only character here given more than one personality trait. She’s also the only one who’s implied to have a deeper back-story, though it’s never really addressed. When Neil’s corpse shows up in her room, she doesn’t even flinch. She smirks at him. I guess that’s to be expected from someone who likes to take midnight strolls while drinking and carrying around her stuffed dog. People like that aren’t fazed by shit.

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Did you think I was kidding about the dog? I wasn’t!

Dana is billed as someone the audience isn’t supposed to like. In typical slasher fashion, she seals her fate by mocking Megan and saying things like, “I’m not a cynic; I prefer to think of myself as a nasty bitch.” That last bit might be true, but that nasty bitch is sadly also the only capable person in the Inn, successfully fending off not one, but two of the diminutive little monsters before ultimately being knocked off. No one else shows near the same doll-throwing skill. I think I’ll miss you most of all, you crazy psychic.

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I guess I’m supposed to take solace knowing she was killed off by the series mascot.

The other downer is the films many plot holes. I won’t go too into them, since most of them show up at the end, and I don’t want to spoil it in the rare case anyone who hasn’t seen the movie is curious, but they do pepper the whole movie. For instance, why is Dana shown as a second rate mystic at a carnival when she successfully predicts two separate deaths? If she knew what was going to happen, why’s she show up in the first place? And with puppets like these-

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This may have also been one of the most ridiculous horror deaths ever.

-what kind of puppet show was Toulon putting on in the first place? Like, damn, man. What the hell?

The reasons for killing off the psychics also doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. They’re vague at best, and nonsensical at worst. And those are just a couple of the smaller plot holes. Some of the ones at the end are large enough to drive a tanker through. But I suppose when your story’s focus is on killer dolls polishing up the script is on the bottom of the priorities list.

I can see why Puppet Master became a cult classic. It throws together a slew of interesting concepts like Egyptian alchemy, psychics and killer dolls and manages to make it entertaining, if at times slightly disjointed. The puppet designs are interesting and unique and the puppetry itself is excellent. The puppets often come across as having more personality than some of the human actors and the practical effects give them more authenticity than any CGI that would surely be used today. It also has a unique atmosphere, with nods to classical architecture and art deco, especially in several surreal dream sequences. I’ve seen it called a rip-off of Child’s Play, but the puppets more resemble that disturbing Zulu doll from Trilogy of Terror.

Anyone who likes the creepy little puppet sub-genre could certainly do worse.

Now I must go, and prepare myself for the sequels….

Puppet Master is available on a variety of streaming services.

It is also available on DVD and Bluray.

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Michi

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