Awesome Puppet Master poster by artist Dan Mumford
“I’m the master, and you’re the puppet.”
Puppetmaster is kind of a mess, but it’s a sloppy, delightfully delicious one. I’m not sure that I have a complete grasp on the plot, but I’ll give it a try: master puppet maker Andre Toulon (William Hickey), residing at seaside Bodega Bay, California, is in possession of a magical Egyptian scroll that allows him to imbue his creations with life. Rather than let the scroll and his work fall into the hands of Nazis, Toulon kills himself; his puppets, however, live on. Fifty years later, a cabal of psychics in search of ancient mysteries have learned that their leader, Neil Gallagher (Jimmie F. Skaggs), has determined where Toulon died. They all have spooky visions, and agree to meet at Bodega Bay, where upon arrival, they find that Neil has shot himself. From here, things take on a haunted house meets Clive Barker vibe – people being stalked and dying, weird going ons, magicians and psychics doing their thing.
Puppetmaster may be a bit too complicated and ambitious for it’s own good, but the slow paced, throwback haunted house mood combined with a roughly-hewn fantasy world of magic, psychics, and killer dolls makes it all tremendous fun. Director David Schmoeller gives it a dreamy, gloomy mood, and there’s some cool low-perspective steadicam shots from the puppet’s perspective a la The Shining and The Evil Dead, and some nice stop motion.
Everything looks surprisingly good for a low budget film, notably the dream sequences. It’s all a little reserved for a direct-to-VHS chiller – there’s a bit of PG-13ish nudity and sexual content, and a few small moments of violence and gore – but it comes off as charmingly modest and slightly prudish. The actors are all fine, notably the great William Hickey in his all too brief appearance. Paul Le Mat is mostly comically bad as Alex Whitaker, but it never ruins the film. Barbara Crampton shows up briefly in a great, moody, funny scene at a carnival as a woman seeking the advice of psychic. The puppets are the real stars here, and they’re all really cool and creepy. If pressed to pick a favorite, I’d have to say Leech Woman. While Blade is badass in his cool hat and trenchcoat (not to mention those awesome blade and knife hands), and Tunneler’s buzz-top kills are awesome, the Leech Woman is just downright weird and gross. Where are those leeches coming from?
If you’re already a fan of Puppetmaster, you know what I know now: Puppetmaster rocks! If you have yet to let Toulon and his creations cast a spell on you, what are you waiting for? This is about as fun and cool as low budget direct to video features get, and it’s one of the best killer doll films, too. Highly recommended.