For as long as people have been making horror films, there have been killer doll/toy films. One of the earliest silent horror films of the German Expressionism era is The Golem, featuring a clay figure that is given life and soon falls under the control of an evil sorcerer. There’s just something creepy about seeing inanimate objects (in particular, small inanimate objects) suddenly walking around and doing evil things. Countless ghost and haunted house movies have used dolls and toys in decidedly twisted and unusual ways. We all grew up playing with puppets, dolls, or action figures of some sort, and the thought of something innocent from our childhood becoming corrupted evokes a powerful emotion. Some are afraid of this corruption of good, and others are attracted to it. Whatever the imagery does to you, one thing is for certain…killer dolls/puppets/toys have made for some very interesting and entertaining horror films.
This trend saw a re-emergence in the 1980s, with the release of films like Dolls, Child’s Play, and the little film that put Charles Band and Full Moon Pictures on the map…Puppet Master. Through most of the 1980s, Charles Band had been a founder and producer at Empire Pictures…the company that gave the horror genre such fan favorites as Re-Animator, Ghoulies, and From Beyond. After its demise, Full Moon Pictures was born, creating one of the first (if not the first) exclusive producer and distributor of direct-to-video films. Puppet Master was the first of many Full Moon releases to come, and had it not been the success it turned out to be, it’s likely that Full Moon would soon have been eclipsed.
In war-torn 1939, a mysterious marionette puppet maker by the name of Andre Toulon crafts puppets using a magical power that instills them with life. With Nazi agents on the way to kill him, Toulon takes his own life after carefully hiding his beloved puppets away. Now, fast forward to the late 80s. A group of psychics are brought together to investigate the creepy, abandoned seaside hotel where Toulon ended his life all those years ago. Some have premonitions and others have flashbacks and nightmares. Pretty soon, they are savagely murdered one-by-one by some of Toulon’s finest and most deadly puppet creations. Will anyone survive the night at the Bodega Bay Inn? No matter how old you are, this is one puppet show you won’t want to miss!
I can remember the first time I watched the film, at the tender age of 9, and being quite disturbed by the opening scene where Toulon shoots himself. The scene is fairly tame by today’s standards, but it still features a well-done bit of Savini-esque squib work. One trait that the film can boast over other direct-to-video fare is that it is actually quite skillfully directed. Director David Schmoeller, utilizes some of the same tricks he employed to make the mannequins in Tourist Trap so spooky. Of course, not all of the effects come off so well. Some of the stop-motion work is pretty rough, but considering the budget, it’s passable. Even ED-209 in the original RoboCop looks pretty crude by today’s standards, so I don’t think Puppet Master has aged all that differently than its contemporaries. Besides, perhaps that is the way real puppets would move and walk if given life. Who knows? It’s the puppets you have come to see and by the end of the film, you get plenty of puppet action and antics.
One interesting thing of note is that the psychics (though they are certainly sex-charged) are all portrayed by middle-aged adults and not by teens or people pretending to be young. The hairstyles, outfits, and dialogue are severely dated, but it lends all the film a certain charm. This is definitely a film that could have only been made during the emergence of the direct-to-video boom. This may not be the greatest honor ever bestowed upon a horror film, but I would go so far as to call Puppet Master the greatest of all direct-to-video films. Had it been conceived a few years earlier, I think it could’ve easily been a theatrical feature under the Empire banner. What really sets it apart from many horror films of the decade is the element of fantasy that moves the story forward. These aren’t just mindless killing machines. These puppets are controlled by a dark, supernatural magic doing whatever it takes to protect the legacy of their beloved master.
The film features a cast of unknowns who are to this day, still unknowns. The true stars of the film, though, are the puppets. Blade, Pinhead, Jester, Tunneler, and Leech Woman are the puppets featured in this film. All are very creative and cleverly conceived. What’s funny is that the puppets seem to have much more characterization than the actual human characters in the film. You get to know their personality through their mannerisms (unique to each puppet) and through their particular grunts and groans. The film features a few female nude scenes, but nothing overly graphic or erotic (nothing quite on the Linnea scale). While the death scenes aren’t a blood-soaked gorefest, they are definitely passable for a late 80s R-Rated film. I really liked the film’s opening titles music, but the rest of the score is pretty bland and generic-sounding. I think the filmmakers could have gotten more mileage from their abandoned hotel location. Hotels can be scary places and some of the best horror films of all time have used them as their settings. The hotel in Puppet Master is just a place where the action resides. Nothing more, unfortunately. No shadow-filled corridors or anything. The location looks like it could have taken place at the Best Western down the street. A little more effort could’ve gone into set dressing for great results.
Despite its flaws, Puppet Master emerges as one of the more enjoyable of the “killer toy” type horror films. Child’s Play has the most genuine scares and suspense, but for pure little-things-running-amok-and-killing fun, the original Puppet Master is hard to beat. I say the original, because to date, there are no less than seven sequels and one crossover (with another Full Moon Pictures franchise creation, the Demonic Toys). The DVD of Puppet Master is getting harder and harder to find, but if you’re lucky, sometimes Full Moon’s official website www.fullmoondirect.com will release another newly-found batch of stock. The set was discontinued after Paramount argued that they have the home video rights to the films. Will the series ever be re-released one day? We can hope. I can’t speak for the sequels past part 3, but the films I have seen have made me a fan. Track down the original on VHS or DVD, and witness the one that started it all. Soon, you too will be under Andre Toulon’s magical spell. Buy it!