Blu-ray Review: Puppet Master (1989)

Puppet Master BR CoverDistributor: 88 Films

BBFC Classification: 18

Director: David Schmoeller

Starring: Paul Le Mat, William Hickey, Irene Miracle, Jimmie F. Skaggs, Robin Frates, Barbara Crampton

In Puppet Master we are introduced to Andre Toulon (William Hickey – National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation), a puppeteer hiding from the Nazis in 1939. Toulon is an alchemist and uses Egyptian magic to bring his ghoulish puppets to life, and just as the Nazis burst in on him he hides his creations in the wall of his room and blows his brains out.

Fast forward 50 years and a group of psychics gather at a clifftop hotel where Neil Gallagher (Jimmie F. Skaggs), one of their colleagues, killed himself after apparently discovering Toulon’s secret of bringing inanimate objects to life. However, as they investigate their friend’s death the group are stalked by the merciless killer dolls who will stop at nothing to try and protect their master’s secrets.

Cheap and cheerful – which really was the idea behind Full Moon Features – Puppet Master was released just in time to catch the tail-end of the ’80s horror/comedy boom and fits right in tonally and stylistically with other creature feature-type films of the era like Ghoulies, Critters and Dolls. But it also came out a year after Child’s Play, which pretty much nailed the killer doll thing with better special effects and injecting a little bit of terror into proceedings.

Because ultimately, Puppet Master isn’t very scary. It isn’t very funny either, and because it doesn’t fully embrace either of the styles that it draws from it just sort of flounces along from scene to scene with no real urgency or energy. That isn’t to say it’s a bad film because for a low-budget horror movie it has quite a nice look about it and the production values are relatively high, but it is very slow and tries to weave a story that is more complex than your average ’80s slasher.

But what about the puppets themselves? They actually look pretty good and time has been quite kind to the stop-motion effects that make them come alive. The five puppets in the film each have a weapon of their own – Blade has a hook and a knife for hands, Pinhead (not that one) has a tiny head and massive hands used for crushing, Leech Woman vomits up leeches to suck the blood of her victims, Tunneler has a drill bit on his head and Jester is the evil brains of the outfit – and they do look pretty convincing as they pull faces and react to each other. Blade is probably the one we see the most of and has a cool, skeletal look to his features but the creepiest is probably Leech Woman who in one scene spits out several leeches onto a helpless victim in a weird, nightmarish vision that, had it not been part of a comedic sex scene, could have come from a surreal Italian giallo.

Whatever its shortcomings, Puppet Master does have a place amongst the second-tier franchise horror films of the era. It is only 85 minutes long but in trying to add in a few twists and turns to make the plot a little deeper the film does drag at times. The acting is pretty much what you would expect from a film of this type, with nobody going out of their way to deliver anything other than what was written on the page, and it’s only when the puppets are doing their killing thing that the fun aspect comes out and makes you want to watch. The disc includes an introduction from producer Charles Band, trailer, No Strings Attached featurette and commentaries from Charles Band, author Justin Kerswell and film critic Calum Waddell so for fans this edition is well worth picking up but for anyone new expecting the excessive gore and violence of the Child’s Play films it may be a little disappointing.

Puppet Master

Special Features: Audio commentary with author Justin Kerswell, audio commentary by producer Charles Band, No Strings Attached featurette, introduction by Charles Band, trailer, Full Moon Trailer Park, reversible sleeve incorporating original artwork, collector’s booklet featuring notes by author and critic Calum Waddell.

UK Release Date: 20th August 2012

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