Friday, July 2, 2010

Puppet Master (1989) - By Mark Oswald

So when I was a young warthog, I used to enjoy sifting through a lot of the old horror franchises; the more sequels the better. Although I never made it all the way through the Sleepaway Camp, Silent Night Deadly Night, and Hellraiser movies, I did enjoy my adventures through the collections of Friday the 13th, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Child’s Play, Candyman, and even fucking Trancers, but there was always one that held an oddly distinct place in my heart, and that was the films of the Puppet Master anthology. To this day, there are apparently nine of them with a tenth on the way. In my mind though, the real franchise stopped at five. I used to re-watch these films constantly. Well actually I only re-watched numbers three through five constantly. I remember the first two leaving me totally confused for some reason. Maybe they’d make more sense now; but I’d have to catch up with them to know for sure.

Oh wait! I did just catch up with them! Well the first one anyway! I actually just moved into a new apartment with my girlfriend and my DVDs have yet to be unpacked (I do have a couple in my collection that have still gone unseen), so I decided to take a gander at the good ol’ Netflix Watch Instantly. I of course started with the action section, but didn’t find anything immediately appealing, so I switched it up and decided to take a look at what the horror picks had to offer me. If you can believe it, I ALMOST decided to watch Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys. The sure-to-be epic battle of two groups of Full Moon Pictures’ most terrifying little killers; but then I spotted the first Puppet Master and nostalgia won out over morbid curiosity. I wanted to see if this movie made any god damn sense now that I was older and (marginally) wiser.

The answer; yes, the movie makes perfect sense… well at least within its own world of movie logic. The film begins at the Bodega Bay Inn in 1939, where elderly puppet maker, Andre Toulan (William Hickey from Christmas Vacation and The Jerky Boys movie), is working lovingly on his latest creation. Painting the new marionette’s face with care and telling it how beautiful it is. There is another puppet sitting on his window sill, who appears to move around all by himself, acting as a lookout; but a lookout for what? It turns out that Toulan is being hunted by Nazi spies or something in big black trench coats and hats. They are clearly there to kill him, but he stumps their efforts by offing himself before they bust down his door. Don’t worry about the puppets though; he hid them behind a wall of his room. The film really doesn’t give you too much more info on the reasoning behind these Nazi fellows coming after him, but if you’ve seen Puppet Master III, a prequel; it actually makes a lot more sense.

The story really gets going when it skips forward to “present day” (1989) where the oddest-looking bunch of psychic friends this side of the circus tent (think the older friends from IT) are summoned to the Bodega Bay Inn by the psychic energy of Neil Gallagher, a former colleague of theirs who, unbeknownst to them, has just died. This dude had been searching for the apparently famous secrets of Andre Toulan that deal with using Egyptian magic to bring life to inanimate objects. It is important to know, also, that when you bring something to life, its energy or life force reflects that of the life-bringer. So when Toulan gave them life, they were kind, loyal, and mostly non-threatening, but when they are brought back to life 50 years later by this asshole Gallagher, they aren’t so non-threatening anymore.

So the psychics all go to the Inn, which is huge by the way and should really be reclassified as a hotel, they begin getting picked off one by one by these murderous little bastards in ways that reflect each puppet’s special ability. The puppets, as characters, are made up of a tough guy puppet name Pin Head, who has a large body but tiny head; Leach Woman, a female puppet who can manifest leaches within herself and cause them to come out of her mouth; Tunneler, who is dressed in a army uniform but has a drill on the top of his head; Jester, a puppet that spins his face around to change his expression; and finally there is the leader, Blade, with a knife for one hand, a hook for the other, and spikes that protrude through his otherwise vacant eye sockets. It’s interesting to note that Blade’s appearance seems to mimic those of the Nazi spies who were after Toulan at the beginning of the film. This is another nice little detail that is explained in the aforementioned third chapter of the series. It also may be of interest to note that none of these puppet’s names are given in the film and I only know them because I am a nerd who remembers way too much about these films, even without revisiting them.

Soooo hot

As a film, there is a lot of time spent on the build up and other attempts at creating tension. This is normally an admirable aspect of a horror film, but in this one, we’ve already seen most of these puppets earlier in the movie, and so there is really no interest in waiting for a Jaws-like reveal to happen later on. Probably the biggest problem with the movie, though, is the human characters. They are just so unrelatable that you want them to be killed off so that more screen time can be devoted to the puppets, who manage to somehow have more personality. Also, the fact that they do little to defend themselves against the puppet attacks became very annoying. I mean seriously, don’t just sit there and scream! It’s a fucking puppet, not Leatherface! You can just grab the thing and throw it out a window! The “hero”, I guess, of the humans is Alex; a chubby dude whose hairstyle resembles a falcon’s nest. He doesn’t really do too much except be nice and then get beaten up by the surprise bad guy later on; a true savior.

I wasn’t all that excited while watching this movie, aside from some of the weirder elements that gave me a good laugh now and again, but my favorite part definitely came towards the end. There is a point where the main villain, and controller of the puppets, is getting a little too big for his britches or whatever, and starts abusing the jester puppet. He picks it up, manhandles it a bit, and then throws it down onto a chair to demonstrate his power; big mistake. You see, these puppets may be loyal to their master, but they are even more loyal to each other. You fuck with one and the rest will come after your ass with a vengeance. So I think it goes without saying that Alex, our wimpy knight in shining armor, doesn’t have to do a lot anyways, in terms of vanquishing evil. Another thing I liked with this movie was that the puppets were brought to life (cinematically) with a mix of actual puppetry skills and stop motion, which is a dated, but honorable form of seemingly giving life to the inanimate. I think the Egyptians would be proud of our American stop motion trickery. I mean I’m sure they’d still feel superior because they use real magic, but what the hell, we’d probably get some props all the same.

I’ll have to find some time to re-watch the rest of these Puppet Master films in the near future and see how they hold up; especially the ones I was fonder of. Then maybe I’ll try and catch the later ones I haven’t seen yet, like Retro Puppet Master, and the other one about their epic battle with the Demonic Toys. Boy, the things I do so that you guys don’t have to.

Body Count - 6

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