Review: Puppetmaster (1989)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #698

Number of Views: Two
Release Date: October 12, 1989
Sub-Genre: Horror/Fantasy
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $400,000
Running Time: 90 minutes
Director: David Schmoeller
Producers: Hope Perello, Charles Band
Screenplay: Kenneth J. Hall, David Schmoeller (as Joseph G. Collodi)
Special Effects: Patrick Simmons
Cinematography: Sergio Salvati
Score: Richard Band
Editing: Thomas Meshelski
Studios: Full Moon Entertainment, Empire Pictures
Distributors: Full Moon Features, Paramount Pictures
Stars: Paul Le Mat, William Hickey, Irene Miracle, Jimmie F. Skaggs, Robin Frates, Matt Roe, Kathryn O’Reilly, Mews Small, Barbara Crampton, David Boyd, Peter Frankland, Andrew Kimbrough

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Sandy Shaw “Puppet on A String”

[2] Richard Band “Puppet Master”

[3] MetallicaMaster of Puppets”

The mid-to-late eighties were a rather splendid time to call yourself a puppet. Jim Henson’s creations were earning him a mint and it wasn’t too long before the horror industry started to take advantage. First up was Chester Novell Turner’s blaxploitation classic, Black Devil Doll From Hell, in 1984, and three years later, Stuart Gordon’s Dolls emerged on the scene.

If the reaction to that film was lukewarm at best, then 1988 set to become a pivotal year for demonic toys as Tom Holland’s Child’s Play fared somewhat better, bagging itself a limited theatrical release in the process. New Zealander Peter Jackson then jumped on the bandwagon with his colorfully crass Muppet parody, Meet The Feebles, in 1989. However, also notable was a certain playful little number named Puppet Master and a fresh horror franchise was born.

One of the chief reasons why David Schmoeller’s film was so significant as it featured Charles Band on production duties and Dolls had also surfaced from his production house, Empire Pictures. However, where that movie disappeared from trace soon after its release, Band was determined not to let the same thing happen again and did this by presenting us with five different fiendish figurines, each with their own unique selling point.

Over the course of the first few inevitable sequels, this number inflated with the likes of Six Shooter, Torch and Decapitron among others being tossed into the toy box for good measure. Aside from tagalongs Shreddar Khan and Gengie (whose part played was miniscule), the quintet in question comprised the following murderous marionettes.

Every posse needs a leader and Blade is only too happy to take the reins of this terrible troop. Sporting a gaunt face with empty black eye sockets and long white hair, and clad in a black trench coat and wide-brimmed hat, Blade’s main strength is the sharp hook in place of his left hand and the knife he wielded with his righty. In addition, he boasts the ability to fire razor-sharp bullets from his peepers, although this particular signature move he uses sparingly.

Next up is Jester, the watch man of the group, who has a tendency to switch allegiances against his master if not treated correctly. Using the dainty talent of rotating three portions of his face, Jester can exhibit five separate expressions: happy, devious, sad, surprised or angry. It’s the last one we need to worry about as he enjoys nothing more than getting slash happy with his scepter. Just to make him even more indispensable, Jester can scurry into tiny crawlspaces where his associates can’t.

If ever a name was completely fitting, then Pinhead would most certainly be it. Looking like he’s just come off a very poor second to an Indian head shrinker, it may appear that Pinhead drew the short straw when it comes to special powers. That said, what he lacks in brains, he more than makes up with in brawn as his two clenched fists can land one helluva knockout blow and can also move or drag a full-grown human body with relative ease. Any similarity to cenobites either dead or alive (yeah right) is purely coincidental.

Then we have Tunneler and the last thing you need after taking one of Pinhead’s haymakers to the chin, is this little troublemaker dashing towards your cranium at full pelt. Using the cone-shaped power drill replacing his scalp to bore through his victims’ skulls, Tunneler is never more in his element than when charging head-on and thankfully doesn’t need to concern himself with cord length.

Last up is Leech Woman, and with all these pint-sized alphas causing merry hell, it’s only natural that they’ll need a lady on hand to keep them all in check. I say lady, when in truth, Leech Woman is anything but, thanks to her inability to hold her food down. Said square meals consist of toxic leeches, which she spews forth from her open mouth whenever her stomach starts grumbling. Just in case that isn’t deemed enough, she too carries a small knife and isn’t afraid to use it.

Of course, all of this wouldn’t be possible without a lord and master to pull the strings so to speak, and in puppeteer Andre Toulon (William Hickey), the ferocious five have themselves the best kind of wrong ‘un to tug those tethers. Our tale begins at Bodega Bay, California in 1939 and Toulon is busy applying the finishing touches to his latest creation when the Nazis decide to pay him a house call. Desperate not to be apprehended, he hides his trunk of toys in the wall panel before taking his own life leaving his poor little puppet friends trapped between bricks and mortar.

Moving briskly on fifty years to the present, psychics Alex (Paul Le Mat), Dana (Irene Miracle), Frank (Matt Roe) and Carissa (Kathryn O’Reilly) make contact with their deceased colleague Neil (Jimmie F. Skaggs) and unwittingly unleash the ancient evil pent-up within the walls. You see, they’d been aiding and abetting Neil with his alchemy studies when he died suddenly, while on the verge of a major scientific breakthrough. Each of them experiences a different vision and they head over to the Bodega Bay Inn to make sense of it, where they run into the dead man’s widow Megan (Robin Frates). With the lambs now firmly in place for the slaughtering, it’s time for Toulon’s teensy tearaways to turn up and start their troublemaking.

Director Schmoeller had already tinkered with perishing plastic a full decade prior, breathing life into a museum load of mean-spirited mannequins for his grossly overlooked chiller, Tourist Trap, and he employs similar tricks here to ensure that the titular terrorizers are more than just crowd-pleasing gimmicks. His direction is sound, and despite the meager $400k kitty at his disposal, Puppet Master is a lot slicker than the many of the usual straight-to-video suspects cropping up towards the tail-end of the decade. Some of the stop-motion hasn’t fared so well over the years and keeps us firmly planted in B-movie territory but the game cast aid no end and we all know it’s the puppets we really came to see.

If there’s a gripe to be had, then it would be that the first film merely lays the foundations for what is to follow. In my opinion, Dave Allen’s Puppet Master II and David DeCoteau’s Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge hold up better to repeat views and I guess them’s the brakes for an origin story such as this. It can’t trump Child’s Play with regards to sustainable suspense, but Schmoeller’s film is unparalleled when it comes to tiny things running amok and more than deserving of its place in the history books.

If I had to pick a personal darling from the puppets on parade, then it would be something of a toss-up as Leech Woman is the kind of deep-throated hurler who would give poor Gordy Lachance from Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me perpetual nightmares. However, Pinhead simply never gets tired for me and taught me the true meaning of little head complex. I’ve given Punch & Judy shows a decidedly wide berth after spending a single night at the Bodega Bay Inn, and while not what I would call scary by any stretch of the imagination, it’s all about tapping into those childhood consternations and Puppet Master just so happens to achieve such straight out of the toy box.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10

Grue Factor: 2/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: The first film is little more than a taster where grue is concerned and not particularly bloodthirsty. That said, we are provided ample insight into each of the five puppets’ exclusive talents and they rack up a none too shabby kill count between them. There’s even a smidgen of bare flesh to delight our senses further and remind ankle-biters worldwide that this particular toy story doesn’t fall under their jurisdiction.

Read Demonic Toys Appraisal
Read Ghoulies Appraisal
Read Subspecies Appraisal
Read Trancers Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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