Friday, July 10, 2015

Full Moon Fever: Puppet Master

by Patrick Bromley
Winner and still champion.

It's taken me over a year of (inconsistently) writing these Full Moon Fever columns before I was even ready to tackle one of the Puppet Master movies for a couple of reasons: 1) This is Full Moon's flagship franchise and, as such, probably warrants some special attention; 2) The original Puppet Master is actually the first film ever released by Full Moon, meaning the movie requires not just the regular analysis but some historical context, too; 3) This was my introduction to Full Moon back in 1989, before I had any idea of what a "Full Moon" movie would mean or the universe that Charles Band would build -- for better or for worse -- over the course of the next 25 years.

The time finally feels right, if for no other reason than because Full Moon Streaming has finally made the original film available in a remastered version and in proper widescreen (after years of being mistreated on VHS and bargain DVDs presenting it in the incorrect aspect ratio). Despite being around for a quarter of a century and cranking out dozens upon dozens of titles across multiple sub-labels, Full Moon's first movie remains one of its very best. They put their finest foot forward right out of the gate.
I was drawn to Puppet Master for months before I ever got to see it, as it was one of several trailers that ran on a continuous loop on my cable provider's PPV "coming attractions" channel in 1989 (yes, this was a thing, and yes I would spend hours watching the same trailers over and over again...this tells you a lot about my unique form of mental illness) alongside the previews for titles like The Toxic Avenger Part II, Gnaw: Food of the Gods II, Carnival of Souls and The Understudy: Graveyard Shift II. These were not all new releases at the time -- Carnival of Souls was already more than 20 years old at that point -- but for some reason were all available on Viewer's Choice during the same period. I could probably still recite those trailers from memory.

Something about Puppet Master jumped out at me, capturing my imagination in a way that few trailers did at the time. I'm sure a lot of it has to do with my own lifelong fascination with puppets, which dates back to an obsession with Sesame Street when I was not yet out of diapers. But it was also some of the striking images -- a blood soaked hand reaching from behind a bed, the head of the "Jester" puppet spinning until it settles on an expression of sadness -- or the fact that all of the movie's money shots are jammed into the same 30-second spot. Whatever the reason, I was hooked in and had to see this movie. I convinced a friend to rent it with me from the local video store (as I had a habit of doing; I was usually the one to pick out what we stayed up all night on Fridays and Saturdays watching not because I was bossy or controlling but because they trusted my taste) and a lifelong love of Puppet Master was born.

The film opens at a hotel in Bodega Bay, California, in 1939: two Nazi agents make their way to the room of Andre Toulon (William Hickey in what can only generously be called a cameo), a puppet maker putting the finishing touches on his latest creation. As his puppets -- which, it should be mentioned, are alive -- look worried, Toulon assures them that he knows the men are coming and that everything will be ok. As the Nazis arrive at the door, Toulon produces a gun and shoots himself in the mouth.

Cut to 1989: a group of psychics are "called" by their former friend Neil Gallagher to the Bodega Bay hotel after discovering Toulon's secrets of giving life to the non-living. When they arrive, they learn that Gallagher killed himself but his wife is left behind. As each of the psychics experience terrifying visions -- including American Graffiti's Paul Le Mat and Irene Miracle of Inferno -- the puppets make their return and begin killing them off. But that's not the worst that the hotel has in store...
The Puppet Master franchise has spawned nine sequels and has become so diluted over time that it's hard to convince anyone that the series actually started really strong. It did. These days, the movies exist to sell replicas and memorabilia; they're campy and almost impossibly cheaply made and have lost any kind of identity other than the Puppet Master brand. By the time Puppet Master: The Legacy (the EIGHTH film in the franchise) came along and offered nothing more than clips of previous films, the writing was on the wall that the series had long ago run out of things to say. The most recent entry, 2012's Puppet Master X: Axis Rising (the first and only film in the series to be directed by Full Moon CEO Charles Band) leans much more towards horror comedy only it's not scary or funny. It's about as far away from the original Puppet Master as you can get.

Because the original is totally serious. Better yet, it's a real movie: shot on 35mm on real locations with movie stars in the cast (even if one of those stars is the weakest thing about the film...more on that in a bit). It's directed by David Schmoeller, the very talented filmmaker who made Tourist Trap for Band and later directed Klaus Kinski in Crawlspace for Empire Pictures. He gives Puppet Master not just a sense of style -- the POV puppet cam is a nice touch, and he's clever about the way he uses perspective to make the puppets feel like real characters and not just props -- but also a great deal of class. Yes, this is a movie about psychics being killed by murderous dolls with names like Blade (a tiny Beetlejuice in a trench coat and fedora), Tunneler (a drill on his head), Pinhead (huge body, human-sized hands and a tiny head), Jester (a jester) and Ms. Leech, the weirdest and most surreal of the dolls -- a diminutive dark-haired Barbie who randomly vomits up bloodsucking leeches. It's such a crazy and specific visual. But that doesn't mean it can't be somewhat classy.

Despite what is on paper a premise that's potentially very silly, Schmoeller never treats it as such. He buys into all of it. The psychics are not treated as jokes, but as people with unique and real gifts. The puppets are given individual personalities in a small amount of screen time. And when it comes time for the climax, Schmoeller (working from a script by Kenneth J. Hall and Band) has something in store even worse than the killer puppets in the form of Neil Gallagher (the late Jimmie Skaggs of Lethal Weapon and Oblivion), who has discovered the secret to everlasting life and is the one -- pardon the pun -- pulling the strings of the killer puppets. When they turn on him and assert their independence, it is a thing of beauty. Every puppet gets a turn beating the shit out of Gallagher, cutting him to pieces and digging into his head. It goes so far over the top that even the sympathetic heroes plead for the puppets to stop (in one of the many moments I still remember from that trailer). The movie, like its tiny antagonists, is small but Schmoeller is canny enough to deliver a big finish.
Some accounts claim that Puppet Master (which appears on screen as Puppetmaster) was originally intended for theatrical release but, like all of Full Moon's titles, it went straight to video. I've said a number of times that these early Full Moon titles are the best in the company's history because they had better distribution (courtesy of Paramount) and bigger budgets, giving them the resources and the ability to realize the imagination of the scripts. One of the tricks of the Puppet Master movies is finding a way to make the puppets seem alive and scary and not just toy props, which is essentially what they are. The later sequels are unsuccessful at this, but the earlier entries -- in particular the first two films -- convincingly bring the puppets to life and give them personality. This is partly due to Schmoeller's directorial choices, but can mostly be attributed to the work of David Allen, the great stop motion animator responsible for the puppets movements in the first film and who would step up to act as director of the sequel, which accounts for why Puppet Master II has so many impressive and complex puppet shots. People can too often be dismissive of Full Moon movies because they have a reputation for being cheap and schlocky, but they overlook just how much talent was involved in a film like Puppet Master. Killer doll movie or not, these are skilled artists doing good work.

One such artist is Richard Band, brother of Charles and composer of dozens of films from both the Empire Pictures and Full Moon days. Band has written a lot of music that I love, though I recognize that sometimes the lines are blurred between music that I love on its own and music I love because I associate it with my memory of watching the movie in which it appears. His theme for the original Puppet Master is probably my favorite piece of music he's ever written; I would go so far as to call it one of my favorite pieces of movie music of all time. I recognize that's a bold statement and will likely be viewed as absurd by many readers. That's ok. I'm a big boy. His theme, a carnival waltz that's equal parts haunting, sad, creepy and beautiful, immediately establishes the tone of the film: spooky and tragic with just a hint of playfulness. It makes sense, considering this is a movie about toys. I adore Band's theme for the film; it has remained in my head even during the years and years I went without revisiting Puppet Master. He's such an underrated composer.
There's a whole lot of sadness in Puppet Master, something else the sequels get away from in favor of becoming more traditional horror movies and eventually silly horror comedies. The sadness is there from the opening moments, as Toulon commits suicide rather than let his secrets fall into the hands of the Nazis -- he's a father saying goodbye to his children, abandoning them to a world they do not understand. It's there in the visions of the psychics, particularly fortune teller Dana (Miracle), who foresee their own deaths and must act with the knowledge that they are more than likely doomed. It's there in the arc of Megan Gallagher (Robin Frates), who loses her husband not once but twice -- first to suicide only to see him reanimated, become a villain and then be dismembered by puppets. It's there in the lead performance by Paul Le Mat, whose Alex is as passive and timid as main characters get; he's afraid of his own shadow, though we never really learn why.

I suspect it's actually a result of Le Mat's performance, which is the weakest link in all of Puppet Master. It's great that Schmoeller and Band were able to get a "name" in the cast, but Le Mat is either unwilling or unable to play ball. He's capable of giving great performances, as his work in American Graffiti and Melvin and Howard demonstrate, but he's totally adrift here. Maybe it's a case of an actor feeling like he's slumming by making a direct-to-video movie about killer dolls for a completely untested company that has yet to establish itself. Maybe it's just that Le Mat isn't comfortable acting alongside a bunch of toys and can't get a handle on how to pitch his performance. Maybe it's just miscasting. He seems to be aiming for "haunted" but comes up with "sleepy." I will maintain that Puppet Master works really well as a film, but I'd be lying if I said it wouldn't be a much better movie with a stronger performance at its center around which all the weird, possibly silly stuff could orbit.
It's not enough to derail the movie, which deserves all kinds of credit for helping to launch Full Moon by being both a commercial and artistic success. It's sad to see the original film's reputation tarnished by countless sequels, each one worse than the last, and two dozen or so similar killer doll movies put out by Full Moon -- most obviously Demonic Toys, plus too many others to list here. It's a movie that will always be special to me because of what it meant to me as a kid and what it represents to me now, as my affection for Full Moon is at least partially tied up in my dedication to F This Movie! and this column, which I suspect is being written solely for me at this point. I wouldn't call it my favorite Full Moon title, as I tend to like them a little bit weirder (meaning Dollman, Subspecies II and even Puppet Master II, which is pretty much a remake of the first film only a whole lot crazier). But it will always be my first. You never forget your first.

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  1. There is no way the column was written just for you, did you forget about me? I'm always on board for these movies too, I agree its the best one, I have not followed on and watched the whole series though I should, but like you this film meant a lot to a young me, I don't really know why it did? There was just something cool about those Puppets, I have the toys in my film room, I really like Tuneller a lot, I think I like the memory of the Movie better than the actual movie, that was a nice read, great work,

    I have still not seen Tourist trap though its been on my radar for a while

    1. Thanks, Dennis! Just the two of us, then.

      I rewatched the movie for the purposes of this column and I think it still holds up, though maybe that's my own nostalgia creeping in. Hard to tell it apart from just regular enjoyment, I guess. And Tourist Trap is really creepy and good.

    2. That's cool, as long as im not alone, "I don't want to die alone" Donnie Darko :)
      I will be rewatching it soon, I want to hear the score you like so much, I cant remember the music off the top of my head, I will comment later to how it held up as a movie also,

    3. THREE. At least. Even if I haven't seen The Passion of the Crust.

      I have to say, though, I couldn't imagine the nightmares this would have given me if I'd seen it as a kid. Leech Woman alone would have kept me up for days. These puppet designs are incredibly iconic and memorable, and the stories are so unusual...there's a lot to love.

  2. I was one of those video store kids too; always on the look out for the next full moon release.
    My gate way drug was Puppet Master 2. That movie was so crazy and I still have affection for it.
    To this day I will random ask friends and co-workers if they have ever smelled roasting entrails.
    Thank you Patrick.

    Random follow up I am really enjoying the Shudder beta. Is anyone else trying it and what do you think so far?

    1. I'll try to get to Puppet Master II soon; I revisited it about a year ago and liked it way more than I remembered.

      I love Shudder so far. My only complaint is that there aren't enough hours in the day for me to watch all the stuff I want to watch. I'd also love for them to have a channel on Roku or something so I don't have to watch on my laptop.

    2. Can you not connect your laptop to your projector, that's what I do and it works fine, you do also have to output the sound to the amp and its a bit messy but it gets it on the big screen

    3. I'd guess that roku or streaming via gaming consoles is only a matter of time which is something else that I too am short on. I am excited because they have a lot of movies that are new to me.
      I will be careful not to burn myself out prior to Scary Movie Month

    4. Very interested in Shudder however I need to be able to cast from Chromebook to Chromecast to my TV in 5.1 (for movies that allow for it, obviously). Don't know if that's happening with Shudder - any idea? Their FAQ doesn't say.

  3. Love this flick, but then, even as bad as it gets, I'm a sucker for the whole franchise.

  4. I need to refamiliarize myself with the Puppetmaster series. My gateway into Full Moon was Subspecies.

  5. It still holds up really well, highlights were Tunneler running at the camera with head spinning and lots of not so subtle hints from the actors I enjoyed, they knew what film they were in and had fun with it, The Leech Lady was freaky, something very strange about that puppet, as soon as the music started on the dvd homepage I remembered it, great score by Richard,
    Problem is now how can you stop at part 1, is it even possible to stop without closing the loop? I don't own them all but I have another 7 left

  6. I loved this movie when I was younger, and I also had a recent revisit last fall. It does hold up very well. Not absurd at all with your love of the music. I think it's fantastic. That haunting, creepy melody is part of why this movie is so effective in my opinion.