1993's Puppet Master 4 marks a turning point in Full Moon's long-running Puppet Master franchise, the series that essentially built the company. Like in the Saw series of the 2000s, the first three Puppet Master films make up their own trilogy of sorts. There's not a ton of continuity to them, but they at least feel like they're of a piece and are typically the only ones cited when fans list off their favorite entry in the franchise. Like the Saw series, the franchise probably could have ended after the third movie, but fan demand kept it going movie after movie. And like the Saw series, the fourth film sees a real shift in the approach to the mythology; whereas Saw IV introduced Detective Hoffman and sent the sequels down a new path, Puppet Master 4 introduces the underworld and demons and magical creatures called Totems to serve as antagonists, turning the once-murderous puppets into the heroes.
original Puppet Master) who have discovered Toulon's puppets and animated them with his formula. The first thing they do after uncovering the secrets of artificial life? Play laser tag with the puppets. The second thing they do? DIE.
That's an overstatement, because (SPOILER) only one of the four main characters in the movie actually dies, and he's the asshole character only interested in Toulon's magic for his own personal gain. Gone is the slasher movie structure of the first two Puppet Master films, and in its place is...well, I'm not really sure. Half the less-than 80-minute running time passes before the puppets come to life. And when they finally do, they play laser tag. The majority of the first half consists of characters standing around in rooms talking, which makes this sound like a more recent Full Moon effort despite it having been made under the original Paramount deal and thus given a slightly larger budget.
Gremlins, except in Gremlins the monsters were higher in number and the scenes were mostly played for more for laughs than horror.
The real charm of Puppet Master 4 is seeing the puppets become the heroes, in much the same way that Terminator 2 turned the T-800 into the good guy because the filmmakers knew that's who the audience had come to see. The best scene in the movie finds the formerly evil Blade and Pinhead grabbing hold of a totem and pinning him to the wall so Tunneler can drill a hole in his stomach, followed by a wonderful shot of Pinhead cleaning the blood off Tunneler's drill with a paper towel. It's a moment that makes them simultaneously murderous and charmingly adorable. Another sequence finds them dispatching a totem in roughly the same way that Doc Brown sends the DeLorean back to 1985. It involves setting up wires and climbing onto the roof of the hotel and waiting for some well-timed lightning and it makes one wonder why five puppets went to all that trouble when it was a lot easier just to drill the thing through the stomach. Maybe they just like a challenge.
Jonathan Demme movie. There's rarely a motivation for any of this choices other than to try to keep it interesting, either for the viewer or for himself.
But like I said, Burr's a good director who knows how to stretch a budget and he does solid work with Puppet Master 4. It was originally meant to be the first theatrical Full Moon film with Charles Band attached to direct, but when it got busted down to DTV status Burr was brought on because he's a guy who knows how to work fast and work cheap while still turning out a good movie. He does his best to keep things energetic and makes sense of a script that had been passed through a lot of hands as well as cut in half to be turned into two movies. Dave Allen was still providing stop motion animation for the series at this point, but there's not a whole lot of it in the film; more often than not, the puppets are shot from the waist up. They move around quite a bit (unlike later entries), but some of the charm of those first films is gone.
While far from being a traditionally "good" film, Puppet Master 4 is a decent little B-movie that knows just what it is and has some fun by mixing up the status quo of the series. It's probably still my fourth favorite of the franchise, but the quality of the movies hadn't yet fallen off the cliff. Much of its success can be attributed to Jeff Burr, a director talented enough to make even the fourth and fifth Puppet Master movies work. Pity that Full Moon wasn't able to use him more often.
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