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PUPPET MASTER (1989)
"Dana there makes her living telling fortunes. She used her powers to help your husband locate the last true alchemist of modern times, a famous puppet master of the twenties…."
Director: David Schmoeller
Starring: Paul Le Mat, Jimmie F. Skaggs, Robin Frates, Irene Miracle, Matt Roe, Kathryn O’Reilly, Merrya Small, William Hickey
Screenplay: Joseph G. Collodi, based upon a story by Charles Band and Kenneth J. Hall
Synopsis: In 1939, at the Bodega Bay Inn in California, puppet master Andre Toulon (William Hickey) is putting the finishing touches on one of his creations – puppets that can move without strings – when he becomes aware that two men are searching for him. Toulon gathers together his puppets, hiding them in a trunk that he conceals behind a panel in the wall of his hotel room. As the two men in black reach the door of his room, Toulon shoots himself…. Fifty years later, anthropology professor Alex Whitaker (Paul Le Mat) jerks awake from a dream of a man and a woman dancing in an empty ballroom. The man pulls a gun on the woman…. In the middle of a reading, fortune-teller Dana Hadley (Irene Miracle) clutches her head as she suffers a sudden vision. While conducting an experiment, psychic researcher Frank Forrester (Matt Roe) and his subject and girlfriend, Carissa Stamford (Kathryn O’Reilly), receive a phonecall from Alex, who tells them of Dana’s vision. The four realise that they have been "contacted", and decide it can mean only one thing: that their former associate, Neil Gallagher (Jimmie F. Skaggs), has found Andre Toulon’s secret. Following Dana’s vision, they head for the Bodega Bay Inn. To their surprise, they are greeted by a Mrs Gallagher, Megan (Robin Frates). They ask to see her husband, and are stunned when Megan tells them that he is dead; that he shot himself. Megan leaves the newcomers alone with the coffin, and Dana checks that Gallagher is really dead by driving a bodkin into him. Forrester puzzles over how none of them "picked up" on Gallagher’s death, and concludes that Gallagher had indeed located Toulon’s secret. The hotel maid, Theresa (Merrya Small), shows Dana to her room. Dana warns her that she is in danger, and tells her to stay away from the fireplace. Alex finds a postcard featuring the hotel’s ballroom, and has another vision of the man and woman dancing: Neil and Megan Gallagher. Carissa is in the elevator with Frank and Theresa when she suddenly becomes aware that Gallagher once raped a woman there. That night, something climbs out of Gallagher’s coffin: a stringless puppet with a pinhead and enormous hands…. Over dinner, Dana needles Megan about her marriage until the widow flees the table. Alex goes after her to apologise. When the bewildered Megan demands to know what is going on, Alex explains that the four of them have psychic powers that Neil Gallagher once employed. He further explains that Gallagher and Frank researched the occult powers of the Egyptians who, they believed, had developed a method of instilling life into inanimate figurines; a secret passed down through the ages to a few select alchemists, including Andre Toulon. Meanwhile, as Theresa stokes the fire, a poker is swung at her head…. Later, Megan screams hysterically and faints. The others rush to her, and find Neil Gallagher’s body sitting in the chair behind his desk….
Comments: I guess this is a slightly embarrassing admission for someone in my position to be making, but the truth is, I’m not all that well-versed in the world of Full Moon. Lately, I’ve been trying to rectify the situation by watching a representative selection of the company’s output; and I’ve come away from the exercise with an overwhelming – or should that be underwhelming? – sense that the distinguishing feature of their films is their tendency to be all dressed up with nowhere to go. Time and again, an incredibly convoluted backstory and enough plot threads to feed half a dozen movies are thrown together, only to have it turn out that these elements have little if anything to do with the actual scenario. Puppet Master, the film upon which Charles Band built his, uh, empire (sorry!), is a case in point, serving up an opening hodge-podge of psychics, alchemists, Nazi agents, free-range puppets and the living dead, then degenerating into a plot which, by and large, seems to have been lifted from a slasher movie; only with several little killers instead of one big one. Even more disheartening is the fact that, in spite of this amazing mixture of subject matters (which you’d really think would provide sufficient material to fill out a ninety-minute movie), Puppet Master features a simply astonishing amount of padding. Far too often, the viewer is reduced to staring at the screen in a state of annoyance and/or impatience, as events with clearly no other purpose than to stretch out the film take their own sweet time about unfolding.
In fact, Puppet Master makes the near-fatal error of starting out with just such a sequence, in which something makes its through the grounds of the Bodega Bay Inn, goes inside, weaves across the crowded lobby, then runs into an occupied elevator, down a corridor and into an hotel room, all without being seen. This chain of events drags on for over five minutes, all of it shown POV; and as if this in itself weren’t bad enough, the "something" is then revealed to be a foot-high, skull-faced, knife-wielding puppet – making its unnoticed journey through the hotel not just irritating, but ludicrous. (I’m always amazed at how few fantasy film makers seem to understand the first principle of suspension of disbelief: if you want your audience to accept the "big impossibles", then you’d darn well better get the "little possibles" right.)
But even all the overt padding isn’t the worst of it. I’ve seen few films that could challenge Puppet Master in its dispiriting use of---well, covert padding. Watch this film twice in fairly rapid succession, as I have just done, and it will be forcibly borne upon you that for all the questions raised during the dialogue scenes in the first half of the film (and there are a lot of them), not one of them is ever answered. We get endless hints about the character of Neil Gallagher; about his relationship with the other characters, including his wife; about the secret of Andre Toulon - and then all of this is just swept to one side and forgotten, having served its purpose and kept the audience dangling until the time for puppet mayhem finally arrived. Still more incredibly, it turns out that the psychic abilities of the four central characters play no real part in the way the plot is worked out either, beyond providing a few visual flourishes and other bits of business along the way. Frankly, had the four been Neil Gallagher's former accountants, whom he summoned by telegram, it wouldn't have made a lick of difference to the outcome of the story.
None of which is to say I hated Puppet Master. I didn’t; in fact, I kind of liked it in spite of all its faults; or at least, liked it enough to be disappointed in it, and to wish it were better. Of course, the puppets themselves give the film a headstart into my good graces. Films about "little scuttling things" work on me; always have done, ever since I was traumatised at the age of ten by a late-night viewing of Trilogy Of Terror. (Although, truth be told, it wasn’t just the film that traumatised me, but--- Oh, well, no sense in opening up old wounds. Aren’t older sisters wonderful, though?)
These particular "scuttlers" are far and away the most interesting thing about this film. Our little stars are five in number (or are they? – we’ll get back to that in a moment). There’s Jester, the ostensible leader, inasmuch as he sits back and lets the others do his dirty work for him; his big "trick" is spinning the three segments of his head around in order to change expression. There’s Pinhead, he of the tiny head and huge hands, much given to tossing people around and trying to strangle them. (I had a problem seeing Pinhead as a figure of menace, not merely because of his blithe disregard of the fundamental laws of physics, but because every time I looked at his hands, I was irresistibly reminded of Wallace & Gromit.) There’s Blade, our acquaintance of the opening sequence, who has a knife for one hand, and a hook for the other; and there’s Tunneler, who looks just like the racially-dubious Bad Guy from Thunderbirds, except that he has a cone-shaped drill on the top of his head. And finally, there’s Leech Woman, who has the, shall we say, unlikely ability to hock up deadly leeches onto her victims (I guess someone liked The Hidden) - provided, that is, that those victims are tied to a bed or otherwise incapacitated: she ain’t exactly lightning fast at it.
(While the official Puppet Rollcall ends here, I can’t help wondering what happened to the little guy who was looking out the hotel window in the opening scene?)
The main pleasure of Puppet Master is the way its miniature anti-heroes are realised: not via CGI, as they undoubtedly would be if the film were to be made today, but (Pinhead’s hands, which appear to be real, aside) via a combination of stop-motion animation and genuine puppetry – and pretty skilful puppetry, at that. In fact, this alone is almost enough to lift the film above its quagmire of a screenplay, easing the strain on the audience’s overburdened suspension of disbelief, and infusing each of the puppets with a genuine personality. Alas! – if only as much could be said about the human members of the cast.
Indeed, compared to their scene-stealing little co-stars, the flesh and blood characters of Puppet Master come in a very distant and dismal second; and while the acting in this film isn’t exactly brilliant, fingers can again be more justly pointed at the screenplay. As Dana, the fake-psychic-who-isn’t, Irene Miracle (the basement swimmer of Dario Argento’s Inferno) has an unfair advantage over her colleagues, as she is the only one given anything remotely of substance to work with. Although lumbered with a thoroughly annoying "honeychile" accent, Miracle latches on to the paraphernalia of Dana’s calling, and to the fact that she is given the only reasonable lines of dialogue in the whole script ("I’m not really a cynic. I prefer to think of myself as a nasty bitch."), and has a shot at creating a character who is actually memorable. She is rewarded for her efforts with the film’s best human moment, when Dana finds the "dead" Neil Gallagher in her bedroom – and instead of screaming and fainting like Megan, reacts only with a smirk of perverted amusement.
Before this, however, Miracle must first plough her way through not one, but two of Puppet Master’s worst stretches of padding. The first is her opening scene, a pseudo-comic sequence in which she sells a gullible couple a patently false fortune. (The female half of the couple is played by Barbara Crampton, whose appearance is billed as "special", I’m not sure why. Perhaps because she keeps her clothes on.) The second is a dinner scene in which Dana torments Megan Gallagher, throwing out hints about the psychics’ past dealings with Neil Gallagher, and warning Megan that her husband "screwed us all" and that they’ve "come to get our share". (At the time, when we naively expect to learn how Neil Gallagher screwed his colleagues, and what "their share" might be, this scene isn’t so bad; in retrospect, however, the only possible response is righteous indignation.) Still, when Dana – eventually - stops talking and starts acting, she is actually rather interesting to watch. Alone of the four, she has a grasp of the forces at work within the hotel, and takes steps to protect herself and her associates from the undead Gallagher. Unfortunately for all concerned, however, Dana’s powers do not go quite far enough.
Dana’s big mistake, of course, was not realising what kind of film she was in, something the audience was tipped off to earlier, first with the inclusion of an utterly pointless character, the housekeeper, Theresa, and then with that pointless character’s equally pointless murder. Had she known all this, Dana might not, through boredom and drunkenness, made a pass at Alex – nor responded to his rejection of her with a few choice obscenities. A woman who behaves like that in a horror film can only be headed for a gruesome demise, and Dana meets hers when Blade and Pinhead trap her in the elevator.
Frank Forrester and Carissa Stamford – a pair of psychic researchers who make Peter Venkman look ethical and dedicated – are also done in by their failure to recognise their artistic surroundings. Although Frank, like the others, is supposed to have "unusual psychic abilities", we see little evidence of this. Instead, the paranormal focus remains upon Carissa, who is present partially as comedy relief (alleged), and partially to put some female skin on screen. (Although she’s not alone in that: Puppet Master really began to push its luck with me when it included a rape sequence that serves no purpose beyond a quick boob flash. I can’t believe that some film-makers are still sinking to that one, but since they are, I’ll give them this piece of advice: if you haven’t got enough imagination to think of a way to get some tits into your film other than by including a gratuitous rape scene, you’d better give up trying to write fantasy.) The relationship between Frank and Carissa is just one of the film’s unresolved mysteries. We never do learn whether they believe the guff they spout (they plan to have sex using, we are told, "various sexual aids and certain assorted apparatus" in order to "open up a channel to Neil Gallagher"!?), or whether it’s just their excuse to indulge in kinky sex. (In either case, it would seem an act of supererogation, given Gallagher’s refusal to stay in his coffin.) This being the kind of film it is, what do suppose happens to Frank and Carissa while they’re having kinky sex? Aw, go on - take a guess!
Yup. First, Carissa becomes aware that the door's open, and that "something" is under the bed. Naturally, she climbs off Frank (who is both blindfolded and tied up) and sticks her face under there to have a look - and helpfully keeps it there (rather than, you know, standing up and moving away) when Tunneler comes straight at her. Surprisingly, under the circumstances, Carissa dies almost silently, so that Frank hasn't the faintest idea what's happened to her. He then gets his when Leech Woman goes into, uh, action. Before doing so, however, she plays with his left nipple a bit, provoking some praise of "Carissa" from the soon-to-be victim. (Here's a man who can't tell the difference between the touch of his girlfriend and the touch of a puppet - what does that say about their relationship?) Leech Woman then does what she does best. Eventually, mastermind Frank figures out that something's wrong, and manages to dislodge his blindfold sufficiently to take a look. Now, Frank is clearly rescue-able at this stage, but instead of screaming something sensible like, say, "FOR GOD'S SAKE HELP ME I'M BEING ATTACKED BY KILLER PUPPETS!!", he continues to make no stronger protest than some "Uhh! Uhh! Uhh!" noises, which Dana and Alex mistake for more of the sexual grunting they're all too used to hearing from Frank's room. So exit Frank. Slowly. Bloodily.
Which leaves Alex, dullest of the dull; our hero by default, certainly not because of anything he does. His dreams are visually interesting (although the film-makers go to the well once too often with the dream-within-a-dream schtick; and why does he suddenly start having visions rather than dreams?), but like so much in this film, turn out to have not much to do with anything. In fact, Alex's main - not to say only - contribution to the story is to stand there while Neil Gallagher punches him in the face about a hundred and seventy-two times in succession; a beating that Alex bounces back from with a truly remarkable resiliency (and at one point, thanks to a glaring continuity error, with a truly remarkable lack of bloodshed, too). Although Alex appoints himself Megan Gallagher's protector, it is not he who ultimately battles the undead Neil, but the puppets.
A flashback to Andre Toulon tells us that the puppets tend to take on the personality of he who brings them to life. (It is inferred that Toulon built the puppets merely for companionship, although this rather begs the question of why he made them with drills on their heads and knives for hands. Leech Woman I'm assuming is a Gallagher addition.) Whether because of this, or because of Gallagher's ill-tempered - and ill-considered - casting aside of Jester, the puppets turn upon their former "controller". Earlier, Gallagher gloated to Alex that he could only be killed if his body were to be utterly destroyed – something the puppets seem to take as a personal challenge. The final showdown occurs - surprise! – in the hotel elevator (the camera must have jammed there, or something), accompanied by repeated snarls of, "What the hell do you think you’re doing?" from Gallagher. During the extended and rather grotesque scene that follows (which gives the audience ample opportunity for wondering why Gallagher bleeds red from his leg but green from his fingers), we get my favourite moment in the whole film. Whether it’s worth waiting eighty-five minutes for, I’m not sure; but I really do like the careful way that Blade cleans up after himself, after he--- Well, I’ll let you find that out for yourselves….
Charles Band's fledgling Full Moon was off to a flying start with Puppet Master, which was and is an enormously popular film - to a degree which I confess I find rather baffling. Yes, the puppets are cool. Yes, there are some pretty good gore scenes. Yes, there's a bit of skin, and occasionally a bit of humour. But there are also an awful lot of dead patches, some uninspired acting, and an ending that, for all the build-up, is more likely to provoke Huh? from the audience than any other reaction. Still, I seem to be in the minority with this one. I can only assume that, far from being alone in my weakness for "little scuttling things", I am easily outstripped in that department by a very large number of horror fans. Even as Puppet Master itself seems to have been inspired (if that’s the right word) by the success of Child’s Play the year before, the positive reaction to this film not only resulted in the inevitable string of sequels (three more of which are sitting in a box under my bed, waiting for my attention; thank you, Channel 7), but encouraged Charles Band & Co. to cannibalise themselves with one-offs, like Blood Dolls, and with the Demonic Toys films. The eventual crossover, Puppet Master Vs Demonic Toys, was certainly inevitable. The thought that there is actually a market for so many, many films about little scuttling things is just bewildering. I can only conclude that I was far from the only person to be traumatised at a tender age by a late-night screening of Trilogy Of Terror....