Friday, October 21, 2011

October 19th: Puppet Master (1989)

It's 1939; elderly puppeteer Andre Toulon (William Hickey) has created seven living puppets, with Jester (Michael Laide) being the latest. As Andre rests in his room at Bodega Bay Inn in Bodega Bay, California, two Nazi spies (Peter Frankland and Andrew Kimbrough) arrive and are looking for him. Alerted by Blade (Bert Rosario), Andre hides the puppets and kills himself just as the Nazis kick his door down.
Fifty years later, psychics Alex Whitaker (Paul Le Mat) and Dana Hadley (Irene Miracle) have visions of their own deaths. Alerting fellow psychics Frank Forrester (Matt Roe) and Carissa Stamford (Kathryn O'Reilly), the four travel to Bodega Bay, convinced that the visions are from Neil Gallagher (Jimmie F. Skaggs), a former colleague staying at the Inn.
Upon their arrival, the psychics are informed by Megan Gallagher (Robin Frates), Neil's wife and the Inn Keeper, that Neil committed suicide a few days ago. As the other psychics settle in and being to enjoy themselves, Alex and Megan discover that Blade, Jester and Toulon's other puppets have been revived and are now running amok in the Inn with murderous intent.
Thanks to the success of "Living Doll" and "Dummy," '60s era episodes from The Twilight Zone, and "Amelia," the third segment of Dan Curtis' Trilogy of Terror, the concept of killer dolls/puppets has become a surprisingly popular formula. Magic, Dolly Dearest, Dolls and Demonic Toys all employed killer dolls and puppets as the villains to varying levels of success.
When Puppet Master came out in 1989, the killer doll concept had been revived by Tom Holland's Child's Play; a surprise hit at the box office, Child's Play created a new horror icon in the incredibly foul-mouthed Chucky. Recognizing the film's success, Charles Band, producer and founder of Full Moon Productions, jumped on the bandwagon and with director David Schmoeller and co-writer Kenneth J. Hall crafted Puppet Master, which would go on to spawn nine sequels and become Full Moon's most successful property.
Considering those facts, Puppet Master proves just how much studios like Full Moon value box office potential over film quality. Seriously, is this is Charles Band's pride and joy, I'd hate to see what films he's not proud of, because Puppet Master is god awful in every conceivable way; the acting, the writing, the production values, the directing, the dialogue, the characters, the bad accents, the stupid flashbacks, the silly deaths, AM I MAKING MYSELF F&*^$#@ CLEAR!!?!?!?!?
Alright, let's start the script, which is the crux of any good film. We start off in 1939, with Andre Toulon and the puppets. How the hell did Toulon bring them to life? It's never even brought up for discussion; they're alive and that's all there is to it. Now I'm not one who needs everything explained to me; I tend to prefer ambiguity in horror films, but the fact the filmmakers aren't even bothered to drop some hints as to how or why Toulon makes living puppets is beyond me. Furthermore, why the &#%+ are NAZIS doing in California and why are they trying to kill Toulon?!?!?!? Either these screenwriters are couch potatoes too lazy to make the story coherent or there were a LOT of scenes deleted from the finished product, because this don't make a single, solitary lick of sense.
Then there's our psychics; Alex, Dana The White Witch (Bitch is far more appropriate), Frank, and Carissa. Their relationship is pretty loose; Alex is a professor at Yale, Dana is a circus fortune teller and Frank and Carissa are researchers. In addition, their relationship with Neil is even thinner. Regardless, you would think adult psychics would be a nice change of pace from the horny teens usually seen in '80s horror films, yet, with the exception of Alex, they could all have been teenagers and it wouldn't have made a difference. Dana is just a raging bitch who walks around with a bottle of wine in one hand and a stuffed dog in the other, while Frank and Carissa are horny; we don't even know exactly what Frank's powers are.
That's not to say Alex gets off the hook; oh no, he's getting his just desserts right now. I'm not sure whether Band and Hall's writing is more to blame than Le Mat's acting or not, but Alex Whitaker is a pathetic leading man. There's nothing wrong with having a middle-aged, heavier built guy as the hero; Reggie in the Phantasm movies fits that description, yet he's right up there with Ash in Evil Dead as a righteously cool badass. The problem is that Alex has nothing interesting about him; his dreams are nonsensical even when they're explained, he never develops any sort of relationship with Neil's widow, his powers do nothing to help the situation, and he's a shitty fighter, not to mention Le Mat is a horrid actor with zero points in the charisma department, which is a lot more than I can say about the rest of the cast, especially Irene Miracle and her grating fake accent.
As for Neil Gallagher, there's a lot of questions to be asked. First of all, the other psychics treat him like Mr. Boddy in Clue; they claim he's a horrible bastard who screwed them over. Okay, but whereas Clue took the time to explain what Mr. Boddy did, we're never let privy to Neil's sins, other than a bizarre vision of him attacking a woman in an elevator, something that is never explained or brought back up. We're told he sent Alex and Dana the visions, but I don't recall it ever being explained what powers Neil had or what his role in this psychic group was. In the climax, we eventually learn Neil's motivation in bringing the psychics to Bodega Bay, but it's absurd and quickly rushed in the last 20 minutes, at which point I wished I was in Neil's place; dead and unable to see or hear what was going on around me.
From a production value standpoint, Puppet Master is amateurish even for its time and budget, but what makes it worse is that the setting is actually a good one. Bodega Bay is a beautiful town; anyone who has seen Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, which was shot and set in Bodega Bay, can attest to that. Not to mention, the film primarily takes place in a seaside Inn. Unfortunately, the filmmakers never once take advantage of the gorgeous location. Granted, they filmed in California, but that didn't mean the whole movie had to be confined in the Inn; this could've happened anywhere else. It should've been set in California; that's where they were filming, so they might as well use that location for all its worth. By confining the characters in an Inn, it's up to Schmoeller to make the film visually exciting. Guess what? He doesn't. Even Silent Night, Deadly Night Part II looks better than this.
I'll throw Puppet Master one compliment, though; the Puppets themselves, in particular Blade and Leech Woman. When Leech Woman makes her debut and reveals why she's called Leech Woman, it's an impressively icky moment, even if it makes no sense. Then there's Blade; having never seen Puppet Master up until this point or any of its sequels (which I intend to avoid like the f&#&*$@ plague), the only thing I knew was Blade, who is apparently the most popular character of the series. I can see why; dressed in a black trenchcoat with long white hair, a look based on Klaus Kinski and a knife for one hand and a claw for the other, Blade is appropriately gothic and creepy. If Puppet Master does nothing else right, at the very least it created an iconic villain.
As cool as they are, these puppets (Blade and Leech Woman excluded) are pathetically inept killers. Now I get they're small, but c'mon. Jester is apparently the leader, yet he doesn't do anything important in the film. Tunneler, sporting a drill head, isn't the least bit effective on his own. Then there's Pinhead, a puppet with human-sized hands. His mode of death? Punching. During his confrontation with Dana, he does nothing but punch her across the face repeatedly, which does nothing, save for giving Dana a bruised lip. Oh yeah, that's really dangerous. Here's a hint, Pinhead; you have human-sized hands. How about getting a weapon or choking people? If that's not bad enough, the puppets actually turn out to be good guys in the end. Please kill me now, Lord.
As big a fan of horror movies as I am, there are a handful of franchise I've yet to see, with Puppet Master and The Amityville Horror being the big ones. Having subjected myself to Puppet Master, I have to say I don't regret never seeing it in my childhood. It's a decent concept on its own and Blade and Leech Woman are cool slasher villains; it's a shame they're trapped in such a dreadful movie, filled to the brim with horrid performances, piss-poor production values, and some of the nonsensical writing I've seen in a very long time. There's not even anything to laugh at here; it's all bad and no good. 0.5 out of 5 Stars.

Next Up: October 20th: The Invisible Man Returns (1940)

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