Mike’s Review: Puppet Master (1989)

ATMOSfx! Woo!

★★★ out of ★★★★★

Written by Charles Band and directed by David Schmoeller

There’s some things in life that you need to let breathe.  Sit on them for a while.  Give them the “big think.” Some of these things you may need to come back to decades later to figure out their true place in the horror tapestry.  Often times, for a variety of reasons, we all have instantaneous and adverse reactions to art, music, and yes, horror films.  And indeed, over time, these adverse reactions turn in to parodies, puns, and buffoonery.  None could be more the case than the 1989 horror film, Puppet Master, and its appurtenant universe.

Puppet Master is loved, revered, hated, dismissed, mocked, and cherished — all in the same breath. For this reason, the Scariest Things Podcast, decided that it was time to check back in on this little cottage industry 30 years later. Depending on who’s counting the Puppet Master universe now includes 13 films, the most recent being 2018’s Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich. Given this incredible resiliency and longevity, it got us to thinking, is the 1989 masterkind, really all that and a bag of knives?

Puppet Master is an earnest little film that was originally conceived by Charles Band and directed by David Schmoeller for the meager sum of $400,000.  Following the origin of famed puppet master Andre Toulon, Puppet Master begins in coastal California in 1939, where Toulon has somewhat inexplicably been given the ancient Egyptian gift of turning inantimate objects (puppets) life.  Also rather inexplicably, Toulon is being hunted by Nazis.  Yes, those Nazis.  Rather than divulge his Egyptian cipher, Toulon offs himself, but not before the puppets (Blade, Jester, Shredder Khan, and Gengie) are properly tucked away for safe keeping. 

Fast forward to 1989, a group of psychics, each with their own unique twist on the metaphysical, comes together because one of the psychics has discovered Toulon’s puppet’s hiding place and the mystery of Toulon and his peculiar puppets.  The lead psychic, Neil, who now owns the California hotel, has recently killed himself and left his wife, Megan (Robin Frates) to deal with his fellow psychics, the hotel, the outlandish Toulon legacy.  The group, led by the craven Alex Whitaker (played by Paul Le Mat of American Graffiti fame), descends on the California hotel where Toulon hid his creepy creatures and these sentient weirdos all begin to have their own unique visions and dreams — allegedly a function of the peculiar Egyptian curse that’s be brought to the hotel.  

Apprently, Neil’s psychic discoveries had unlocked Toulon’s puppets and the Egyptian curse and the greedier of the psychic clan wants in on the power that these puppets portend.  It’s unclear why a gaggle of 12 inch puppets would bring fame, fortune, and power, but we’ll just go with it.  Also, unclear is why these puppets, including new puppets, Tunneler, Pinhead and Leech Woman, begin to exact horrifying revenge on Team Psychic.  Really, and maybe this is what makes the entire Puppet Master franchise so engaging, the killings are inventive, funny, and amusing.  While the film takes on a killing-by-numbers quality, it’s one that revels in its creative juices and deftly employs the stature of these deviant toys. 

Somehow ol’ Neil found a way to conduct a reverse alchemy spell on himself and instead of turning inanimate objects to life, Neil’s able to grant himself immortality.  Um…sure.  The puppets all come to the collective realization that Neil is a class-A blockhead and they decide to turn the tables on his immortal spirit.  Puppet Master wraps things up nicely with a faint little twist at the end that bespeaks of future puppets, masters, and psychics. 

All the accolades, awards, platitudes, and hatred that Puppet Master receives are warranted. The story is tortured, preposterous, and nonsensical, but at its core, Puppet Master is a great little film.  It’s the little horror film that could.  Or the little horror film that keeps on keeping on.  Thirty years and 13 films later is quite the accomplishment.  The fact that this convoluted little story could launch Fullmoon pictures, countless Subspecies films, Puppet Masters, and Demonic Toys films — as well as Evil Bong, Evil Bong 666, and Evil Bong 777 — is a testament to horror greatness. 

Puppet Master is rated R and currently streaming on Vudu and Amazon through the Full Moon subscription.

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