If there’s one description that inspires even less confidence in a film than “made for TV”, it’s “direct to video”. Sure, producer Charles Band stated he could make more money on this film in the direct market than in theatres. But… actually, I don’t really need a counterpoint there, do I? He kind of did my work for me there. It’s hard to snark at someone that sets himself up so effortlessly.
With some rather obvious inspiration from Child’s Play, 1989’s Puppet Master is a horror movie playing on the common sense of unease that people have with puppets. Horror films are about scaring people, people find puppets creepy, it’s a logical enough fit. Except, of course, for the minor detail that even the creepiest puppet looks silly when it’s subjected to stop-motion animation. As I’ve said earlier, it’s hard to give a horror film credit when it looks ridiculous.
Sadly, that’s not the most ridiculous thing about this movie.
The story opens up with actor William Hickey playing an elderly puppeteer. He has learned the secret to bringing inanimate objects to life, which he uses to animate his bizarre puppets. We can tell he’s insane because he’s creating unholy mockeries of life, and also because he’s making puppets. Sane people do not make puppets; a few puppeteers, such as Jim Henson, just happen to be the friendly kind of crazy. Though the movie later asserts through the puppeteer’s diary that he was one of the benevolent types, the fact that his living puppets are all grotesque and bear lethal weapons in place of normal limbs makes me question this assertion.
The work of a benevolent, rational man?
As assassins approach the hotel room where the puppet maker is staying, the old man beats them to the punch and blows his brains out. Flash forward to a few years later. The owner of the hotel, Megan Gallagher (Robin Frates), is visited by several former associates of her late husband Neil (Jimmie F. Skaggs), who has just killed himself. These associates are all psychics of one form or another. There’s Dana (Irene Miracle), a fortune teller with a thick Southern accent and a self-described “nasty bitch”. There’s Carlissa, an apparent nymphomaniac who can read the past of items she touches; she’s played by Kathryn O’Reilly, who fulfills the requirement that every horror film spur rumors of snuff films by dropping off the face of the earth afterward. There’s Carlissa’s partner Frank, played by Matt Roe, whose power seems to be being lecherous. And finally, there’s the erstwhile protagonist, Alex Whitaker (Paul Le Mat), who has prophetic dreams and visions.
He also has superhuman hair.
They begin investigating what Neil was up to when he killed himself, and of course further killings begin soon after. As the movie unfolds, several questions are raised in the mind of the viewer. A few of these questions are the questions the movie wants us to ask, such as “Who’s the mastermind and what do they want?” and “Can Alex prevent Meghan from becoming a victim?” More of the questions are undesired by the movie but nevertheless invoked, ranging from “Why don’t any of these people ever call out for help?” to “How many times are they going to pull the ‘not really awake’ gag?” to “Did they really have to include puppet-on-human bondage erotica?”
I could have gone my whole life without seeing that. I wish I’d gone my whole life without seeing this movie.
There is, at its core, a workable premise in this movie. And aside from a few scenes, the plot manages to be moderately coherent. I’ll concede that with some serious editing, and a re-write here and there, this may have been an OK movie. But as it stands, it’s just impossible to view it as anything other than ridiculous. There’s a sense in some scenes that it’s trying to be a bit humorous. But I’m not laughing with it. I’m not laughing at it, either. I’m staring at it, head tilted, asking if it really expects me to be enjoying this.