Thursday, 3 April 2014

Puppet Master

Director: David Schmoeller
Writer: 'Joseph G Collodi'
Producer: Hope Perello
Cast: Paul Le Mat, Irene Miracle, Robin Frates
Country: USA
Year of release: 1989
Reviewed from: UK DVD (Prism)

Charles Band has a thing about dolls. You can see it in his filmography: Dolls, Blood Dolls, Dollman (not actually a doll but easily mistaken for one), Doll Graveyard, Demonic Toys, Dollman vs Demonic Toys, the toy dinosaurs in the Prehysteria films and of course this movie and its eight (so far) sequels/prequels. Dolls and puppets are so ubiquitous in his films that he has now released a 'greatest hits' package of clips entitled When Puppets and Dolls Attack!.

Did young Charlie Band suffer some sort of toybox trauma when he was growing up in Italy? He seems such a well-balanced, straightforward sort of bloke that it's difficult to believe he was ever savaged by an Action Man or attacked by a GI Joe. So why this theme in his work? I suspect it's because he has spotted that puppets and dolls make terrific monsters for a variety of reasons.

On a technical level, they're great because they can be animated without worry. Whether they're glove puppets, rod puppets, stop-motion macquettes or marionettes, there is no need to try and create completely smooth and fluid animation. Not only does it not matter if they move slightly jerkily, it actually helps to establish their character. Of course they're jerky - they're wood! They are lumps of stiff wood or plastic and all their joints are simple hinges. What better way to disguise the fact that you're using a puppet to create an effect than by having that puppet actually play a puppet. Consider something like the title characters in Ghoulies or Marvin the homunculus in Decadent Evil: we suspend our disbelief but we can clearly see that these are puppets, even if we can't see who is operating them. But that suspension of disbelief becomes irrelevant when they characters are presented to us as puppets.

So that's the technical aspect, though I don't want to take anything away from the skills of regular Band effects men like John Carl Buechler or the late David Allen. There is also a psychological aspect. Dolls and puppets are creepy and that's pretty much all there is to it. They represent living things and they actually move like living things, but they're not living things (or at least, we hope they're not). They are simulacra, they straddle the worlds of the animate and the inanimate, which really ought to remain separate. Above all it's those painted or moulded faces with their unmoving expressions. Just like clowns - and some puppets are clowns, which makes them twice as scary - the smile you see has no bearing on the individual's mood or intentions. One of our principal communication channels has been cut off. And we can't interpret body language either because it's that jerky, unnatural movement. Godammit, they shouldn't be moving at all!

Band isn't the first film-maker to spot and exploit this inherent horror and I'm sure he won't be the last. From the creepy ventriloquist's doll in the 1940s British classic Dead of Night to the Thai puppet theatre in Nonzee Nimibutr's segment of Three, from the little wooden figure in Trilogy of Terror to the CGI mannequins of Malice@Doll, these things are a standard device of film-makers and storytellers seeking to represent 'the other'. This is a subgenre which has close ties to the 'wax museum' school of horror, or at least that part of it where the figures come to life (not so much the dipping-people-in-wax movies). In those films the 'people' are just as artificial but they're life-size and it is probably no coincidence that one of Charles Band's biggest successes of his early years was the brilliant Tourist Trap with its psychically controlled mannequins.

What puts Charlie in a whole field of his own is his realisation that there is a third reason to feature puppets and dolls as his protagonists, beyond the technical and psychological. One word: merchandise. Fans like to collect toys and models of their favourite characters so why not go the whole hog and sell them exact replicas? Life-size, even. The Full Moon range of action figures was a canny move which has paid off handsomely, not just for Band but for those fans canny enough to save up the figures and the flog them years later on eBay.

Which brings us to this movie from the glory days of Full Moon when the time and the money was available to make films like this and there was an insatiable straight-to-video market that lapped them up.

The interesting thing about Puppet Master is that it is not primarily about the puppets, though they are much more than just a McGuffin or an arbitrary threat. We open in the 1930s at a fancy California cliff-top hotel, the Bodega Bay, where puppeteer Andre Toulon (William Hickey: Prizzi's Honour, The Name of the Rose) is finishing the final details on a puppet, delicately painting in the facial features. Two guys in sharp suits are making their way through the hotel - and so is something unseen, represented by a floor level Steadicam. David Allen's effects are terrific right from the off because we see so little of them. Under David Schmoeller's direction we have an occasional shadow or a movement in the corner of the frame, but mostly we know what is happening without anything having to be animated at all.

However, there is no skimping on actually acknowledging that what we have here are living puppets and when the little fellow arrives at Toulon's door we see what he looks like: black coat and hat, evilly grinning white face with deep-set eyes (allegedly modelled on Klaus Kinski) and a hook on one wrist, a mini-machete on the other. Although none of the puppets are given names in the film itself, the (non-dialogue) voices are credited so we know that this tiny chap's name is Blade.

Toulon puts Blade and the other puppets in a large travel case, along with a small scroll covered in Egyptian hieroglyphics, and hides the lot behind a secret panel in the wall. The guys in suits (credited as 'Assassins') take out their pistols and burst into Toulon's room but the old puppet master puts a gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger before they can reach him.

Jump forward to the present day (well, 1989) and we are introduced to four friends who share some degree of psychic ability. There's Alex Whitaker, Professor of Anthropology at Yale University (Paul Le Mat: American Graffiti, Strange Invaders); white witch Dana Hadley (Irene Miracle: Argento's Inferno, Watchers II) who works as a fortune teller in a carnival; and sex-obsessed psychic researchers Frank Forrester (Matt Roe: Black Scorpion I and II) and Carrisa Stamford (Kathryn O'Reilly: Saturday the 14th Strikes Back). The four of them travel out to the Bodega Bay where they discover that their former associate Neil Gallagher (Jimmie F Skaggs: Solar Crisis, Oblivion I and II) is recently deceased. They haven't seen him in a couple of years and in that time he has married the young lady who inherited the art deco palace from her parents, Megan (Robin Frates: The Arrival, Man's Best Friend).

It must be off-season because the hotel is deserted apart from Megan, one maid (Mews Small: Zapped!, Woody Allen's Sleeper and Frenchie in the original Broadway production of Grease) and the body, lying in an open coffin. The psychic quartet are uncertain why they have been summoned and puzzled as to how Gallagher could have died without at least one of them sensing it empathically in some way. Dana pokes him with a bodkin, just to be certain.

As the team settle in to their rooms, we start to get hints of something scurrying around the hotel. Carissa picks up memories from furniture of some of the wild sexual shenanigans which happened in the place in its heyday; Alex has disturbing dreams which are premonitions of something; and Dana gets drunk, talking to the stuffed lapdog that she keeps in her luggage and explaining to Megan what a shit her late husband actually was. Things take a turn for the bizarre when Gallagher is discovered out of his coffin, sitting on a chair.

What the plot boils down to is that Andre Toulon was the last possessor of an Ancient Egyptian magic which can animate the inanimate. Gallagher sought to locate that secret and, it seems, may have found it. And boiling that down further, we get a gang of tiny wooden terrors setting out to kill everyone in the building. But who is their master? Who is controlling them? Who, ultimately, will they obey?

As well as the previously mentioned Blade, there is: Tunneler, who wears a Nazi uniform and has a drill on top of his head; Pinhead, who has a tiny head but human-sized hands which he uses to punch or strangle people; Leech Woman, a glamorous white-skinned doll who regurgitates huge black leeches (really disturbing idea, that one); and Jester, the brains behind the team. It was Jester whom we saw being painted in the prologue although oddly the only time we see him with his jester's hat on is as a shadow behind a curtain. Pinhead is a particularly neat idea as the hands in some shots are actually real hands (or at least, real hands inside stubby latex gloves). Much of the puppet work is done by rods and hands, with just a few superb stop-motion shots that really remind us what an amazing animator David Allen was.

And this is all real. There was no CGI in 1989, no computers to digitally remove wires and rods and puppeteers. Anything that wasn't going to be in shot had to be kept out of shot, and it is. Above all, it's the sparsity of the effects work that impresses. The budget is kept low by only showing the puppets when needed and then often only as glimpses. It's the stop-motion scenes which eat up time and money and there are just enough of those to convince us that these puppets do have completely independent movement.

The cast work well together and the acting is good, just keeping to the straight side of oddness in scenes such as Dana talking to her stuffed dog. Stuart Gordon regular Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, Castle Freak) turns up briefly as a woman having her fortune told in Dana's first scene. The puppet 'voices' are provided by actors who specialise in ADR work.

The script credit to 'Joseph G Collodi' is of course a nod to the author of Pinocchio and disguises a screenplay by director Schmoeller from a story by Band and Kenneth J Hall (writer/director of Evil Spawn and The Halfway House). Schmoeller has directed six other pictures for Band: Tourist Trap, Crawlspace, Curse IV, Netherworld and kidflicks The Secret Kingdom and Mysterious Museum. The 35mm cinematography, making full use of the terrific location, is courtesy of regular Fulci collaborator Sergio Salvati whose impressive CV includes The Beyond, City of the Living Dead, Zombie Flesh Eaters, 1990: The Bronx Warriors, Ghoulies II and Spellcaster. Production designer John Myhre made the leap, in eleven years, from this to X-Men.

Puppet Master was a big hit and ultimately has proved to be Full Moon's most enduring success. It was followed in 1991 by Puppet Master II, with David Allen taking on full directorial duties, and David DeCoteau's Puppet Master III: Toulon's Revenge with Guy Rolfe (And Now the Screaming Starts, Mr Sardonicus) in the William Hickey role. Jeff Burr directed Parts IV and V, back to back in 1994, also with Rolfe. DeCoteau returned (under his 'Victoria Sloane' pseudonym) for 1998's Curse of the Puppet Master and then became 'Joseph Tennent' for the following year's prequel Retro Puppet Master in which Rolfe briefly reprised his role; this had apparently started life as a possible Part IV with a script by Matthew Jason Walsh although the finished screenplay was credited to "Benjamin Carr" (The Creeps, Totem, Frankenstein Reborn!), a Full Moon pseudonym for Neal Marshall Stevens (Hellraiser: Deader, Thir13en Ghosts).

2003's Puppet Master: The Legacy is an unashamed greatest hits package with footage from all the previous films (bar this one) presented as flashbacks in a new framing story, directed by Band, about a character from Part III. That was supposedly the end of the story but in 2004 the Sci-Fi Channel produced the long-awaited franchise clash Puppet Master vs Demonic Toys, directed by Ted Nicolaou and starring Corey Feldman (The Lost Boys) as Andre Toulon's great-nephew. Charles Band received a courtesy credit on that but otherwise had no connection whatsoever with it.

It's a heck of a legacy, but as always there is the law of diminishing returns and the original film is still regarded as the best. It doesn't have a heck of a lot of story in its 85 minutes (the sleeve claims 'approx. 90') but it has style and tension to spare. The whole thing is played pretty much straight, the deaths are suitably bloody though there is little gratuitous gore. It's what happens to the characters after they die which is where the real horror lies.

Currently unavailable on R1, it seems, this budget price R2 disc from cheapie label Prism has a nice transfer of a good print and includes, as is typical for Charles Band movies, a 'making of' featurette. This is a seven-minute promo piece which concentrates on the effects, with some neat behind-the-scenes footage and comments from Schmoeller, Band, Le Mat, David Allen, animatronics engineer Mark Rappaport (Child's Play 3, Demonic Toys, Army of Darkness), make-up man Jason Simmons (who now sculpts licensed Disney figurines!) and uncredited dwarf actor Cindy Sorensen (Beanstalk, The Dark Backward) who provided Pinhead's live-action hands.

There are also filmographies for the main cast and crew but they are pretty useless. Copied direct from the IMDB (hence the special effects are by someone named 'David Allen (II)'), the films are lumped together by decade rather than giving individual years. Barbara Crampton's page has a photograph of Irene Miracle and Miracle's own page includes a biography which misspells Dario Argento's name. There's a trailer too, which refers to Leech Woman as 'Ms Leech;; names Miracle, Le Mat, Crampton and Hickey (in that order); and refers to Charles Band as the producer of Re-Animator which I don't believe is strictly true.

The original Puppet Master is a terrific piece of straight-faced, straight-to-video creepiness which has stood the test of time well.

MJS rating: A-

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