As I was in my teens in the late 80s / early 90s, and loved films back then too, I’m really quite surprised that not only did I never watch any of the Puppet Master films, but I have no idea what they’re about either. Readers, we shall discover these films together.
Turns out the puppets are actual puppets, and we see puppeteer Andre Toulon in a 1939 flashback at the Bodega Bay Hotel, with an Egyptian scroll and some puppets that move on their own. Looks like the Nazis want that scroll, though, as we’re treated to a scene that feels like it goes on forever with two Nazi agents traipsing through the hotel to find Toulon. The whole sequence, in this film at least, is pure backstory and has no direct relevance to the main plot, so could have been left to flashbacks later on? Anyway. Toulon kills himself before his secrets can fall into Nazi hands, and then…
Present day! A group of real psychics in various jobs – University professor, sex therapist couple, and carnival fortune teller (the poor woman works at a place which is the spitting image of the carnival from “The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies”) all receive visions which take them to the Bodega Bay Hotel, where we discover all these people know each other; as well as knowing Gallagher, their sort-of friend who married the owner of the hotel before killing himself.
So far, so good. I think it’s safe to say the filmmakers watched “The House On Haunted Hill” before producing this, and the central section of the film is our psychic friends exploring the hotel, having sex and having a series of near-misses with puppets and Gallagher’s corpse, which keeps popping up all over the hotel. Alex, the “star” of the film, has a rare double-wake-up dream sequence, which is always fun.
The puppets are surprisingly decent, little animatronic people, and the effect looks tons better than the CGI which I’m presuming the later films in the series will go for. There’s a creepy-looking chap in a black hat; a pinhead with human hands; a woman who produces slugs from her mouth; and a sole bark indicates that the stuffed dog is not as dead as it appears. Full disclosure: I own a pekingese, so seeing a stuffed version of my beloved Charlie was a bit of a bummer. It’s all to do with ancient Egyptian magic, or something, but the scroll itself is a bit unimportant to the plot.
We learn the truth about why Alex wanted to be in the hotel, and why the seemingly friendly puppets from the beginning were killing people left, right and centre by the end. All in all, it’s not bad! It’s a little bit like an extended episode of “Tales Of The Unexpected” (or “The Twilight Zone”, for any American readers), and it’s fairly tense, there’s some black humour in there and the gore, while definitely not excessive, is well done.
It’s not all positive though, sadly. The pace is s-l-o-w at times, and there’s no explanation as to why these people have psychic powers, or why they’re friends. The motivation for bumping them off seems okay but doesn’t really stand up to a moment’s scrutiny…but it’s certainly not terrible. And we get to see the pekingese brought back to life right at the end, and he seems happy, so there’s that.
This is the first of 11 films in the series, and if I’m reading Wikipedia right at least one of them will be a greatest-hits style compilation with 20 minutes of new connecting footage. What is it with these horror franchises and doing stuff like this? You cheap bastards! Full Moon Pictures also ripped off their own property for the “Demonic Toys” series, so if I’m in a really good mood I might do them too. The same company also made the “Trancers” films, which I love, and a series of vampire films called “Subspecies” which might be worth a look. They seem to be the sort of company which would have been killed off by the internet, relying on video rental, but they’re still doing their thing (the last Puppet Master film was released last year, and the “Evil Bong” series seems to be doing well for them).
In summary – it could have been 20 minutes shorter and not a thing would have been missed, but the acting is solid, the special effects are surprisingly decent and the thought of watching ten more films doesn’t fill me with the sort of dread it could do.