Charles Band and his company, Full Moon Pictures, are often labeled as makers of the worst b-movies in the history of the horror genre, however, few seem to remember they kept the genre alive and kicking with their inventive and original brand of low-budget horror during the late 80s and early 90s. “Puppet Master” was the first and arguably the best example of Full Moon’s 90s style, a style that included a heavy use of puppetry and stop-motion animation that showed the progression of an idea that he started in his 1987′ production “Dolls” (directed by Stuart Gordon).
During World War II, a secret group of Nazis were sent to Bodega Bay, California, to capture puppet maker Andre Toulon (William Hickey), a mysterious old man who had the secret of giving life to inanimate objects. He commits suicide before being caught and so his secret goes with him to the grave. Until nearly 50 years later, a group of psychics lead by Alex Whitaker (Paul Le Mat) are contacted by Neil Gallagher (Jimmie F. Skaggs), a former colleague who apparently made a big discovery in Bodega Bay before committing suicide under mysterious circumstances.
Directed by the tragically underrated David Schmoeller, “Puppet Master” is a very different films that its sequels. Schmoeller plays with the suspense and atmosphere of classic goth films, and successfully mixes those elements with the more graphic shock and gore that was the rule for horror films of its time. With a great eye for the visuals Schmoeller makes great use of his Gothic locations and the terrific camera-work enhances the carefully crafted suspense. The special effects wizards create very good looking effects for the budget and together create what could be called a “gothic slasher”.
Schmoeller gives life to Band’s story and this mix of fantasy and horror ends up as one of the best screenplays developed at Full Moon. Each puppet has a personality of its own and that is what gives the movie life; the human characters are also very well-defined and for the most part well-acted. Despite the silly premise of a killer toy (already explored in “Child’s Play” and “Dolls”), Scmoeller and Band make the work and craft set-pieces of haunting atmospheres. Richard Band’s eerie score perfectly showcase the mix of horror and fantasy of the film and it’s probably his most famous work. It quickly became the trademark of the series.
As written above, the acting is for the most part good for a movie like this, and while no one really stands out, they all make an efficient job. Paul Le Mat is quite good as the lead character, although the rest of the team soon prove to be more interesting characters. Despite his limited screen time, William Hickey makes a small but charming job as Toulon, and look out for a Barbara Crampton small cameo. As a side-note, it was refreshing to watch a movie where the main characters are middle-aged adults instead of young teenagers.
The movie’s main problem (and one that marked the series since its conception) is that the puppets quickly became the focus of everything. This lessen the importance not only of the final villain, but also of the heroes of the movie. While this problem didn’t affect that much this movie, it became more notorious as the series started to grow and eventually, the puppets would become the main characters of the movies.
“Puppet Master” may not be everyone’s cup of tea, as its premise and the mix of fantasy with horror may turn off some movie goers. However, it is a quality film that proves the talents of both Band and Schmoeller, in a film that has become a cult-classic.