It’s off season time at the cliffside Bodega Bay Inn, the setting for around half of the films in the Puppet Master series. Science wunderkind Rick Myers (Gordon Currie) is the only person staying in the inn for now, working as the caretaker and using the privacy to focus on the research he’s doing for Biotech Industries’ Omega Project, trying to figure out how to stimulate artificial intelligence in robots. Part of Rick’s tests involve him playing lazer tag with a pair of robots, he’s always hoping they’ll break away from recognizable patterns and show some original thought, some innovation. They never do.
Rick doesn’t realize that the secret to giving life to inanimate objects is right beside him all along, in the form of the strange puppet he discovered in the room he turned into his lab. The puppet Blade, who “somehow” moves all around the inn when Rick isn’t looking.
Meanwhile, in the bowels of the underworld, the demon Sutekh and his minions realize that their ancient secret will soon be discovered by more people in the “upworld”. All it will take is for Rick to find the journal of long-dead puppet master Andre Toulon, the lifeforce-transferring formula he synthesized, his trunk full of Blade’s fellow puppets, all of which are in storage at the Bodega Bay Inn. The secret Toulon stole from Sutekh must not be learned by anyone else. (The prequel Retro Puppet Master would later show how the secret was passed to Toulon by a sorcerer named Afzel in 1902.) To stop Rick and his colleagues from making their discovery, Sutekh sends three little demonic creatures called Totems, powered by his three minions, into the upworld.
Totems are delivered to the scientists who work on the data Rick sends in – Doctor Piper at Biotech Industries, Doctor Baker at Advanced Technology. Both scientists are quickly killed by the nasty little creatures, their lifeforces absorbed by Sutekh and his minions.
Rick isn’t all work and no play. He’s dating a young lady named Susie, an athlete who regularly competes in triathlons. Rick is planning to enjoy an intimate dinner with Susie on the night this film is set on, but when she shows up at the inn, she’s not alone, accompanied by her friend Lauren, who’s an expert in metaphysics, a channeler with a grant for psychic research, and Lauren’s boyfriend Cameron, an old classmate/rival of Rick’s who is very jealous of Rick’s higher test scores. Cameron feels like he should be the smartest guy around, and doesn’t appreciate that Rick is smarter.
Over dinner, Cameron arrogantly notifies Rick that he’s working on a classified project for the Phoenix Division, logging data sent in by a woman named Piper. Cameron’s ego takes another blow when Rick tells him that the work Piper is testing is his.
The scientific side of things soon becomes largely irrelevant, however. When Lauren touches Blade, she gets a strange feeling and asks to see where Rick got the puppet from. Rick shows her the bag he found Blade in, but that’s not what has Lauren’s psychic senses tingling. The bag isn’t what Blade really belongs in… That leads them to the storage room and the discovery of Andre Toulon’s trunk, and the puppets, journal, and formula within.
Blade’s fellow puppets Pinhead, Tunneler, Jester, and Six Shooter are removed from the trunk and injected with the glowing green formula, as described in Toulon’s journal. Within seconds, the puppets rise, awake, alive, and thinking for themselves.
While Rick plays lazer tag with Pinhead and Tunneler, Cameron attempts to get ahead of his old rival by forcing Lauren – who’s very unnerved, having sensed the presence of an intense evil – to try to commune with the spirit with a Ouija-like board that was also in the trunk. Instead of reaching Toulon, they reach Sutekh. The pyramid in the center of the board glows and splits open, and from within emerges the Totems. Cameron and Lauren’s screams interrupt the lazer tag game.
The Totems set out to kill everyone in the inn, and the puppets fight back against them to protect their new friends and their new master. For the first time in the series, the puppets have been given enemies their own size to fight, and these totem vs. puppets battles are a lot of fun to watch and were wonderfully pulled off with a mixture of rod puppetry and stop-motion animation.
Every time the puppets kill one of the totems, one of Sutekh’s minions drops dead in the underworld.
To help them in their battle, the puppets bring out a puppet that has never been seen before, a puppet called Decapitron, which has different heads for different occasions and requires a Frankenstein-esque jump start via lightning strike to come to life.
Disregarding the fact that Toulon was a villainous presence in the largely ignored Puppet Master II, this film goes with Puppet Master III’s portrayal of the character as a kind and caring man and has his spirit lurking around the inn throughout, letting his puppets know that “I am here”. When Decapitron is first brought to life, it has on a blank-faced head that forms into the head of Toulon so he can deliver some exposition to Rick about the situation he’s gotten himself into, taking on the mantle of puppet master.
Then a hi-tech head equipped with guns on the sides and an electricity conductor on the top is placed on Decapitron so it can blast the final totem back to the underworld.
I can clearly remember the day this movie was released on video in 1993. A fan of the previous three films, I was hyped to see the fourth, so excited for it that I had a copy reserved at a video store to make sure I would be able to rent it on its release date. I remember that first viewing of it more than twenty years ago… and I was not disappointed by it.
Ever since it came out, Puppet Master 4 has been my favorite installment of the series. I’ve always preferred the entries where the puppets were portrayed as the good guys, not just the tools of evil men who used them to kill innocent people like they were in the first two films, and of the entries in which they are the heroes, PM4 is the most entertaining. The totems are awesome opponents for the puppets to go up against, and the film benefits from the fact that it was made when its production company, Full Moon, still had a deal with Paramount, and thus still had the budget to bring the puppet sequences to life in an impressive manner.
The cast members all do well in their roles, from Gordon Currie as Rick to Chandra West as Susie, Teresa Hill as Lauren, Stacie Randall as Piper, and Felton Perry as Baker. I especially enjoy Jason “Ash” Adams as the egomanical creep Cameron, especially since there are moments in his performance where he reminds me of Ben Affleck. This is as close to seeing Affleck fight demonic puppets as I’ll probably ever get.
Directed by Jeff Burr, the director of such films as Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, Stepfather 2: Make Room for Daddy, and Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings, Puppet Master 4 is a really fun little creature feature with cool special effects and a perfectly simple story. For the most part it’s just a handful of characters trapped in the inn by little monsters that the puppets have to destroy, so it’s sort of baffling that it took five writers to craft the screenplay… Then again, those five writers wrote enough screenplay to make two movies out of.
Burr shot Puppet Master parts 4 and 5 not back-to-back but simultaneously, scenes from both movies would be shot on the same day. Part 5 turned out to be less well-rounded than its sister film, and at a Q&A I attended Burr joked that people involved with the films would refer to part 5 as Hallway: The Movie because so much of it just involved people wandering around in hallways. Despite the fact that the movies were made at the same time, part 4 doesn’t suffer from this the way some other movies made with a sequel in mind do, where they aren’t fulfilling by themselves. There is no cliffhanger, part 4 feels complete. There are threads to pick up on, the door is left open for the sequel, but it’s satisfying on its own. A sequel following soon after was just a bonus.