Throughout the ’80s, Charles Band had produced a slew of awesome movies through his company Empire Pictures, amassing a filmography that included the likes of Ghoulies and Ghoulies II, Trancers, Troll, TerrorVision, Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama, Intruder, and the Stuart Gordon-directed films Re-Animator, From Beyond, Dolls, and Robot Jox. Band sold off the company in 1988 and soon after established the company he still runs to this day. Full Moon.
In the early years of Full Moon, Band was teamed with Paramount and Pioneer to get the movies financed and distributed. The very first release under the Full Moon brand turned out to be the best possible first release a small genre company could ask for. Puppetmaster.
The idea for Puppetmaster came to Band as the result of the success he had with Empire movies like Ghoulies and especially Dolls. Movies featuring small creatures doing the terrorizing had done very well for Band in the past, and if it had worked before, chances were that it would work again.
Writer/director/special effects artist Kenneth J. Hall concocted a story to feature a new batch of tiny terrors, and the story was developed into a screenplay by the man who was hired to direct the movie, David Schmoeller, who had a working relationship with Band that went back to his pre-Empire days, when Schmoeller directed and co-wrote the popular “Texas Chainsaw Massacre with mannequins and telekinesis” horror movie Tourist Trap for Band’s late ’70s company Charles Band Productions. While Schmoeller used the pen name Joseph G. Collodi for the screenplay credit on Puppetmaster, he took the director’s credit under his own name.
The film begins with a scene set in 1939 at California’s cliffside Bodega Bay Inn. Famed puppet master Andre Toulon has fled war-torn Europe with a trunk full of his puppets, but the Nazis are so interested in finding out the secret of how Toulon’s puppets are able to move on their own, no strings attached, that two Gestapo officers have been sent to California to track down the old man.
Toulon gives his puppets life through a method developed in ancient Egypt, passing the lifeforce of people into the inanimate objects. As would be revealed in Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge, his puppets Blade, Tunneler, Pinhead, and Jester are all inhabited by the lifeforce of people who were Toulon’s friends and were killed by the Nazis.
As the Nazi officers near Toulon’s room at the inn, he hides his trunk full of puppets away, and insures that Hitler’s forces will never get their hands on this occult secret by committing suicide, shooting himself in the head.
Future sequels Puppet Master: Axis of Evil and Puppet Master: Axis Rising would be set between this opening scene and the rest of the film, showing that the puppets didn’t remain hidden for very long at all, but the story of this first film assumes that they did remain dormant in their trunk from ’39 until the late ’80s.
Following the opening “death of Toulon” sequence, the story jumps ahead fifty years to then-present day 1989, when a group of people are gathered together at Bodega Bay Inn by another man who had been seeking to discover the ancient Egyptian secret of lifeforce transference, Neil Gallagher. Each of the people brought to the inn by Gallagher have certain psychic abilities. Alex Whitaker, a professor of anthropology at Yale, sees glimpses of the future in his dreams. Dana Hadley works as a phony fortune teller at a carnival (Re-Animator/From Beyond star Barbara Crampton has a cameo as a woman Dana gives a terrible fortune reading to), but at times is able to see true visions of the future. Frank Forrester and Carlissa Stamford have recently been working together on a “real time thought transmission” experiment. Frank can sometimes see what people are thinking, while Carlissa experiences the emotional (usually sexual) history of rooms she enters and objects she touches. They’ve all worked with Gallagher on his research before, and they’re drawn to the inn after being psychically contacted by him.
It’s not until they reach the inn that they discover Gallagher is actually dead, having committed suicide by shooting himself. He left orders behind with his wife Megan, who owns the inn, that he not be buried until his associates arrive. The group of psychics have no idea what’s going on here, although Alex and Dana’s visions have made it clear that whatever is happening certainly isn’t good. They stick around for different reasons – some want to figure out what Gallagher was doing and hopefully profit from it, Alex sticks around to make sure his nightmarish visions don’t come true. Alex keeps dreaming that Neil is threatening the life of Megan and telling him, “You can’t save her.” Well, he’s going to do his best to try.
When night falls, Toulon’s – now Gallagher’s – puppets rise. The puppets are not evil beings, but they do the bidding of their master, and in this case their master is evil. So they stalk the halls and rooms of the inn, which is currently only inhabited by the psychics, Megan Gallagher, and maid Theresa, knocking the people off one-by-one. Pinhead brutalizes them with his strong arms and large hands, Tunneler drills into their bodies, Blade slashes them up with his knife and hook hands, Leech Woman spits out leeches on them…
While I prefer installments in which the puppets are straightforward good guys, they are quite effective at being creepy little slashers when the movies require them to be, and I don’t really feel sorry for most of their victims in this film. Alex aside, these psychics are sleazy creeps and not very likeable at all. I don’t like spending time with these characters, so I’m glad to see them taken out of the picture.
Schmoeller gave the entire movie an odd, dreamy feeling, an atmosphere that is enhanced by the score composed by Charles Band’s brother Richard Band.
Puppetmaster was a huge hit for Full Moon, and to this day it remains the company’s most popular and prolific franchise. The secret to its success? The puppets themselves, of course.
Viewers were drawn in by the interesting little creatures this movie was introducing to them. The design of the puppets is terrific, and in these days of higher budgets the way they were animated onscreen is extremely impressive, the effects team using a mixture of rod work and awesome stop-motion effects by David Allen, who had been nominated for an Academy Award at the 1986 ceremonies for his work on Young Sherlock Holmes.
The story is quite simple, although the “group of psychics” aspect makes it unique, providing just enough set-up for a nice bit of stalk and slash, and the characters are only slightly above awful, but it’s the puppets that make the movie enjoyable and worth watching. Again and again.
Although self-contained, the first Puppetmaster does establish elements that could be used and further explored to sustain a long-running series, like the ancient Egyptian secret and the backstory of Toulon and the Nazis. If these were put in there with the thought of basing sequels around them, it was a genius move.
The movie also makes it clear that the puppets can be both good or bad depending on the situation. They were good under the care of Toulon. They do evil at the behest of Gallagher. But when Gallagher rises from the dead and reveals his villainy with some third act exposition, displaying that he doesn’t really care about the puppets at all, they revert back to being good and turn against their new master. Alex feels they go too far, though. The puppets can still be quite violent even when they’re in the right.
While I appreciate Puppetmaster mainly for the franchise and production company its success spawned, it is a good horror movie when taken on its own merits, and one that’s still worth checking out twenty-five years later. Because those puppets sure are cool.