Puppet Master One through Five


(Not a Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) review. This review guest-written by Tuna)

"Puppet Master" (1989)

Let's face it, most horror films do not compare well to mainstream Comedy/Drama/Action. A few exceptions come to mind like Poltergeist, The Birds, The Exorcist, Jaws and Psycho, but, for the most part, comparing horror to mainstream movies is not even useful. More useful is comparing them to other films in the genre. I feel the same way about erotica, porn, and westerns. Note that all four of these genres have huge followings. So even if they are not great cinema, they are entertaining. That being the case, I feel that "B" bimbos have celebrity. The Puppet Master (1989), by director David Schmoeller compares well to other horror films in my opinion.

Schmoeller, in a "making of" featurette observes that there are two kinds of scary. The first is surprise, as in jumping out of a closet and saying boo. The second is suspense (pioneered by Hitchcock) where the audience sees the threat, but the character doesn't. The suspense is heightened if the audience feels a rapport with the character. Puppet Master uses suspense, not surprise. Films using suspense can afford a slower, more even pace. There is also time for more detailed character development (which is necessary for the heightened suspense).

In the case of Puppet Master, Schmoeller finds a way to employ suspense and control production costs with a simple camera technique. Cut to still of puppet, then show first person POV from a low camera angle chasing the victim. This lets the audience in on the secret (necessary to the suspense), while saving a fortune on puppeteers. To give you an idea, one 16 second segment of stop motion puppet animation took three days to shoot, and the actual puppeteering required as many as five puppeteers per puppet.

Now, to the story. It is 1939 at a hotel in Bodega Bay, and a puppet maker has learned the secret of animating puppets (an ancient Egyptian trick), but hides his creations then kills himself when he realizes the Nazis are after him. Fast forward to the present day. An group of widely scattered psychic friends are psychically contacted to come to Bodega Bay by one of their number. They arrive to find him dead. Not long after, they find out one at a time about the puppets, mostly the hard way. We have a short cameo appearance by Barbara Crampton. The exposure is provided by a two time wonder -- Kathryn O'Reilly.

This is neither the first nor the last film to use toys come to life as a plot device. Some critics of Puppet Master think of this as a flaw. Funny they didn't feel that way about the jack-in-the-box in Poltergeist. This film features better than average acting and plot development for horror, goes very light on gore, has good puppeteering, some wonderful set design and good photography, the DVD quality is good, and the "making of" featurette is interesting. If you enjoy horror (you know who you are) then don't avoid this one.

"Puppet Master II" (1990)

Puppet Master 2 follows the formula for a horror sequel. Up the body count, up the gore level, don't worry as much about plot, and use cheesy dialogue to make sure even the mentally defective can follow the plot. This time, the director is special effects expert Dave Allen, and we have none of the clever camera work, much more of the puppets in action, and even a new puppet called flame, who is sort of a Nazi with bullets for teeth, a flame thrower arm (roasts a fat lady with it, and she didn't sing) and a bad temper. The puppets in the original were basically likeable, but followed the will of their master. This time, they are more like juvenile delinquents. The horror here is more of the surprise variety than suspense.

It is a few years after the first story ended.The widow has died (her brains were sucked out through her eyes), and the hotel has become the property of the federal government. Before the opening credits, the puppets dig up the original puppet master, and re-animate him. The part of the puppet master is played by the invisible man, bandages and all. He is a little the worse for wear having been dead for 50 years. Meanwhile, a group of FBI agents/paranormal investigators arrive at the house to look for signs of the supernatural. They, of course, find what they are looking for and more, while the puppet master reveals his master plan, which is to revive his dead wife, who happens to look just like the head FBI agent. The exposure is by one of the FBI people, who sits up in bed topless, stands up adjusting her panties, and walks across the room. She does all this to put on a shirt and go back to bed. She is Charlie Spradling, who has 26 credits at IMDB.

Maltin rates this one as mildly better than the first, but it has none of the elements I liked in the original.

"Puppet Master III" (1991)

This threequel is a prequel, and explains how the Puppet Master ends up in Bodega Bay with Nazis on his heels. He is running a friendly anti-Hitler puppet show in WW2 Berlin. A gestapo officer who is also a puppeteer catches his act, suggests a different topic for the show, then spies on him as he feeds his puppets. Realizing that the puppets are actually alive, he brings the discovery to Herman Hess, who is working on a formula to do a similar thing, but with dead soldiers. Hess and the gestapo don't see eye to eye on what to do with the Puppet Master, and the Puppet Master (and his puppets) takes a dim view of their murdering his wife.

This is better than number two. It is better directed, and the art direction is better again. It is actually more of an action flick than horror. The acting is a little wooden, but it is watchable. All of the nudity is again gratuitous. A gestapo general has a fondness for a whorehouse, and we see him there twice. First time, he is being bathed by Jasmine Totschek on the left and Landon Hall on the right, with Michelle Bauer wandering around in the back. The second time, Michelle is riding him. We also have a new puppet (Sixgun) who has six arms all with working guns.

"Puppet Master 4 (1993) and 5 (1994)"

Puppet Master 4 and 5 are chronologically after Puppet Master II, and are really one episode. They were, in fact, filmed concurrently. I think of them as a homage to Gremlins, as the evil creatures from the dark side, sent to kill everyone who knows the secret of re-animation, look very much like Gremlins, and all of the puppets start talking like Gizmo. A young genius is working in the hotel in Bodega Bay on a secret government contract which is trying to merge artificial intelligence with robotics. The evil creatures are sent to kill his colleagues first. His girlfriend and another couple arrive to spend the weekend with him. The other couple are an asshole (he also works on the same project) and his psychic girlfriend. The psychic girlfriend discovers the puppets and what they can do. An evil creature is delivered to the hotel and does in the asshole, then goes after the rest. The puppets join forces with the good guys and, with the help of a new super-puppet named Decapitron, defeat the evil creatures.

Puppet Master 4 stinks (so does 5). The plot is thin, the acting ranges from bad to ok, the art direction is only so so, the dialogue is the pits, and there are many obvious continuity problems. I will point out one research error. We are led to believe that our hero is working on a secret project in the hotel, where he is living as a caretaker during the off season. For him to be doing secret work, he would need a facility clearance, and a classified computer system. His Packard Bell computer is clearly not cleared or secured, and, to have a facility clearance, he would need either 24/7 guards, or a security system and approved secure locks, and he would need a classified container. None of this is present. Add the fact that there is no nudity whatsoever, and that the puppeteering for some reason has seriously deteriorated, and this is one to skip completely.

The good news is that the first 10 minutes of Puppet Master 5 are a detailed summary of number 4, so you can safely skip 4 completely. The bad news is that 5 is no better than 4, and also has no nudity. After the 10 minute remake of 4, we find our hero in jail, and charged with the murders of his associates. The company pays his bail, and he returns to the Hotel in Bodega bay, which has been sealed by the police, to retrieve the puppets. The acting company president also breaks in to the hotel with three hoods to steal the puppets, so he can sell them to the DOD under the table. The dark lord unleashes his nastiest demon yet, who does in all of the bad guys. Our hero is visited by the original puppet master Tulon in the form of a morphing Decapitron and made the new puppet master. He, together with the puppets, defeats the evil demon. We are warned of future sequels in the last scene. There are, in fact, two more, and I will review them when I am up to two more bad films.

IMDB summary, Puppetmaster: 4.8 out of 10.

IMDB summary, Puppetmaster II: 4.3 out of 10

IMDB summary, Puppetmaster III: 5.3 out of 10.

IMDB summary, Puppetmaster 4: 4.0 out of 10.

IMDB summary, Puppetmaster 5: 4.0 out of 10.

DVD info from Amazon. This is the boxed set of eight DVD's. It includes seven puppetmaster films and 45 trailers from other Full Moon pictures.

DVD info from Amazon. This one is the original Puppetmaster only.

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