Puppetmaster (1989)

puppetmasterTurns out Tourist Trap was a test run of sorts for director David Schmoeller in the Shit That Should Not Move horror subgenre. Having made that low-budget chiller and its mannequins so effective in 1979 for producer Charles Band, Schmoeller earned himself the gig of helming Full Moon’s flagship, Puppetmaster, which has served as Band’s bread and butter ever since, for better and often worse.

Set at the Bodega Bay Inn, this inaugural entry in the Puppet Master series (two words beginning with the first sequel) isn’t so bad. In a 1939 prologue, puppet creator Andre Toulon (William Hickey, Tales from the Darkside: The Movie) already has discovered an ancient Egyptian method of giving life to the inanimate. As the Nazis come charging in his room to swipe his secret, Toulon bites a bullet, ensuring it stays out of the Führer’s hands. Fifty years later, a select few people gifted with extrasensory powers are summoned to the inn at the behest of colleague Neil Gallagher (Jimmie F. Skaggs, 1988’s Ghost Town) who has unlocked Toulon’s secret … and since committed suicide.

puppetmaster1Gallagher’s cohorts stick around to collectively figure out, y’know, what the hap. They include an anthropology professor (Paul Le Mat, Strange Invaders) with midtransformed-wolfman hair and dreams of things to come; a fortune teller (Irene Miracle, Dario Argento’s Inferno) who carries a stuffed dog; and, most hilariously, a scalding-hot psychic (Kathryn O’Reilly, Jack’s Back) who experiences the past of her surroundings. Seriously, she steps in the elevator and senses a rape; she plops onto her hotel room’s bed and feels the oohing and ahhing of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard’s mattress activity of decades prior. (Apparently, the Bodega Bay Inn doesn’t retire mattresses.)

Oh! And there are killer puppets. No one in Gallagher’s party possesses peripheral vision, because Toulon’s puppets roam about the halls rather freely and without causing alarm … until they decide it’s time to commit murder. Although they have no names in the movie, Band’s Full Moon catalogue of action figures, comics and other merch will not let you forget their cute monikers. Each is labeled for his or her defining trait, e.g. Jester, Pinhead and Tunneler. Leech Woman pukes up the slimy, bloodsucking worms onto the chests of her prey (an act that look like she’s defecating from the wrong end), while the skeletal-faced Blade (a dead ringer for Invasion U.S.A. villain Richard Lynch) stabs his victims. In arguably Puppetmaster’s most overt point of humor, Blade’s pupils pop out as bolts when he peeks through the keyhole as the sexy psychic in undress.

With more of a mystery vibe at play, not to mention legitimate storytelling in general, Puppetmaster bears little resemblance to the double-digit sequels Band continues churning out, now with crowdfunding assistance. While the puppets are the draw, they are not the focus. When they are onscreen, however, it’s for the benefit of Schomeller’s picture because David Allen’s stop-motion animation is quite good, particularly on a Band budget. Then again, on projects big (Young Sherlock Holmes, for which Allen was Oscar-nommed) and small (this) and really small (Equinox), Allen delivered. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

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