Wednesday, December 22, 2010

DVD REVIEW: Puppet Master (1989)


DISTRIBUTOR: Full Moon Features
DIRECTOR: David Schmoeller
CAST: Paul Le Mat (Alex Whitaker), Jimmie F. Scaggs (Neil Gallagher), Matt Roe (Frank)Irene Miracle (Dana Hadley), Kathryn O'Reilly (Frank)Robin Frates (Megan), Barbara Crampton, William Hickey (Andre Toulon)
TAGLINE: A box of little toys has just become a gang of little terrors. This is not child's play...

SUMMARY: Psychics investigating Andre Toulon battle his five killer puppets—each one uniquely qualified for murder and mayhem: Tunneler, who has a habit of boring holes in flesh; Ms. Leech, who sucks her victims dry by regurgitating killer leeches; Pinhead, a professional strangler; Blade, who's armed with razor-sharp, killer hands, and Jester, the ruthless brains of the bunch. Together, they're an army of skilled assassins, diabolically programmed to guard the deadly secrets of the Puppet Master. Enjoy this original cult classic in all its bloody glory.

FILM: Puppet Master (1989) opens at the Bodega Bay Inn, California 1939. Puppeteer Andre Toulon is putting the final touches on a puppet called Jester. Toulon is played by the great William Hickey whom you may recall as Drogan from the "Cat from Hell" segment of the Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990) or as the voice of Dr. Finklestein in Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). I recall him most fondly as the cantankerous Uncle Lewis from what I consider one of the top 3 Christmas films of all time - National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989). Toulon performs a short incantation and the puppet springs to life. At the same time there are two puppets keeping a watchful eye on the Bodega Bay Inn; an unnamed oriental puppet (that never reappears during the film) and the menacing Blade who notices two Nazi operatives arrive at the inn. Blade makes a mad dash to Toulon's room to let the puppet master know he may be in danger. We get some great point-of-view cinematography as Blade traverses the lobby and hallways of the inn climbing over baggage and furniture. It seems that the Nazi's are after Toulon's secrets which is later expanded on in the prequel/sequel Puppet Master 3. Toulon takes his puppet and places them into a chest which he then hides in a hidden wall panel. Just as Nazis break down his door Toulon blows his brains out as blood splatters the wall behind him. That's the last we see of Hickey, a far too brief appearance in my opinion but a memorable one at least. Flash forward 50 years later and four psychics are being psychically summoned to the Bodega Bay Inn by their colleague Neil (Jimmie F. Scaggs) who's been searching for Toulon's alchemy secret for years, his investigations have led him to Toulon's last known whereabouts. As the psychics converge at the inn they meet Neil's wife Megan (Robin Frates) who informs them that he has committed suicide in a manner eerily reminiscent of Toulon's own death 50 years earlier. The psychic friends are Alex (Paul Le Mat) a Yale professor, Dana (Irene Miracle) a white witch fortune teller and lovers Carissa (Kathryn O'Reilly) and Frank (Matt Roe). Also in attendance is the nosy inn keeper Theresa (Mews Small). As the group settles in for the night several among them have visions foretelling of their own or other's deaths. The dream/vision sequences are well done, particularly those of Alex. As night falls the psychics and the innkeeper are killed off one by one by Toulon's puppets. But to what end? I won't spoil the rest of the film as it's definitely worth a watch.

The puppets featured in the film are the aforementioned Jester - an emotive clown. Blade - a knife and hook wielding puppet with a face modeled after actor Klaus Kinski. Pinhead - the muscle of the bunch with a head that's too small for his body. Tunneler - a Nazi-uniformed puppet with a drill-bit head. Ms. Leach - a lady puppet who can regurgitate deadly leeches. Oddly, he oriental puppet from the start of the film is never seen again. The marionettes do not get a lot of screen time in the film until the last 3rd but their sequences are well shot and their interactions with the actors are believable and eerily effective. I love stop-motion animation and rod puppeteering and there's some really great work here in that respect, and even more so in future installments.

Puppet Master is a bit slow in spots but is permeated by that peculiar Full Moon atmosphere that is so evident in most their films. The puppet design and articulation is very good and the psychics make for interesting characters. Alex is the most likable character of the bunch. He seems good natured while the others have selfish agendas. The films eroticism comes from the character of Carissa whose particular psychic talent is to channels past events. Throughout the film she becomes aroused while channelling trysts that have occurred at the inn. Dana as played by Irene Miracle is the bitch of the bunch. Genre fans may recognize her as the character Rose Elliot from Dario Argento's Inferno.

The gore effects of the films are handled well, nothing too bloody mind you. This film was Full Moon Entertainment's first offering and was intended for theatrical release until Charles Band realized there was more money to be made in the home video market. The rest is Full Moon history.

DVD: The remastered PUPPET MASTER is presented in a very clean looking anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1 aspect ratio with  5.1 surround sound. The print looks great with only minor blemishes. The image appears a bit soft in places but otherwise very good image quality.

Special Features:
- Special Introduction by Charles Band
- Promo for Puppet Master: Axis of Evil
- No Strings Attached Original Making Of Featurette
- Original Trailers for the First 12 Full Moon Features

VERDICT: The long running PUPPET MASTER franchise has been good to Full Moon Features and this initial film is quite enjoyable. While watching I was reminded of another Charles Band production, Stuart Gordon's DOLLS (1987) which was a Empire Picture's production, a  precursor to Full Moon Features. DOLLS has better direction and is a superior film but Puppet Master is not without its 80's charm. Great puppet design, interesting characters, creepy atmosphere and a fairly good premise and finale. It definitely made me want to watch the other films in quick succession.
***1/2 (3.5 out of 5 stars)