Puppet Master will forever be remembered as the film that not only launched Full Moon Entertainment, but also one of the longest-running franchises in horror history. Including spinoffs and reboots, the fourteenth Puppet Master movie will see release this December, a solo film for the franchise’s most iconic character titled Blade: The Iron Cross. Because of that, when people discuss Puppet Master they tend to discuss the franchise as a whole. That simply tends to be the way these things go. Discussions of Friday the 13thtend to be all-encompassing rather than simply focusing on the original film. That seems to be the way it is for most franchises, unless your starting point is a seminal genre masterpiece, like Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Exorcist or Halloween. In addition to that, the original Puppet Master isn’t always talked about as the most highly regarded of its series, that honor usually goes to the exceptional Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge.
In that respect, Puppet Master as a film is kind of an interesting phenomenon in that it was highly successful, launching both an independent studio and a franchise, yet is remembered much more for the things that followed it than it is necessarily remembered on its own. And that’s a shame, because while I do think there are certain things that a few of the other entries did better, it’s a favorite of mine and it has been since I first saw it over twenty years ago.
The key to the success of the early entries in the franchise, especially the highly regarded first three, have always lied in the fact that they felt like very different films, even bordering on different genres. Puppet Master II is very intentionally a gothic horror in the classic Universal tradition. Puppet Master III is, of course, a war movie. Puppet Master 4 and 5 shifted gears toward an explicitly sci-fi/fantasy direction. I think the original stands out just as much when stacked up against its early successors in that it does have its own distinct style and tone. It feels just as differently from those others as they do from each other. That style is hard to pin down in some respects and not so hard in others, because just as Puppet Master II is a spiritual heir to the Universal gothic heyday, David Schmoeller’s Puppet Master is a movie with deep, fundamental Italian influences.
These influences are in many respects unsurprising, and they start in the most obvious place. Charles Band was raised in Italy, made many of his early features in Italy and through his Wizard and Media VHS labels even helped bring most of the fundamental maestros of Italian horror to the states. He was at the forefront of the global love and respect for the country’s genre films and helped names like Dario Argento, Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci become sacred names in the genre, decades before the Internet, when that kind of information could easily be spread. As the idea man behind Puppet Master, it seemed only natural that he would bring so much of that spirit of Italian horror that is and has remained so ingrained on him as a creator.
Puppet Master, just taken on its own, has a very simple concept on paper: it’s about little puppets running around a hotel and picking people off one-by-one. But just as so many of the great Italian classics, it’s a story padded with several unexpected and increasingly bizarre developments. It’s convoluted, but not in a negative way. If anything, it’s a movie that’s fully aware and embracing of that fact. The puppets belonged to a world-famous puppeteer who shot himself before the Nazis could get their hands on his secret for bringing inanimate objects to life. They are presumably kept within the walls of the hotel for fifty years before a group of psychics are called back to the same hotel after the mysterious suicide of one of their own, only for the truth to eventually be revealed that it’s the dead man pulling the strings—so to speak—and is killing the rest of them because their shared psychic link means that they too would eventually be privy to this discovery of life after death. It is so much to pack into under 90 minutes, but compellingly so, and is so incredibly sincere in its own lucid, wavy internal logic.
This is by no means a straightforward plot, nor is it intending to be one, and that’s where I think some of the Italian influences shine most clearly. Puppet Master is an incredibly dreamlike movie. In fact, it’s chock full of dreams and the protagonist is a character whose psychic power lies in his ability to dream the future, which he spends large chunks of the film doing. This is a movie that is absolutely full of dream sequences, but it’s also a movie that operates on a kind of dream logic that balances those sequences very well. There’s a surreal quality to Puppet Master that tends to be forgotten or overlooked by most people looking back at it now. This is a film full of bizarre moments and eccentric flourishes, from Dana spending the bulk of the runtime talking to a stuffed dog to the lengthy bondage sex scene in the middle of the movie, and it never really attempts to draw our attention toward any of them. It really just asks us to go with it at every turn. You’ll find this same approach, these same weird touches and loose structure in many if not most of the Italian horror fare of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Other moments are lifted from the Italian classics much more directly. When we are introduced to Irene Miracle’s fortune teller Dana, she is doing a reading for a woman (Barbara Crampton, in a one-day cameo) when she suddenly begins to have a fit as she is assaulted with a vision of her own death. This is a direct parallel to a scene in Dario Argento’s Deep Red. There, a successful psychic is doing a demonstration for an audience, when she too sees a horrific vision of her own imminent death. The two scenes certainly have their differences, particularly in scope, but they are shot and staged in very similar ways. Puppet Master’s scene doesn’t feel like any kind of rip off of Deep Red because the two are still extremely different movies in many different ways, but one scene is still a very clear and direct callback to the other.
The foreshadowing of this death in Puppet Master is much more unexpected than Deep Red, as well. For one thing, the death in Argento’s movie came almost immediately after the premonition, whereas Dana receives a vision of her murder toward the beginning of the film but is actually the last of the psychics to be killed. But it is also of course the way these characters die and these events come to pass that push Puppet Master into even stranger territory. In Dana’s case, the Blade puppet had already been established, but part of what makes that prologue sequence work is that it is entirely disarming. In the opening scene, the puppets are harmless, even docile. Blade, through that whole prologue, is almost played more for comedic effect than anything else.
The next dream sequence from Alex, though, is even stranger as it ends with him looking down at his own chest and seeing himself covered in leeches. Unlike Dana and Blade, there was nothing earlier in the movie to set this up. And I am so jealous of anyone who got to see Puppet Master for the first time on cable, knowing nothing about it beforehand and not being spoiled by the cover of the VHS, because you’re left wondering what those leeches mean and why they’re even there—and when the puppet is finally introduced over halfway through the runtime, the last thing you’re expecting her to do is open her mouth and start painfully vomiting leeches all over her helpless victim. Things like that truly speak to the gleeful weirdness of the Full Moon brand, but in the context of the original film, absolutely feel at home in the worlds of Fulci and Bava (Lamberto, especially) as well.
Beyond anything in the text or subtext, though, there’s a very good reason for why Puppet Master has those echoes of Fulci and that’s cinematographer Sergio Salvati. A director of photography on over fifty movies, Salvati shot some of Fulci’s most seminal works, including City of the Living Dead, Zombie and The Beyond. Most of the credit for why Puppet Master truly looks so much like a Fulci film simply lies in having the same cinematographer, because it is a nearly impossible style to imitate. Puppet Master has that same sort of quality that defined so many of Fulci’s features: a sort of stylish roughness. Both Puppet Master and The Beyond have a blunt, almost matter-of-fact approach to the frame, simply reporting the visual field as “Well, here it is” and yet also have deeply surreal and dreamlike qualities, ambitious and independent at the same time, all of which should feel totally at odds with one another, but don’t.
It’s also worth at least acknowledging Italy’s long history of puppet theatre, especially the grim, macabre and offbeat. The commedia dell’arte first appeared in the 16th century and that style of masked, exaggerated characters eventually gave birth to traditional Italian puppet theatre, with the marionette becoming by far one of the most popular types. The commedia dell’arte is well known for its influence on the artistic world and the inspiration there might be thin—after all, while Puppet Master as a whole draws a great deal from Italian cinema and art, the puppets within the story explicitly hail from French and German origin.
David Allen, the late genius behind the creation of the film’s diminutive stars, drew inspirations from all kinds of sources, as noted in an interview with Slaughterhouse magazine around the time of the movie’s release. He took influence from commedia dell’arte to especially the French Grand Guignol theatre of the macabre. Those varied influences only help Puppet Master, as the puppets themselves feel uniform in that they all certainly feel of the same era, even of the same time and place, but each offer incredibly different and wholly unique designs.
They range from the gothic German Expressionism of Blade to the almost Renaissance qualities of Jester. And it is without a doubt those expertly crafted little characters at the core of the concept that allowed for Puppet Master to become as remembered a cult franchise as it became.
When it hit home video in October of 1989, Puppet Master broke video rental records. It did incredibly well to the point that even now many people falsely remember it being a theatrical release. While not every review was bursting with excitement (Fangoria praised the effects, but criticized the lack of scares) Joe Bob Briggs reviewed Puppet Master as “one of the best of 1989,” probably the best review a movie like this could ever hope to get. It was a risky move, the first film for a new company designed to cater to the largely untested straight-to-video market, but one that paid off in spades. Far from simply a movie about killer puppets picking people off in a hotel, it gives you everything you imagine from that concept and more—from psychics, undead revenge and stuffed dogs to more diverse and endearing influences than anyone would ever probably expect.