PUPPET MASTER (1989)
Story by Charles Band and Kenneth J. Hall
Screenplay by Joseph G. Collodi
DIRECTOR: David Schmoeller
Paul Le Mat as Alex Whitaker
Irene Miracle as Dana Hadley
Matt Roe as Frank Forrester
Kathryn O'Reilly as Carissa Stamford
Jimmie F. Skaggs as Neil Gallagher
Introducing Robin Frates as Megan Gallagher
William Hickey as Andre Toulon
SYNOPSIS: A group of psychic researchers are drawn to a hotel in California where you can check out any time you like, but the killer puppets on the loose may have something different to say about that.
THE WHOLE BLOODY MESS: The movie kicks off with the credits, with no teaser beforehand. The music is an original piece of score, the Puppet Master theme, and this song has always haunted my mind to this day. I'll randomly start humming it. It's so melodic, and peacefully haunting, it really sets up the mood.
The credits roll over extreme closeups of puppet doll heads. I swear, I diagnosed one of these things with tonsilitis. As they draw to a close, the movie brightens up to scenes of crashing waves on a beach, and a hotel looking over it from upon the bluffs.
It's the Bodega Bay Inn, circa 1939, just as World War II is getting hot and heavy. We look in on a man putting some finishing touches on some puppet heads. This is Andre Toulon, played by frequent character actor, William Hickey. If the name doesn't ring a bell, you'd know him the instant you heard his voice. You must have seen him in something.
As if Hickey playing with dolls isn't weird enough, he has one of them sitting and looking out the window, and holy crap! It moved! On its own! The puppets are alive, aaahhhh!
And also, the puppet looks so very stereotypically Chinese, with the Fu Manchu mustache, and clothes. It's borderline racist. Ahhh, the 30s.
We jump away from Toulon and his dolls, to a POV shot zipping along the ground. It's very much borrowed from the Evil Dead movies. POV Man wanders the grounds of the inn, murmuring to itself, and trying to avoid being seen.
The movie jumps back to Toulon rubbing one of his doll's heads (Must stay good, must stay good), and demanding it come to life. Now kids, I have to warn you, not to try this at home with your Transformers. It actually does work, and I am still cleaning up the mess created by Optimus Prime kicking Megatron's ass.
Anyways, the puppet's head is split into three horizontal sections, and they begin to spin around without any assistance. I never understood why Jester does this. He does it to change his expression, and that's all the puppet does. Ever. That's the only ability he has, the only trait that is his. His hacked up head spins around. Talk about getting the short straw. It is a truly random design choice.
There's no reason why they couldn't just change his expression when the camera cuts away, which is what really happens anyways. It's not like there are other faces arranged around his head like Marvel Comics' Living Tribunal, although that would have been awesome. He just magically changes it to something else when it spins. It would be no less weird to just have it magically change when no one's looking. Heck, that might even be less odd. Less odd being the most subjective term ever used here. And I'm getting this stuff off my chest now, because things are just gonna get weirder.
Meanwhile, the POV cam is almost taken out by a car, and since it's a 1930s car, I wonder which would have cost more if there was an accident and they both got damaged. Some people get out, and suddenly the view jumps to an overhead shot, and there's nothing by the car! You can see the car, the people out of it, but there's nothing by the wheel backing away as it realises it almost became road pizza. I'm pretty sure we weren't following a bug, which would be invisible from way up there and should be able to see it. Heck, one of the guys walks right through where it should be.
The tiny runny thing runs around being tiny some more, while Toulon tells his puppets that he knows that the men in black from the car are coming to take him away, ha-haaaa, as those same men do indeed draw closer to the inn.
The POV cam grunts and climbs over some luggage, which would only serve to make the thing all the more noticable, and it could have easily zipped around them without losing any time, but someone wanted to have some fun with the shot, I guess. And that's far enough.
Speaking of, as the camera is about to enter a room, someone slams a door shut on the critter falls backwards.
More running, more men in black, more sneaking, more talking to puppets. I'll give some credit for juggling the multiple threads and keeping the pace pretty tight.
Finally, we see who's point of view we've been following, and it's a wee, little puppet man in a black trenchcoat and fedora. That guy over there on the left. Yeah, that guy. He also has a hook for one hand, and a big-ass blade for the other, as well as a skeletal head, black hollow eyes, and a wicked looking grin. This my friends, is Blade. Vampire hunters need not apply.
He rushes around the lobby some more, pulls a Killroy over the back of a sofa, hops up and runs along the piano so he can make sure everyone sees him or is attracted to the sound from the keys, and ducks into a lift just as the doors are closing. The Blade cosplayers following him aren't so lucky and have to wait for the next available car.
Meanwhile, Toulon is removing a panel from the wall in his hotel rooms, and revealing a large hiding spot. I guess those were standard back in the day, so he can prepare his puppet storage trunk.
Blade is finally noticed by some old woman he runs into on the upper floors, and she screams at the wee puppet man, so he raises his arms and yelps back. Well, he makes a noise. Let's see you try and describe the sounds a puppet makes. It's not loud, it isn't shrill, it's just some kind of whimpering gasp of surprise.
Johnny Cash and friend get into an elevator at long last, as Blade knocks on Toulon's door with his hook. His cute wee hook. I know they're supposed to be terrifying, and back in the day there was probably much higher fright value, but now the killer puppets just come across as being so adorable!
With Blade back in his hands, he places all of his puppets back in their trunk and hides them in the world's first hotel room safe, just as the Germans arrive at the door, with their guns at the ready.
Toulon has a gun of his own though, and blows a paintball out the back of his skull and all over the wall behind him, much to the German's dismay when they bust their way in.
Thus the movie ends, fading to black, and the credits ro...oh wait, no. We're just jumping ahead to the present day, aka the 80s. And all the way across the country to Yale University.
Yale's latest fine example of academic excellence is Alex Whitaker as he's having some kind of strange dream in black & white nightmare, and then he bleeds all over his clean, white shirt when he wakes up. Well, that's what you get for letting leeches live on your chest. Seriously, that's not a joke. He pulls open his shirt to reveal a number of leeches feeding off him like they're the ugliest nursing babies.
He wakes up, relieved to see the leeches haven't started leaking yet, and that it was all just a nightmare. Yes, the strange leeches nightmare makes the other one with a strange man pointing a gun at the head of a girl while cackling evilly much less weird in retrospect.
That wholly random scene that makes zero sense at this stage of the game jumps over to another one, this time at a carnival, with a couple visiting a fortune teller. She gives the couple the usual happy BS about getting married, riches, and children, telling them what they want to hear, and turning more of her misses into hits than John Edward on a good day.
Suddenly, the fortune teller spasms and chokes as she has her own monochrome vision of the Bladecam chasing someone through the halls of the Bodega Bay Inn, slashing at her.
As if the movie hasn't jumped around enough in the last five minutes, it wanders from the carnival and into the heart of New York City, to a lab in an office building where psychic research is being conducted. Of course, they ask a woman to picture her wildest sexual fantasies, so maybe they're just pervs.
The male doctor, Frank, asks his associate Carissa what she thinks the subject is picturing, to see if she's picking up the same stuff. From what he's listing off, I suspect what he's 'picking up' are more likely to be his own fantasies of the subject running naked.
A phone rings and - wait, hold on. I want to momentarily question having a phone right there. In the lab. While they're testing someone. Their experiments require them to be focused and concentrating. So they put the second most distracting device of the time right next to them? Not to mention the main doors to their facilities are not more then ten feet away, and that seems like an equally poor choice. But I guess the Psychic Perv Institute could only afford so much office space.
The doctor tells Alex and his breast feeding leeches that he was expecting his call. Get it? Because they're psychic! They've all had visions, and Frank suspects they've all been contacted because another member of their team has located Toulon's stuff and it's time to meet.
Our potential victims for the movie gather at the Bodega Bay, and are greeted by the wife of their friend. Oops, make that widow. Their pal died rather suddenly.
They view the body of Neil Gallagher, and some of them stay behind to pay their respects, while the rest are shown to their rooms. They're confused and concerned that they were unable to sense he had died in the visions he had sent. Next time he should try a phone.
Dana, the fortune teller, shows an utter lack of respect and pulls out a long needle she had on her and jabs it right into Neil's chest, just to be sure that he is in fact slipped off this mortal coil. There must have been a better way to confirm he's no longer pining for the fjords that didn't involve stabbing. First of all, that's just bad karma. Second up, what if he WAS still alive? She would have just stabbed him in the lung and probably killed him!
Later, the caretaker, or whatever, is telling some of the history of the hotel to Dana McStabsacorpse, as she's burning some incense. She starts spouting some nonsense about cleansing the caretaker's spirit, trying to protect her, and how she needs to stay away from THE FIREPLACE! It's fun to mess with people's heads so they'll leave you alone.
Anyways, she leaves, but peeks through the keyhole, and watches Dana bring out her dog. Her dead dog. Her dead, stuffed dog. Her dead, stuffed dog that she brings cans of food along for. As if her predictions weren't already suspect enough.
Alex the leech farmer is in his own room, feeling up some photos, and again his brain drifts back to B&W land, but this time he sees the cackling man and his hostage dancing around a ballroom in the photos.
The caretaker takes the two pervy doctors into the elevator to take them to their room, but Carissa freaks out having a vision of their dead friend forcing himself onto a woman that is not Megan. Next in their rooms, she continues to have more visions of people having sex, this time in their bed. Sex sex sex. Talk about a one-track psychic mind.
As everyone gathers for dinner, we see Neil's coffin as another puppet climbs out from...somewhere; a big bulky guy with a teeny little head and giant hands. This is Pinhead, and the poor bastard looks like he was drawn by Rob Liefeld.
Megan tells everyone over dinner how she met and wed Gallagher, and it sure sounds like his only motives in the marriage were to get close to her, the owner of the hotel, and use her to get renovations going so he could find somet...eh, the puppets. Why be coy? He wants the puppets.
Dana's winning purpose and telling Megan the truth of her husband's personality drives her out of the dining room, and Alex follows. He tells her about the group's shared psychic abilities. Oh, and that they're studying accent Egyptian alchemy, trying to give life to inanimate objects. I have how that comes out almost offhandedly, and is brushed past while Alex tells about the rest of the cannon fodder brigade for this movie, and how they learned of Andre Toulon and his methods.
The caretaker meanwhile, is attending to THE FIREPLACE! She's getting creeped out by some noises around the room. And piano playing. Well playing is too strong of a word.
Like anyone else in a horror movie, she slinks around the piano to see what's making all the racket. Like in any horror movie, there's nothing at the bench when she gets there and closes the lid while pinhead grabs the poker she left behind at THE FIREPLACE!
She goes back to THE FIREPLACE! and sees the poker is missing, but she finds it quickly when she turns around and sees Pinhead holding it in his thick, meaty paws. He donks her on the head with it about as hard as a severed hand wielding a hammer, and executionals the caretaker.
Her blood spatters across the logs in the fire, and I was going to complain about how it took almost five seconds for her to scream after that, but it's revealed immediately after that it was really Megan screaming and passing out. She found her dead husband's corpse sitting up in the parlor and staring at her.
Everyone is suspicious of everyone else for moving the body, since not a one of them is very trustworthy, and all in this little adventure for their own reasons.
Later that night, Carissa is taking a bath and her psychometric powers kick in again, and can you guess what images she picks up from the bathtub's history?
A) a woman getting stabbed and falling into the tub, pulling the curtain off the rod as blood circles down the drain?
B) a man being dragged into the tub by a black-clad man with white clown makeup on his face and black lips turning the shower onto his unconcious victim?
C) a pair of women having wild monkey sex in the shower?
If you said C, congratulations, you've been paying far too much attention to this review, or this movie. I think Carissa's antenna is broken, and someone needs to fix her tuner.
She asks Frank what he would do with Toulon's discovery, and since he has such modern ambitions, he only wants to rule the world. Frank suddenly stops talking, and Carissa gets up to see what sporting event on the tv must have distracted him.
Frank jumps out at her, spooking her, and he's got a stocking on his head like he just tried to rob a bank. They begin making out through the stocking, and...they just have a strange relationship.
And I just now am noticing that everyone's room number is 203. Ooops.
Alex is alone in his room, being stalked by the POV cam and disturbed by strange scuffling noises. He checks out in the hallway and sees nothing, and whatever doll was bothering him escapes.
Meanwhile, the doctorly couple are adding their own sexcapades to the memories of their bed. Blade is tired of being kept awake by their sexual olympics so hooks a chair and drags it to their door so he can bust in and ask them to keep the racket down. Oh, but how will you get in, wee puppet man? You have no hands! Just a hook and a knife, a doorknob is beyond your puppety abilities!
As he looks through the keyhole, he gets shoved out of the way by another puppet who wants to get his own jollies in. This would be Tunneler, and while he has a drill for a head, he also has hands, and opens the door.
Carissa thinks she sees the puppet and dismounts Frank, leaving him tied to the bed and blindfolded while she looks for the monster under the bed. This time around there actually is one, and Tunneler fires up his head cone and drills her right in the mouth.
The poor bastard on the bed can't see, but he hears the impromptu dentistry going on. He's confused until he feels his body being caressed again, but instead of Carissa we meet the final doll; a tiny, porceline like figurine called Leech Woman. Guesses on what she can do?
How the heck do you mistake hands that are 1/12th the size of your wife's for her gentle touch? Not to mention the kisses. No one has lips that small. Not to mention she's made of wood, and shouldn't feel like flesh on top of all that. "Gee honey, your kisses feel like you've just touched me with just the tiniest bit of flesh, how did you do thaaaaaAAAHHH!"
And her little squawks of ecstacy really freak me out. They sound approximately erotic, but the scene is anything but that, and they're too strange sounding to really come off as anything other than disturbing.
With the foreplay done with, Leech Woman lives up to her name as she hacks up world's worst hairball, or a giant leech. This sucker is bigger than she is. This is neither the time nor place to wonder where they came from in such a waifish form. Magic!!
Since Frank is blindfolded, even this feels oddly erotic, and starts to get him all hot and bothered. Well, until the pain of the leech taking root sinks in.
He finally shifts enough to get the blindfold off enough to see enough of Leech Woman horking up a series of leeches onto his flesh. The gagging and choking noises as she forces those things out of her are worse than her moans.
Dana returns to her room after wandering the halls drunkenly with her dead dog Rover. Another dead body is awaiting her, as she discovers Gallagher sitting on her bed. She's not bothered in the least, convinced that someone is messing around. Or she wanders around with a stuffed puppy, so she might just be adding him to her collection of companions.
She starts to dig through her suitcase, and Pinhead charges up, grabbing her by the ankles and tosses her effortlessly into the air and onto the bed. He doesn't push her, he literally lifts her up BY THE ANKLES and tosses her into the air. Let's see you try and do that.
The puppet twists and snaps her leg, sending her off the bed and onto the floor. Pinhead grabs her by the throat, and I have to recall the choking she was doing during her vision at the start of the movie. Dana somehow gets the puppet off him, and flings him across the room.
She crawls off while Pinhead is...uhm, unconcious. That doesn't last long and he easily is back giving chase to the woman with the broken leg. He zoomes up to her and punches her right inna nose, and she again manages to fling him away, and he careens down the stairwell to the waiting lobby six or so floors below.
Of course, she's not safe and sees Blade standing there ready to finish the job his teeny-headed friend began. Before he can reach her, she gets into the elevator and closes the door on his little hook.
Dana gets his hook out of the way, and descends to the lobby. Right where Pinhead is waiting, and he can't be happy. He continues to deliver knuckle sandwiches to her, and again she hurls him away. He can throw a girl by the legs through the air, but can't keep a grip.
And it's still not over as the hatch in the elevator's roof opens up and we see Blade apparently caught a ride on the top of the car. He jumps down and slashes her throat, finally ending her struggles. As he does so, he smiles, and little needle-like protrustions jut out of his eye sockets. I swear there's something weirdly phallic about it, but from his eyes. I don't want to think about it.
And then Jester just shows up to spin his head. No reason, just to spin out. I don't think he does anything at all in this movie. Never understood the point of him.
Alex had at last found some sleep amidst all the executionals, but Maggie comes by to wake him up to show him something. She says something about Gallagher's death was bothering her. I guess she'll miss the Sledge-o-matic. I know I will. Or maybe it's just because her husband's body keeps winding up in random chairs.
They take the stairs, when they have a perfectly good elevator, because to do otherwise would reveal the dead bodies before their time. Maggie's been piecing things together, and has realised her late husband was looking into Toulon's old stuff.
She leads Alex into the ballroom he remembers from his dreams and visions, and the masked cackling man grabs Maggie and takes her for a dance, just like in the nightmares. She doesn't seem to question any of this, either. At the end of the dance, he pulls off the mask revealing that it was always Gallagher, pulls out a gun, and things proceed as Alex remembers dreaming how they would happen.
I never pieced it together that the weird dream guy and Neil were the same, or that the woman he was dancing with in the dream was Maggie, despite seeing them clearly. They always looked different in the dreams and reality to me.
In fact, this is yet another version of that dream, and Alex startles himself awake once more, so we can piece all those details together properly.
Alex throws back his bedsheets to drain the leech, and he sees the three severed heads of his colleagues, all grinning at him insanely, and he wakes up again. This man's dreams are the Russian nesting dolls of the subconcious.
And of course that just leads to reality catching up with Alex's dreams, as Maggie knocks on the door wanting to show him something. I'm getting dizzy from the recursiveness.
They take the stairs, when they have a perfectly good elevator, because to do otherwise would reveal the dead bodies before their time. Maggie's been piecing things together, and has realised her late husband was looking into Toulon's old stuff.
Whoa, deja vu. But instead of the ballroom, she takes Alex into a rundown section of the hotel, where renovations were being done. Maggie shows him a journal of Toulon's, containing all his secret recipes, like chicken pot pie, creme broule, and his formula for reanimating the inanimate. It also details how he found the Egyptian rites, and the puppets are fine in his care, well behaved, but he fears what would happen in someone else's hands. Hence why he splattered brainjuice all over the wall and hid the trunk.
The two of them rush downstairs after another vision of Neil in the dining room sitting with Rover and a German luger taunting Alex prompts them to go there.
When they get to the dining room, they find all the dead psychic friends network arranged around the table, with their newfound puppet pals.
And then the dead man walking arrives, as Neil saunters in, looking quite alive and well. He even admits to being dead, and that he shot out his own brains, just like Toulon. Which leads me to wonder who brought him back, but oh well.
Maggie's not the sharpest tack in this box so isn't putting things together, and Alex is still a few script pages behind, so that leaves Neil to explain things to them. He explains how he killed himself, but used Toulon's secrets to bring himself back, and control the puppets. How many of you figured it out? Show of hands?
Neil wants immortality, obviously, and he had the others killed because they're all psychically bonded, and he has to protect his secret. He drew them there so his puppets could kill them, never having learned the truth. Well, except for Alex and Maggie, I guess.
He's perfected the techniques on the puppets, but he's bored playing with dolls, and wants to branch out to real people. He emphasizes this by tossing Jester aside like...well, like a doll. The rest of the puppets do not look pleased at this.
As if that wasn't evil enough, he also killed Maggie's parents for the sole purpose of marrying her, so he could gain unrestricted access to the hotel and Toulon's work. It took a number of years. Now that's long term planning.
The puppets continue to see how brutal their new master is as he smacks around the only living people left in the hotel. He takes a few pages from Pinhead's playbook and punches Alex in the nose a bunch of times, until he gets vased by his wife.
The pair try to escape, but surprise! All the doors are locked. They run into the reanimated caretaker, who's fallen under Neil's control. Neil arrives and continues to use Alex's face for a punching bag, until he gets Neil good with a nutshot. Which apparently has no effect on the reanimated dead as he mostly shrugs it off. It does give Alex the chance to get in some more punches though.
Alex continues to have face meet fist, until he manages to actually use the anti-Pinhead playbook, and tosses Neil off, right into the elevator.
Speaking of Pinhead, he actually closes his new master in. They confront each other, and Pinhead drops him to the ground. Neil poinks his teeny head off, and tosses the body and head aside.
But wait, there's more! Tunneler arrives and gets him right in the back of the leg with his drill bit. The dentistry noises mixed with crunching bone sounds are the best.
All Alex can do is stand outside the elevator watching, while Pinhead's body gropes about blindly for his head. Neil drags himself back onto unsteady feet, and he leaps up and grabs at the open hatch left in the roof. The puppets reach and paw towards his dangling feet, but with no success.
He tries to pull himself up through the hole, but his only grip is his fingers. Which won't do him much good as the alabaster visage of Blade lurks into view, brandishing his silvery namesake. The puppet brings the glistening instrument down upon his master's hand and slices off his fingers. There's no blood as he is technically dead, and the knife just slices right through.
Blade flicks each severed finger off the roof and down through the hole with his knife, like a kid shoving away food he doesn't like. Neil's other hand just can't hang on anymore, and he falls back down to his waiting puppets.
Those two are joined by Blade who leaps down and skewers other hand, causing green blood to spew out. The three pretty much go to town on the guy. Pinhead's punching, Blade's slicing, and Tunneler goes and starts digging a hole through Neil's cheek. On top of all that, Leech Woman arrives and starts to cough up another intestinal friend into Neil's mouth while Blade holds it open with his hook.
Alex tries his best to get the door open and stop the puppets, and I just can't figure out why. Neil's a murderer, he tried to make Alex his own personal fist farm, and hey, he's not even really alive anymore. Let the puppets correct their mistake, damnit!
Finally, with the largest leech she's ever choked up clogging Neil's windpipe, a hole chewed through his cheek, bits and pieces scattered here and there, Pinhead finally twists Neil's head and snaps his neck. I don't see why any of this would truly kill him, but he never returns, so I guess it did the trick.
Some time later, Alex heads out leaving Maggie all alone as she scoops up the stuffed dog. Oh, no they wouldn't. Don't tell me they'd do this.
Oh geeze, they did. As she heads up the stairs, the now alive dog hops out of Maggie's arms and runs away, which Maggie seems perfectly ok with, like a reanimated dog zooming off into the credits happens every day.
And with the credits being brought back from the dead, it is time for...
Video: Not that great, really. The picture is grainy, and the transfer is way subpar. I'm sure some of it is the source material and what stock it was filmed on, but this is like a hasty release if I ever saw one. A little more care would have been nice. It's watchable, but that's about it. Very direct to video, which makes sense, considering that's how it started.
Audio: The sound is an ok stereo mix, that again could have been better. I would love to see this movie remastered, and in widescreen if that was at all possible, but I doubt it exists as anything other than full frame. Still, having a full sound field to work in and really hear those puppets scampering around our seats would be great.
Special Features: A trailer, and a short featurette from the original VHS release looking at the making of Puppet Master. This was a precursor to the VideoZone specials that Full Moon included after all of their movies on the VHS, that were one of the earliest form of special features. These days, it's not much, but I am so glad to see it preserved here. It's a bit of history in many ways.
Best Line: "You are the puppet, and I am the master!" from Neil to his minions. It's nothing special, but it stood out.
First Kill: 11 minutes in, the Puppet Master himself provides us with the first death by eating a bullet.
Best Kill: There's a lot of good choices here, since each death is pretty unique for the time. Puppets didn't kill that many people back then, and they all had some fun gimmicks to play off of. However, I'm going with Dana's death, just because it was so drawn out, and multiple puppets got involved, as well as she got some good shots in herself.
Blood Type: There's some gore, but most of it's after the fact. There's some blood, but mostly off camera. The most disturbing thing is the leeches.
Sex Appeal: Pretty light, the worst it gets is a couple shirtless guys, and Carissa groping herself, as well as riding Frank.
Ratings: For movie content, this movie scores about three out of five severed fingers. It's got a solid enough plot, the bad guy's thoughts are pretty solid as far as they go. The plot holes aren't enourmous, at least not to the point of being detracting. However, the movie's still pretty corny, and at the end of the day, we're talking about killer puppets goofing around a hotel for their undead master.
For entertainment, I give it a four out of five wee puppet men. It's got some good scares in it, some nice bits of gore and horror, and with a crowd is fun to poke at. It's definitely worth a watch, and is a movie I love, and as I've said, is a huge reason this site exists. It was one of my first horror movies that really drew me in, and it made me a fan of Full Moon in particular. This movie is very close to my bloody heart, and shaped a lot of my self, so it was a blast looking back at this classic after so long. It doesn't age the best, but it holds up well enough, too.