Puppet Master (1989)
Director: David Schmoeller
Writers: Charles Band, Kenneth J. Hall
Stars: Paul Le Mat, William Hickey, Irene Miracle
Story centering around a puppet maker from the 1930's with the power to breathe life into inanimate objects - in this case, his puppets. A group of colleagues, all with some sort of psychic powers of their own, try to track down secrets that the puppet maker left behind with the mindset of harnessing the ancient power of raising the dead.
Charles Band and his infatuation with puppet movies... a very strange and interesting enterprise over the years. His Full Moon Features production company has likely produced more puppet/doll related movies than all others combined. Naturally, this would lend you to believe that they should be pretty good at it, right? Well, you would be mistaken. Not that there isn't any entertainment value to some and a few decent gems can't be found amongst the rubble, but for the most part, Band's movies are pretty ridiculous. However, his first movie of his flagship Puppet Master series isn't terrible.
So for starters, this is pretty cool concept for a movie. There is a lot of good back-story with the character of Andre Toulon, the puppet maker with a gift of breathing life in his puppets (who has far too little screen time). But even though Toulon doesn't seem to have malicious intent, he just happens to make them look kinda creepy, with weapons for hands and heads. You just have to roll past the minutiae, I suppose. Anyway, the fact that there is a lot of mysticism and psychic power type of stuff going on all over the place is enough to keep your attention. I actually wanted to know what was happening and how it was all going to unfold. For a cheesy puppet-kills-people movie, the story was intriguing enough to keep my attention until the end. There's a little bit of a "who-dunnit" type of murder mystery aspect to this movie and I guess I wasn't expecting that. It was a nice touch to the script, which isn't awful.
The acting is a bit over-the-top and not in a good way. I wouldn't call it "bad", just not great and it's distracting from the characters, because they are somewhat interesting... even if it is only from the standpoint that you want to know what their secret power is and how it relates to the overall story. Also, the puppets themselves almost become secondary to the story and at times, the writers almost forget about them, which is a bit odd. Are they good? Are they evil? It's almost like the writers couldn't figure it out. Maybe they are neither, I don't know. It was like, "Okay, I guess this is supposed to be a horror movie, so let's throw in a scene where one of the puppets does something nasty." It made the writing feel a bit lazy at times.
They really seem to want to tell two stories, but don't blend them well enough to tell them both simultaneously. The story focuses more on the humans and what they are after - which is the ability, not the puppets. This makes the puppets become a side show instead of a centerpiece. The puppets themselves are not scary and the movie isn't overly gory, but they are kind of cool and unique to an extent, I guess. In the end, there just isn't a lot of style or enough substance to make you care strongly enough about the puppets' purpose in the film.
Before I conclude my review, I do have one other pet peeve about this movie. Are all the people in this movie blind? It's funny how no one can actually SEE the puppets running around. There are far too many scenes shot from the view of the puppet (running around on the ground, etc) and no one sees them. It wouldn't be so distracting if they didn't take a "hey, look at the cool camera trick we are doing to make it look like you are the puppet running around" every five minutes. It takes some of the believability out of the movie (and yes, I know that's an oxymoron). /rant
Overall, this is a very watchable movie... especially if creepy puppets is your thing. And if creepy puppets is in fact your thing, there are like two dozen or more Full Moon films that might tickle your fancy. Most of the Puppet Master movies go south from here (and that's not a very far drive to begin with), but the original is now a bit of a cult classic and horror buffs need to at least make sure they view this once... and once is likely enough for most of us.