Puppet Master is a favorite of my childhood but not even nostalgia can mask how badly this film has aged. It wasn't a great film when it was first released in 1989, but it set itself away from the booming horror genre with its gimmick of wooden puppets that live, stalk and kill for their master.
Immediately, the film draws a comparison between these puppets and the German citizens during WWII. The first antagonists in the plot are Nazis who are searching for an innocent old German man to kill him and steal his magic spells. Like Hitler, this puppet master shoots himself in the head to avoid capture. Ok. So, much much later in the 1980s, the puppets are acting like Gestapo, running around a hotel in lieu of Germany, killing people for their new master. Its a pretty cool way to send up Nazism, the secret police and the overall dehumanizing, monstrous transformation it had on human lives unlucky enough to be living in post- WWI Germany. And its no accident that the damsel in distress in Puppet Master is a cute, childlike Jewish woman (Robin Frates, the highlight of the whole film) and the hero is a big, burly, aging, All-American farmboy (George Lucas' old pal Paul LeMat). I guess the filmmakers decided on making a satire of The Gestapo when they couldn't raise the money to make a movie about them directly. The puppets, like people, are good or bad depending on the influence they're under and the individuality they're allowed to have. Monsters are always victims as much as they are villains, but Puppet Master's monster are special because they're such creepy, but insignificant threats, like the people who cause real world horror.
Now apart from this very original and underrated concept for monsters, the rest of the movie stinks. Its essentially an old-school murder mystery with all the tropes: hotel setting, a dead hotel owner, his suspicious but innocent widow, a fortune to be collected, the detective party who comes to collect the fortune upon solving the owner's death, ensuing murders of the detectives and the revelation that the killer is indeed the owner. The only twist is that the dead owner is actually dead, a zombie using toys to kill instead of killing with toys like Jason Voorhees does.
Outside of its story, Puppet Master is still technically a very poor film. There are shots that are pointless, the pacing is too slow and obviously stalling for time, scenes are badly edited, lighting makes no sense for the scenes, the acting is inconsistent, the dialogue is flat consistently and the film has no structure. Everything feels thrown together and treated with very little respect from its makers, similar to how the puppet master mistreats his puppets in the film's climax. The movie made more of a splash financially than expected, so you really wish that Full Moon Pictures put more quality, energy and originality into this thing, as they did with the cash-in sequels, prequels and comics, but the first film is still has the biggest missed opportunity.
So why do I still mostly enjoy this "bad movie"? There isn't a movie that is "so bad that its good". But, like the puppets within it, the movie is "still good despite all of its badness". The concept is still potentially great and hasn't been repeated. Warts and all, Puppet Master is memorable. Its a quirky mix of so many odd influences: old mystery novels, David Lynch, WWII spy films, Tod Browning horror movies & the French film genre "Cinema Fantastique". It sets itself apart from the usual 80s slasher films, even if its not scary, suspenseful, well-written, well-acted or well-directed. Truly, this a film that shows the power and value of a good producer. With some puppets, a hotel and some C-movie actors, Charles Band launched a cult film franchise thats still surviving, even though the films get dumber and cheaper with each sequel and prequel. Every year, Hollywood take perfectly great film classics and give them pointless remakes that only bury the memory of the originals for a quick and fleeting profit. Puppet Master is the type of film that should be remade. The original is pretty lame, but it has potential, name value and was made to make money and sequels all along. If the remake isn't a piece of art, NO ONE WILL COMPLAIN. A bigger, better, scarier version of Puppet Master was screaming to be made when they first made the movie! Unfortunately, we got a cute little schlock piece. I say, cut Charles Band a check and reboot this exact plot.
There's so much to work with and yet so many flaws. The first problem is that the characters are neither likable nor dislikable enough for us to feel anything when they die. We know they have psychic powers and we see very little evidence of it. We hear that they've had some awesome history with the puppet masters, but don't see it. The whole Nazi relationship is the most interesting bit and its dropped about 10 minutes into the movie. Our hero rescues his damsel from her evil ex-husband and then packs up and leaves? There's zero romance or pay off. The puppets vanish after their role in the climax and don't factor into the ending at all. And did anyone notice how the maid came back as a zombie and then isn't mentioned again? There are so many plot holes and dead ends and potentially cool subplots, its just begging for a great rewrite. Cool story, just poor execution. Puppet Master wants to be this classy version of a cheap slasher movie, but its still a Cinderella dream.
Should you watch it? Not if they ever remake it. But its a cozy, sleepy little piece of nostalgia and, as a classic cheap Z-grade thriller, its a how-to guide on how to turn "chicken shit into chicken soup" as they say. Puppet Master has a lot of shit in it its soup, but its still soup.