Review: Puppet Master / Cert: 18 / Director: David Schmoeller / Screenplay: Charles Band, Kenneth J. Hall / Starring: Paul Le Mat, William Hickey, Irene Miracle / Release Date: August 20th
Notching up ten sequels and counting, Puppet Master is horror producer Charles Band's most enduring franchise, and it all started in 1989 with this straight-to-video movie.
Introduced with lilting, fairground-style music by Richard Band, brother of the aforementioned Charles, the story kicks off in a plush hotel on the California coastline in 1939, where we meet the white-haired, Geppetto-like Andre Toulon (Hickey), an ace puppeteer who has mastered a form of ancient Egyptian magic that enables him to breathe life into his creations. Anxious lest these dangerous little critters fall into the wrong hands, he's in hiding from the Nazis and eats lead when they finally track him down, taking his secrets with him.
Cut to the present day (well, the late '80s) and a motley group of psychics assemble at the same hotel to pay their respects to one of their number who has also, as it happens, committed suicide. But as they settle down for the night, it becomes clear that Toulon's puppets are on the loose, causing mayhem, and the question is – who, if anyone, is controlling them?
Band is frank enough to admit in an accompanying interview that this was one of those cases where the title came first, the creature design second and only then was a script cobbled together. The result is a movie whose strongest suit isn't its storyline. That said, the dialogue is sprightly and the characters are entertaining, especially psychic couple Frank (Roe) and Carlissa (O'Reilly,) whose investigations have a habit of degenerating into kinky sex games. Considering it was intended for the grubby medium of VHS, it's a handsome film too, thanks to some opulent sets and the glowing cinematography of Sergio Salvati – both of which can now be fully appreciated in this sparkling 16:9 remaster from the original print.
But really, it's all about the puppets, and these (as created by Dave Allen, who went on to direct Puppet Master II) are undoubtedly impressive, creepy but at the same time endearing. Pinhead – his tiny noodle dwarfed by big shoulders and a pair of chunky mitts – is especially chill-inducing, as is a doll that spews leeches from its mouth. You might expect a high definition transfer to reveal shortcomings in the animation, but not so – the combination of stop-motion and physical puppetry still looks good even to eyes jaded by CGI. (The same, alas, cannot be said of leading man Paul Le Mat's Peter Stringfellow-style blow back barnet.) Yes, the whole thing's a little lightweight and nonsensical, but it's also bright, charming and fun, and a welcome return for the first instalment of a much-loved franchise.
Special Features: Audio Commentary with Justin Kerswell, New DTS soundtrack, Restored HD transfer, Original LCPM soundtrack, Commentary by Charles Band, 'No Strings Attached' original making of featurette, HD trailer, Full Moon trailer park, Reversible Sleeve with original artwork.