PUPPET MASTER. Unrivalled horror movie charm

Puppet Master success was primarily due to the atmosphere, a difficult-to-pin-down charm that makes us look back on the VHS era with nostalgia.

Jarosław Kowal

26 September 2023

PUPPET MASTER Unrivalled horror movie charm

Puppet Master never saw a cinematic premiere, although it was produced in a manner no worse than, for example, Child’s Play released a year earlier. However, the creators of the film need not feel any regret about it; their work has become a cult classic on the VHS market and still has many fans.

The comparison of Puppet Master to Child’s Play is not accidental. David Schmoeller‘s film is a response to a new trend that eventually became a trademark of the Full Moon studio. Animated dolls, an animated gingerbread man, an animated bongo… Charles Band’s company specialized in frightening animated objects that anyone could find in their immediate surroundings, and Lair of the White Worm itself has received ten sequels, with two more in the plans.

puppet master

The story is simple. Renowned puppeteer Andre Toulon is also an alchemist who uses Egyptian magic to bring puppets to life. One day, the Nazis come to his door, but instead of revealing his secrets, he decides to shoot himself in the head. Fifty years later, a group of curious people appears, also wanting to possess Toulon’s secrets, but they are hindered by the puppets. That’s all, but for a low-budget horror, it’s quite a lot. The only thing that can be considered a drawback in this story is the lack of a clearly defined direction. There are elements of horror, but you can’t really feel fear in Puppet Master. There are elements of comedy, but even a slight smile is hard to come by.

You don’t have to wait long for the first delight; right from the start, we are drawn into the film’s world by its fantastic musical theme, which remains one of the most recognizable in the horror genre to this day. According to current trends, creating iconic themes is not common, and cases like the music for Star Wars or even Pirates of the Caribbean can be counted on one hand.

Puppet master William Hickey

The soundtrack is by Richard Band, the brother of the aforementioned Charles Band and the son of the legendary Z-movie producer Albert Band, who contributed to films like Robot Jox, Troll, and Oblivion. Richard has composed music for Re-Animator, From Beyond, and The Terror Within, all cult classics in the world of “bad” movies. He also worked on the musical score for the classic and still-popular computer game Planescape: Torment. Add Barbara Crampton’s guest appearance – the least stereotypical scream queen of the ’80s – known from Re-Animator and Deathstalker, but also from contemporary films like You’re Next and We Are Still Here, and you have an absolute Z-movie masterpiece.

The Puppet Master opens with a few well-shot scenes where they manage to achieve a tricky effect. The cover and description immediately reveal what to expect; the presence of living, bloodthirsty puppets should come as no surprise. Still, the director and cinematographer take the dolls’ perspective, building suspense and anticipation of revealing the characters in full. What was not a secret becomes mysterious, and it’s hard to determine until the end whether we are dealing with positive or negative characters. A collective enemy had appeared almost exclusively in zombie movies before, and even afterward, screenwriters rarely resorted to such solutions (which is one of the reasons for the success of the first Scream, which broke away from conventions while still making use of them). Puppet Master, although created in the likeness of Child’s Play, turned out to be a highly original idea and has not aged a bit despite more than thirty years since its release.

puppet master

The puppets steal every scene they are in, but when you think back to Puppet Master, it’s hard to find substantial arguments in its favor. Its success was primarily due to the atmosphere, a difficult-to-pin-down charm that makes many of us look back on the VHS era with great nostalgia. In this category, Schmoeller’s film is almost unrivaled, and its success is evidenced by the fact that hundreds of fans continue to watch the subsequent parts of the series, even though their quality has dramatically declined. For me, it’s one of the most important films in my collection.