If in the world of schlock horror films Roger Corman is king, then one of the knights in his court has to be writer/director/producer Charles Band. In the early seventies, Band developed his first production company and by the mid-1980s the young filmmaker had moved to Europe to form Empire Pictures -- the company responsible for producing and distributing dozens of films, including cult favorites 'Re-Animator,' 'Ghoulies,' 'Trancers,' 'Troll,' and the movie that traumatized my youth by making me never look at toys the same way again, Stuart Gordon's 'Dolls.' Not the best rental for a bunch of pre-teen kids having a sleepover birthday party -- let me tell you.
At the tail end of the eighties, though, Empire had gone out of business, but the Band played on by returning to the United States to create Full Moon Pictures -- which is still active today. The Full Moon library unleashed many killer gems like 'Subspecies,' 'Demonic Toys,' 'Gingerdead Man,' and even deadly narcotic paraphernalia with 'Evil Bong' (I guess drugs really are bad, mmmkay?). But with eight official sequels and one unofficial installment to date, it's Full Moon's debut feature that solidified itself as their flagship franchise -- 'Puppet Master.'
The story opens in 1939 at the Bodega Bay Inn in California, where a seemingly ordinary elderly man named Andre Toulon (played by the late William Hickey of 'Prizzi's Honor') is busy working on the newest addition to his beloved collection of wooden puppets. But this old puppeteer is far from ordinary. You see, Toulon is the master manipulator of a mystical secret: he has the ability to grant his little friends -- life. Of course, the Nazis desire the knowledge of this magic, and Toulon is well aware that enemy spies are hot on his trail and closing in on his doorstep. So after the old man gently hides his creations, he decides to take drastic measures to keep his secret from falling into the wrong hands.
Flash forward about fifty years, and a group of four psychics--Alex (Paul Le Mat), Dana (Irene Miracle), Frank (Matt Roe), and his lover Carlissa (Kathryn O'Reilly)--receive troubling visions they believe were sent to them from a former colleague of theirs, Neil Gallagher (Jimmie F. Skaggs). Obsessed with trying to unlock the mysteries of immortality, Gallagher's quest has led him to the Bodega Bay Inn. When the team arrives, however, they learn from Neil's wife Megan (Robin Frates) the tragic news that her husband has just recently committed suicide. The psychics are puzzled, especially since they didn't even know Neil was married, but they decide to stay and pay their respects at the funeral anyway. But when the housekeeper goes missing and psychics start dying, the remaining survivors will quickly discover that evil comes in all sizes -- and perhaps Gallagher's death wasn't a suicide after all.
Okay, I'll admit it -- 'Puppet Master' is one of my guilty pleasures. No, it isn't a great film, and calling it a good one is probably pushing it. Even though Director David Schmoeller's screenplay (adapted from a story by Charles Band and Kenneth J. Hall) is somewhat original, the script itself is weak and does drag in places -- especially during the first act. The dialogue is downright atrocious, and the acting--or should I say overacting--ranges from mediocre to laughable. Toss in the mandatory gratuitous nudity and bloody gore (of which there is plenty more in this uncut release), and 'Puppet Master' is 100 percent pure '80s cheese.
But 'Puppet Master' has a few tricks up its sleeve that separate it from typical B-movie fare and has made it prevail as a minor cult classic for two decades. Schmoeller does a terrific job lathering on the gothic mood and Hammer-esque atmosphere, while the beautiful set pieces bring even more character and creepiness to the film. And then there's the eerie theme composed by Richard Band (yes, Charles' brother). Infused with the essence of European circus music, this haunting tune perfectly suits the tone of the movie. It's brilliant and unforgettable.
We can't have 'Puppet Master' without puppets, though, and Charles Band along with sorely missed special effects designer David Allen ('Willow') have created memorably fantastic little icons. I'm sure you can guess from his name what Blade's right hand is made of, and his left is a hook. How awesome is that? Pinhead may have a tiny noggin, but his enormous hands will pummel you silly. Ms. Leech regurgitates blood-sucking worms on her victims, and having fillings at the dentist is like eating apple pie compared to a visit by the drill on top of Tunneller's head. And then there's Jester, who will just do you in a variety of clever ways. All of the puppets are brought to life via traditional puppetry, stop-motion techniques made famous by Ray Harryhausen, and a slew of other resourceful tricks. The puppets also provide the dark comedy aspects, and with each having their own personalities they tend to steal the show.
Some people have called 'Puppet Master' a 'Child's Play' copycat, but that really couldn't be further from the truth. Except for the killer toys, the films are nothing alike. In fact, 'Puppet Master' is more of a twisted version of 'Dolls' -- which came before both movies. And while Blade, Pinhead, Ms. Leech, Tunneller and the head-spinning Jester may not be anywhere near as notorious as Chucky, to me they're certainly much cooler.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Full Moon celebrates the 20th Anniversary of 'Puppet Master' by making their first foray into the high-definition market with both the original film and its 2010 sequel, 'Puppet Master: Axis of Evil.' Each release arrives separately as single editions (or as part of the 'Limited Edition Toulon's Trunk Collector's Set' only available at Full Moon Direct). In either edition, each movie is presented on a single-layered BD-25 housed inside a standard blue keepcase. The Blu-rays are also reported to be region free -- according to the Full Moon website.
When 'Puppet Master: Axis of Evil' was planned for a Blu-ray release, Charles Band also took the opportunity to revisit the original 'Puppet Master' and create a brand new master from the 35mm negative print for these 20th Anniversary DVD and Blu-ray editions. Unlike previous home video versions that were always presented in 1.33:1 full frame, this new release is apparently the first time 'Puppet Master' can be seen in 16 x 9 widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio).
Despite the new re-mastering, however, I won't lie -- the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode on this Blu-ray is still in pretty rough shape. There's a ton of noticeable wear and tear--with many instances of dirt, scratches, splotches, and the odd stray hair infesting the transfer. The brief interludes displaying the Bodega Bay Inn set on top of the cliffs have black marks in the skyline that remain on screen for multiple frames. The palette is worn and faded, with some decent splashes of reds and greens, but even those pale in comparison to newer releases. Black levels are never particularly rich or deep, either, though I've certainly seen worse. Fleshtones are fairly consistent, although they can occasionally appear a bit rosy. The level of depth is weak, and while fine detailing is never exceptional, more is certainly revealing on this disc--from Blade's stringy white hair to the textures of the puppet fabrics. It's also worth noting a few of the panning shots are jittery. There is evidence of DNR, yet a slight grain field remains intact and the picture is quite soft on the whole.
In the end, sure 'Puppet Master' probably could have been cleaned up more, but realistically this is a dirt cheap production from the eighties, and Full Moon isn't the kind of studio that has the bankroll lying around to invest in a top-of-the-line restoration. So in terms of Blu-ray--yeah it's terrible. But in terms of 'Puppet Master'--it's miles better than the old DVDs -- which should at least count for something.
As mentioned in my previous review, both the 'Puppet Master' and 'Puppet Master: Axis of Evil' Blu-rays were originally supposed to feature Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks, but apparently an early batch of discs were incorrectly authored with Dolby Digital Stereo tracks. I myself received discs with the botched audio, so I contacted Full Moon's customer service who was aware of the problem and said they would send me replacements as soon as they were available. My past experiences with Full Moon have always been pleasant, and this was yet another positive encounter with their exceptional customer service.
Anyway, now with the correct disc finally in hand I can provide an update as promised, and the short of it is we're basically just getting a slight upgrade here. Dialogue still sounds a bit thin, but it's intelligible and properly centered now. I didn't really notice the slight lip-synching issue this time, either. Richard Band's unforgettable score is more fluidic throughout the soundscape, and it is easily the best part of the mix. The sound effects range from about average to flimsy, as the gunshot at the beginning of the film doesn't pack much weight and sounds more like a cap gun. Dynamic range is also heavily restricted with little worth mentioning in terms of directional movement. Bass is practically nonexistent on this track, and except for a very light touch of bleed the rear channels are barely noticeable at all.
The lossy multi-channel mix on 'Puppet Master' sounds pretty lackluster compared to most other Blu-ray releases, but at least it's still a small step up over past home video editions of the movie.
Charles Band's original 'Puppet Master' is cheesy '80s fun and will always be one of my own personal guilty pleasures. The movie has terrific atmosphere and set designs, but it's the iconic posse of little killer puppets that have cemented it in horror history as a campy cult classic. Full Moon's most recognizable production doesn't shine a whole lot in high-def, however. The video is still pretty grubby after the remaster and the new 5.1 mix is hardly impressive, though fans will certainly notice a boost in both areas. While 'Puppet Master' may not be for everyone, no schlock collection is complete without it.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.