Puppet Master
Review By: Gringo

If you can't be bothered to read further than the next four-or-so lines, then at least read this handy summary: a puppet master brings evil demon puppets to life. They kill Nazis. Then time leaps forward to the comedy-hairstyle era of the 80's. The puppets kill some more people. Paul Le Mat, the bulky one out of American Graffiti, has visions of the future, in which the puppets kill his friends. Soon enough, the puppets kill his friends.

That's it. See you later.

Still here? Hooray! You obviously want to learn more about the joys of Puppet Master. Let me be honest from the start; there are few joys to be found. The only decent entry in this entire series (there have been at least six made) was the third one. Sadly, I'm stuck with number one today. Want to know how bad it is? Well, the only redeeming element of this movie is that it's nowhere near as incomprehensible and irrelevant as the sequel. I'll save the handily-titled Puppet Master II for another day.

The movie opens with eccentric old boffin Andre Toulon playing with his puppets. Toulon is at least one-hundred-and-eight years old from the looks of things, yet he still enjoys playing with dolls. Anyway, we're led to believe he must be some sort of major magical person because his puppets can move...by themselves! No cheap string action here; these puppets are real.

This is Blade. He starts out as a bad guy. In later movies, he becomes a really bad guy. After that, he kills some Nazis - and thus his fate as a good guy is sealed. I suppose we're meant to ignore the whole murdering thing. Why he's splattered with red paint in the picture above is another matter. It could be blood. But after all, these puppets don't have haemoglobin. Or veins, for that matter. So why Blade appears to be bleeding to death is beyond me. It could be that he's just cut someone up, but that'd be too convenient.

Blade starts off by running around quite a bit. For someone who is essentially a wooden puppet with no internal organs whatsoever (apparently these puppets are fuelled with life by magic), Blade does a top quality job of grunting as if he had lungs, making noises as if he had a voice box and feeling pain as if he had a nervous system. Great. Anyway, he runs around following two ominous-looking Nazis inside a hotel. This goes on for about five lonely, miserable minutes. Then things perk up. The Nazis break in to Toulon's room - but it's too late! The old loon has hidden his puppets and pulled a gun on himself. That'll teach him for playing with dolls at his age.

For no real reason, the plot then fast-forwards to sometime in the 1980's, as quickly as I just changed paragraphs. But this isn't the Super Mario Bros. type of Eighties. Oh no. This is a whole different time - a time when puppets can kill. It seems a group of people, led by the aforementioned Paul Le Mat, have psychic capabilities. We're not talking the kind of psychics who want you to call 1-888-LIES-ABOUT-YOUR-FUTURE-FOR-A-PRICE. Oh no. A couple of them can see into the future, and one can even see into the past - by touching things!

The group is drawn - by the psychic visions nonetheless - to an abandoned hotel on a suitably menacing cliff-side. Now, is it just me, or is deciding to stay at some spooky old hotel not the wisest choice you could make? I suppose that can be explained away by the gross stupidity of the group. After all, several of these spoon-faced soon meet an untimely end at the hands of some of the puppets. Once they enter, they find their friend Neil Gallagher - played by man-with-an-excellent-name Jimmie F. Skaggs - dead. His widow offers them little in the way of information.

Oh yes, the puppets are back. This is where I start to get confused. Nazis, wearing Swastika armbands, wouldn't have got very far in Bodega Bay, California at the time of World War II. However, this is the hotel where the puppets have been stored all these years - madness. There's some talking. Then more talking. For good measure, the group talk a bit more. Nobody manages to see the puppets, but the psychic visions keep on coming. So the group talk some more.

What happens next is the bulk of the movie. First, there's a lot more talking. Most of it dire dialogue. Then the joy begins, as the puppets start their killing streak. First up is an unfortunate maid (how she arrived at the hotel is a mystery) who gets smacked in the head...to death! Then there's a generic sex scene, which in a horror movie is a sure sign that someone's about to get it (in the murderising sense). In a clever move, a woman sticks her head under the bed and gets it drilled to bits by the aptly named puppet Tunneler. Yes, that's him in the picture a couple of paragraphs above.

The man in the sex scene, well, he gets himself some lovin' action - but of the twisted puppet kind. A female puppet called Leech Woman kisses his chest for a while before she starts spitting - can you guess? - leeches onto it. Surely anyone could tell the difference between a cold, wooden mouth kissing their chest compared to a real pair of lips? Not this man, who is also blindfolded for some strange reason. He doesn't even catch on to the fact that he's covered with leeches until it's too late - victim #2 has been dispatched.

This miserable, thankless plot continues as another person is killed in an elevator. Wonderful. In the last five minutes of the movie it dawns on the actors that they've achieved nothing, and some semblance of a story returns. It seems Neil Gallagher is a walking corpse who has found out Toulon's magic life-giving power nonsense. He's used the puppets to carry out some nefarious plan or another. But he failed to read his Bad Guy Movie Handbook, because he ignores the rule on page 32 that "turning on your henchmen is bad". In the movie's only funny moment, he throws a puppet dressed like a jester (called - erm - Jester) across a room.

Angered at this puppet abuse, the rest of the ten-inch tall kill-beasts turn on the guy who used Toulon's magic to bring them back to life. That's gratitude for you. This really is turgid stuff. Sure, the brief moments of animation where we get to see the puppets walking must have cost a dollar or two - and they're all right. But don't let that fool you into thinking either those shots or the movie itself is any good. Life lessons learnt from this film: puppets are alive. Puppets kill. Never trust a movie in which the chubby man from American Graffiti plays a starring role.

Of course, this being the glorious world of low-budget cinema, Puppet Master spawned no end of sequels. Soon, I'll put up a review of Puppet Master II, in which the puppets - led inexplicably by the invisible man - go on a quest for brain juice. If I've got any strength left after that, I'll even inform you of the wonder found in Puppet Master III: Toulon's Revenge. But I'm not reviewing Retro Puppet Master (the seventh in the series), as it's just too painful to look at ever again. And no, it doesn't involve the puppets going on a drug-fuelled binge back in the 1970's. It's just really, really bad.


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