By AJ Taysom
Long-form cinematic storytelling comes with its advantages and disadvantages. On a good day, you get work like Captain America: Civil War, which was great because it utilized nearly eight years of story that had been building up to create something monumental; the payoffs are larger are more satisfying, and the stakes are at an all-time high that could only have been achieved through that type storytelling. On a bad day you get disharmonious, boring, tedious work that has been touched by far too many hands. The Puppetmaster series is in the latter category more often than not. This doesn’t mean they are outright bad, and it doesn’t mean that I don’t fucking love these movies. It just means they struggle to fit into a sensible continuity and have consistent good quality. While the series and concept on the whole are very impressive, these movies lose their footing when viewed one by one. Curse of the Puppetmaster, however, is a unique diamond in the rough that holds up pretty well on its own.
Robert Winsley is an orphan who works with his hands. What does he do with those hands? He fixes cars. He also carves wood. Lucky for him, he meets an old man who is in need of some wood carving. Dr. Magrew, local puppeteer/scientist/madman who is looking to add a few more puppets to his already eclectic collection. He just needs someone to build them. By eclectic I mean the puppets move on their own. Yep (you guessed it!) it’s those particular moving puppets I’m talking about, now in the hands of Dr. Magrew, and not Andre Toulon. Robert begins working for the good Doctor all while courting the Doctor’s daughter Jane, and having some bizarre, Cronenberg-esqe dreams about turning into a puppet. Of course, as always, things aren’t what they initially seem and the good doctor might not be so good after all.
I’m writing about this entry of the series because I feel like it’s one of the stronger standalone films of the series. It doesn’t fit into the continuity super well as it was made to be a reboot of the series (this was made four years after Puppetmaster 5) but when viewed on its own I think it functions as a pretty solid horror flick. One thing the Puppetmaster movies always have had going for them is their ability to showcase a wide variety of subgenres within their respective plots. The first Puppetmaster is essentially a haunted house flick, the third is a revenge tale, and Curse of Puppetmaster seems to be more of a mad scientist/Frankenstein story.
The puppets have a lot of screentime here, which is great considering my biggest complaint (and the complaints of others) seem to be that the puppets are oftentimes nowhere to be fucking found in these movies.. Although the puppets occupy a fair share of the movie, the human characters and their plotlines are always interesting enough to keep us watching even when the puppets aren’t onscreen. Realistically speaking, the puppets really aren’t even necessary to the plot. Pretty much everything that needs to happen, happens and it happens without the puppets. I mean, sure, they hunt down the classic 90s bullies who bother our main character which leads to an awesome murder/revenge sequence starring the puppets, but other than that the whole action of the plot really ends up taking place without them.
The most interesting element, however, is the slight hinting at some strange form of puppet existentialism and existence. Being a Frankenstein/creation story the characters end up having conversations about the nature of life, good and evil, perfection, and creation. There’s even a short moment, while at the dinner table, the puppets bow their heads to pray. Who are they praying to? Are those prayers answered? Do they even know what they are doing? Was this shot included in the movie by accident? What makes the puppet sub-genre so great is all of the creative directions movie can take. We saw it most recently with The Boy, and I am sure we will see it again with the upcoming Puppetmaster flick The Littlest Reich.
The Puppetmaster movies have been on my mind lately for a few reasons: I love puppets, and the release of Civil War has gotten me once again thinking about long-form storytelling and all it has to offer. If you haven’t seen any of the Puppetmaster movies, I’d recommend starting in order. Let me know below what you think of them as you’ve watched them.