In 1989, filmmaker Charles Band retired his brand, Empire Video, and sought to start a new production company: Full Moon Productions. Band had worked previously on a film called Dolls and, given how charmed Band was with the ideas of killer toys, it was no surprise for him to conceive a film about killer puppets. He’d met with director David Schmoeller previously while David was making his debut with Tourist Trap. Band felt David Schmoeller’s style would work best with the concept of Puppet Master and hired him to helm this feature. The title of the movie comes from another film Band worked on, The Dungeonmaster, which was very well received. Puppet Master was originally intended to be a theatrical release,but as Band experienced more success in the boom of the home video market, it was decided that Puppet Master would be a direct-to-video release. This was a success and would become the business model for Full Moon Entertainment. Full Moon was not just a successful direct-to-video production company but really the first to create and cultivate a cinematic brand exclusively through video distribution. As Full Moon did have the backing of Paramount Home Video, the quality of Full Moon’s early efforts put them far ahead their competition.
The film begins with the eponymous Puppet Master, Andre Toulon, staying in a California hotel, the Bodega Bay Inn. Toulon commits suicide just before a group of Nazis capture him. His animated, living puppets go on residing in the hotel; hidden away in a secret closet. Decades later, in the present, a group of psychics assemble to investigate the death of a colleague at this same Bodega Bay Inn who presumably discovered Toulon’s secret of life. Of course, this IS a horror film, a slasher film where these animated puppet are the killers. David Schmoeller’s direction makes the film look and feel very unique and is visually similar to his film Tourist Trap. Given that most direct-to-home horror films are often cheaply produced with a primary aim to exploit popular cinematic themes, Puppet Master stands out with its desire to achieve a visual aesthetic. Thmovie’s intent is still to entertain with these killer puppets, but the narrative focuses primarily on the Puppet Master rather than the puppets themselves.
Puppet Master was not the first one of the series I saw. I came back to this one later, after having watched two of its sequels. When I watched this movie I was already acquainted with these killer puppets as a trademark; already familiar with their individual names, personalities and mythos. These are not present in this film as the intent at that time, clearly, was not to make a franchise but rather to make a stand-alone horror film. As such, I didn’t like it at first because it didn’t have the things I liked so much about the Puppet Master franchise; namely, the focus on the puppets. It took me awhile to appreciate the story Puppet Master had to tell – a story that’s not about puppets but about people. It’s not my favorite film of the series; mostly because I find it slow, not as entertaining, and often bogged down with visual motif distracting from the story. Unlike many later entries, Puppet Master isn’t about schlock or exploitation, it’s about being an entertaining horror film.