Anytime you can get a film franchise that stretches into the double digits (ten and counting), one becomes curious as to how a series could have such enduring legs. In the case of the Puppet Master movies, success has come by way of the direct-to-video market, as opposed to line-ups at the local multiplex. Low budget and low-brow perhaps - but still... what's up with the ability of Charles Band/Full Moon Studios to keep churning out one offering after another?
I required a little more incentive to decide to spend time on this first production released in 1989 and I found it in the curiosity I had over the fate of its lead actor, Paul Le Mat. When one thinks of American Graffiti and the incredible career success enjoyed later by a number of its (mostly) unknown cast like Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfuss, Ron "Opie" Howard, Suzanne Somers (as well as decent career developments for Cindy Williams and Charles Martin Smith)...whoa! Head spinning! Not so for Le Mat. Despite a well regarded performance in the critically successful Melvin and Howard in 1980, the cinematic radar screen has rarely seen the former Vietnam veteran appear in anything truly noteworthy. Which made me wonder how he fared here. Oh well...
A puppeteer named Toulon ( in this production the honour goes to William Hickey) uncovers an ancient Egyptian spell that brings his creations into an anthropomorphic state but the little ones (Pinhead, Blade, Leech Woman, Jester, and Tunneler) are a pretty mischievous lot to be left running around on their own. Toulon has another reason to pack them away for safety in a wall of The Bodega Bay Inn where he's been staying, circa 1939. The Nazi's are a comin' for him and he decides to head them off by committing suicide (a chronology that is largely changed/distorted in later episodes of the series, I'm told).
Flash forward five decades - four psychics that were colleagues of Neil Gallagher (Jimmie F. Skaggs) receive troubling visions that they attribute to this person they've lost touch with. Drawn to visit the Bogeda Bay Inn where slimeball Gallagher had been staying, the quartet experience two shocks - the man is now dead (it seems) by way of suicide...and was also married to a gentle, soft spoken woman named Megan (Robin Frates). The four clairvoyants, a rude, crude lot with the exception of the taciturn Alex (Le Mat), conduct their own hi-jinks into the evening, unaware that Blade and the gang are on the loose. Murder and mayhem occur, with Gallagher's true status revealed and the puppets then taking turns at being both villains and heroes.
Directed with little panache by David Schmoeller and exhibiting an anti-atmospheric 1970's made-for-tv look throughout, Puppet Master is hardly a visually impactful offering for its genre. Throw in an unapealling cast (most of the actors playing the psychics are lively but in a self-conscious way that becomes irritating - except for Le Mat, who sleepwalks his way through his role) and a uninteresting plot with scant backstory/explanations when required and you have a recipe for boredom through the first 68 minutes.
But as poor as the first hour-plus is, things really come to life at the end as the puppets finally get to do their thing unhindered. In an age of CGI overkill, there is something really magical in watching the Harruyhausen-ish touches put forward by the people in the puppeteer department. Blade and the gang easily steal the film - which isn't a big accomplishment among these humans - and clearly provided the incentive for continuing the series.
Puppet Master serves as the template for a franchise that showed amazingly resiliency but even though I have in my possession a DVD with the next two installments on it, I think I've concluded that one film in the series is more than enough for moi.