Puppetmaster has some great stop motion. The stop motion is nowhere near enough to make up for the rest, but there’s some excellent stop motion. The stop motion is so good, in fact, the lighting on it is better than Sergio Salvati’s lighting for the rest of the film.
Salvati’s lighting is a problem. He doesn’t do mood. John Myhre’s production design doesn’t do mood either. Yet Richard Band’s music does lots of mood. So the film’s constantly clashing. But when it’s stop motion effects of the murderous little puppets, then the mood is in sync.
The film opens in the past, with William Hickey cameoing as a puppet maker who can bring his creations to life. Jump to the present and someone has found the puppets. So the motley crew of principals have to go to this huge empty hotel to meet their friend, Jimmie F. Skaggs. They’re all psychic. Sorry, forgot. They’re all psychic. Anyway, it’s Paul Le Mat the Ivy league professor who dreams the future, Irene Miracle the Cajun fortuneteller, Matt Roe and Kathryn O’Reilly are a couple–he exploits her psychic powers, basically.
Only Skaggs is dead, leaving wife Robin Frates to contend with the puppet-hunters. Except none of the principals ever really talks about the puppets. Director Schmoeller’s pseudonymous script is light on detail, content, character, and, of course, mood. Le Mat sort of wanders through the film in a daze. Not just when he’s left to wander the empty hotel because everyone else is busy getting killed by the puppets.
In the flashback, Schmoeller does a lot with the puppet-vision–when it’s a puppet running around, interacting with an unknowing human world. When it comes time for him to do it in a thriller sequence, he completely chokes. It’s already a bad, long sequence–Schmoeller drags out the death scenes. He’s big on showcasing suffering, even if it’s limited by budget. His direction doesn’t have any of the humor Band’s music lays over the action. Again, Puppetmaster never feels in sync.
It’d be hard, given the performances. Everyone is awful except maybe Frates. And Mews Small as the maid, who disappears and no one cares why. Small’s okay.
Roe at least intentionally exaggerates. It’s unclear what anyone else is doing. Le Mat shuffling around is his entire performance. He’s got the least amount of character and he’s top-billed. At least Miracle has a taxidermied dog. It’s creepy and Miracle underplays it–while somehow going way too far on the accent–but it’s something. Le Mat’s just got a shaggy mullet.
Puppetmaster puts a lot of thought into its special effects. There’s no thought into anything else, though. The third act is better. Once Le Mat gets something to do, even if it’s only for five minutes. Schmoeller’s script has a pulse for a bit. The film goes needlessly far into gore soon after, not just because it’s narratively pointless, but also because the film doesn’t have the effects budget to do it. Schmoeller is always showcasing suffering over the gore in the scene. Not tension, not suspense, not gore, just suffering. It’s kind of weird, actually. Because he doesn’t do anything with it. It doesn’t build to anything.
Because Puppetmaster’s pretty bad. Cool stop motion, some cool puppets, some bad acting. Some really awful direction and writing.
Directed by David Schmoeller; screenplay by Schmoeller, based on a story by Charles Band and Kenneth J. Hall; director of photography, Sergio Salvati; edited by Thomas Meshelski; music by Richard Band; production designer, John Myhre; produced by Hope Perello; released by Paramount Home Video.
Starring Paul Le Mat (Alex Whitaker), Robin Frates (Megan Gallagher), Irene Miracle (Dana Hadley), Matt Roe (Frank Forrester), Kathryn O’Reilly (Carissa Stamford), Mews Small (Theresa), Jimmie F. Skaggs (Neil Gallagher), and William Hickey (Andre Toulon).