Despite having an acting career that stretched all the way back to his childhood, William Hickey made only a handful of horror appearances. In fact all of these only came during the final few years which is somewhat surprising given his distinctive features. Tall, rangy and with a slightly gaunt face that could only exaggerate the size of his skull, he was surely a natural to follow in Boris Karloff’s footsteps or at least give Angus Scrimm (the ‘Tall Man’ from the Phantasm franchise) a run for his money. Instead he focused on the more serious work winning acclaim for his television performances, serving as a long-standing teacher at the HB Studio in New York, and acting in respectable pictures for the likes of John Huston and Arthur Penn. Indeed, one of his turns for Huston - playing Don Corrado Prizzi in Prizzi’s Honor - even earned Hickey an Oscar nomination, although if we’re talking awards nod then perhaps we should also mention the one Emmy gave him for a guest star spot in Tales from the Crypt. You see, he definitely had a face for horror.
Puppetmaster was Hickey’s first foray into the genre, coming just before that guest spot, and a shrewd piece of casting on the filmmakers’ behalf. He only appears for the opening sequence, but his presence alone is enough to ensure that their movie begins on the right note. Hickey plays Andre Toulon, the titular Puppetmaster (the opening credits spell it as one word despite the packaging opting for two) and a man, it would appear, on the run from the Nazis. It’s 1939 when we meet him, holed up at the Bodega Bay Inn, a giant cliffside hotel in California, with a pair of German hitmen due to knock on his door at any minute. As he awaits the inevitable he tends to his marionettes - ones that seem to have a life of their own - by hiding them behind one of the walls in his room, and then shoots himself in the head. Hickey handles these final moments with a simple, unexpected dignity. He refuses to overplay the situation (again recalling Karloff) and finds this tact matched by director David Schmoeller. The sequence builds slowly and with a bit of style. There is no heavy-handed exposition nor is there any particular rush; the pace is far gentler, though no less tense, than most low-budget horror flicks would allow. Cinematographer Sergio Salvati (who had worked with Lucio Fulci on the majority of his key films) also deserves a quick nod of recognition for his gliding camerawork and the touch of class it brings to proceedings.
Having established the tone Schmoeller then does his very best to erase it as we move into the present day. At Yale University Professor Paul Le Mat is having visions of leeches feasting on his stomach, though this isn’t quite so scary as his massive hairstyle. Elsewhere in the country Irene Miracle’s seemingly sham psychic is plagued by a violent vision as she tells fortunes at a fairground, whilst Matt Roe and Kathryn O’Reilly’s over-sexed scientist team are busy getting off on their latest sexual research experiments. The four are friends - “some would call us magicians,” as Le Mat explains later - and they’re reunited when another of their number invites them to the Bodega Bay Inn.
It won’t be spoiling things to say that the puppets make themselves known once Le Mat and pals book into the hotel. Their friend, however, is lying in a casket upon their arrival having committed suicide immediately after sending out the invites. Instead he lives on in their visions - some nasty, some violent, some just plain weird - which have to compete for the screen time with a Ten Little Indians-alike set-up in which the psychic foursome are picked off in gruesome fashion, one-by-one, by those murderous marionettes. In-between times we also learn a little about the backstory involving ancient Egyptians, though surprisingly little on the whole Nazi angle (Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge, actually a prequel, would fulfil those duties). Roe and O’Reilly’s incessant horniness also allows for intermittent bouts of nudity to offset the gore.
Importantly Puppetmaster keeps itself busy with all of these goings-on. Whilst things may occasionally err on the side of the silly, it has neither the time nor the chance to lapse into disinterest or boredom. There’s always a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream just around the corner or another violent death. Similarly the cast are of a high enough calibre to ensure a certain level of quality is maintained throughout. As well as Hickey we also have Miracle reminding genre fans of her turn in Dario Argento’s Inferno and Le Mat being enjoyably off-kilter. Admittedly he’s some way off from his earlier roles in the likes of American Graffiti, Melvin and Howard and the still underrated Aloha Bobby and Rose, though clearly relishing a part outside of the TV movie wasteland he’d found himself in for much of the eighties.
Needless to say, the real stars are the puppet themselves. If the cast list and Salvati lend a little quality, then the various miniature murderers provide the entertainment. Puppetmaster was made on a relatively tiny budget in 1989 and as such had no recourse to the then-rapidly growing computer generated side of special effects. (For a bit of context The Abyss was released into cinemas whilst Puppermaster was in production.) Instead producer Charles Band turned to Dave Allen for the model work and stop-motion techniques, having previously worked together on the likes of Laserblast, Ghoulies and, most fittingly, Dolls. As well as low-budget horror movies (starting with the cultish Equinox back in 1970) Allen had also been involved in major studio productions and even earned an Oscar nomination for his contribution to Young Sherlock Holmes. In other words he knows his stuff and there is something massively pleasing about the numerous simple but effective methods employed throughout Puppetmaster. Sometimes he recognises that all you need do is throw a puppet across the room. There’s no fanciness, no pretension and no over-elaboration - and that, of course, is all part of the charm.
Audiences obviously agreed and, in the years since, Puppetmaster has become a fully fledged franchise. There’s been a whole string of sequels - with the tenth instalment, Puppet Master X: Axis Rising, due this Halloween - plus a crossover with another Charles Band series, Demonic Toys. Speaking of toys the various puppets have even been treated to their own action figure range, whilst the Wikipedia page informs me of costumes, comic books and collectible cards. Not bad for a film that was intended for a theatrical release only to find itself debuting on VHS.
Puppetmaster marks the first Blu-ray release from British horror label 88 Films and is easily their most impressive release to date. As well as the main feature getting the HD treatment the disc also finds room for a pair of commentaries - one of which is a UK exclusive - and the vintage VideoZone featurette that once accompanied the VHS. As with its US equivalent (released in July 2010) the Blu-ray is encoded for all regions and presented in 1080p.
Picture quality isn’t perfect, but neither is it terrible. The source is clearly showing signs of age with bits of dirt and water damage occasionally making themselves known and moderate scratching at various points. None of this, it should be pointed out, is particularly distracting and the disc is certainly a vast improvement on the VHS I first watched at some point in the early nineties. It also comes correctly framed at 1.78:1 as opposed to the 4:3 versions that have been available down the years. Colours would appear to be in line with Salvati’s intentions (the look is certainly more Italian than Hollywood), clarity is very good and the detail mostly fine. At times it looks as though that a little DNR has been overzealously applied thus rendered a few of the actors’ faces a touch waxy, though this is only really noticeable on a couple of occasions. For the most part we can easily make out every strand of Le Mat’s ridiculously oversized hairdo.
As with the picture, the soundtrack also shows some signs of age. It never quite sparkles or astounds, but one again is far superior to previous editions. The original Ultra Stereo mix is available in LPCM form or as DTS-HD Master Audio both of which cope well with the materials. Richard Band’s score comes across fine and the dialogue is always audible, just don’t expect anything spectacular. There are no optional subtitles, English or otherwise.
Charles Band pops up twice on the extras, firstly for a quick introduction and again for a commentary moderated by film writer Chris Gore. Both were recorded for the US Blu-ray. The former is expectedly slight, but the latter is definitely worth a listen. Gore occasionally goes overboard (referring to the fact that there were, at the time of recording, nine instalments in the Puppetmaster franchise, he congratulates Band on “outdoing” George Lucas) and is a little too preoccupied by the nude scenes and how such moments are made. Thankfully the filmmaker good-naturedly swats away the more ridiculous comments and comes up with plenty of anecdotes - some of the shooting was done at one of the main scientology buildings in L.A. - and seems genuinely affectionate for the project.
The other commentary, recorded by British writers Justin Kerswell (author of Teenage Wasteland) and Callum Waddell (who has contributed to plenty of Arrow’s cult titles), is equally worthwhile. The pair work well together, swapping trivia and observations without ever getting too bogged down in what is happening onscreen. They’re also just as willing to discuss the Puppetmaster franchise as a whole, Band’s entire career (and the other creative forces on the film) and how it all fits within the slasher genre. At times the focus on horror can be seem a little odd, such as when Le Mat is introduced as the man who once appeared in Death Valley rather than American Graffiti or Melvin and Howard, but they genuinely know their stuff and never once let up over the entire 89 minutes.
The package is rounded off by the vintage VideoZone featurette (which focuses mainly on Dave Allen’s contribution), the original trailer and a handful of promos for nine other Charles Band-associated movies.