[We're celebrating some of the most memorable horror and sci-fi movies of 1989 this month in Daily Dead's Class of 89 retrospective series! Check back on Daily Dead throughout the rest of August for more special features celebrating the 30th anniversaries of a wide range of horror and sci-fi films!]
Is there a horror movie from your childhood that gives you the creeps even as an adult? If your answer is no, then you are one lucky duckling. If your answer is yes (there are more than a few on my list), then you and I are in the same boat. I usually like to do a refresher before I write about a film, but I honestly could not bring myself to do that for today's retrospective: David Schmoeller's Puppet Master (1989) from Full Moon Features. Sometimes, the movie's poster or just the look of Blade's tiny, beady eyes and hook take me back to the first time I encountered it on TV—and the nightmares that followed.
Puppet Master tells the story of Andre Toulon (William Hickey), the owner and creator of living puppets Blade, Khan, Gengie, Tunneler, Pinhead, Leech Woman, and Jester. Before he is found by two Nazis, he hides his creations in the wall of his apartment and takes his own life. Fifty years later, a group of psychics go to the Bodega Inn—where Toulon lived with his puppets—in search of their friend, Neil (Jimmie F. Skaggs), who knows where Andre hid the dolls.
This movie and I crossed paths one late Friday night when I couldn't fall asleep, and the allure of whatever horror movie was most likely playing on AMC kept calling my name. After successfully making my way downstairs, undetected by my mother, I remember turning the channels until I found something that I thought was interesting. It wasn't long before I landed on what I would later realize was Puppet Master. Never one to play with dolls because they freaked me out for some unknown reason, I now had a concrete excuse to be afraid because these dolls come to life and kill people! David Allen Productions did an impeccable job on the practical puppet effects, as they move in a somewhat seamless way, even when they wield weapons, making their crooked faces and smiles much more sinister.
Speaking of David Allen's practical effects, there are some awesome kills worth mentioning here as well. While psychics Carissa (Kathryn O'Reilly) and Frank (Matt Roe) attempt to make contact with Neil, Tunneler appears from under their bed and drills Carissa in the face. Meanwhile, Leech Woman spits leeches from her mouth onto Frank's stomach, draining him of all of his blood. I remember many nights sleeping with the covers pulled up all the way over my head because I was certain that Tunneler would emerge from under my bed. To avoid this scenario from ever happening, I would try to jump from my bed to the door without my feet touching the ground—think Tad from Cujo when he attempted to jump from the door to his bed after turning out the lights. It didn't work! It sadly never worked! Blade gets in a few cool moments, too. I don't want to give too much away, though, as the kills are really something you should see without being spoiled.
In all, Schmoeller's Puppet Master isn't a perfect film, but on a budget of roughly $400,000, it managed to become a cult classic for horror fans around the world. Not to mention, it haunts the dreams of children (and this adult!) and spawned 12 other films in the franchise. That's a huge feat for any film, let alone one centered on tiny murderous puppets.
So, why would this cult horror movie still terrify me? Well, that answer is two-fold: one, If I'm honest, dolls just really creep me out. I obviously know that they aren't sentient beings living autonomous lives, but it's their uncanniness that I still find unsettling. And those are the ones that look human, we aren't talking about the dolls that look like Annabelle. Secondly, perhaps my exposure that night to Puppet Master on TV wasn't something my young eyes were ready for. It really tapped into my fears at the time in an unexpectedly profound way and just won't let go. Unlike the Puppet Master sequels that take a much more campy approach, Schmoeller's film is more straightforward horror with some really decent kills and practical effects that still hold up.
With that in mind, sweet dreams!
Check here throughout the rest of August for more special features celebrating the Class of 89!