A Schmoellerian Affair: Thoughts on Puppet Master (1989)

Matty explores the resounding influence of director David Schmoeller on the first film in Full Moon’s iconic series. 

There are few things one can say about PUPPET MASTER that haven’t been said a million times already. Generally, there are two modes of discourse. The first is Puppet Master’s status as the film that put Charles Band’s Full Moon Entertainment on the map. Having risen from the ashes of Band’s iconic ‘80s outfit, Empire Pictures, the straight-to-video Puppet Master was Full Moon’s maiden voyage and was a monumental success for distributor Paramount, who Band had sidled up with following Empire’s collapse, when it hit US video stores in October 1989. In addition to making a boatload of cash, Puppet Master galvanised Band and Paramount’s pairing (until an acrimonious split in 1994 anyway), and it quickly became Full Moon’s bread and butter, with sequels, comic books, toys, spin-offs, and the inevitable remake all helping to keep the company afloat. 

And that brings us to the second most frequently discussed topic: the entire Puppet Master franchise, a series as recognisable and as essential to horror fans as its sprawling, bigger budget contemporaries A Nightmare on Elm Street and Child’s Play. Yet as familiar and cozy the Puppet Master saga now seems to be, it long being turned into a minor, relatively family friendly pop culture ‘event’ in the vein of Band’s biggest influences, the Universal Monsters and Marvel, what’s often forgotten is how downright weird the original Puppet Master is. The merchandise potential and ‘draw them in the back of your school exercise book’ quality of its murderous marionettes aside, Puppet Master numero uno ain’t the sort of film you should be showing kids. It’s not an easygoing, Sunday afternoon frightener; 2018’s wearying, S. Craig Zahler-scripted overhaul, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, might think it reinvented the series as a provocative, in-yer-face yuck-a-thon, but its risible attempts to unnerve and disgust are no more than playground levels of calculated bad taste compared to how creepy, surreal, and nightmarish Puppet Master 1.0 is. And while it’s right that Band will be forever applauded for conceptualising this small-scale scare-show and transforming it into a veritable behemoth — it is, after all, a stellar example of that oh-so-appealing Hollywood myth, ‘the little film that could’ — too seldom does Puppet Master’s director get the credit he’s due. Puppet Master is a Charles Band joint in premise and release, yes, but it’s wholly David Schmoeller in design and execution.

Kentucky born, Texas raised auteur David Schmoeller’s association with Band began with the pre Empire fav Tourist Trap (1979): an eerie amalgamation of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Carrie (1976), and House of Wax (1953) that’s transcended from cult to classic thanks to syndicated TV appearances and a glowing endorsement from Stephen King in the pages of the author’s non-fiction 1981 tome, Danse Macabre. During the Empire days, Schmoeller would also write and direct two of the company’s finest nerve-janglers, Crawlspace (1986) and Catacombs (1988); the voyeuristic former earning a degree of infamy due to the typically deranged behind the scenes antics of its troublesome star, Klaus Kinski, and the latter, an ice-cold theological chiller, suffering the ignominy of being retitled ‘Curse IV: The Ultimate Sacrifice’ when it surfaced on tape in America half a decade after Empire’s ruin (a slight us Brits mercifully shirked with our own 1989 VHS release, but since remedied for our Stateside brethren by Scream Factory). Schmoeller had even been attached to several Empire productions that were eventually spearheaded by other directors, notably Ghost Town (1988) and Huntress: Spirit of the Night (1995). Consistently bringing his stylish and charismatic pictures in on schedule and on budget, Schmoeller was a dependable set of hands — albeit not particularly enthused when he was tasked with Puppet Master.

Schmoeller is a glorious snob of a filmmaker. Though never dismissive or contemptuous of the horror genre, Schmoeller would likely be tagged with the dreaded ‘elevated’ word today. He’s a director who knows he has to work for a living, but would nonetheless greet each goofy assignment from Charles Band with a socket-shattering roll of the eyes. As Schmoeller explained to critic Dave Jay in the definitive Full Moon chronicle It Came From the Video Aisle! (hey, have I mentioned me and my Schlock Pit compadre Dave Wain contributed a couple of chapters to that?!), he always thought Empire and Full Moon projects were stupid and would happily tell Band so, only agreeing to wield the megaphone on whatever was thrust in front of him on the proviso he could write or extensively rewrite the script. An artist who wants to connect with audiences on a profounder level than mere ghost-train thrills, Schmoeller has to ensure that any film will be ‘his’ as much as possible. Puppet Master is no different. Built from ideas and images that Band had been collating on and off for years — the title, officially the singular ‘Puppetmaster’; the general concept of killer puppets; character designs etc — the first draft of Puppet Master was written by Kenneth J. Hall, who’d entered the Band fold via the FX department of Ghoulies (1984) and had previously penned Empire’s Dr. Alien (1988). Sinking his teeth into Hall’s Big Chill (1983) esque set up, Schmoeller’s iteration of Puppet Master (which he rewrote as ‘Joseph G. Collodi’ — a nod to Carlo Collodi, creator of Pinnochio) is a distinctly Schmoellerian affair, packed to the gills with the obsessions and rhythms that define the other horror films of his unique oeuvre.

As with Tourist Trap, Crawlspace, and Catacombs before it — a slasher, a psycho thriller, and haunted house flick, respectively — and Schmoeller’s subsequent The Arrival (1991, aka ‘The Unwelcomed’) and Netherworld (1992) — an ‘alien on the rampage’ sci-shocker and voodoo yarn — the commercially-minded hook of Puppet Master — ‘killer dolls!’ — is a smokescreen for what’s really another exploration of the director’s go-to theme, life and death.

The puppets themselves are mortality personified. Ignoring what would transpire in Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge (1991), wherein it’s revealed they’re the souls of fallen friends, in Puppet Master, the pint-sized fiends are the human experience whittled in wood. They’re brought into the world without asking, and they run the spectrum of emotions throughout the film’s duration, from fear, wonderment, and excitement, to sadness and, ultimately, violent fury — all of which is beautifully animated by the bravura FX of Band mainstay David Allen and his crew. Docile and surprisingly sweet in the care of their devoted maker, the eponymous puppet master Andre Toulon (William Hickey, in a role that would be more famously inhabited by Guy Rolfe as the series trundled on), the puppets — Jester, Leech Woman, Pinhead, Tunneler, and the undeniable star, Blade (an artistic exorcism — he’s modelled on Crawlspace’s Klaus Kinski) — are twisted into totems of madness and mayhem when they’re employed as the lapdogs of the dastardly Neil Gallagher (Jimmie F. Skaggs, painting from the same palette of black-hearted evil that coloured his performance as the zombified big bad in the aforementioned Ghost Town). It’s Schmoeller probing nature versus nurture again, a line of thinking that would inform the fractured sibling relationship of Chuck Connors’ masked loon in Tourist Trap; Kinski’s son-of-a-Nazi character’s predilection for torture in Crawlspace; the father/son dynamic of Netherworld; and the pathetic banality of the junior murderers in Schmoeller’s troubling 2012 drama Little Monsters, which drew influence from the sickening and tragic case of murdered toddler James Bulger.

A film about the creation and elongation of life, Puppet Master concerns the wicked Gallagher’s quest for immortality; a bull-headed mission that involves the esoteric secrets of Toulon — who found a way to do it — and using the puppets to slaughter a quartet of ex colleagues who Gallagher feels will hamper his selfish desire prolong his own existence. It’s a plot point mirrored in Netherworld, which sees Robert Sampson chasing oblivion at the expense of his family, and Schmoeller treads similar territory in Tourist Trap, Crawlspace, and The Arrival. Mannequins, journals, and the estrogen-laced blood of menstruating women — they’re all a means for characters to extend their legacy, be it figuratively or literally.

Puppet Master (1989) (3)

Naturally, death looms over Puppet Master. But it’s deeper than just the carnage caused by Blade and co. It’s sewn into the film’s fabric, which begins with Toulon’s suicide in 1939 (a date retconned in future instalments) at the Bodega Bay Inn, and kicks into gear once Gallagher’s old co-workers Alex, Dana, Carissa, and Frank — a gaggle of psychics essayed by Paul LeMat, Irene Miracle, Kathryn O’Reilly, and the spectacularly sleazy Matt Roe — traverse to the Art Deco hotel in the present to attend Gallagher’s funeral. Like Toulon, Gallagher too has committed suicide… 

But he isn’t dead. 

It’s a sham: a ploy to cover Gallagher’s newfangled immortality, and part of his plan to trap and kill Alex et al. Admittedly, it’s not perfect and when you scrutinise the logistics of it, actually kind of flawed: Gallagher has already avoided Alex and the gang hijacking his own psychic vibes as he searched for Toulon, so why worry about them thwarting his megalomania when he’s finally gotten what he wants? Still, for the bulk of Puppet Master, in between his polished, Shining (1980) soaked passages of brightly lit terror (a nice stylistic counterpoint to the ‘old dark house’ aesthetic of Stuart Gordon’s Dolls (1986)Puppet Master’s Empire forebearer), Schmoeller uses it as grounding for his drama. The bewilderment felt by Alex, Dana, Carissa, and Frank as they contemplate Gallagher’s alleged demise soon becomes barely concealed anger, especially from Dana who delights in reminding everyone that Gallagher was a bastard who shafted them over. In a bubbling turn from Miracle, the impression given is that Dana’s regret is that she never killed her ‘late pal’ herself.

However, it’s the sorrow of Gallagher’s young wife, Megan (Robin Frates, who’d occupy an identical role in The Arrival), that resonates. Grieving and confused, Dana’s barbs cut to Megan’s very soul; Gallagher is a vile specimen but it’s something Megan realises in Puppet Master’s last act. Instead, for the remainder of the film, Megan is Puppet Master’s tonal core, her mournful demeanour fuelling Schmoeller’s elegiac delivery. While Schmoeller piles on the pulse-pounding puppet action, and never sidesteps any chance to imbue a scene with his patented brand of dry, ironic humour, Puppet Master continues the director’s fixation on mood and ambience. Schmoeller is a filmmaker as concerned with eliciting sensations as much as telling a story, and his default position is that of dreams and surrealism; no surprise considering Schmoeller’s admiration of Luis Bunel and Alejandro Jodorowsky, who he had also studied theatre with. The sense of unease that crackles through a Schmoeller picture is hard to describe. To me, it’s the vibe I imagine you get just before you die, when reality starts dissolving and every decision you’ve ever made splinters or unravels in the fade of your mind’s eye. There’s a blur between what’s real and what’s not, and a mixture of ‘what if’ and ‘what could have been’ to Schmoeller’s output, best exemplified in the heart-wrenching soliloquy from Catacombs where a dying priest laments his vow of chastity. Puppet Master too teems with it. Echoing Chuck Connors’ dancing in Tourist Trap, Schmoeller emphasises this schism in consciousness by repeatedly returning to a shuddery Carnival of Souls (1962) type waltz in the Bodega Bay Inn’s abandoned ballroom. Heightened by Richard Band’s plush score, it’s one of the many plain-splitting precognitive visions of Alex, whose hangdog expression suggests a man ill at ease with his supposed ‘gift’ (unlike, say, Frank who merrily exploits psychoscopy for kinky sexual gratification). 

Melancholic and grief-stricken, Schmoeller’s keening atmospherics are accentuated by the washed-out colours of Sergio Salvati’s luscious floaty photography. Imbuing the film with a quietly celestial sheen — it’s a blinding light away from looking like the classic depiction of a near-death experience — Salvati’s aesthetics are the icing on Schmoeller’s cake. They’re the greatest signifier that the sombre and goose-pimply Puppet Master is far removed from the jocular, comic book sensibility of the sequels, and a vital reminder that Schmoeller can craft a personal, evocative, and seat-shiftingly strange tale from even the most mercenary or reluctant of circumstances.  

Puppet Master.

A Charles Band production.

A David Schmoeller film.

Puppet Master (1989) Poster

Follow Matty on Twitter @mattybudrewicz

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