Cinema Quickie: Puppet Master II (1991)

The Jester puppet from Puppet Master II

Over the last few years, I’ve developed an appreciation for schlock movies. If there’s a periodic table of film, schlock has earned its place alongside the likes of tasteful drama and big-budget action.

My reasoning is this: not all films have to be insightful, and schlock movies aren’t lesser for not having high-minded ambitions. Rather, schlock is a liberating sub-genre in which directors can entertain goofy premises and scripts that aren’t conducive to high-brow cinema.

Such is the case with Puppet Master II (1991), a horror film devoted to the exploits of killer puppets. As a direct-to-video sequel to the 1989 original, it’s not a particularly elegant film. The script feels uneven, some of the performances aren’t convincing, and there’s even a cliched and gratuitous sex scene. But regardless, Puppet Master II is a lot of fun because it succeeds at being an absurd and occasionally disturbing film about killer puppets.

Visually, Puppet Master II is intriguing and well-realized, with dimly-lit hotel corridors and a villain’s lair that’s straight out of a Tales from the Crypt comic book. But like the first, it’s the film’s iconic band of murderous puppets that really steal the show.

Most of the puppets return from the first film and are distinctive in appearance and function. There’s Blade, a pale, trenchcoat-wearing knife-wielder with a cheeky smile; Pinhead, a brutish fellow with incredible strength; and Torch, a steely hate furnace with a surprisingly lethal flamethrowing hand.

Although the film positions its puppet characters as villains, part of Puppet Master II’s intrinsic appeal is watching the marauding little fellas hunt down the human characters. The victims this time around are a group of government paranormal investigators who arrive to investigate the condemned hotel from the first film. Seeing the investigators as intruders, the puppets wage guerilla-style warfare against them, preferring to take them on one-at-a-time rather than risk becoming chopped firewood.

Video monitor footage from Puppet Master II

The setup for violence is very David and Goliath, and the film understands the dynamic well. However, as you might imagine, some suspension of disbelief is required. Once the blood starts running, the film’s human cast doesn’t seem particularly motivated to leave the hotel: facing the looming threat of being stabbed or torched to death, they continue to eat, sleep in the nude, and fornicate as if they’re right at home. I don’t know about you, but nothing kills the mood for love like witnessing your coworker being mauled by a baby-faced puppet.

Puppet Master II is violent, but the movie is more unsettling than horrifying. The special effects are crude, and few deaths revel in gore or suffering. For me, the film’s most disturbing moment arrives when the film’s villain (the titular “Puppet Master”) reveals two mannequins he’s created, one modeled after his past self, and the other after his deceased wife. Using Chucky-esque black magic, he plans to transfer his soul into the male mannequin and the film’s primary female investigator into the other.

The mannequins from Puppet Master II

At first glance, the mannequins look eerily realistic, with textured skin that seems to sport copious coats of makeup. But evidently, the Puppet Master has yet to master the art of human mannequins, as he outfits both life-sized dolls with bulging bug eyes. The results are both terrifying and hilarious, and would’ve been potent nightmare fuel had I seen this film as a kid.

Overall, I enjoyed Puppet Master II. It feels like a classic Tales from the Crypt comic book tale that plays out on the big screen, and there’s enough production value here to make the whole package convincing. I’m definitely interested in following up with the other Puppet Master sequels, of which there are many.