After the eleventh film in the Puppet Master mainline series, Full Moon Features has begun applying itself to making spin-off sequels – first seen with 2020‘s Blade: The Iron Cross.
In theory, I can see where they are coming from. Although the obvious would be to simply stop making Puppet Master movies and recognize that the well ran dry in the nineties, separating oneself from the main series makes sense. The budget restraints Full Moon now faces likely makes it difficult to animate the puppets every go around, especially Six Shooter, so it must be nice to narrow in on one puppet instead. Plus, it makes it so they aren’t beholden to a strict lore (not that Puppet Master exactly follows its own continuity).
This time around, we have Puppet Master: Doktor Death.
For many who have seen at least a couple Puppet Master films (or those brave enough to have seen all of them, like myself), you’d be forgiven for not really remembering Dr. Death. The character was only seen in one prior film – Retro Puppet Master (Puppet Master 7), where he was introduced as a puppet carrying the soul of a medical student who once helped Andre Toulon.
The film is directed by Dave Parker, whose directorial resume, you might be familiar with. He directed The Hills Run Red, a slasher that rocked a budget of 4.5 million and a screenplay written by the co-writer of The Crow film (I’ve seen the film, but I could not tell you a single thing about it). In terms of Full Moon fare, Parker also directed The Dead Hate the Living.
Story wise, the newest Puppet Master follows a young woman who begins her job as one of the caregivers of a nursing home called Shady Oaks. On her first day, they are cleaning out the rooms of one of the deceased patients and stumble on an old trunk housing the Dr. Death puppet. As you might surmise, havoc ensues once he is unleashed.
Something I appreciated about the film was that it wasn’t as complicated as more recent Puppet Master films. In the early days, Puppet Master was more-or-less a slasher film, but by Puppet Master III (my favorite Puppet Master), our antagonists became protagonists – at times, abiding by whoever controlled them, at others, outright having consciences and seeking out their own sense of vigilante justice. ‘Pint-sized heroes,” that was what I remember them called in one of the summaries from their box-art over a decade ago. I appreciated that they tried something new, and, at times, it worked, but, nowadays, they’ve really lost the plot, so to speak.
All the backtracking and muddying, the idea of a simple film with Dr. Death wreaking havoc was a breath of fresh air in my book.
For that reason, I would argue that Puppet Master: Doktor Death is the most palatable mainline Puppet Master film since the turn of the millennium.
The music feels classical and like that of a bygone era, and you know what, the final parts of the film feel like the culmination of a genuinely decent stupid fun slasher film. It feels like a genuine effort was made to create something creepy and memorable at the end.
There is a scene toward the end of Doctor Death inside a person, puppeteering them by yanking at their insides. I liked that. We’ve had more than a dozen Puppet Master films ham-fisting exposition, just do weird things like that for an hour and we’ll all be better for it.
Unfortunately, as a film, it doesn’t do that.
Puppet Master: Doktor Death is short, even by Full Moon standards. The average Full Moon feature usually clocks out shy of an hour and a half, but Doktor Death’s house call only takes fifty nine minutes (and that’s including the usual two minute opening credits).
The characters are sleazy, which is par for the course for a Full Moon film, but they never align in that fun, B-movie way. They bare the clothes, but not the soul (… kidding). One of the worst offenses these types of films can have with me is when it feels like they’re struggling to find something for the characters to do. Why is that? It’s only an hour and you’re making a film! Do something! I know movie has to movie, introduce the characters and dynamic, but make it fun while you do it! Instead, everything only feels off and disconnected, like an hour long film that still feels the need to pad itself out. The characters never align or feel the organic chemistry the film wants them to have, and certain choices keeps the production feeling of a low-quality.
For instance, if you have a film that isn’t an hour long, you do not need to have flashbacks to pat yourself on the back for a twist. Trust the viewer to pick up on your subtle cues.
Overall, there is fun to be had with Puppet Master: Doktor Death. I say that, trying to look at the positives as much as I can. That last fifteen or so minutes could’ve belonged to one of the better Puppet Master’s, the rest of it though doesn’t clear even the lowest bar needed to warrant a recommendation.
Rating: 1.5 out of 5.0