Now, silly me, here I had grown up thinking that Horror was chiefly about the loss of life (have you seen its body count?), but the more I thought about it the more it made sense. His main premise was that each of us experiences some deep-rooted but latent fear of losing control of one’s actions, making us pawns to the bigger tenets of Destiny and Fate. Arguably, there’s no greater loss of self than the loss of life anyway, so I guess my perspective had some validity, too. Losing oneself – whether it be to death or life – definitely ties in with the ideas of conventional and unconventional frights; so pitching that as a foundation behind an entire category of features put my fertile brain on the track to thinking about such features with a more academic focus. If nothing else, this cornerstone served up great fuel for that semester’s writing exercises for the whole class.
Lo and behold, 2023’s The Puppetman takes that construct and pushes the boundary even further. A simple phrase like “it wasn’t me” takes on vastly greater meaning if there’s some ghostly being who can step into your shoes, walk a few mile, and slay a co-ed or two for giggles. It’s a grim affair – one that could’ve used a bit more time baking in the creative oven for effect – but still a workable origins picture if the creators (and the audience) are willing to invest in it. While it’s too soon for me to tell, I’d still encourage folks to check this one out, largely because enough of its narrative stuffing makes for a solid first turn in what could be a budding Horror franchise.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com page citations:
“The Puppetman, a convicted killer on death row, always maintained his innocence and that it was an evil force controlling his body as he slaughtered his victims. Now Michal, the killer’s daughter, begins to suspect that there may be some truth to her father’s claim when those around her begin to die in brutal ways. She must try and break the curse of The Puppetman before all her loved ones are killed.”
I’ve argued before that more than half of any good Horror film is crafting the proper atmosphere. From a visual perspective, the world created must complement whatever narrative ideas are at work within the script; so the director, cinematography, production designer, and anyone else behind the camera need to put in some great effort to both choose shooting locations and design interiors that serve the central ideas, its main characters, and the world-at-work in this fictional universe. If the parts surpass the sum of their total, then there’s a visual unevenness – a failure to achieve storytelling equilibrium – and one risks creating a story that’s perhaps remembered for the wrong reasons.
(Again, folks, you needn’t agree. These are my opinions alone, and I’m sticking to them.)
So … when it comes to setting The Puppetman out on his (or her) inaugural journey, writer/director Brandon Christensen has done a fairly affable job. Set in an upstate New York college town over a school break (and having spent my university days in a similar setting in the Midwest), the locale is understandably and eerily deserted. (In fact, over our breaks I always thought my western Illinois hamlet felt more than a bit like a ghost town.) The streets are bare. The buildings are quiet. The neighborhoods are almost creepily lying in wait for any activity to crack the silence. What few unfortunate souls find themselves in such urban emptiness do cling together to while away the time – tossing back a few cold ones and chittering about their collective bad luck – because that’s all there is to do in the social abyss. Wouldn’t you just know that some supernatural entity would use this time and this place for evil deeds?
Once you venture beyond the setting, however, Puppetman starts to have some … erm … issues. Some big, some small, the central problem with having so many of them in one production helps remove the veneer that would otherwise suggest this is an authentic and organic creation. Instead, what you’re left with is the feeling that this world is entirely a screenwriter’s invention, and that does kinda/sorta serve as a bit of a buzzkill, for lack of a better word. Though it doesn’t destroy the picture, it does reduce its effectiveness.
For starters, there’s a somewhat obviousness of casting choices to be both politically correct and inclusive. While I can understand and appreciate how a college-aged cast might include the traditional jock, the brainiac, the misfit, and the outcast, casting departments go to great lengths these days to include representation from classes and ethnicities; and Puppetman feels no different. Drawing on my experience of a small college setting, I can say this wasn’t always the case: while it’s arguably possible such cultural balance could be achieved, this feels a bit too theatrical – and forced – for my tastes, more like a producer or small studio wanted to hedge their bets against any backlash.
Similarly, because frights of this nature do have to create and employ their own mythology and methodology, screenwriters spend extra time and attention when setting and stretching parameters these spooks employ. How have these entities been drawn into our world? What rules do they have? How is it they can both interact with our reality while escaping adherence to the laws of physics and such? Initially, it seemed that Puppetman had to be in very close proximity to his/her victims to wreak his brand of havoc (as it were), but – by the film’s end – that rule seemed to have been broken. He could be anywhere and everywhere – multiple locations, even – at a moment’s notice; and this, too, kind of cheapened the brew. A bit of extra effort could’ve cleaned this up, but none was expended.
Furthermore – about that whole mythology component – I was at a loss to understand why Michal’s parents even considered introducing a spectral entity into their own flesh and blood daughter was a remotely sound idea. Were they cultists before they married? Was this a dark tradition handed down from fathers to sons – mothers to daughters – and so forth? Did they seriously think this was going to end well? Or was this just some ludicrous attempt at rearing a bad or unruly child? Others – especially Horror fans – might accept this construct without question, but I was honestly looking for a bit more substance. Otherwise, I’m just looking at bad parents, and that’s a bit too easy, too predictable, and too lazy.
Textual quibbles aside … yes, I still managed to have a lot of visceral fun with Puppetman.
And speaking on the cast?
Relative newcomer Alyson Gorske makes for a convincing lead. In particular, she handles Michal’s quieter side – the introvert, the broken soul crying out to understand her troubled existence – quite well. The fact that she plays a character-in-transition – you don’t really know how far down the Rabbit Hole she’s traveled until the film’s closing scene – is handled with a deftness not seen enough in Horror. Unlike other creations just not written strong enough, Anna Telfer rather easily convinces viewers that she’s the academic brain of the group; she balances cynicism and sarcasm when given her few and fleeting scenes, but she also delivers the flick’s best contorted death sequence whereas a lesser actress’ work would’ve gone up in smoke. (Pun intended.) And Kio Cyr both looks and sounds like the humble tagalong who’s happy to simply remain in Michal’s orbit though secretly pining for something more. It is surprising that the two fail to ‘hook up’ (given the state of collegiate affairs these days), and maybe the two could’ve graduated to a screen couple if Fate hadn’t intervened.
But can I make just one more observation?
As I’ve often opined on SciFiHistory.Net, even the smallest films sometimes birth the brightest ideas, and there’s a nugget of something special I saw trapped inside Puppetman worth mentioning. Wouldn’t it be great to see the film’s small-town detective – played by genre regular Michael Paré – and the small-town psychic a regular screen team? Granted, neither player gets a lot of screen time here, but both players show up and efficiently hit their marks. If Puppetman returns – and there’s certainly the suggestion that not all is said and done here – then I, for one, am hoping these two are back in action. Clearly, he’s the just-the-facts ‘Dana Scully’ to her the-truth-is-out-there ‘Fox Mulder,’ and the pairing kinda/sorta smoldered for me in just the right way. If not here, then bring ‘em back in a feature all of their own – it could be a small screen franchise, if you ask me – and the sky’s the limit.
The Puppetman (2023) was produced by Not The Funeral Home. From what I can tell via some online resources, the film is presently only available via streaming on the Shudder platform. As for the technical specifications? While I’m no trained video expert, I thought that the sights and sounds to Clayton Moore’s cinematography were quite good, definitely keeping in mind aesthetics that go hand-in-hand with Horror. As for the special features? Given the fact that I viewed this one via streaming, there were no associated special features to view and/or review.
Recommended, but …
While The Puppetman (2023) provokes a fabulously dour small-town atmosphere that serves as a strong backdrop for this spectral tale of otherworldly intervention, the script suffers here-and-there from horrific sequences that seem to break the film’s loosely established rules. They’re great thrills and chills, but viewers who watch closely might spend more time questioning the how’s and why’s when all that really matters here are the wow’s (!!!). Still, relative newcomer Alyson Gorske’s central performance elevates some otherwise routine plotting; and the pairing of Caryn Richman and screen veteran Michael Paré deserves an X-Files-like spin-off.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Shudder provided me with complimentary streaming access to The Puppetman for the expressed purposes of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.