The Movie Waffler New Release Review - THE PUPPETMAN | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - THE PUPPETMAN

The Puppetman review
When those around her start dying in strange circumstances, a young woman is forced to reconcile with her family's dark past.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Brandon Christensen

Starring: Caryn Richman, Michael Páre, Alyson Gorske, Zachary Le Vey, Angel Prater

The Puppetman poster

With his first two movies – Still/Born and Z –writer/director Brandon Christensen marked himself as one of the most talented filmmakers working in today's low budget horror field. Both of these films felt like throwbacks to the TV movies and drive-in fare of the 1970s, with Christensen working economically and ingeniously within restricted budgets. Like so many of the best low budget horror movies, they relied heavily on the performance of a female lead to make up for the lack of showy effects, with Christensen proving himself a director equally gifted in directing actors as in placing his camera. His third film, the black comedy Superhost, was by comparison somewhat sloppy and unfocussed, but had its charms.

The Puppetman review

For his fourth feature, Christensen suffers from lofty ambitions even his skill at working with low budgets can't quite achieve. Where his previous films were confined, all three mostly playing out in a single location, The Puppetman is more expansive, owing much to the Final Destination series but with a fraction of its budget, meaning Christensen is unable to pull off the sort of outlandish set-pieces that franchise is known for.

The lack of budget begins to show from the establishment of its primary setting. The movie takes place on a college campus, but there's no hustle and bustle of the student body, no keg parties, no crowded classrooms. It's winter break and only a small group of friends have decided to remain on campus (there doesn't even seem to be any security or maintenance staff in the place). They've done this to be supportive of their troubled friend Michal (Alyson Gorske), whose father, David (Zachary Le Vey, whose surname proves a chilling case of nominative determinism here), is set to be executed by lethal injection for killing Michal's mother when she was a young child, an incident detailed in a bloody prologue.

The Puppetman review

David has always maintained his innocence, claiming some supernatural force took over his body. Michal spent her subsequent childhood and teen years in a variety of foster homes before aging out and entering college. With her father's imminent execution on her mind, Michal grows increasingly stressed, cutting her arm, sleepwalking at night and smearing a symbol consisting of three parallel lines on the wall in her blood. When her best friend, Charlie (Angel Prater), leaps to her death from the roof of their dorm, Michal believes she was responsible, that the same force that took over her father caused Charlie to kill herself.

What follows is a cross between the sort of investigative procedural horrors that were popular in the aftermath of the success of The Ring, with Michal searching for answers, and a Final Destination knockoff, with those around Michal perishing in a gruesome manner (there's even a direct nod to a death from Final Destination 3).

The Puppetman review

Christensen puts together some effective sequences, with a scene that cross cuts between two characters' impending deaths a standout, and for two thirds at least The Puppetman is an involving little chiller. It runs into trouble in its final act when the film struggles to make sense of its own mythology. Like Death in the Final Destination movies, The Puppetman is a metaphysical villain, but where the Final Destination films at their best managed to make us acutely aware of Death's presence at all times through its tense Rube Goldberg set-pieces, The Puppetman fails to pull off the same trick. Part of this is down to a failure to fully establish the rules of this myth. The film seems to be playing catch-up and making things up on the fly, and by the climax the viewer is confused as to the very nature of The Puppetman as an antagonist. Too much heavy lifting is expected of Gorske, who puts in a decent final girl performance but struggles with an exposition heavy script. It's a shame as there's potential here for an ongoing series, but it may require a larger budget for Christensen to realise his ambitions. The puppet strings may be hidden here but the purse strings are all too visible.

The Puppetman
 is on Shudder from October 13th.

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