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The Puppet Masters

by Glenn Erickson Dec 04, 2018

Robert Heinlein’s frighteningly brilliant sci-fi horror concept spawned an entire generation of biological invasions from outer space. Stuart Orme’s faithful, authorized adaptation has a lot going for it, including sensationally good, gloppy special makeup effects, and a commanding performance from a dour, authoritative Donald Sutherland.


The Puppet Masters
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1994 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 109 min. / Street Date December 4, 2018 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Donald Sutherland, Julie Warner, Eric Thal, Keith David, Will Patton, Richard Belzer, Tom Mason, Yaphet Kotto, Marshall Bell.
Cinematography: Clive Tickner
Film Editor: William Goldenberg
Original Music: Colin Towns
Special Makeup Effects: Greg Cannom, Larry Odien
Written by Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, David S. Goyer from the book by Robert A. Heinlein
Produced by Ralph Winter
Directed by
Stuart Orme

 

Paranoid conspiracy movies got an early hold in film noir but really took off in early science fiction, abetted by rumors (and some evidence) that Red Chinese and Russian experts were performing psychological experiments on captured soldiers in the Korean War. Thus was coined the word brainwashing. Later sci-fi pictures promoted the theme of the remote control of human beings via radio control devices, organic invasion and outright cloning, bringing about Kafkaesque nightmares where people are transformed from friends into enemies, and even loved ones cannot be trusted.

Robert Heinlein’s book The Puppet Masters is likely the core inspiration for the other 1950s paranoid remote control fantasies. First published in October 1951, the story is still a favorite among new science fiction readers. It worked magic in my household, with three kids impressed that a book that made good on its promise: it was scary. Heinlein’s aliens are disgusting parasitic slugs that attach themselves to humans. An organic lance plunged into the human brain overrides one’s nervous system. The human host retains part of his consciousness, but all control is surrendered to the alien slug, which is now the master to a human ‘puppet.’

 

The Puppet Masters didn’t see an official adaptation in the 1950s. Possible reasons are: 1) The original story takes place in a highly-advanced future society (of 2007!) too expensive to depict. 2) The means of possession was too graphic for 1950s screens. And, as with Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, 3) the book’s ideas were soon mined, borrowed and co-opted by scores of movies and dozens of TV shows. Give any actor a blank stare and a hollow voice, and he can instantly become the catspaw of an alien invasion, detectable only by little clues like telltale scars, or perhaps a pinky finger that cannot bend.

In 1958 producers Ed Nelson and a backgrounded Roger Corman rather shockingly plagiarized The Puppet Masters for their underfunded The Brain Eaters, a Sci-fi horror thriller that conjured a few nightmarish images among its low-budget doldrums.

 

An official film adaptation didn’t arrive for 43 years. Hollywood Pictures’ well-funded 1994 The Puppet Masters is a fairly faithful adaptation that moves the story to the present day and depicts the alien slug monsters with excellent, convincing special effects. Continuing the line of mainstream sci-fi/horror initiated with 1979’s Alien and reaching its peak in 1982’s gore-fest remake of The Thing, the new Heinlein adaptation stresses both the queasy biological parasites and action set-pieces with cars, helicopters, Federal agents and the U.S. Army.

Writers Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio and David S. Goyer were no beginners; they had already written big Disney fantasies and would work on some of the bigger Disney and DC Comics films of the next decade. Although some of the cast members had sci-fi/action on their resumes, the only star name in the cast is Donald Sutherland, whose obvious enthusiasm for the project really helps. Sutherland entered the film business in horror pictures; one suspects he is a big fan of the genre.

 

Much of the movie sticks very close to Heinlein’s book. Agents aligned to a secret scientific branch of the CIA are dispatched to Iowa to investigate a flying saucer rumor. When they don’t report in, the head agent ‘The Old Man’ Andrew Nivens (Donald Sutherland) investigates personally, bringing along biologist-investigator Mary Sefton (Julie Warner) and Sam Nivens (Eric Thal), a hotshot field agent who happens to be Andrew’s son. They find that the downed flying saucer appears to be a hoax operated by some local teenagers, but are sufficiently wary not to accept the invitation to enter the fake saucer. They soon discover that the the alien parasitic invasion is well underway, with the local police and TV station already compromised. The gooey slugs take possession so quickly that the agents unknowingly bring an infected team member back with them to Washington, where it changes hosts and wreaks additional havoc. By the time the authorities can launch countermeasures, the invasion has proceeded too far to be contained. An entire Army division is taken over. Only by studying the parasites’ precise biology can the CIA hope to find a weakness and defeat them.

The Puppet Masters 1994 is a story well-told. Moving quickly, it introduces its science fiction and monster elements in an exciting manner. As with certain post-modern ‘classic’ sci-fi adaptations, the screenplay deftly sidesteps some of the old clichés. Audiences were usually way ahead of the not-too-bright characters that first encountered Things from Another World. We applaud Sam, Julie and The Old Man when they sensibly decline to enter the Iowa teenagers’ bogus flying saucer for a sinister ‘tour.’ Our heroes quickly become hip to the alien’s tricks, picking up on the telltale behaviors of those possessed. Mary realizes that ‘puppeted’ men don’t respond to blatant sex overtures. The CIA team learns not to fully trust anybody, until they partly disrobe to prove that they aren’t hiding a slug on their back.

 

But after those smart moves The Puppet Masters’ creative arc flattens out — the thrills cease being Sci-fi oriented and instead emphasize generic action set-pieces. Our CIA panic squad flits about in private jets and have helicopters and swat teams at their beck and call. The biggest scenes are car chases and running gun battles altogether too much like those seen in cop shows and combat dramas. The Heinlein-derived 1987 The Hidden works because it was conceived as one big unbroken action scene, with a string of possessed humans committing violent crimes. Sam Nivens spends most of his time clobbering sheriffs and fighting off superhuman puppet people.

Coming off quite well is the movie’s handling of the notion of the alien plague spreading across Iowa. As host humans have a hotter body temperature, spy satellites show that the aliens are not simply shipping new parasites in all directions, like Jack Finney’s Seed Pods. The CIA deduces that the parasites must stay close to some kind of energizing hub. Effective graphics help, and good direction gives the impression of large army maneuvers happening largely off screen.

All three leading players take turns being victimized by parasites, and surviving; we are surprised to find out that this repetitive wrinkle takes place in the book as well. Sam is captured while in a possessed state, leading to a situation where the Old Man talks to an alien, just like Max von Sydow talks to Pazuzu through little Regan in The Exorcist.

 

Unfortunately, one scene that clearly took a lot of time and effort to film has an unintentionally comic effect. The researchers let the parasites infect a selection of chimpanzees, who then behave in as sinister a manner as do humans. Although cleverly staged, the scene works against the film’s attempt to build tension — we unproductively think, ‘how are they getting the chimpanzees to do this?’

Eric Thal and Julie Warner perform well, but something in the direction mutes their contributions… Thal’s Sam perhaps seems too boyish, insufficiently rugged to be an experienced, bruiser of a field agent. Keith David is excellent, as is Richard Belzer. Yaphet Kotto’s presence is rather limited, while Marshall Bell is perfect as a compromised General. Bell would amplify his performance a couple of years later in Starship Troopers. But Donald Sutherland carries the film at all times, lending gravity to the concept and communicating intelligent good humor at all times.

The Puppet Masters did not do well critically or at the box office. As expected, The Washington Post and The New York Times found its thrills to be too familiar, coming soon after Abel Ferrara’s paranoid rehash Body Snatchers. One reviewer claimed that it borrows elements from Invaders from Mars!

 

I find the first half of the show to be extremely good. The second half entertains despite its repetitive possessions and re-possessions, and multiple climaxes that don’t build in intensity. Also, Puppet Masters’ excellent special effects seemed tame compared to the grandiose digital effects seen in James Cameron’s Terminator 2. Greg Cannom gets the nod for makeup effects but the engineer-designer responsible for the entirely convincing parasite slugs, Larry Odien, should have won something. The slimy sea skate- like parasites hide nasty bundles of communicator nodes, and instead of a stinger wield a probe that can shoot across a room, nailing victims with unerring precision. They also look convincingly organic when folded up and dormant. The close-ups of ‘brain rape’ are disturbing but more subtle than the mass carnage of John Carpenter’s The Thing, which perhaps was an audience turn-off: successful gore pix were expected to up the ante, not go in for delicate refinements.

Just the same, The Puppet Masters persists as a mostly satisfying, suspenseful sci-fi thriller, especially for fans of Donald Sutherland. And those parasite slugs are pretty scary in themselves.


 

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Puppet Masters looks and sounds great; it’s a Special Edition disc produced on the scale of discs by Arrow, Shout and Powerhouse Indicator, with plenty of special features. Most of us saw the show first on cable TV, pan-scanned. In HD at its wide Panavision ratio adds a great deal of ‘scope and spectacle.

Kino identifies all the extras as new. Director Stuart Orme and his editor David Yardley appear on a commentary, while new interviews give us pleasant input from actors Julie Warner, Keith David and Richard Belzer, and effects supervisor Larry Odien. An 8-page illustrated insert pamphlet has a liner note essay by Samuel R. Delany. Cover art is reversible; I like artist Jacob Phillips’ new interpretation over the generic art for the original release. A trailer is also included. Combined with the blah original poster, we can see why Puppet Masters didn’t come on like gangbusters in 1994. By contrast, Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers enjoyed a reasonably effective marketing push.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Puppet Masters
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good + Plus
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
New Supplements: Commentary by director Stuart Orme with film editor David Yardley; interviews with stars Julie Warner, Keith David & Richard Belzer, and special effects supervisor Larry Odien. Effects artwork gallery; insert pamphlet essay by Samuel R. Delany; Theatrical Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 2, 2018
(5877pupp)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.