It took me four attempts to get through Jay Gowey’s No-Budget thriller, Puppet Show. In some ways, this makes it one of the most effective horror movies I’ve ever seen. It’s as though some malicious force has built an unsolvable maze; every time a hapless wanderer should stumble in and make a wrong turn, they’re immediately placed back at the beginning. The movie just sort of happens at you. Suddenly, blood soaked breasts appear. Moments later, erratic flashes of bargain-bin gore. Then, a pretty lady wakes up and then you’re assaulted by the opening credits. Astoundingly, even those drag on. Slow pans of clown toys are accompanied by a repeating loop of, I guess, spooky circus music. A lot of this feels like your high school metal band’s first music video. In short, I wasn’t sure how I was going to get through this movie.
Fun fact: I’ve started writing this review exactly eleven minutes into my fourth attempt at watching Puppet Show. I’ve come up with a solution to my lack of forward momentum. An efficient and effective way to subdue my own snobbery. I am going to get drunk as shit and write about this movie as I watch it. It’s the only way. I have to get on this movie’s level.
My first drink is going to be a beer. I’m going to drink through the duration of every long, awkward silence that happens….
Okay, so: I hit play and there was a long awkward silence and it lasted long enough for me to finish an entire 12 oz bottle of beer. I’m not some kind of crazy beer chugging machine. There was just a solid 30 seconds of silence.
Let’s talk about the plot, so far. A retired ventriloquism legend, Rick (I’m not sure if they’re saying Springer or Spreegen..) lives a life of modest destitution. He’s kind of a jerk, but seems to have a heart of gold, or at least well maintained formica. It seems to be that Rick is an inhumanly skilled ventriloquist, capable of throwing his voice onto completely separate audio tracks of this movie. A really fucking nervous kid, Mike, has arrived at the former star’s house, apparently hoping for an interview. Rick denies the kid the interview, and then invites him in to watch old footage and talk about his work. That seems a lot like an interview to me.
My next drink is a glass of irish whiskey on the rocks.
It is very quickly revealed that the puppet, Charlie Chowderhead, is both alive and evil. Though, it seems like the goal is to maintain an air of mystery around this fact. At any rate, the puppet prop is really beautifully made. There is something jarring about seeing such a lovingly made prop amongst such otherwise lackluster production. This actually makes Charlie even spookier. Props to the props, nonetheless. Special mention, as well, to Charlie’s voice actor. This person, whose name I can’t find obviously really gave a shit about giving Charlie some personality.
Through some neat flashbacks to Rick’s days as a Garfield Goose-esque kids show host, we learn that Charlie is a very naughty puppet. In the present, it’s revealed that Rick’s fame was a result of some faustian deal with the evil puppet who just can’t get enough murder.
I’m two whiskey drinks deep and Rick is dead.
On my fourth whiskey, I begin to realize that, perhaps, I’ve made a mistake. Not in my decision to drink, or to watch this movie. No, I’ve made a mistake in my attempt to “live review” this movie. I’m not going to give up on my task, but it is definitely not what I thought it would be. And, really, that’s what Puppet Show is like. It’s inconsistent, and unreliable, but somehow keeps you in it.
Erica Slider provides an unsteady, but genuinely human performance as Casey. Casey reluctantly inherits Charlie literally at her grandfather’s funeral. Immediately after that, we watch her take a bath. There is no reason for us to see this, but here we are. I’m not one for the moral high road. I don’t mind or even shy away from nudity in art. Obviously, as a horror fan, I fully anticipate and even expect to see graphic imagery. That said, I like context, and I can’t find anything for this other than that she’s taking a bath and, logically, needs to be naked for that. But, why are we seeing it?
Drink number seven comes with the familiar pang of having had much too much.
I’m a half hour into this movie and I think we’re just now finally out of backstory.
It’s becoming more and more clear that Puppet Show is essential viewing. Have you ever had a night where you wind up with a group of strangers that are constantly teetering on the brink of complete and utter meltdown? A group of people you have never met, do not trust, don’t like, don’t feel safe with and absolutely can not walk away from? There’s a rowdy coke head who keeps threatening cops, and a girl who has had way the fuck too much to drink? Maybe there’s a guy with a knife? Despite all of these red flags, you understand that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for a very unique sort of fun. This is your chance to glimpse into the sheer recklessness you so desperately wish you were brave enough to embrace. That is Puppet Show. A weird, gross, chaotic movie that does not care about your expectations. It exists not only in spite of you but to spite you.
This movie is the other side of horror.
While movies like The Inkeepers, House Of The Devil, We Are What We Are and so many others take their rightful seats next to The Shining and so on, Puppet Show is in the alley huffing spray paint from a paper bag and fighting the wall.
Through weird references to vaudeville traditions, dime store gore, lip-bitingly bad music and quotably awkward acting (Piss heads!), Puppet Show carries on a long tradition of Z List horror madness that will always have a place in my heart.
Throughout Puppet Show, the question “why?” echoed through my inebriated brain. Why am I watching this? Why do I really love this whole experience? The only answer I can offer is that it is really just an absurd movie. It’s unreliable, and profoundly low budget, and yet; entertaining as hell. Maybe it’s the alcohol speaking, but I’m finally starting to understand this movie. It’s not about the cheap trope of a spooky scary clown puppet seeking indeterminable revenge. No, it’s about making the viewer realize that true horror is a shapeless, writhing mass. There doesn’t need to be a reason that the dastardly clown puppet (who is a fucking marionette, by the way) is mad. It just is. Evil exists, and evil does not wait for you to make sense of it. It simply happens, much like Puppet Show. There is no logic behind the grim misery of the human condition. Death will take us all, and on the other side, Puppet Show is waiting, laughing a poorly dubbed laugh.
Kings of Horror neither condones nor encourages irresponsible consumption of alcohol.
Review by: Ian Sutherland