The Puppet Masters (1994)

JANUARY 25, 2013


I try not to blame the screenwriter too often for a bad studio movie, because I've heard enough horror stories over the years to know that the guys whose names are on the "written by" credit aren't always the ones who actually wrote it. Thanks to the WGA's idiotic rules, the guys most responsible for a script might not even get credited at all in some cases, which seems to be the case in The Puppet Masters. Credited co-writer Terry Rossio has a pretty entertaining blog post about the various development issues that resulted in the movie being not that great (though not as bad as he claims). Give it a read!

Having not read the book, I don't know how much is a complete invention of the movie, so all I can compare it to are the other Body Snatchers films, which seems fair since there's no other reason to cast Donald Sutherland in a big budget pod film unless they're acknowledging their cinematic competition. Sadly, it's not as good as any of the official Body Snatcher movies (or The Faculty), but it's a step up from the awful, much-mangled The Invasion with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, so there's something. The key difference is that these aliens don't take the place of the victims, but attach themselves to their back and control them (like, you know, puppets), which means that the victims can be saved.

It also means that the movie/book is over if everyone just takes their damn shirts off, or even if they wear spandex. It's a big stingray looking thing on the back, so there's not a lot of mystery to who's who; there's a decent twist early on with an infected party, but it's TOO early - we know the character will be reverted back to hero before long. Part of the fun of these things is the big reveal that this or that person was a pod person, but here no one is able to keep it under wraps for more than five minutes.

But more problematic than that is the fact that the movie is oddly front-loaded with its best scenes. The initial investigation of the ship, the first test on a slug (led by scientist Will Patton!), a fun bit with character actor Bruce Jarchow as an infected VIP and the following escape/chase sequence ... these are the movie's strongest scenes, and they're all in the first 20 minutes or so. There's also a horrifying suicide scene where a guy gives himself an embolism by smashing an empty saline bag, shooting the air into his bloodstream. But once the aforementioned character is infected, the movie loses steam, and just sort of plods along for a while before the big, generic action movie climax, which involves shootouts and even a goddamn helicopter fight.

The script (or whatever you'd call it, after reading Rossio's account) also makes the curious decision to sideline Donald Sutherland for most of its 2nd half, to the extent where I wondered if I had looked at my cat for a moment and missed his character's death. By the time he finally comes back, any momentum regarding his intentions (there's a bit where he's asked to remove his shirt to prove he's not infected, but before he does, another person is outed and he's never questioned again) has been long lost, and (spoiler) the way they carry out his quickie infection is way too contrived. From the unnecessary closeup on him putting down his cane (the aliens "cure" any such physical defects) to the way too quick way he's infected (some debris falls on him with like 5 people watching, no one sees a giant stingray somehow get under his shirt and infect him?), all the way down to the copout ending where he survives, it's all so perfunctory, merely extending an already long movie by another 10 minutes.

Also (bigger spoiler), what kind of pod movie ends on such a happy note? The infected parties are all cured (only like, 3 named characters die in this movie), our heroes literally walk off into a sunset holding hands, and it seems that the threat has been contained. I don't mind the optimism, but the fact that almost no one of importance died along the way prevents the danger from ever feeling too real. It'd be like if all 8 oil drillers and 6 astronauts returned home at the end of Armageddon (which was on the brain - in addition to Patton, Keith David also appears). Gotta sacrifice some of the big names to make sure we know how high the stakes are; the fact that Sutherland survives is just ridiculous.

On the other hand, it's refreshingly free of CGI; only a couple of brief shots of the slug and the "entrance" to the aliens' HQ suffer from that nonsense. The rest of the time, the slugs are practical beasties that have cool tendrils and tentacles doing their thing, giving the actors an actual object to interact with instead of just gawking at a tennis ball like in any modern alien/monster movie. It's not too gory (not sure why they didn't just make this PG-13; again there's barely any body count, no nudity, and the language is mild), but it's just so nice to see a tangible creation for those key scenes, even moreso when you consider that this was the time when CGI started to take over our monsters. If nothing else, the movie is worth watching just to enjoy Greg Cannom's work.

Can't say much about the Blu-ray though. Being from Mill Creek I wasn't expecting much, but while the image is decent the sound is quite bad; I struggled to make out a lot of the dialogue, particularly Sutherland's in the early scenes. It's on the same disc as Deep Rising, which I'm sure is of more interest to folks (neither film has been released on the format previously), especially since the box art makes it look like a Treat Williams double feature disc, so hopefully the sound is better on that one and you can just look at this as a literal "bonus feature". I mean yeah, it's 5 bucks or whatever and can mainly be found in your frozen foods aisle at the grocery store (I assume; I got it in a Yankee Swap this past Christmas), but come on. Do something right or don't do it at all.

What say you?


  1. Actually, the book ends with humanity pretty much going naked for the rest of forever, because that is the (relatively) simple solution to the problem. Although, it turns out that the slugs don't necessarily need to be on the persons back, that's just the shortest route to the central nervous system. The book is more of a science fiction secret agent thriller than horror, it's just one of the closest things to horror that Heinlein wrote.

    1. Clearly you've never read Podkayne of Mars. /bitter


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