Rating: 2 out of 5.

The Bye Bye Man. The Empty Man. Now: The Puppetman. What do these three films have in common? The unfortunate answer is that this trio are all high-concept horrors with an intriguing premise; in the end, they make one wonder why they had even bothered in the first place. Written and directed by Brandon Christensen (Z, Superhost), The Puppetman is at least the best of the middling ‘man’ movies. At times, the film seems lost by its own rules, which is a shame considering the main cast tries their hardest to sell the twists and turns.

At just eight years old, Michal (Alyson Gorske) was involved in the trauma of a lifetime when her father, claiming to be controlled by an evil force, slaughtered her mother in cold blood. Now, Michal’s father, dubbed The Puppetman, is set for death by lethal injection later in the week. Aged out of the foster care system over time, Michal attends college nearby. She claims the event happened so long ago that she barely remembers it, but Michal’s dorm mate, Charlie (Angel Prater), would tell a different story.

Over a series of nights, Charlie catalogues Michal’s odd sleepwalking behavior. Deep into the night, Michal draws a mysterious symbol, and speaks in her sleep. Does this have anything to do with her murderous father, or the entity that allegedly possessed him? Obviously, the answer here is a resounding yes. The story holds minimal surprises as it plays out in real time. Charlie’s friend group—by extension, also Michal’s friends since she apparently doesn’t have any of her own—serves as perfect fodder for the body count.

The Puppetman’s introduction emphasizes many details about these friends that one hopes will become more important later in the film. Glenn (Cameron Wong) longs to escape the shadow of his quarterback brother, throwing his energy into workouts and steroids. Jo (Anna Telfer) has a history with Danny (Kio Cyr), and Charlie has a fascination with Michal’s past that borders on obsession. The only one of these characters that gets anything approaching an arc aside from lead Michal is Danny; TikTok star-turned-actor Cyr shows vulnerability as Danny races to help Michal face down her past demons.

The sole aspect The Puppetman has going for it after a decent first act: the kills. The death sequences are varied, and if pushed further could recall some of the weaker ones in the Final Destination franchise, or last year’s smash hit, Smile. Alas, the envelope never gets pushed here to a satisfying extent either. One death involving a flame was by far my favorite, juxtaposed against another to make it a double kill. The film lacks this energy as it goes into the climax off the strength of some hokey psychic. 

The Puppetman seems to end teasing a sequel, and I can only hope that one never surfaces. If those other ‘man’ movies have not yet been sequelized, The Puppetman is no more deserving. What should have been played campier, emphasizing the more ridiculous elements, instead was done deathly serious for whatever reason. Shudder original movies vary wildly in quality, being perfectly exemplified here. With wonky effects, silly mythology, and a been-there-done-that feel, The Puppetman fails to impress.

The Puppetman unleashes with no strings attached to Shudder on Friday, October 13th.

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