Based on Robert A. Heinlein's hugely influential 1951 sci-fi novel of the same name, Stuart Orme's The Puppet Masters (1994) should feel a lot more original and unique than it actually is. Here's the problem: its source material had already been borrowed from liberally (in films and TV shows like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Outer Limits) or at least loosely (Jack Sholder's film The Hidden, not to mention The Thing from Another World and John Carpenter's 1982 remake). Even Chris Carter's massively popular show The X-Files was already in its second season by the time The Puppet Masters wandered into theaters a month later.
So what happens when a film about strange alien invaders arrives at least two decades too late? It falls flat. Luckily, The Puppet Masters must have been aware of its own predictability because it wastes no time with mystery, but even that ends up robbing the film of its effectiveness in the long run. The story goes like this: parasite-like invaders, which have recently landed in rural Idaho, are identified in person by CIA operative Andrew Nivens (Donald Sutherland) about 10 minutes after the credits. Along with his FBI agent son Sam (Eric Thal) and NASA biologist Dr. Mary Sefton (Julie Warner), our three agents end up playing a really long and intense game of whack-a-mole: these parasites have already possessed a handful of citizens and almost no one is safe, themselves included. (They can be killed, but at the risk of killing the host.) Meanwhile, Sam and Mary end up having the hots for one another, and they've got to keep those instincts in check while battling an apparently global threat. Andrew, all the while, serves as the ultimate authority, figuring out immediate solutions and narrating almost all of his own actions. He's like the story's own personal cheat code, basically.
To make a short story shorter, The Puppet Masters is a very lukewarm adaptation of beloved source material. It delivers wall-to-wall action that gradually exhausts the viewer instead of ramping up excitement, with every subsequent mystery and revelation feeling more excessive as its story clumsily unfolds. Had the film's ultra-serious tone been lightened a bit, maybe The Puppet Masters could've felt more like a breath of fresh air than an oblivious, stale production late to its own party. There are a few standout moments and ideas, some of the action is pretty fun, and Larry Odien's practical creature effects are certainly well-done. But highlights here are few and far between, making The Puppet Masters passable as part of a highlight reel but unable to stand firmly on its own two feet.
The Puppet Masters shares one similarity with the 1997 creature-feature Deep Rising (although I actually enjoyed that one): they were paired off as a Mill Creek double-feature Blu-ray back in 2012 and have since gotten their own Special Edition Blu-ray from Kino. Like its better half, The Puppet Masters also gets a generous assortment of new and exclusive bonus features that fans should enjoy. I doubt it'll push any newcomers over the fence...but if you've owned it on home video before, you'll probably appreciate the upgrade.
I hadn't previously seen The Puppet Masters in full since the VHS days, so it was no surprise to discover how much more clean and crisp Kino's new Special Edition Blu-ray looks than what I remember. This 1080p transfer has likely been sourced from a newer scan or better source material than Buena Vista's 2002 DVD and, more than likely, is very similar (if not identical) to Mill Creek's 2012 "Double Feature" edition that also included Deep Rising; the lack of dirt, edge enhancement, and other eyesores certainly suggests a somewhat recent effort. Framed at what appears to be its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio (cinematographer Clive Tickner mentions "possible cropping issues" during an audio commentary but doesn't go into detail, while the earlier DVD and Blu-ray were framed at 2.35:1 as well), it features natural color balance, solid black levels, and a modest amount of film grain. That said, there's not much flair: visual effects are kept to a minimum, colors are somewhat drab, and much of this film is shot in rather plain indoor locales. Overall, it's about as decent a transfer as we could expect for a lower-tier catalog title (if not slightly better), so that's at least good news for established fans.
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The film's original DTS-HD 2.0 (Stereo) Master Audio mix, even without the heft and presence of a full-blown 5.1 track, likewise does the job nicely. Dialogue and effects are clear and balanced, while Colin Towns' score also makes its presence known without overpowering. Channel separation is noticeable at times, but it's mostly a centered presentation that feels constrained at times (for the genre, at least). Still, no major complaints here. Optional English subtitles are included during the film, but none of the extras.
The static menu interface includes options for playback, chapter selection (eight total), subtitle setup, and bonus features, with quick loading time and few pre-menu distractions. As with most recent Kino Special Edition catalog releases, this one-disc package arrives in a standard keepcase with reversible, poster-themed cover artwork and a short Booklet with an essay by Samuel Delany.
Kino's Special Edition Blu-ray serves up an surprisingly thick collection of extras -- more than the film warrants, in my opinion, but die-hard fans will love every minute. First up is a feature-length Audio Commentary with director Stuart Orme, cinematographer Clive Tickner, and editor David Yardley; it's a well-meaning and, for the most part, informative track that covers a lot of ground. Topics of discussion include the shooting locations, Robert Heinlein's original book, possible cropping issues, developing the screenplay, decapitating a parking meter, lighting techniques, mass nudity, Donald Sutherland's long forehead, 1984 and sci-fi predictions, color grading, visual effects and practical designs, dealing with the military, highlights and regrets, child actors, supporting characters and shout-outs, stunt work, and much more. There are several lapses into silence (especially during longer action sequences. which are pretty frequent), but this is overall a fun and informative track that, in many ways, is thankfully more self-aware than the film it's talking about.
The extras continue with an assortment of Featurettes and Interviews. "The Puppet Grand Master" (29 minutes) pays tribute to Robert Heinlein with a bio/career overview; only a portion of its running time devoted to the main feature, but it still fits in pretty well. It's a condensed and comprehensive piece featuring comments by author and screenwriter David Gerrold, author Robert Gleason, author Brad Linaweaver, and literary agent Eleanor Wood. "Get Slugged" (10 minutes) is a decidedly more film-specific interview with actress Julie Warner, who talks about her initial audition, stories from the set, and hitting the convention circuit. "Strange Invasion" (9 minutes) catches up with actor Keith David as he shares about his early sci-fi roles, working with Donald Sutherland, and the rest of the cast. "Alien Me, Alien You" (9 minutes) features actor Richard Belzer, who's clearly intelligent but talks more about conspiracy theories and self-analysis than the actual movie. Last but not least is "Larry Odien Pulls the Strings" (14 minutes), a much more coherent and enjoyable chat about his work in the industry, designing the parasite, and other practical effects in The Puppet Masters.
Also here is a related Image Gallery (3 minutes) of creature designs by Larry Odien, plus the film's Theatrical Trailer (2 minutes).
The Puppet Masters sounds good on paper: it's based on influential sci-fi source material, Donald Sutherland is attached, and it's packed with action and big twists from start to finish. Unfortunately, the production largely falls flat because of its ultra-serious tone, uneven pace, generic performances, and the fact that it feels way too late to its own party. Those with fond memories of this one will enjoy revisiting it via Kino's Special Edition Blu-ray, however: it's got decent A/V quality and a surprisingly deep roster of new and exclusive bonus features. My own reservations about The Puppet Masters grade this disc as worth little more than a rental...but there's obviously been effort to make it worth buying for those who already love it, so why rain on their parade? Recommended for fans only.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work and runs a website or two. In his free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.