Lit in lurid neon colors and dripping with a sense of menace and dread from its opening moments, writer/director Jacqueline Castel’s new horror short The Puppet Man is a captivating fear-fare entry.
Right away, viewers know that four young people are in a place they shouldn’t be when they stumble into a seedy bar on a seemingly dead street. The creepy barkeep (Bradley Bailey) insists that the bar is closed until alpha male of the group Tommy (Joe Castle Baker) bribes him to stay open. The bourbon starts flowing and trippy Susie (Susannah Simpson) and quiet but unnerving Frank (Grant Mayland) are more than happy to imbibe. Audience surrogate Christine (Crystal Renn) seems less comfortable with the surroundings and heads for the ladies’ room, which becomes a long, strange trip, indeed.
The bartender locks the unsuspecting customers inside and tells them about the Puppet Man, who “comes to visit you when you’re bad.” Tommy phones a cab as the bartender plays Bob Morrison’s fuzztone-fueled garage rock song “Hey Puppet Man” on the jukebox, summoning the titular, knife-wielding villain (Johnny Scuotto, who also scores a “based on a character by” credit).
The cab driver is a familiar face to fright-fare fans: it’s legendary director John Carpenter, who also provided the remarkable synthesizer score for The Puppet Man. Although his influence is evident in the short, along with homage to Dario Argento’s vivid colors and blade-bearing villains, filmmaker Jacqueline Castel makes this short uniquely her own. She creates a dizzying, delirious eight minutes of madness that delivers the shudders but that brought a smile to my face, as well.
Jacqueline Castel also served as director of photography and editor; her gorgeously framed shots are splendidly lit and sometimes drenched in dry-ice-fog goodness. Though The Puppet Man is impeccably lensed throughout, the short’s final shot is a thing of beauty.
The Puppet Man’s cast is a blast to watch, anchored by offbeat performances by Bradley Bailey as the eerie doorman and Susannah Simpson as the outlandish Susie. Crystal Renn also turns in a mesmerizing performance as the discombobulated Christine, while Johnny Scuotto gives life to a new slasher character, playing him as a deliberate menace who approaches slowly but strikes quickly.
The Puppet Man (heypuppetman.com), a Sacred Bones production, is currently on the film festival circuit. The short blends nostalgia and originality, and I give it a strong recommendation for horror fans who enjoy striking visuals and an entrancing soundscape with their bogeyman fare.
The Puppet Man: (4 / 5)