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The Puppetman

I’ll give “The Puppetman” this: it doesn’t beat around the bush. Director Brandon Christensen’s surface-level horror flick begins on an aggressively obvious note: A strained and rigid David (Zachary Le Vey) walks into the kitchen, his mouth tightly clenched. His wife is preparing dinner as Sandie Shaw’s easy-listening 1960s track “Puppet on a String” plays in the background. Seemingly against his will, David picks up a knife and stabs her while their daughter hides in a cage in a closet. It’s a cold opening heated to lukewarm levels to open intrigue and suspense that ultimately falls flat as the film develops. 

Years later, in suburban New York State, their daughter Michal (a committed Alyson Gorske) is a teenager in college trying to avoid the avalanche of headlines announcing her death row father’s impending lethal injection. Michal has a small group of friends who try to keep her grounded. There’s her crush, Danny (Kio Cyr), his jerkish friend Glenn (Cameron Wong), and the bookish Jo (Anna Telfer). Michal’s roommate and confidant, Charlie (a witty Angel Prater), rounds out this rambunctious assemblage of teenagers. These college kids do exactly what you expect of them: they hang out at the local diner; they work their underage hands to buy alcohol with fake IDs; they drink on a local rooftop and head to class when they feel like it. 

“The Puppetman,” in that sense, isn’t out to reinvent the wheel: It knows the coming-of-age paranormal lineage it comes from and takes pleasure in moving through the tropes you expect. For a while, that assuredness is enough to make this workmanlike horror film engaging. 

Christensen uses the film's first half to mark a series of strange occurrences. For weeks, Michal has been sleepwalking and scratching wrists to the point of drawing blood. Her roommate, Charlie, doesn’t bother to get help; she records it. Alarms sound, however, when one of Michal’s friends also seizes up before mindlessly throwing themselves off a roof. Was it suicide, or was an evil force somehow connected to Michal? The friends take a normal course; they approach a psychic who tells them of a Satanic cult that might be involved. These narrative machinations are enough to catapult the film to its inevitable freakout without much effort, relying on a tepid mood set by a rote score and creaky compositions.  

The horror flicks transition to a “Final Destination” collage of kills possibly guided by fate or some other being, providing some tiny spikes of suspense. These are bloody, gruesome deaths. One involves a dumbbell falling on a kid’s jaw. The other sees one of them burned to death by an occult book. There’s some hokey VFX blood mixed in with better practical effects, but for the most part, you at least get a couple of memorable kills. 

“The Puppetman” would be a modest success if it merely remained a comfort horror meal. But in answering the mysteries surrounding Michal, Christensen opts for a non-ending that spoils whatever fruits he’d won during the fairly tight 96-minute run time. By the end, you feel you’ve been given the run around for a merely serviceable story that’s unmemorable in how easily Michal fits into the cliches established by other, better films.  

On Shudder now.

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at RogerEbert.com. Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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Film Credits

The Puppetman movie poster

The Puppetman (2023)

Rated NR

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