Who doesn’t love a great puppet? Jim Henson made his menagerie of Muppets into warm and cuddly characters that changed perceptions about puppetry for modern era audiences. But even Henson knew that the art of puppetry often had a dark side. From the garish violence of Punch & Judy shows to the unsettling, dead-eyed look of ventriloquist’s dummies, there are plenty of examples of how a puppet can instill something other than smiles. Even Henson dabbled with making puppetry reflect our nightmares with character creations like the Fireys in Labyrinth and the Skeksis in The Dark Crystal.
In modern cinema, great storytellers have often used puppets to challenge audiences, subverting our benign expectations for the stringed or felt creations by weaving them into narratives to serve as potent metaphors, avatars for extreme behaviors, or to just scare the hell out of us. And sometimes, it’s a little bit of all of that.
With the release of Amazon Studio’s Annette on Aug. 20 on Amazon Prime Video, SYFY WIRE decided to delve into some genre films that used puppets in ways audiences were not expecting, and for good or bad, and they ended up defining the piece as a whole.
***Spoilers for each movie below***
Director Leos Carax’s Annette features a puppet prominently, and initially, confusingly for audiences as Annette is the daughter of the decidedly human couple of Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) and Ann (Marion Cotillard). He is an aggressively hostile shock comedian, while she is a demure but beguiling opera singer. As the dialogue states: he kills his audiences and she saves them. Perfect opposites in all ways, Annette’s birth is a curiosity to Henry, but ultimately one more thing to make him jealous and distanced from anything that genuinely represents love or intimacy in his narcissistic worldview. Annette as a puppet, with all her wobbly wooden joints and marionette-like movements, is the perfect visual metaphor for how McHenry assesses everything in his life and art: how can it benefit me and how can I control it to do what I want?
With The Sparks Brother’s operetta score and lyrics feeding the majority of the dialogue, it makes sense that puppet Annette is also a beatific singer, like her mother, and her voice beguiles the world while becoming McHenry’s meal ticket. But the puppet as metaphor is finally dropped in the last 10 minutes of the film, when finally caged by his own transgressions against his family and especially his daughter, Annette’s strings are finally released by this abusive man and she appears as a real girl. Free from his behavior and unquenchable wants, Annette confronts him and leaves him to his misery with her puppet effigy left behind. The whole endeavor is weird and disjointed, but the oddity of puppet Annette pays off with a heartbreaking scene that emotionally lands at least that aspect of Carax’s exploration of toxic art, masculinity, and narcissism.
GOOD GUY DOLL (AKA CHUCKY)
For 30 years, audiences have been terrorized by the possessed puppet of consumerism gone mad: Chucky. First appearing in 1988’s Child’s Play, the Good Guy doll was the original creation of the film that visually pulled from the “must-have” toys of the time: Teddy Ruxpin, Cabbage Patch dolls, and any vacant-eyed piece of plastic that beckoned from the shelves and made parents fight each other to attain it for their kids. In the film, serial killer Charles Lee Ray uses a dark ritual on a Good Guy doll to transfer his soul into the plastic receptacle. The unholy terror becomes Chucky, the murderous doll.
In the early films, as soon as Chucky becomes mobile, while we see him as a doll, the filmmakers used a mixture of animatronic puppetry and a human body double with in-camera techniques to bring his bloody impulses to practical life. Across eight films (and an impending TV series on SYFY and USA), the Chucky doll has terrified audiences because of his tangible nature. From the slightly off design of his face, to his joyfully colorful costumes, Chucky is our worst childhood nightmares brought to life because he’s pint-sized, mobile, and embodies what most of us have secretly imagined about our plastic play pals: Maybe they harbor real evil inside those empty heads?
THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS
Jim Henson’s son, Brian Henson, has also long seen the merits of using puppets in contrast to how we usually experience them. From his long-running, adult-comedy puppet improv troupe, Puppet Up!, Henson evolved the idea of puppets doing and saying things that are quite frankly, not right, in his felt noir opus, The Happytime Murders. Regardless of its uneven narrative and over-the-top sequences of puppet nudity and sexual deviancy, the puppets themselves worked well in holding a mirror up to the extreme behaviors of what we humans do all the time. Turns out, most people don’t want to see our most dysfunctional behaviors being committed by puppets, so maybe that’s the most effective defense of what director Henson and his team were attempting to accomplish with this oddity.
Back before The Muppet Show was really a thing yet, and ventriloquists could still be seen often on variety TV shows, Magic (1978) came out and pretty much decimated that profession for a long time to come. Director Richard Attenborough cast Anthony Hopkins as magician/ventriloquist Charles "Corky" Withers who performs with his aggressive and often perverse dummy, Fats. As his act takes off, the film reveals how Corky uses Fats as the projection of his pure ID. Together, they manipulate, murder and abuse until Corky’s last sliver of conscience provokes him to end the monster within and on the end of his arm. It’s an incredibly effective use of puppetry to explore psychosis that’s personified by one of the most disturbing dummies in puppet history. Fats is meant to look just enough like Hopkins to blur the lines between them even further every time they share the screen together.
ZUNI DOLL (TRILOGY OF TERROR)
Trilogy of Terror is a 1975 horror anthology, TV movie starring Karen Black that haunts us to this day. While the movie may be decades out of the mainstream horror consciousness, anyone who has seen its closing story, “Amelia,” penned by the legendary Richard Matheson (I Am Legend), with no doubt remembers it viscerally to this day. Maybe one of the greatest examples of how effective puppetry can be used to terrify in such a short period of time, the Zuni doll/puppet is a visual masterpiece, accompanied by potent sound design and clever framing. When the aboriginal warrior hunting fetish doll, of course, comes alive in Amelia’s small apartment, the story devolves into a game of cat and mouse where the tiny puppet entirely maintains the upper hand until the thrilling end.
What should be comical, isn’t because director Dan Curtis gives the whole piece an relentlessly frantic quality using every tension-inducing technique at his disposal to sell the threat of the puppet. Black also adds to that in the action scenes, and sets the stage for her culpability through her casual colonialism attitude that casts her as the victim. Short, brutal, and memorable, once you’ve seen the Zuni doll, your ankles will never feel safe again.