Puppet Master has always been an FX heavy franchise. So much of the success of the early movies lay in David Allen’s stunning stop motion work. Over time, as budgets dwindled, it became a matter of doing the best that one could with limited time and limited resources. While that’s true of all independent movies, especially horror, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is an FX showcase the likes of which has really never been seen in this franchise before. The movie is entirely its own beast, and what it sets out to do is completely different from any Puppet Master before it, on every conceivable level. Tate Steinsiek is the man who pulled this off. With the jaw-dropping amount of gore and insane number of puppets seen in the movie, he definitely had his work cut out for him.
We caught up with Steinsiek (@illwilledFX) to talk about not only the challenges—as well as the excitement—of bringing this new incarnation of Puppet Master to life, but also the inspirations behind some of the new puppets, differentiating these versions from the original, and the next Cinestate Full Moon reboot, Castle Freak, which Steinsiek is slated to direct.
Wicked Horror: How did you initially approach redesigning the classic Puppet Master characters?
Tate Steinsiek: Oh, man. You know, I sort of tapped into my inner childhood fan, sitting in front of a tiny television watching the VHS tape. I’ve always been an artist, even as a kid I was driven by art. So I remember even as a kid watching the movie and thinking of things that I would do different. I remember turning my action figures into Puppet Master action figures and changing different things and body parts and weapons. I kind of just tried to tap into that old me and said “If I was watching this as a kid, how would I feel?” You know, let me alter some of these things and deliver it to a new youth… although I’m not sure I would suggest showing this film to anyone under eighteen.
But I would have been so pleased as a kid to find this film hiding on a video store shelf.
WH: There are also several different versions of the classic puppets seen throughout the movie. Was it a challenge to come up with not just one but several redesigns for some of these characters?
Tate Steinsiek: You know, it was actually pretty fun because it made a lot more sense to me. If you think of somebody who is a life trade puppet maker, he would have made hundreds of these things. Not just an ensemble seven. That was something that made a lot of sense to me from the beginning and that was something that Zahler injected into the script itself. There were a number of Blades, there were a number of Tunnelers, and I love that. You start getting into that action figure sort of feeling.
Tate Steinsiek: And I feel like that’s very appropriate. These are toys, they’re old toys, so I definitely embraced that concept. And there was a lot more I wanted to do as well. Obviously, time and cost and all of these factors, but I have a feeling that the Puppet Master at least on the Cinestate side is just going to continue to grow.
WH: What was your approach to coming up with some of the brand new puppets?
Tate Steinsiek: Well, I kind of wanted to… especially with Autogyro, who is probably my favorite, I love that guy, I love his look, I love his brutality and for him, you know, when you go back and look at a bunch of old Amazing Stories covers and sci-fi from the ‘40s and ‘50s, what they thought robots would look like. And that’s where I wanted to go. I wanted to go with what the conceptual mind of Andre Toulon might think of as futuristic. That was the birth of things like Mechanikar and Autogyro and all of the more robotic aspects. As for just the influences of the puppets themselves, I wanted them to feel carved. I wanted them to feel organic.
You know, a lot of the puppets in the other series, the original series, sometimes they’ll feel soft and that was one of the things I remembered as a kid. I would watch it and I didn’t think wood would bend like that. I tried to think practically. Which is actually why we did a lot of the puppet making in 3D sculpture and printing, because we wanted to keep the puppets rigid. They are rigid. They’re made of wood, they’re made of metal. I think that reflected well. They definitely feel like puppets.
WH: The movie also calls for a ton of gore, which you deliver in spades. How difficult was that element of it?
Tate Steinsiek: Man, in this film, usually gore is not so hard for me anymore, I could cut a throat in my sleep, but in this one we’re challenging gravity, we’re challenging physics. There’s things in here where I was like “We’re gonna have to get lucky” because there are only so many times of trying that you can make something like that happen. You know, without giving too many spoilers, the gypsy scene with Autogyro. Like, there were so many moving parts in that shot.
You had to have luck on your side. How do you get the flying body parts to get from A to B? And then roll over to C or D for Z? It had to be perfect and luckily we nailed it on the first take? I looked to my guys and I was like, “Never in a million years if someone put a gun to our heads could we pull that off like that again.” And that’s just kind of the production that Puppet Master was. It was a blessed production with the right people at the right time to create what I think is one of the goriest films I’ve ever seen.
WH: Speaking as a fan, I always thought that the most elevated, best two movies that Full Moon ever did were Puppet Master III and Castle Freak. You’ve just done Puppet Master , you’re now directing Castle Freak. What excited you about taking on that project?
Tate Steinsiek: Everything. Castle Freak was the one movie of the Full Moon library where you felt like you stumbled into something wrong. It didn’t feel like the rest of their films. There was sort of a harmless nature about Full Moon because they sort of lived in this world of fantasy, you were an outside witness to something but then Castle Freak came along and made you feel like you’d discovered this snuff film. Suddenly, you didn’t feel safe anymore. First off, my parents didn’t let me watch horror films. So I was already pushing the envelope sneaking films like Puppet Master out of my local video store.
When I got home with Castle Freak, as an eight or ten year old kid, and I see him munching on the vagina of the prostitute and biting her nipple off, it absolutely sent me spiraling into a world of terror and confusion and intrigue. I’m like “What are all these feelings I’m feeling right now?” Castle Freak was probably the first true nightmarish film I ever saw. It was that step beyond a safe horror movie for a kid. Castle Freak is not safe, and that feeling is what is so special about this film to me. That feeling is what I want to give to a new generation. I want to terrify.
I want people to watch this movie with their hands in front of their face, but one finger split so they can still see what’s going on. Because that’s what it did to me. Plus I get the option to play with Stuart Gordon and H.P. Lovecraft, two of the greatest things in the world? I’m just blessed. And I’m lucky to have met Cinestate and we’re all lucky that there’s a production company like them that only wants to make the things you loved when you were a kid. That’s all they want to do.
They want to make you feel that feeling that we’ve all lost in this modern horror society. They want to give it back to us and that’s why, if I have something to say about it, I’ll only work with them forever.
WH: The Puppet Master sequel, Aryans Ahoy, seems to be moving full steam ahead as well. Any idea when that will start?
Tate Steinsiek: Oh, man, it can’t start soon enough. I mean, seriously, puppets on a cruise ship? That’s just too much. I don’t know that my inner fanboy can handle it. But right now we’ve got Satanic Panic coming up, from Fangoria Films and director Chelsea Stardust and I’m already in prep for that, we’re rolling into that later this year. And then we’re rolling right into Castle Freak after that, and then we have a number of options after that.
We have a few films that we’re tossing around and we’ll see which one lands, but I guarantee you Aryans Ahoy is going to happen. If the world thinks that they were grossed out, pissed off and disgusted by this one, they have no idea what’s coming