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Born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida, Kenneth J. Hall became an avid fan of horror and fantasy as a child, regularly indulging in the movies of Roger Corman and Hammer, while also regularly reading Famous Monsters of Filmland.
He made his own entry into the film industry as a member of the special effects department of Charles Band’s independent studio Empire Pictures, working on such cult titles as Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone and Ghoulies.
During this time he took minor roles in several of the company’s projects, while also writing the screenplay for the 1986 horror The Tomb. This led to Hall’s directorial debut the following year with Evil Spawn, but it would be his work on Puppet Master, the first production from Band’s latest business venture Full Moon Entertainment.
Based on a concept from Band and directed by David Schmoeller, best known for his feature debut Tourist Trap, the movie became a popular rental and helped to launch the new company, while also laying the groundwork for the straight-to-video franchise that continues to this day.
Kenneth J. Hall discusses his work on Puppet Master and the subsequent sequels.
Prior to Puppet Master, you had made a name for yourself on a variety of popular B-movies, such as Nightmare Sisters and Evil Spawn. How did you first enter the world of filmmaking and what were your main influences?
From the time I was very young, I loved movies and genre films were my favourites. Some of my earliest memories are scenes from Brides of Dracula, Mothra, Pit and the Pendulum, Curse of the Werewolf and Gorgo. In the late sixties, I discovered the Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, which led to my desire to work on, if not make, these kinds of movies. Like many others of that generation, I made some shorts on Super 8 but my ambitions often exceeded my available resources. Hitchcock and Welles were interviewed a lot on PBS in those days. Listening to guys like that talk about filmmaking was better than any film school around today. Of course, I like independents as much as the classics, so Roger Corman, Russ Meyer and John Waters were also big influences.
How did your work as a special effects artist lead to you becoming a screenwriter and what part did Charles Band play in this?
In the late seventies, my brother, some friends and I met Rick Baker at convention. He’d already done King Kong and Star Wars, but had not attained the recognition he has today. He was very approachable and encouraged us all to pursue makeup and monster-making. I came out to Hollywood in 1982, along with a couple of friends from my home town. I broke into makeup effects right away, getting hired by Tom Burman to work on Spacehunter in 3D.
I continued to work in that field for years but was simultaneously trying to find a way to break into writing, directing and producing. I made a monster suit for Fred Ray’s son to wear in Biohazard, because I wanted to learn how to make low budget films. All I really learned from that is you can make something really cheap if you have no standard of quality and can talk people into working for free. Evil Spawn was my first directing assignment for Fred, after I had written The Tomb for him. I know it was my effects background that got me that because I was working for John Buechler then and had access to crew and materials. David DeCoteau liked my writing and brought me into Empire Pictures.
Did the concept for Puppet Master come from any fear you have of dolls and how did the story first originate?
I am not personally afraid of dolls but I’ve seen a few creepy puppets and ventriloquist dummies in my day. However, the project originated with Charlie, who has a thing for little creatures. He keeps making movies with similar concepts over and over – Ghoulies, Dolls, Troll. He’s still making them today!
Did the popularity of Child’s Play, Killer Klowns from Outer Space or Stuart Gordon’s Dolls play a part in your decision to write this kind of story?
Like I said, it was Charlie’s idea initially and to make it differ from everything else he’d done before. I certainly saw the potential of those other films you mentioned, along with Gremlins, Magic and others. I have a couple of little creature concepts of my own that I will develop someday. But in this case, I truly believe Charlie was busy drawing from his own well rather than being inspired by others.
While many people are scared by puppets, were you not concerned that on screen this story could look ridiculous and be nothing more than a farce?
I was skeptical that Charlie had the resources to pull it off properly. His ace in the hole was David Allen, an immensely talented stop motion animator who, sadly, is no longer with us. Even so, I never believed there was the budget to animate all the puppet action, which Charlie said was the plan. In the end, most of the shots were done with cable-controlled puppets with only certain key shots achieved through stop motion. Another cost-saving measure was to reduce the number of puppets from what was in my first draft. Six-Shooter and Cyclops were cut and saved for the sequels.
Did you intend for the film to feature comedic elements or was your initial intention to produce something that was serious horror?
No matter what type of creature you write into a script, there are some people who will find them terrifying and others who think they’re funny. I think The Creature from the Black Lagoon is one of the greatest monsters ever designed but I’ve met people who laugh every time they see him.
How did you feel about your script being rewritten by David Schmoeller and how much did his version of the story differ from your original vision?
I had been rewritten before on other projects. It is something you come to accept as a screenwriter, though you always tend to prefer your own take. Everything with Toulon, the puppets, the hotel, the dead man and his surviving girlfriend were the same as mine. The main difference was the people going there were not scientists but a coven of contemporary witches investigating the death of their missing friend. They were much more outrageous and flamboyant than how they wound up.
Irene’s character was closest to what I had in mind. One thing I found funny was Charlie specifically requested a bondage scene in the script. I wrote it for a pair of leather-clad, motorcycle-riding punk witches. I thought it was pretty silly when it turned into a pair of parapsychologists tying each other to a bed in the middle of an investigation.
With your background in special effects, were you involved in the creation or operation of the puppets with David Allen?
No. I was onto other things by then. David Allen and his team are the ones responsible. In the end, I think he deserves the credit for not only pulling off the effects but the success of the entire series. If it wasn’t for his charming-but-creepy designs and his exquisite realisation of them, the first movie would have failed and there wouldn’t have been all the sequels.
The film’s effects incorporate the use of puppets, stop motion and prosthetics. How would you say these compare to modern-day digital effects?
Looking back on what was done on these films, it seems somewhat limited compared to what is possible today with CGI. Still, I think practical effects, even stop motion, are more organic. The fewer real elements you have on the screen, the more sterile and uninvolving the result is to me. That’s why I have no interest the recent Star Wars films or even Avatar
.Puppet Master was Charles Band’s first movie with his newly formed Full Moon Entertainment, following the collapse of Empire Pictures. How would you say the film compared to his previous output and was Full Moon basically a continuation of what he had set out to do with Empire?
At Empire, Charlie always seemed focused on financing, deals and sales. He left creative matters to his father, his wife and others, which is why I think a lot of those films turned out better. Many of those movies got theatrical releases, including Re-Animator. Once he started Full Moon, he got more involved, to the detriment of the product. He wanted to be recognised as Mr. Full Moon, which is why I think I was the last writer to get a story credit with him.
He would come up with a concept that, at most, could be told in a couple of sentences and he would paste on ‘Story by Charles Band.’ One thing he did manage in starting Full Moon was creating a very recognisable brand. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you couldn’t mistake one of his movies for someone else’s.
Although you co-wrote the original script and David Schmoeller directed the movie, it is Charles Band who is most associated with the movie and has continued to produce sequels for the last twenty years. How do you feel about this?
Like I said, he wanted to take as much credit as he could and share it with no one. I don’t think any other writer wrote more than one of the sequels and DeCoteau is the only director that was brought back. It may have been because I got the Writers Guild on his case for errors and omissions in the credits, not to mention unpaid sequel payments. He was not happy that I did that and the upshot was he always had to write me a cheque.
Little was revealed in the movie about the origin of the ‘puppet master,’ Andre Toulon. Did you write an extensive back story for the character that was not included in the script and what are your thoughts on how he was portrayed in Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge?
I believe I had a little bit of discovery as to how Toulon gave life to the puppets in my draft. I don’t recall the details because it’s been years since I last read it. Beyond that, I kept his past a mystery but the fact that he was being sought by the Third Reich made you know he had powers others wanted. I liked Part III. In fact, I enjoy it more than the original. I am friends with both Dave DeCoteau, who directed it, and Courtney Joyner, who wrote a really fun script. I visited the set several times during filming, which included exteriors on the Universal backlot.Were you ever offered the chance to either write or direct a Puppet Master sequel and what kind of influence would you have had on the franchise?
Charlie always used to entice people to work for him with the promise of directing. I had become his wife’s favourite writer at Empire in the later days. I was supposed to write and direct several projects there before the bottom fell out. When I got the call to write Puppet Master, I thought there was a distinct possibility of my directing it. Afterward, the relationship between Charlie and I remained strained for many years. These days, his budgets are so low I couldn’t consider directing one of his films.
Of all the sequels, which do you feel is closer in tone to what you intended the first movie to be and are you proud of you association with the series?
Honestly, I haven’t seen a lot of them. The third one is my favourite, as I said. I am definitely proud to be associated with the series because it’s cool to have fans of something I helped start. It’s also nice to have a credit that almost everyone has heard of, even if they’ve never actually seen it.