An instantly terrifying thing about Brandon Christensen‘s new film The Puppetman is that it feels mere weeks ago that we covered his previous effort, the excellent Superhost. It’s somehow been two years. Scary. Following Still/Born in 2017 and Z in 2019, Christensen is nothing if not regular, and this flawed but entertaining possession chiller continues to be one of the more intriguing voices in the current low-budget horror community.

Michal (Alyson Gorske) has grown up in care since the age of eight, after her father locked her in a cupboard and murdered her mother. Her father claimed to have had no control over his actions, which has earned him the nickname, the ‘Puppetman’. Over a decade later Michal is attending college and claims to have hardly any memory of the traumatic event, while her father rots on death row. But as the date of her father’s execution draws near, Michal’s roommate Charlie (Angel Prater) has been recording Michal sleepwalking, self-harming, and daubing a mysterious symbol in her own blood. When her friends begin to die, Michal begins to suspect her father might have been telling the truth.

Drawing heavily on the Final Destination series for inspiration, Christensen’s most expansive film in terms of location and scope is perhaps his least imaginative in its storytelling. It quickly becomes clear that some supernatural, unseen force is at work, and while it may not be death or fate itself as in the long-running series of metaphysical slashers, the unfortunate victims are similarly powerless to prevent their demise. Still, it’s far more ambitious than a certain far more heavily hyped possession-based movie that’s just been released, stretching its budget in terms of its effects.

Said effects are in the service of some very effective kills. Christensen sells the savagery right away in its depiction of the ‘Puppetman’ murder, and establishes he knows his way around a tense, well-orchestrated set piece. The most memorable of these is a neatly intercut bout of double carnage, with the terrible inevitability ramped up and maintained over both its cross-crossing situations. The lonely death that occurs in an off-season campus library is particularly intense.

The other huge positive for The Puppetman is the lead performance from Alyson Gorske. She’s so dialled into the haunted, vulnerable Michal that when the plot thickens, her abrupt switch to an angel of vengeance is genuinely unsettling, like a timid dog suddenly leaping for the jugular. She’s easily the main reason to keep engaged with the more generic Ring-style investigative elements and some shadowy, Hereditary-lite mythology that seems slightly unsure of its own lore and rules.

While it borrows perhaps a little too heavily from established sources and never quite fulfils the promise of an impressive first act, it still barrels through a brisk runtime punctuated by those memorable death scenes. Its small budget is evident, but it’s hard to criticise Christensen for attempting to depict a world a little larger than in the self-contained environments of his earlier works. And although the theme of trauma is central, this decade’s premier horror trope is dealt with far les bluntly than in so many other movies that dance around the A24-liveried maypole. The Puppetman is less successful in what it’s attempting than his earlier films overall, but there is still plenty evidence within that Brandon Christensen is a talented filmmaker, it’s simply that as his worldbuilding expanded, his grip on his narrative has slackened when it should have tightened.

Screening on Shudder from Fri 13 Oct 2023