Director/Screenplay – Michael Winnick, Producer – Bob Crowe, Photography – Jonathan Hale, Music – Ross Nykiforuk, Visual Effects Supervisor – Tracy Westgard, Visual Effects – Media Group, Special Effects Supervisor – Mark Fenlason, Production Design – Kristen Ridgway. Production Company – Angel Entertainment.
Jolene Blalock (Kate Adams), James Marsters (Jack), Tony Todd (Steve Elias), Marc Winnick (Charlie Riley), Diahnna Nicole Baxter (Stacy Gibson), Natasha Alam (Amber McCormik), Richard Whiten (Dave Briggs), Jennie Ford (Melissa Tucker)
A group of people wake up in a facility with no memory of who they are. Their cell doors open and they search the facility trying to find a way out. At the same time, creatures appear out of the shadows and slaughter members of the group. In trying to understand what has happened to them and who they are, they realise that have been subject to a psychological experiment designed to wipe memory patterns in disturbed patients. However, this has gone wrong and unleashed creatures made up of pure spirit.
Shadow Puppets was the second directing/writing effort from Michael Winnick. Winnick had previously made the doppelganger film Deuces/The Duplicate (2001), which was not widely seen, and went onto the gonzo Guns, Girls and Gambling (2012), The Better Half (2015) about a woman who becomes two personalities and the pregnancy horror film Malicious (2018), as well as the Steven Seagal action film Code of Honor (2016). From these, you gather that Winnick’s recurring interest is themes of identity.
The title Shadow Puppets has no meaning in the film – while there are creatures that lurk in the shadow, ‘shadow puppets’ makes you think as though you are in for some type of alien body snatchers film. Rather the film has been construed as a conceptual puzzlebox film. This is a genre that has taken off in the preceding decade with in particular Cube (1997) and other works such as Dark City (1998), The Truman Show (1998), Exam (2009), Moon (2009), The Human Race (2013), The Maze Runner (2014) and The Signal (2014), while the hugely successful Saw (2004) did similar things for the horror genre and produced a number of imitators.
In these films, protagonists wake up in some strange prison or labyrinth with no clue as to how they got there where they are forced to undergo a strange/torturous game, often up against death traps, in order to solve the puzzle and make their way out. This often requires a radical breakthrough in understanding about the nature of the world they are in in order to escape. The other influence on the film is of the tv series Lost (2004-10), which was in its fourth season and at the height of its fervid popularity when Shadow Puppets came out. From this, Michael Winnick has clearly borrowed the creature(s) made of smoke and shadow billowing about and attacking people.
Shadow Puppets clearly wants to be a puzzlebox film – it often seems to be imitating the basic set-up of Cube featuring people with their memories wiped forced to survive in a labyrinth as they try to work out who they are, where they are and how to escape. This seems potentially promising but Shadow Puppets is operating on a low-budget. It quickly becomes apparent that the alienness of the mysterious labyrinth is just an ordinary set of corridors, laboratories, swimming pools and locker rooms in some building. Admittedly, given the eventual explanation for what is going on, this makes sense but the very mundanity of the venue crucially fails to create much in the way of mysteriousness.
Michael Winnick’s failing is also that he never creates much conceptual mystery. Mostly the film wanders around the building with the various characters asking why they are there, who they are, can they get out and can they trust this person. Unfortunately, Shadow Puppets never arrives at any particularly interesting answers. Towards the end, the film starts to twist our assumptions with the revelation that one of the party is not who they seem but the script needed more of this throughout.
The eventual explanation involving [PLOT SPOILERS] memory wipe as a psychiatric tool and some doubletalk that explains how erasing the memory of someone whose mind has already been wiped and pushing beyond delves into the soul and somehow lets loose the shadow creatures seems in need of far better rationalisations than it is given.
You also feel like the casting choices are intended to be a fanboy’s dream come true. There is Jolene Blalock, better known as every fanboy’s sexiest Vulcan from Enterprise (2001-5), who plays the central character even though she has not taken top billing for some reason. There is also James Marsters who gained a good deal of female attention as the vampire Spike on tv’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2002), as well as Tony Todd who played the Candyman and has made appearances in a great many genre films and tv series. For added fanboy bonus (and no doubt intended to cater to such), the film keeps Blalock (and Marsters if one’s taste runs that way) in her underwear for a good portion of the film.