‘Puppet Man’ comes to terrorize Sundance

Jeff Dempsey, The Park Record
"Puppet Man" is one of this year's Midnight Shorts, and features the music of John Carpenter. And a cameo appearance, too. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

New at this year’s Sundance Film Festival is the Midnight Shorts category, a selection of eight horror stories that make up a 90-minute screening. Included in the category are shocking films like "The Procedure," about a man who is forced to endure a strange experiment, as well as comedic horror like "The Chickening," about things going amiss at a fast-food entertainment complex.

Brooklyn filmmaker Jacqueline Castel’s entry, "The Puppet Man," was the brainchild of an eccentric friend, Johnny Scuotto.

"He is the Puppet Man," Castel said. "He is a born-and-raised New Yorker, and he wanders around in these crazy jumpsuits that said "The Puppet Man" on the back of them. He had shaved his head, shaved his eyebrows, and wore white pancake makeup. He was super skinny and tall, almost had this sort of Bowie vibe to him."

One night, Castel asked him the story behind this character he was playing.

"He said it was an alter ego he created when he was a kid because his cousin had created this weird, papier-mâché puppet character, and then it was left at Johnny’s house and his dad would use it to scare him when he was being bad," she said. "So he created this whole persona of the Puppet Man and then later he decided he would take it on as a character that he fleshed out. He started telling me about it and I thought, I really want to put you in something or do something surrounding this."

The film is about a group of twenty-somethings who wander into a strange bar and find themselves locked in.

"Everything goes haywire from there," Castel said. "Oh, and Johnny plays the Puppet Man."

When the idea was still coming together, Castel got a call from another friend in the New York music scene, Caleb Braaten of Sacred Bones Records. He said he was working with horror icon John Carpenter on an album and asked Castel if she would be interested in working with him.

"We sent John our script and he liked it," she said. "And I was like, ‘Oh my god.’"

Carpenter’s music was used for the film, but in order for him to cameo in the movie they had to shoot with him only three days later, and in Los Angeles.

"With everything being so tight, I didn’t have time to properly location-scout," she said. "I didn’t have permits. None of this was set up. I’m having John Carpenter show up to set and we have no permission to be where we are."

The L.A. shoot went well, Castel said, and Carpenter was great to work with. The rest of the film was shot in New York during the winter, though, and she said it was hard on everyone.

"We were shooting in a bar that was no longer functional. It had no heat and no power," she said. "So we were running power from a different part of the building, we were all freezing and it was a really tight schedule because we’re on a micro-budget on this. It was very intense on that level but we had an amazing cast and crew who were super dedicated."

Castel said she believes it ultimately helped the final product.

"It kind of ramped up the intensity in an interesting way, and I was thinking about that in the context of films like ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.’ Part of the craziness of those films like that one and those performances were driven by the circumstances under which the film was shot."

Castel said when she got the word that "The Puppet Man" had been selected for Sundance around Thanksgiving, the film was not complete.

"We weren’t entirely wrapped on all our posts," she said. "So it’s been a crazy few weeks."

The Festival will be something of a homecoming for Castel, who said she attended often as a teenager.

"We had friends of the family who lived in Park City and volunteered at the Festival," she said. "I grew up in Reno, and I would skip school every year and stay at their house and get their free passes and just go and watch movies. Just sit in all the lines, this weird, awkward teenager. It’s going to be really cool to go back to the Festival on the other side of it.

"I’m really excited to be there and see some movies again. Sundance carries a lot of nostalgia for me."

Sundance will screen "The Puppet Man" as part of the Midnight Shorts at the Prospector Square Theatre at 11:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 22; at the Broadway Centre Cinema 6 at 6 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 23; at the Prospector Square Theatre at 11:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 25; and at the Holiday Village Cinema 4 at 1 p.m. Friday, Jan. 29.For more information and tickets visit


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