"Making a puppet film is enough of a challenge, but making them scary—like, actually, scary—that's really difficult to do," says Katie McClenahan, the organizer behind Portland's inaugural Scary Puppet Film Night. "In American culture, people look at a puppet and go 'Awww, cute' or 'Omigod! How funny.' Puppetry is not necessarily seen as an adult art form that could move you—make you cry, make you laugh."
Or, evidently, make you scream.
Helped along by the small armies of artisans and sculptors enlisted by stop-motion animation studios like Laika, a burgeoning interest in puppetry has fueled regular salons hosted by the PDX Puppet Collective, as well as "puppet slam" performances promoted by McClenahan's event company, Beady Little Eyes.
McClenahan first conceived of this Saturday's Scary Puppet Film Night after she was contacted by puppeteer Devon Hawkes Ludlow about arranging the Portland premiere of his zombie musical short, "The Love That Would Not Die." Legendary Hollywood creature creator and recent Portland transplant Chris Walas—he designed the Gremlins, melted Nazi faces on Raiders of the Lost Ark and won an Academy Award for The Fly—will appear to answer questions and show a trailer for The Inheritance, a full-length film he's currently shooting with daughter Zena. Rounding out the evening, Jesse Blanchard will screen his short film Shine and debut the first 15 minutes of his own upcoming zombie feature, Frank & Zed.
The particular style of Blanchard's films—think an especially Dark Crystal or Fraggle Post-Rock—owes much to a set of self-imposed rules binding the genre his sculptor dubbed "puppetcore." "One," Blanchard explains, "it's not a joke that they're puppets. We're trying to do real action, and we're trying to scare people. Also, no CGI. My films have only practical effects. The outsides are made of felt, but everything else we try to do as real as possible."
"You're trying to scare people, which is a whole other world of suspense that you're trying to build while keeping people engaged," says Blanchard. "Just having this not look completely fake is really hard. There's an incredible level of complexity just trying to make a lump of cloth come alive."
Or, evidently, stay dead.