By Owen Gleiberman
Updated November 04, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

Is it my imagination, or do the actors in mediocre sci-fi horror films not even bother to look frightened anymore? In ROBERT A. HEINLEIN’S THE PUPPET MASTERS (Hollywood, R), a team of high-level government operatives led by fusty Donald Sutherland corner a humanoid zombie and shoot him dead. It turns out he has been been inhabited by an alien parasite, a smallish, tentacled incubus — it looks like a manta ray made of mucous membrane — that now proceeds to dart around the room. Instead of screaming or ducking under chairs, our heroes simply stand back and observe the beastie, until one of them matter-of-factly traps it in a metal briefcase. End of scene. (Imagine locking the creature from Alien in a briefcase.) I got the feeling the characters could remain calm because, like the audience, they’d already seen all the movies The Puppet Masters rips off.

Based on a Heinlein story published in 1951, The Puppet Masters is Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets Alien meets They Came From Within meets John Carpenter’s 1982 version of The Thing. But how can you care about people turning into zombies when the characters are ciphers to begin with? The one actor who registers here is Sutherland. He looks great with his silver hair and walking stick, and he brings just the right hammy understatement to such howlers as ”The presence of the thing … satisfies some need or other.” The Puppet Masters does have some creepy-crawly special effects — I especially liked the creatures wiggling out the backs of people’s shirt collars. The climax, on the other hand, is a hoot: We’re inside the alien hive, and it looks like the world’s squishiest Art Nouveau dance club. C+