The Series Project: Puppet Master
Film article by: Witney Seibold
Charles Band, the head honcho of Full Moon Entertainment – that once-ubiquitous straight-to-video entity that reigned supreme during the VHS era, and still has considerable cultural clout in my own fevered brain – I suspect, used to have childhood nightmares about toys, dolls, or other diminutive monsters. How else to explain his habit of producing, or otherwise being involved in the production of, literally dozens of horror films featuring toys, dolls and other wicked homunculi? Amongst his repertoire are such classics as “Dolls,” “Blood Dolls,” “Dollman,” “Demonic Toys,” “Dollman vs. Demonic Toys,” “Shrunken Heads,” the first two “Ghoulies” movies, “Hideous!” (about miniature mutant blobs in jars) and “The Creeps,” (which features dwarf versions of the classic Universal monsters).
A slight aside: Looking over Charles Band’s filmography on the Internet Movie Database proves that Band is largely responsible for most of the wonderful, trashy genre films I saw growing up. He also did “TerrorVision,” “Zone Troopers,” the MST3K classic “Laserblast,” Clive Barker’s first feature “Rawhead Rex,” “Troll,” “Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama,” the sublime “Arena,” Stuart Gordon’s “Robot Jox,” and “From Beyond,” and the sci-fi skin flick “Femalien.” I think he shaped the taste of many a teenager in the 1980s and 1990s.
Most famously (at least for the purposes of this essay), Band is the mastermind behind the nine “Puppet Master” films.
The “Puppet Master” movies started up in 1989, and became, after a fashion, the mascot films of Full Moon Entertainment, as they are certainly the studio’s most popular. “Puppet Master” has enjoyed the longest-running series of films, the highest number of films, and the highest grosses of any of Full Moon’s catalogue.
In order to get into the heads of these films, I have staunchly sat and watched all nine of the films made to date, including that horrible one made for the Sci-fi Channel (which may not actually be canonical, but more on that later). I know that I said in my introduction to The Series Project (
) that straight-to-video series were out, and I even listed “Puppet Master” by name. But I have reconsidered on this matter (an arduous process at best), and feel that these under-lauded and under-reviewed oddities deserve a look.
Without further ado, here is a rundown on “Puppet Master.” The chronology may be weird, as the films take place out-of-order, and a lot of the premises are altered in slight ways along the way, but I’ll do my best here:
Sometime in the early 20th century, a puppeteer named Andre Toulon used the magic spell of an ancient Egyptian god to bring life to his troupe of puppet performers. The puppets require a magical elixir to live, and do not speak. They do seem to have a sense of individual identity, though, and even a touch of free will. They are usually, however, evil little creatures, and enact the evil will of whoever happens to be controlling them.
During World War II, on the run from the Nazis, Toulon committed suicide, and left his puppets hidden in the Bodega Bay hotel which is, I believe, somewhere on the East Coast. The puppets are found (by various visitors throughout the films) and begin to wreak havoc, which is where we find ourselves at the outset of the first film.
The first film was intended to be a theatrical release but was, for reasons I have not been able to discover, relegated instead to home video. After that, every sequel went straight to video.
Each of the films seems to introduce a new puppet.
With a story by Band and Kenneth J. Hall, and written and directed by David Schmoeller, “Puppetmaster” is actually a sour and alienating film, and I’m kind of surprised that it managed to spawn a single sequel, much less eight.
We open in 1939, with Andre Toulon (William Hickey, one of the only recognizable actors we’ll see in the series) hiding his box of puppets in the wall of his hotel. He talks to them tenderly. Some mysterious black-clad goons arrive at his hotel room door, clearly with sinister intentions. Toulon shoots himself through the head just as the goons burst in. The puppets are safely hidden…
The puppets, while intended as threatening, are actually expressive and kind of cute; I felt more sympathy for – and interest in – the puppets than I did any of the human characters. The puppets we meet in the first film all have names, and will pop up later in the film series.
They are: Blade: A white-faced, long haired little fella in a black coat and hat. He has a knife and a hook where his hands ought to be. Tunneler: A kid in a soldier’s outfit and a drill bit on top of his head. Pinhead (not to be confused with the Pinhead of the “Hellraiser” movies): A small-headed lunk with human-sized hands. Leech Woman: A pink-skinned, dark-haired lady in a nightgown who can cough up leeches. And Jester: a creepy clown doll with a segmented face that spins and rotates in a creepy fashion. The Jester puppet doesn’t do a whole lot in terms of mayhem, but strikes me as the puppets’ leader.
The puppets don’t speak, but kind of wheeze, pant or mutter. They listen to and understand human speech, but don’t express themselves in any way other than their actions. It’s tempting to say that they have a lot on their minds, which is, I think, a compliment to the stellar puppeteers who operated the little guys on the films’ sets. The puppets, in all the films, are strictly done with either real puppets or using stop-motion animation. This is before the advent of CGI ubiquity, so no cartoon monsters here. To this day, I prefer low-fi rubber beasties to animated ones, so seeing the shabby techincals of “Puppetmaster” is refreshing and entertaining.
The first film, however, isn’t all that entertaining. Back to it.
Flash forward to 1989. A psychic named Neil Gallagher (Jimmie F. Skaggs) has died at the Bodega Bay hotel. The hotel was closed years before and Gallagher went there with his wife Megan (Robin Frates) for reasons made clear later. Gallagher’s death incites the telepathic interest of his other psychic friends, who gather at the hotel to investigate his death. These are real psychics, by the way, and not one of them is a charlatan. Why, they logically ask, wouldn’t a true psychic be able to foresee his own death and prevent it?
Amongst the friends are: Alex (Paul Le Mat from “Melvin and Howard”), the sensitive one who seems to take the entire affair too seriously. There is Dana (Irene Miracle) a sassy southern belle who carries around a freeze-dried dog (I’m not making that up). There is the horny, horny couple of Frank and Clarissa (Matt Roe and Kathryn O’Reilly), whose psychic powers seem to be centered on sexual matters; he can read sexual fantasies, and she can intuit the sexual history of objects; she can lay on a bed and sense who had sex there before. This doesn’t strike me as a particularly useful psychic power to have, but, man it sounds like fun. Since these two are the horniest, these are the only ones we’ll see nude, and they’ll be killed. Also lurking about the hotel is Gallagher’s maid Theresa, played by Merrya Small.
Megan shows everyone Gallagher’s corpse (which is still at the hotel), and thy all bicker as to what they’re doing there and what a jerk Gallagher was. All the characters snipe at one another, and have conversations that consist of nothing but put-downs and insults. Alex is the only one who is the least bit sympathetic, as he is broody rather than bitchy. I also gotta say that I liked Dana, as she was the right blend of frank and freaky. She also defended herself well, but more on that in a sec. There’s a bizarre scene where the characters have dinner in the abandoned hotel in a grand ballroom.
Our characters slink about the hotel, and the living puppets begin to show their faces. Theresa is burned alive in a fire, and it was a shame to see her go, as she had nothing bad to say. Clarissa (who wears a see-through nighty in that provocative moment of ‘80s horror nudity gratuity) is killed while having sex with the blindfolded Frank. The Leech Woman coughs leeches onto Frank’s chest, and he thinks it’s a new sexual game before he is killed. Pinhead pounds someone’s face in. Blade cuts up a lady’s face. Dana is chased by several puppets, and manages to flee a long way, fighting tooth-and-nail before she gets killed; she’s the only one who thinks to grab the puppets (who are, after all, small and lightweight), and fling them away across the room.
Alex has a dream vision (it lasts about three or four full minutes) that Gallagher is still alive, and waiting for him in an upstairs ballroom. After the vision, he relives it in real life. This is a bizarre sequence, as we see all four minutes of it twice, without comment on how it’s been repeated.
It turns out that Gallagher, before he died, and seeking to discover Andre Toulon’s secret of making dead things live, made his way to the Bodega Bay hotel, killed himself, and somehow resurrected himself. He lured his psychic friends there with carefully placed psychic messages. He now wishes to… uh… I forgot his master plan, or why he wanted his psychic friends at the hotel. It’s only clear no that he is the new Puppet Master, and likes having the little dolls at his beck and call. It’s never made clear how he was able to go about the magic resurrection spell (or whatever it was) after he died. But whatever, he’s the villain now, and there must be a showdown. Alex manages to out-psychic him (?), and the reamining human characters flee. The puppets, perhaps sensing that their master is a dickhead, turn on him and cut him to ribbons. The puppets are left to stalk the hotel.
This is a confusing film with a backward setup and too much unnecessary detail. Why are the characters even psychic? Surely living puppets is enough, right? And, if the characters are all sensitives why are they all so, well, insensitive? Almost each of the characters is a jerky yuppie asshole who can only have bitter, toxic conversations with peers. The only death that really was shocking was that of Dana, and that’s because she bothered to fight back.
There’s an odd epilogue too, which sets up for a sequel.
Based on this film alone, I wouldn’t want any more sequels. The puppets are fun, and even scary at times, but the story was awful.
Luckily, when the first sequel did come around, it turned out to be the best film of the series, and perhaps even a legitimately strong genre film.
Puppet Master II (1991)
Directed by special effects man Dave Allen, and written by Band and David Pabian.
I must admit, I love “Puppet Master II.” The puppets have better effects, the story is better, and the film entire tilts into a delightfully delirious place that few horror films manage to approach. What’s more, thanks to some pleasingly old-fashioned designs, acting and story conceits, “Puppet Master II” feels a lot like a classic Universal monster flick. I would recommend this film to any genre fan.
So “Puppet Master II” seems to take place after “Puppetmaster,” as a group of psychic investigators have returned to the Bodega Bay hotel to find out what happened in the first movie. Seeing as there is little reference to the characters or events in the first film, and that it wasn’t until part II that the film series began to take off (in quality and grosses), one can easily see this as the true beginning of the series. I might even encourage you to skip the first one.
In a prologue, the puppets from the first film are seen exhuming the corpse of Andre Toulon (who now died in 1941, but whatever), and using a vial of green fluid to resurrect him…
Cut to our main story. The investigators are all pleasant, hard-working types, and far more pleasing to watch than the yuppie assholes from part I. They are Carolyn Bramwell (Elizabeth Maclellan in her final film role), Michael Kenny (Collin Bersen) who has a crush on Carolyn, Patrick (Gregory Webb) Carolyn’s brother, and Wanda (the pretty Charlie Spradling), Patrick’s girlfriend. The puppets seem to stalk about keeping a close eye on these people, and occasionally sneak outside to kill some ancillary characters who live near the hotel. The puppets seem to be collecting body parts…
Who should show up at this point, but none other than Toulon himself (played by Steve Welles), covered in bandages and wearing goggles, like Clause Rains in “The Invisible Man.” Toulon calls himself Eriquee, and claims he is the owner of the Bodega Bay hotel, and allows the investigators to stay, so long as they don’t enter his attic room.
And what’s going on in that attic room? Toulon is sending his puppets out into to the world to collect bits of human brains, and then mixing the brains into his magical green life-giving fluid. He promises his puppets more fluid and more life, and even invents a new puppet, called Torch, with a Kaiser helmet and bullets for teetch, and the ability to, well, torch people. The scenes of Toulon raving to his puppets are more than a little reminiscent of the scenes in “Bride of Frankenstein” where Dr. Pretorius rants to his own homunculi.
In one of these brain-collection missions, The Leech Woman is destroyed. There is also a truly, truly (and wonderfully) strange scene in which a little boy (until now, not seen in the movie) heads out from his parents’ woods-bound camper to play with a G.I. Joe doll in the woods. He finds a secluded spot, undresses his G.I. Joe, and begins whipping it, calling it a Nazi. This scene is more than a little boy playing. It’s a strange glimpse into the twisted psychology of an unknown character. Call me kooky, but I will say that it adds to the fabric of the movie, this bizarre, fetishistic whipping scene. That the boy is then torched to death only adds to the battiness of it all.
There is a flashback scene to 1912 Cairo, where we see Toulon first running across the spell that gave his puppets life, and it is revealed that he had a wife named Elsa (Also Maclellan) who helped him in his endeavors. He was a puppeteer for the children, and loved entertaining them.
There is a scene back in the hotel where Charlie Spradling takes her top off. And God bless her for it. Of all the gratuitous horror nudity I’ve seen, this is some of the more gratuitous.
The effects on the puppets are better in this film, and more stop-motion animation is used. I love the stop motion bits, and the puppets really do seem to live.
Eventually, Toulon’s master plan is revealed: he wishes to kill Carolyn (for she looks like Elsa) and himself, and transfer their souls into his-and-hers life-size puppet bodies. The puppet bodies are really creepy looking, and are played by real actors (Michael Todd and Julianne Mazziotti), and when they begin to move about, it’s genuinely scary. Toulon, though, begins to become a bit too ambitious for his own good, and his puppets turn on him, smashing his puppet body, and helping Carolyn to flee. These puppets, despite the brain gouging and child torching, ain’t so bad after all.
In an epilogue, the puppets use the collected brain juice to take the soul of one of their earlier victims, and shunt it into the creepy life-size puppet. They are seen driving off to a children’s hospital to “entertain” them. After all, what are puppets but entertainment for children? Bwa ha haaa…
Delirious, disturbing, and surprisingly well put-together, “Puppet Master II” is worth a good long look.
Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge (1991)
Directed by David DeCoteau, a hugely prolific genre director who has made over 70 films, and has gone by several pseudonyms in his career, including Julian Breen, Ellen Cabot, Victoria Sloan, Jack Reed, Martin Tate, and Joseph Tennant. He produced the second and third “Puppet Master” films, and directed the sixth and seventh “Puppet Master” films (as Tennant), and the upcoming tenth. He is also the mastermind behind the queer-themed warlock “The Brotherhood” series. Perhaps he’ll get an essay of his own someday.
The new puppet in part III is Six-Shooter, a six-armed American cowboy with working guns. There is yet a Leech Woman or a Blade puppet.
“Toulon’s Revenge” is the most ambitious of the “Puppet Master” films, and actually moves less like a slasher flick and more like a legit WWII drama. The budget was clearly low, and some of the actors can’t pull their weight, but it’s the first time you feel genuine sympathy for the good guys, genuine hatred at the bad guys, and really understand why the puppets came to be murder machines in the first place. When compared to any other given WWII film, “Puppet Master III” does feel churlish, but when set next to most slasher flicks, it stands slightly higher. I still like part II the best, but part III is no waste of time.
The film takes place in Berlin in the mid 1930s when the Nazis are rising to power. Andre Toulon (played by Guy Rolfe, who we will see in the series more) is gleefully putting of puppet shows for the German children, usually of the satirical stripe. His loving wife Elsa (Sarah Douglas) knows all about his ability to grant life to his puppets, and they even enjoy a kind of familyhood with the little beasties. There is a scene where Toulon and Elsa inject each of the puppets with their life-giving goo (using a syringe, no less), and they talk to them like they are children.
A Mark Mothersbaugh-looking Nazi underling named Eric (Kristopher Logan) suspects there is something odd not only in the satirical content of Toulon’s shows (Hitler takes a beating), but in the way that the puppets seem to magically move about on their own. Eric’s superior Major Krauss (played by the ubiquitous B-movie actor Richard Lynch, looking like a handsome Klaus Kinski, and last seen in Rob Zombie’s “Halloween”) orders a seizure of all Toulon’s magic puppets. In the seizure, Krauss shoots Elsa and kills her. Toulon is arrested for resisting. Those Nazis are always such bastards.
Toulon, with his killer puppets, manages to escape arrest, and hide out. He sneaks into the morgue and uses his magical liquid to extract Elsa’s soul and put it into the body of the Leech Woman. Since there are leeches in the hospital, he has a handy supply. One of the Leech Woman’s powers seems to breed infinite leeches in her body.
Of course, if Elsa’s soul was in the Leech Woman puppet, you’d think Toulon would have been more torn up about her destruction in Part II. It is explained later in the series that the puppets do not have the memories of personalities of the souls they host. The soul is just needed to give them life. They develop their own memories and personalities from there. Perhaps, since he was a zombie himself in Part II, Toulon wasn’t really concentrating.
Rolfe plays Toulon as a slighted man with a passion, and not as a cold-hearted beast. This helps the movie considerably. Instead of wanting to see the puppets kill out of our own bloodlust, we now want to see them succeed in a mission of justifiable revenge against the monstrous Nazis.
The puppets go after various Nazis with calculating fury. Tunneler bores through a Nazi’s abdomen. Pinhead, as he does at least once in every movie, grabs someone by the ankles and pulls them over. Leech woman coughs leeches onto a Nazi’s face, and Six-Shooter climbs into a brothel and guns down a Nazi general. Even the Mothersbaugh-looking guy gets killed, even though he seems to hate Nazis. I liked Logan in the role. He was amusing.
There are a few subplots worth mentioning. Toulon ends up hiding out with a Jewish boy named Peter (Aron Eisenberg from “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”), and teaches him a bit about the puppets. Also, Major Krauss has a doctor sidekick (Ian Abercrombie from “Army of Darkness”) who wants to find Toulon, but only to have a professional discussion, and not to kill him. The doctor has been using the seized green good to resurrect dead soldiers in the hope of making a race of supersoldiers.
Race of supersoldiers = never a good idea. Has it ever worked?
Eventually Toulon builds the Blade puppet in a satirical mockery of Maj. Krauss, and he sneaks into Krauss’ office to get revenge. The gory “puppet” scene is strangely poetic, and feels like the supernatural horrific justice often seen in “Tales from the Crypt” episodes.
Toulon takes the souls of fallen comrades, and flees Germany with Peter in tow. My guess is that it links up to the beginning of the first film.
Part III is definitely worth a look, as it’s rare to see a slasher film set in Nazi Germany. It doesn’t make it “deep” necessarily, but it’s nice to see a film of this budget with enough ambition to add to canon, be sympathetic, and take place in real time and place. The puppets are as impressive as ever, and Rolfe is good in the lead role. It’s not free of stupid or nonsensical moments, and, by this point, you’re really beginning to wonder what makes those puppets tick, and how they work. But if you’re interested in slasher films, I recommend this one as well.
Puppet Master 4 (1993)
“Puppet Master 4” and “Puppet Master 5” were filmed at the same time, follow a single story arc, and feature the same characters and actors. They are both short and filmed on the cheap. They also shift the series’ tone considerably, from one of horror mayhem, to one of cheap sci-fi adventure. As a result, they feel less like legit feature films, and more like episodes in a “Puppet Master” TV series. When glanced at, they seem harmless, but they’re really kind of dull.
Directed by Jeff Burr, this film attempts to turn the puppets into Good Guys, who must do battle with Bad Guys. The humans are no longer in danger from the puppets, and the sparse kills (at the hands of miniature monsters) are all relatively bloodless. Both the films are rated “R,” but , despite the violence and language, don’t feel any more horrifying than a TV series.
Part 5 was intended to be the final chapter, and the early video boxes to say “The Final Chapter” on them. A three-part spinoff called “Puppet Wars” was put into development, but fell through once Band realized the cult that had gathered around the “Puppet Master” name. When, after some reconsideration, the series was brought back, the box to part 5 was changed to read “The Latest Chapter.” Not nearly as poetic.
Anyway, we are back in the present at the Bodega Bay hotel. Blade has been running around by himself for a while. Leech Woman is not around in parts 4 or 5, but Torch does have a small appearance in part 5, so they take place after part II. I guess the puppets, after whatever adventure they had at the end of part II, returned to the Bodega Bay, and locked themselves away. I mention all this because the chronology will only get more confusing from here.
Arriving at the Bodega Bay is a hotshot twentysomething robotics engineer named Rick Meyer (Gordon Currie) who is trying to teach his robots how to solve problems. Following him is his demure girlfriend Susie (Cassandra West) who will not reveal her breasts, and a douchebag couple played by Stephen Dorff-lookalike Jason Adams and Teresa Hill, who is a creepy psychic.
Rick likes to listen to loud music and play LaserTag with his robots. He is young and hip. His clothes and hair are the height of fashion (for 1993). I hate when film franchises try to update themselves by appearing “hip.” It’s always such a desperate grab fore the youth vote.
Rick discovers the old trunk containing Toulon’s puppets. He opens it, injects them with the remaining green fluid, and they spring to life. The puppets are friendly little fiends, who are all too eager to play when Rick suggests they play LaserTag.
Meanwhile, in another dimension somewhere, a skull-headed demon named Sutekh has finally tracked down Toulon. Sutekh (played by a guy in a rather cumbersome monster suit), it turns out, was the keeper of the original spell that gave Toulon’s puppets their life to begin with. He is miffed that someone else knows his life-giving secret, and sends some emissaries from his dimension to kill all the remaining people who know the secret. The emissaries, called Totems, are spiny little humanoid creatures about the size of the puppets. The Totems do all the damage in this film, killing scientists and teens with equal enthusiasm.
The Totems attack Rick and his crew, and the puppets begin to construct some sort of contraption that was left in Toulon’s box. Evidently, Toulon knew that Sutekh would come calling someday, and built a superpowered puppet to take care of him. The puppet is called The Decapitron. The Decapitron is resurrected with a combination of green goo, and lightning. The Decapitrion can fire bolts of electricity. It has interchangeable heads, one of which serves as a way to communicate with Toulon (Rolfe again). The Decapitron fires lightning at the bad guys, and the day is saved.
There’s not much to say about parts 4 or 5. The lead actor (who looks like a member of Rockapella), it is implied at the end of part 4, will be the new Puppet Master, and that their battle to keep Sutekh’s secret is not over.
Puppet Master 5 (1994)
Rick has been arrested for the goings-on at the hotel in part 4. He is bailed out. For some reason, he’s wearing an orange murder suit, even though he hasn’t been indicted yet. Whatever. He has a sex scene with Chandra West, but it’s chaste.
An evil corporate stooge (Nicholas Guest) has caught wind of the puppet life secret, and hires a trio of thugs to infiltrate the Bodega Bay hotel and help him find the puppets, and bring them back to his bosses (one of which is played by another ubiquitous genre actor, Clu Gulager). Much of the film is the four of these evil folks being picked off by either the puppets or a New SuperTotem that Sutekh had waiting up his sleeve. The SuperTotem looks about the same as the other Totems, only it’s a slightly different color, and it wears a different mask.
Rick goes to the hotel, reunites with the puppets, re-resurrects the Decapitron using the same methods (and, I suspect, the same footage), and defeats the new SuperTotem in the exact same fashion as in part 4. The end. It’s a largely disposable, and pretty boring chapter in the series.
I guess, since there’s more stalk-and-kill, and less LaserTag in this film than in part 4, part 5 can be seen as a refreshing return to horror elements, but it’s nothing extraordinarily scary; it’s just slightly more horror-ish than the previous chapter. There’s still plenty of stop-motion to keep the eye satisfied, but not enough to stay interested.
I have little else to say about “Puppet Master 5.”
But by comparison, it’s way above the events in…
Curse of the Puppet Master (1998)
Directed by DeCoteau, but under one of his pseudonyms, Victoria Sloan. Since I thought the director was a woman, it made sense that all the “sexy” moments were of scantily clad, bohunkular studs, and that the film’s main character was a sexually empowered teenage girl. Perhaps DeCoteau was turning conventions on ear. That’s pretty much, however, the only thing “Curse of the Puppet Master” has going for it.
This is the clear moment when the “Puppet Master” series ran out of steam; the delineating moment when the makers stopped caring, and were clearly more interested in a quick buck. Most of the footage of the puppets was recycled from the previous chapters, and there is little allusion made to Toulon or any of the previous events.
Indeed, it’s hard to tell when “Curse” took place. The Leech Woman is back (for some reason; she does nothing in the film), but there’s no Torch puppet, so, by that gauge, I’m guessing this film takes place either between parts I and II. However, the cars and clothing indicate that the film takes place in 1998. The chronology is getting weirder.
This film looks like it was shot in the mountains of California, and was definitely shot on the fly.
So we’re in the mountains, and the puppets are (for some reason) in the possession of one Dr. Magrew (George Peck), a kindly man who is slightly overprotective of his 18-year-old daughter Jane (Emily Harrison), back from her first year of college. Dr. Magrew exhibits the living puppets for the local yokels. The town’s sheriff (Robert Donovan) is suspicious of the puppets, and growls like a Bond villain’s sidekick.
This li’l town has a resident retard named Robert Winsley, but nicknamed Tank (Josh Green). Tank is an idiot, but has a really nice bod, and Jane spends a lot of time ogling him. Tank is also really good with carving wood, so he is enlisted by Dr. Magrew to carve up a few pieces of wood for him, to what end he will not say.
The puppets lurk about in the margins, and do away with bullies and snoops. There’s a horrific scene in which Pinhead holds a shirtless man down on a weightbench, and Tunneler bores into his crotch. This scene will have male viewers clutching their anatomy. There are also some dumb dream sequences where Tank imagines himself as a wooden puppetman with wooden guts.
Jane makes bland platitudes about living your dream and going after what you want, when it’s clear she’s just trying to say she wants the freedom to shag who she wants. It’s rare to see such a sexual sentiment in a horror film (especially one of this mediocrity), so it was a sentiment I clung to in order to get me through the ridiculous story, bad acting, and use of stock footage.
Here’s the big twist ending, and I’m sure you guessed it: Dr. Magrew was trying to recreate the spell of Toulon by having Tank carve a new puppet. The new puppet was to be fueled by Tank’s soul. He was burying his failed experiments out in the woods. With Tank, however, he was successful. In the film’s final scene, we see the Tank puppet, which looks like a tank with a TV for a face. If it was a tank, why did Dr. Magrew need wood? Hm… Tank, however, tapping into his retard rage (not my term), uses his new puppet body to kill Dr. Magrew.
And the film abruptly ends. Dr. Margew dies, roll credits. What?
This film will make you sad, and, if you had any affection for the puppets, will leave you feeling ripped off. It’s clear that Full Moon wither didn’t have the money or the heart to really continue the series in any significant way, and churned out this one.
For the next film, they tried something new.
Retro Puppet Master (1999)
The budgets are getting lower and the acting is getting worse, but the concept is trying to be recaptured… a little… a bit… perhaps. This film feels like a TV episode, and not least because of its “Mystic Knights of Tir Na Nog”-level of special effects, or its PG-13 rating.
The prologue of “Retro Puppet Master” shows Toulon (Rolfe again) hiding out from the Nazis, probably during the events in “Puppet Master III.” He finds a cracked head of a Cyclops puppet, and decides to tell the current puppets the story of how he came to possess the puppet life power to begin with.
Flashback to 1912. The young Andre Toulon (handsome Aryan youth Greg Sestero from the cult classic “The Room”) is performing puppet shows with his motley bunch of puppeteers in Paris. The young Elsa, who is now Ilsa (and played by Brigitta Dau), sneaks away from her governess to attend Toulon’s puppet shows. I’m guessing she’s charmed, even though the puppet shows are horrid, featuring wooden readings of lines like “free will is an illusion.” Sestero has an unbelievably bad French accent, and doesn’t seem to have a thought in his pretty square head. I loved Dau’s performance, as she reminded me of the high school theatrics that I was once immersed in as a student.
In Egpyt, a mysterious immortal cleric named Afzel (Jack Donner) has stolen a scroll of Sutekh, containing the secret of life. Sutekh resurrects some mummies to go after him. Afzel flees to Paris, and the mummies disguise themselves and pursue. Let me repeat that: the mummies disguise themselves. These are smart mummies, and I’ve never seen a mummy disguised in a trenchcoat, fedora and little round sunglasses before. The mummies in disguise is a curious sight, and keeps the film afloat on a cloud of wonderfully delirious stupidity. It also helps that the actor paying the lead mummy (Stephen Blackehart, whose resume I encourage you to look up) actually seems to be enjoying himself.
Anyway, this Afzel, inevitably, runs into Toulon, and, in exchange for room and board, offers to teach Toulon a few secrets about the life-giving spell. Afzel has a ring with a thorn on it. When the thorn is stabbed into the back of a human’s neck, their soul is sucked out in the form of a fluid. Then the ring is stabbed into a puppet, and the puppet is given life. It is made explicit in this film that the soul only provides life and motivation, but not intent or personality or thought; the puppets only follow the intentions of their master. The need for human brains must have entered the formula later.
The mummies catch up with Afzel, and kill him, along with the rest of Toulon’s troupe. The mummies then go to the train station to catch a ride back to Cairo. Mummies on a train.
Toulon uses the souls of his dead troupe to animate his puppets.
The puppets in “Retro Puppet Master” are indeed retro in design. We have a Blade and a Tunneler (called Drill Sergeant) and a Six-Shooter and a Pinhead, but they are unpainted, wooden, crude. The new design is nice, I guess, but the effects used to animate the puppets have become yet cruder. They walk like, well, marionettes. There is also a puppet called Dr. Death, and one called Cyclops.
Anyway, the mummies, sensing that Sutekh’s secret is not yet completely hidden, return to Toulon’s place, find Ilsa instead, and kidnap her. There is then a showdown on a train where the puppets confront the mummies and defeat them, and Toulon and Ilsa/Elsa flee to Berlin, where they will presumably reside until “Puppet Master III.”
Did the Puppet Master series warrant an origin story? I guess so, and seeing as we jump around in time so much, it’s not so jarring to have a flashback. It’s too bad the film was so cheap, the acting was so bad, and the effects so unconvincing, and the content so tame; I warn you away from any straight-to-video slasher with a PG-13 rating.
Oh, but we’re still not at the bottom of the barrel yet.
Puppet Master: The Legacy (2004)
Directed by Band himself, we’re given the chintziest of retrospectives. The clip show.
We’ve been reduced to a clip show. I’m afraid that the bulk of the 80 minutes of this, the eighth “Puppet Master” movie, is highlights from the previous movies. Oh sure, there’s a bookend story, and some new footage, but it’s not even interesting enough to be considered part of the series. I warn you far, far away from “Puppet Master: The Legacy.” This is the second worst in the series. I’m still getting to the worst.
The bookend story. A curvy she-spy (Kate Orsini) killing people to find ancient tomes telling Toulon’s story. She reads, and we see the events of the previous films. There’s obvious prompting dialogue like “Remember what happened when X happened?” Cue clip. 10 more minutes of film taken care of. This pattern is repeated until we’ve seen clips from all seven of the previous films. Eventually, the spy finds the puppets back at the Bodega Bay in, now being looked after by the middle-aged Peter (Jacob Witkin), once the young boy from “Puppet Master III.” It’s clear that the studio feels that part III is the tentpole film of the series.
The big twist is that the she-spy was hired not by a shadowy government institution to find Toulon’s secrets (as we would naturally assume), but by the puppets themselves, to find a secret to ending their lives. Yes, it seems the puppets, after eight movies, have become despondent, and now wish to finally die. It’s also why they kill their masters so often (early in the series). They wish to die, and hate when their master impinges on their hard work. The puppets kill Peter. Groan, yawn, dumb, hate.
At this point in the series, it’s clear the Puppet Master name is being banked upon rather than explored. There is a plan to bring the puppets back in a more legit way with the upcoming “Puppet Master: Axis of Evil,” but we’re definitely in the doldrums. It’s weird to accuse something like “Puppet Master” of selling out, but that’s what “Puppet Master: The Legacy” (and, by extension, any clip show) does.
If it’s a sellout you want, though, you’re gonna get it in the worst of the “Puppet Master” movies…
Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys (2004)
This TV special was not made by Band (despite his executive producer credit) or any of the Full Moon crew. Which is odd, since both the Puppet Master and Demonic Toys franchises were put out by Full Moon. This was a hastily slapped-together horror comedy conceived and moneyed by the folks at the Sci-Fi Channel, who are, let’s face it, not exactly known for anything of quality. The special was directed by Ted Nicolaou, which is a pity as I have met the man, and he’s a pleasant fellow with a belief in the films he’s made, which include genre notables like “TerrorVision” and “Bad Channels.”
A TV special like this one makes one wonder about the canon of the “Puppet Master” series. The puppets are slightly different in design, the tone is drastically different than anything we’ve seen in the past, it was made for TV, and would probably get a PG rating, and more time is spent with the Demonic Toys than with the familiar puppets. Is this a “Puppet Master” movie? The good ol’ 85% accurate Wikipedia seems to think so. To be safe, I will review it. You will have to suffer the same way I did.
The film introduces us to Robert Toulon, played by Corey Feldman, probably the biggest star the series has seen since William Hickey. Feldman gives a performance that can be described as… well, I’m not sure it can be described. He has a gruff cartoon voice, and a goofy, sockpuppet demeanor that no human being has ever affected. Is it supposed to be funny? Mad scientist-y? I don’t know what the Hell he’s doing. All I know is it’s painful to watch Feldman demean himself so.
Robert has a daughter named Alexandra played by Danielle Keaton who played one of the creepy kids in John Carpenter’s version of “Village of the Damned.” Together, they make and repair rare toys. One day, they find the ancient secrets of Andre Toulon, and resurrect a few of the puppets. Like I said, the puppets look… off. They look plastic. Even though this was made in 2004, we’re still not seeing any CGI, which is, in my opinion, a good thing. It sucks when filmmakers try to make something look alive and epic, and then use the deadningly fake world of CGI.
And evil toy company head named Erica Sharpe (played by British model Vanessa Angel) has been spying on Robert, and demands to know his secrets. She claims to want the life-giving secret to make living toys that would sell well, but has a secret plan. You see, she’s really in league with a goofy demon named Bael (Anton Falk) who can be summoned in penthouse of her office building. Erica kills a virgin, and Bael appears for a little bit to negotiate… stuff. There are two actresses who play the sacrificed virgins in this film, and I felt very, very sorry for them both. In my mind, I had their stories all laid out; they were hard-working girls from small towns in the middle of country who came to L.A. to break in, and, after being beaten down and turned away, they were reduced to bit skin-revealing parts in “Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys” for the Sci-Fi channel. They’ll have viewing parties where guests will gather in excitement and watch in mounting embarrassment. Eventually, these girls will end up sobbing. Good job, “Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys.” You made those girls cry.
Anyway, Erica and Bael also control a trio of Demonic toys: an evil clown jack-in-the-box, a sharp-toothed teddy bear, and a foulmouthed baby doll who is a low-low-rent version of Baby Herman from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” In addition to selling a million toys, she also wants to use Toulon’s secret to, somehow, infuse the toys with demons and kill all the kids who get them. This will only work on Christmas morning, thanks to a prophecy. Or something. Nevermind. It’s stupid.
Erica tires to steal Toulon’s Puppets, but accidentally burns them. Toulon repairs them, and soups them up a bit. Six-Shooter is now a Borg-looking thing with laser guns. Blade had a bigger knife. Pinhead has robot arms.
There’s a subplot about a cop (Czech actress Silvia Suvadova) who falls for Robert Toulon. I guess many cops fall for the people they have to constantly check in on. Suvadova, I’m convinced, is not human. Her stares are too intense, and her face doesn’t have much natural movement. What’s more, it looks like a lot of her dialogue was dubbed, as her lips don’t seem to exactly match her words, and her face doesn’t belie the volume at which she is speaking. It’s surreal, but in an off-putting way.
So what happens then? Toulon confronts Sharpe, and Alexandra is kidnapped, and there’s a limp fight between the puppets and the demonic toys. The effects are bad, and the fight is brief and not spectacular. At one point, the clown jack-in-the-box escapes from its box, and starts strangling people like a snake. Pinhead throws the baby doll into a fire, and it, as it falls, shouts “Why I oughtta…,” but in an elongated, descending cadence. There are a lot of baby fart jokes in this movie. In this humble critic’s opinion, one baby fart in any movie is one too many.
And that’s that. That’s the way the series ends. Not with a bang, but a sloppy, embarrassing mess of non-canonical, low-budget, apathetic whimpering. Did Charles Band need the money that bad? Was the Puppet Master series so strong that it could carry another sequel? Why are there so many of these things? Surely the gravy train has derailed. Watching this ninth film will make you depressed, angry and dumb.
The final shot at redemption?
Puppet Master: Axis of Evil (2010)
Actually, it turns out this isn’t the final shot, as “Puppet Master: Axis of Evil” ends with a cliffhanger. D’oh. I guess “Puppet Master 11” is inevitable. But we shall see.
Directed by DeCoteau again, “Puppet Master: Axis of Evil” was the first film made after a six-year hiatus. The effects, acting and film quality, though, have not improved one whit since the earlier entries. It’s certainly better than parts 6-9, and seems to have an ambitious premise, but is still not transcending anything. What was intended, I think, as a proud clarion call back to form, and an announcement that Full Moon Entertainment is still alive and well, turns out to be a kind of limp, cheap B picture with bad acting and cheap special effects. In that regard, I guess it is a return to form.
Levi Fiehler plays Danny Coogan, a crippled carpenter staying at the Bodega Bay Hotel in 1939. This was the same period of time when Andre Toulon was staying at the hotel, and we get to see Toulon in the form of the late William Hickey. All the scenes with Hickey are just clips from “Puppetmaster,” and DeCoteau cut in a few choice reaction shots from Fiehler to update the footage the tiniest bit. Also edited in were the glowering reactions of Max (Tom Sandoval), one of the mute Nazi thugs sent to assassinate Toulon at the beginning of the first movie. “Axid of Evil” is bending over backwards to re-incorporate itself back into the “Puppet Master” canon.
Anyway, Danny manages to flee the hotel with Toulon’s hidden puppets, and spirits them off to his suburban home, where he has awkwardly bantering conversations with his doofus brother (Taylor M. Graham), and merrily eats sandwiches prepared by his young-looking mother (Erica Shaffer). He also has a sweet, pretty girlfriend with large, batting eyes and little talent named Beth (Jenna Gallaher). Gallaher continues an odd tradition of the “Puppet Master” universe, in featuring pretty young things in supporting roles with a penchant for innocent teasing and high school theatrics.
Anyway, Danny, of course, finds the magical fluid that animates Toulon’s puppets, and begins injecting them. He is only ever seen injecting Jester, but is seen later with most of the puppets restored. I guess seeing them resurrected is so unimpressive at this point that we don’t even need to see it anymore.
Oh, and I mustn’t forget the villains, which offer the strangest details of “Axis of Evil.” We follow Max, the Nazi thug, and his compatriot to a puppet theater in Chinatown. Max meets up with a Japanese Dragon Lady named Ozu (who I hope isn’t named for the famous filmmaker, and is played by Ada Chao), who has long, claw-like fingernails, and is always in complete kabuki makeup and costume. Max and Ozu, the titular axis, you see, have a plot to sneak a lunchbox-sized bomb into the munitions plant where Beth work, and blow it up, which will, somehow, completely stymie the Allied war effort.
It’s tempting to call Ada Chao a bad actress, but a brief moment of scrutiny reveals what’s going on; Chao seems to have learned her lines phonetically, and gives halting, oddly pronounced line readings that almost out-Lugosi Lugosi. What’s more, her halting dialogue was then overdubbed by another actress. A kabuki character with strangely disembodied dialogue almost seems like a trick that David Lynch would play.
While the villains do their plotting, Danny has conversations with his brother that are, I think, intended to increase his human dimension, but feel suspiciously like padding.
Anyway, Danny attacks Max with the puppets. Max retaliates by killing Danny’s family and kidnapping Beth. Max wants Toulon’s secret, dammit. At this point, Danny discovers a previously unseen puppet in Toulon’s case, sucks the soul from his dead brother (it’s never explained how he knew to do that), and injects it into… Ninja! Yup, there’s a ninja puppet.
Danny confronts the bad guys in the theater. Leech Woman coughs leeches into a bad guy’s sushi, and his throat explodes. Ninja stabs a bad guy in the butt. Not just in his butt, but, it would seem, right into his anus. It’s pretty gross. Danny frees Beth, but Ozu escapes. The films ends with a frantic race off-screen and a line of dialogue akin to “Let’s get her!”
Despite this film having been made in 2010, an age where CGI seems to appear in every damn film, “Puppet Master: Axis of Evil” has remained firmly ensconced in its low-tech origins. Six years may have passed since Blade and his party appeared on screen, but this film could have been made at any time. The Ninja puppet looks delightfully retro, and even though the original puppet molds had been lost since the last outing, and the traditional puppets look a mite different than they used to, this feels like another interchangable title in the series. There’s something admirable about this. Charles Band and David DeCoteau have not dramatically changed their original vision since 1989. “Axis of Evil.” despite the protracted cliffhanger, makes us feel like we’ve come full-circle.
You won’t be able to tell, but “Axis of Evil” was filmed entirely in China.
Here’s the chronology, as far as I can figure it: 7, 3, 1, 10, 6, 2, 4, 5, 8, 9.
More cute than scary, the “Puppet Master” films start as a refresher in how powerful a force straight-to-video B-filmmaking can be. As the series progresses, it falls into the traps that any long series inevitably must: they run short of money and ideas, and eventually are just a way to bank on a popular name.
The curiosity of the “Puppet Master” movies is that, while there are ten films, don’t seem to have the same clout or genre currency as Freddy Kreuger or Jason Voorhees, or even “Hellraiser.” They are a fourth-tier bunch of monsters made by a straight-to-video horror company, that have, through sheer pluck and stubbornness, managed to grow into a franchise. When the series is strong (as in Parts II and III), I laud them endlessly for how enterprising they have been. When the series is outta steam, I wince and the whorishness of it all.
It’s telling that the puppets, while originally scary killing creatures become altruistic heroes as the films progress. The humans become less and less important, and the calm, watchful eye of the puppets becomes the eye through which we see everything. They become less things to be feared, and more sidekicks you wish you had.
See “Puppet Master II” for its delirious horror, and part III for its ambition. If you’re 14 years old, see 4 and 5 as well. You might like those ones and their sci-fi conceits. Are they great movies? No. but I would call Part II a legitimately good movie. And most of the series is still better than a lot of the low-budget crap often found on the bottom shelves at Blockbuster.
It’s a vast and strange world, the world of straight-to-video horror, and “Puppet Master” may serve as a solid guidepost for those just getting their feet wet. If you, like me, are an explorer of such realms, take the hand of Andre Toulon, of Blade, of Pinhead, and the rest, and make the plunge. They’ll be good guides.