Franchise Corner Entry: PUPPET MASTER

PUPPET MASTER **** USA 1989 90 mins Dir: David Schmoeller

Although it never enjoyed a theatrical release like several earlier Empire Pictures releases, this proved one of Charles Band’s most enduring movie property, expanding the fascination for pint-sized monsters he displayed with DOLLS and creating a long-running franchise in the process.. Set to a typically playful Richard Band score and gorgeously shot by Fulci veteran Sergio Salvati in distinctive, colourful European hues, it opens with a 1939 prologue at the cliff-top Bodega Bay Inn. Eponymous puppet master Toulon (William Hickey) commits suicide while a pair of ominous crooks fails in a bid to steal his lucrative secret.
The present day set-up is nicely old fashioned, as a bunch of psychically linked, offbeat characters gather at the Inn, among them the excellent Irene Miracle as a peculiar mystic (“Don’t go near the fireplace”) and the often unclothed, kinky Kathryn O’Reilly. Striving to uncover the secrets of “the last great alchemist of the 20th century”, they end up unleashing the malevolent puppets Toulon controlled with the powers of his mind. Talented director Schmoeller, who made the superb TOURIST TRAP, has fun finding inventive riffs on familiar slasher movie tropes, from the pursuit and torment of Miracle at the hands of “Pin Head” to the gruesome, bizarre sequence in which O’Reilly suffers a post-coital drilling courtesy of “Tunneller” while her partner is slowly bled by “Leech Woman”, upchucking bloodsuckers on to his chest. Still blindfolded, he assumes it’s just part of their horny role playing. The puppets are expertly brought to life by stop-motion animation master David Allen, and there’s a sadistic edge to their rampage that pays off with a suitably bloody climactic assault on the main human villain.

PUPPET MASTER II **** USA 1991 88 mins Dir : David Allen

Notable as the only movie in which George “Buck” Flower gets savaged by a “Leech Woman” puppet in bed while his wife mistakes the gruesome audio for the familiar sounds of him wanking, this is an inventive sequel with a pleasantly nostalgic Universal horror feel. After an atmospheric opening in which the puppets dig up Toulon, (now played by Steve Welles), this follows another team of psychic investigators exploring the Bodega Bay Inn : “They say Satan’s got a suite of rooms down there!” one enthuses. Stand-outs are eccentric old psychic Nita Talbot and a characteristically horny, clothes-shy Charlie Spradling (retaining sex appeal despite some unflattering early 90’s fashions). Tunneller and Leech Woman are wiped out all too soon, but the other puppets assist the resurrected Toulon (using the pseudonym Chanee and bandaged up like Claude Rains in THE INVISIBLE MAN) in his mission to retrieve precious brain fluid from human victims in order to sustain the puppets’ lifespans and his own immortality. Unusual for horror sequels of the time, this takes time to continue the story in a new direction rather than rehashing its predecessor, while also ensuring the puppets have plenty of screen time under the directorial command of their real life creator, David Allen (in his only feature length directing gig). Spradling’s gratuitous nudity distracts from the blandness of the protagonists, and the flashback story of Toulon’s early puppetry dabblings is well realised, setting the scene for later prequels. Best of all, a sequence in which an obnoxious kid pays the ultimate price for using an Indiana Jones-style whip on his toys, offers one of the most mean-spirited deaths of the whole series as it pays homage to James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN with its classic riverside encounter between monster and child. The bizarre, blackly comic ending is also satisfying : “We have children to enchant…”

PUPPET MASTER III : TOULON’S REVENGE *** USA 1991 79 mins Dir : David DeCoteau

The best cast of the series highlight this ambitious third entry, set in 1941 Berlin, where Ian Abercrombie’s Gestapo henchman Dr Hess sends a weaselly minion to steal the secret art of Toulon (played by the third, and best, actor filling the role in three movies, Guy Rolfe), whose non-string-based puppetry has caught the Nazis’ attention. At Toulon’s theatre, his wife (Sarah Douglas) is shot in the ensuing confrontation, so his puppets rebel, rescue the abducted Toulon and head to Nazi HQ on a vengeance mission. The always sinister Richard Lynch earns a suitably unpleasant demise, and it’s the kind of eager-to-please sequel that casts ancient Walter Gotell as a General, introducing him via a sponge bath with three busty topless beauties, for no other reason than it’s the only means of incorporating nudity into the picture (and, yes, he does get a uniquely uneasy sex scene with one of them!). It’s well-crafted on a low budget, and the prequel approach (relatively unusual for the time, now commonplace as a means of keeping franchises alive) keeps it fresh, even if it does recycle flashback footage to 1912 Cairo from part 2. The animation is fun as ever, with “6 Shooter”, a six-armed gunman, the new puppet on the block, while the make-up FX are gruesomely inventive, as Toulon engineers his revenge, creating Leech Woman with his dead wife’s essence and crafting “Blade” based on Lynch’s likeness. The credits promise “Coming Soon: PUPPET MASTER 4: WHEN BAD PUPPETS TURN GOOD”, a subtitle that was dropped by the resultant film.

PUPPET MASTER 4 ** USA 1993 79 mins Dir : Jeff Burr

As busily plotted as you might expect from a film with five credited writers (!), this returns the series to the present, with glowing-eyed, hooded demon figures sending a vicious, dome-headed puppet to retrieve the secrets Toulon (Guy Rolfe, mostly off-camera) allegedly stole from them. The puppet kills boffins at the Biotech corporation, absorbing their essence, while annoying, buff inventor Gordon Currie strives to create artificial intelligence at the Bodega Bay Inn, where the girl he lusts after and her friends find Toulon’s diaries and puppets stashed away. Nominal hero Currie, groomed as the Toulon’s successor in the twist ending, is too cocky and charmless to be a worthy lead, and the cast is filled out with an obnoxious “channeller” similar to the psychics from the first two movies and a smug bastard (who seems to have borrowed Timothy Olyphant’s hair and mannerisms) who routinely forces his girl to push his car in the pouring rain when it fails to start. The puppets we know and love (Blade, Six-Shooter, Tunneller) are too often side-lined in favour of new creation Decapitron, becoming heroes for the first time in the series. Most of this horror-lite sequel’s action involves these puppets fighting the villainous Decapitron in the spirit of much older monster mash-ups, though it’s a major step down from the previous sequel.

PUPPET MASTER 5 ** USA 1994 Dir: Jeff Burr. 81 mins

Horror sequel veteran Jeff Burr (who also tackled entries in the STEPFATHER, TEXAS CHAINSAW and PUMPKINHEAD franchises) returns to the PUPPET MASTER series, offering plentiful footage from the disappointing part 4, to re-establish why new “puppet master” Gordon Currie is now in police custody while Teresa Hill (who has a genuinely bizarre bloody-bath sequence involving being literally drilled by Tunneller) is in a coma. Ian Ogilvy is a welcome presence as a villainous doctor keen to get hold of the secret of the living puppets, hiring an unlikely crew of misfits to search the Bodega Bay hotel, while an other-dimensional Pharaoh sends his own puppet “Totem” to kill Currie and steal his magic. As with the earlier sequels, it’s a lively and busy follow-up, though it has more satisfying puppet action than its immediate predecessor, and Brit horror veteran Ogilvy is well preserved and fun to watch. (Clu Gulager also shows up as a supporting heavy – we know he’s bad because he smokes, is shot from below and is accompanied by a man with a moustache). The puppet scenes – the last use of stop motion in the series – are decent, though the ending sets up future directions for the series that never happened: Guy Rolfe’s Toulon officially passes on the puppet master mantle to Currie.

CURSE OF THE PUPPET MASTER ** USA 1998 Dir: Victoria Sloan (aka David DeCoteau). 77 mins

Veteran B movie director David De Coteau hides behind his female pseudonym for this throwaway spin-off, though the presence of buff young men in their pants (including one strapped to a table) is a bit of a giveaway for those in the know. George Peck bought Toulon’s puppets at auction and now oversees the self-named store / museum “Magrew’s Marvels”, employing a simple but hunky gas station attendant (Josh Green) to craft him a new puppet to join the revived Six Shooter, Blade, Leech Woman, Pinhead and Jester. Magrew’s ultimate plan is to turn his assistant into a puppet himself, though a drippy burgeoning romance between his daughter and Green (with laughably corny dialogue), alongside a bunch of clichéd town bullies pad out the plot. An extended title sequence involves copious footage of the puppets from earlier movies, a neat distraction from the lack of stop motion puppetry in this sixth movie. After a slow start, it does develop into one of the bloodiest films in the series, with a stand-out sequence in which the main bully has his nether regions bothered by Tunneller and Blade. The lively climax features the puppets predictably turning on their pseudo-master during an old-style Gothic storm and again delivers the gore, but Magrew’s final creation is patently ridiculous and the abrupt ending suggests they ran out of time, inspiration, money…or all three.

RETRO PUPPET MASTER ** USA 1999 Dir: Joseph Tennent (David DeCoteau). 80 mins

Guy Rolfe’s final appearance as Toulon (and his final screen credit) provides a poignant framing device for this otherwise lifeless seventh entry: he reflects on his life as a handsome, theatre-loving puppeteer (played as a young man by Greg Sestero) in turn of the century Paris. Falling for a Swiss ambassador’s daughter, he also encounters a renegade sorcerer who stole the “Secret of Life” from a dark God, a “Secret” that magically brings his wooden-carved puppets to life, while black-clad heavies pursue him to use it to their own ends. Rolfe is a pleasure to watch, but the film elsewhere suffers from cue-card style acting and a lack of both action and humour. Horror elements are played down to obtain the first PG-13 rating of the series and the “retro” puppets representing Toulon’s earliest work are poorly realised. If they were attempting to introduce a new range of pint-sized antagonists to the franchise via the ever-expanding backstory, this feeble bunch (Dr Death, Cyclops, etc.) don’t cut the mustard, and neither do the absurd villains and cheap digital elements.

PUPPET MASTER: THE LEGACY ** USA 2003 Dir: Robert Talbot, aka Charles Band. 71 mins

The only movie in the series made under the banner of “Shadow Entertainment”, this is the movie equivalent of those TV shows that fill out their mandatory episode count with a budget-saving clip-show in which the main characters reflect on all those crazy adventures they had over the past year. Seemingly designed as a thank-you to fans of the series, the film’s new footage amounts to less than 15 minutes, in a hasty attempt to tie up inconsistencies and plot threads left dangling from the earlier movies. For viewers expecting an all new movie in exchange for their hard earned cash, it’s more of a “fuck-you” than a “thank-you”. Jacob Witkin escaped as a child with Toulon from Nazi Germany, finding the legendary puppets in the process – and now he’s pursued by gun-toting Kate Orsini, who demands him to hand over the secret formula. As a delaying tactic, he reflects on how all this came to be, which allows the film to showcase excerpts from all seven previous films, while confirming the chronology for events that began with the most recent, RETRO PUPPET MASTER. Instantly livelier than the bland RETRO because of the ability to reprise the franchise’s gore highlights, this is still a clip show rather than a movie – and the new footage is limp and unengaging, with Band and co even failing to provide a satisfying resolution.

PUPPET MASTER VS DEMONIC TOYS * USA 2004 88 mins Dir : Ted Nicolaou

A self-conscious Corey Feldman plays Toulon’s grand-nephew in this obnoxious spin-off, which has a token executive producer credit for Charles Band, despite his lack of actual involvement, and was directed by the usually reliable Ted Nicolaou, the helmsman of Full Moon’s atmospheric SUBSPECIES movies. Feldman oversees the Toulon Doll Hospital, reviving the toys the night before Christmas, with Blade, Six Shooter, Pinhead and Jester present and correct. Meanwhile, the cold-hearted CEO of toy company Sharpe Toys, owner of  the “Demonic Toys” (antagonists of the never-sequelised 90’s flick), strives to get hold of the secret formula energising the puppets –  all part of fulfilling her dream to command an evil toy army and take over the world. The low point of the PUPPET MASTER series, this suffers from grating panto-style performances, with the horrifically botoxed Vanessa Angel the worst culprit as the corporate villainess. Despite having a gruff voice, a pert teenage daughter and grey-flecked ruffled hair, you still see Corey Feldman as a skinny, dorky 12 year old from the 80’s. Typified by the moment in which the foul-mouthed baby from DEMONIC TOYS rubs his head between the boobs of a captive nubile girl, the film is further sunk by juvenile humour and a peculiar lack of action and horror. There’s no festive atmosphere for a movie set at Christmas and a remarkable short-changing of actual puppet action for a film combining two well-liked sets of Full Moon monsters.

PUPPET MASTER: AXIS OF EVIL ** USA 2010 Dir: David De Coteau. 83 mins

The tenth in the PUPPET MASTER series continues the series’ admirable efforts to sustain continuity, quite cleverly integrating new footage with the 1939 Bodega Bay prologue from the original PUPPET MASTER movie during its own opening sequence. Crippled, clean-cut hero Levi Fiehler, who repeatedly laments his inability to go and fight the “Japs” and “Krauts”, discovers Toulon’s corpse at the Inn and, having befriended the puppet master and learned about his creations, flees with the puppets to his family in Chinatown; naturally enough, the Nazis are in hasty pursuit. “If anyone knows torture, it’s we Nazis…” There’s a pleasing comic book feel to much of this film’s dialogue, and fun to be had from the central, very contemporary-looking “Nazi villain”, alongside the low production values and the excruciating cue-card performance from the Japanese female character who keeps. Pausing. In. Every. Sentence. She. Ever. Says. Distractingly. The cheaply evoked 1939 setting is undermined by references to PINOCCHIO (1940) and Pearl Harbour (1941), and it takes over an hour for the puppets to participate in some gruesome action -though even then, it’s rather tame and, since the end of the series’ stop motion FX, the puppets themselves are far less convincing and interesting than they were 20 years earlier. Still, it’s hard to be mad at a movie with lines like “You Nazis always ready for a goose-stepping parade, aren’t you!”

PUPPET MASTER: AXIS RISING ** USA 2012 Dir: Charles Band. 86 mins

“We can’t take on the Nazis and the Japanese all by ourselves!” Following the open-ending of AXIS OF EVIL and with completely different actors playing protagonists Danny and Beth, this also features Scott King as all-new ‘ALLO, ‘ALLO-style Nazi villain Moebius, who kidnaps one of the puppets (Tunneller) and synthesises the serum to create line in Nazi puppets : Ladies and gentlemen, presenting Blitzkrieg, Wermacht, Bombshell and Kamikaze! Also adding to the dodgy Nazi sitcom feel is a bizarre, buxom Nazi temptress with an accent that oscillates between British and pure Panto Nazi (“I vant to play wiz him!”), and the most distracting cleavage of the entire series. Our heroes are even blander than before, so the camp villains are the main reason to stay tuned. “We kicked their Nazi cans!!” This underwhelming but tough-to-hate eleventh PUPPET MASTER film has cheap but fun new puppets, the best of which, “Bombshell”, is a pint-sized version of the busty Nazi wench with the additional benefit of mini machine-gun boobies. Who doesn’t want a pair of those?! The puppets are all fairly inanimate, looking like they could use more of the magic serum, and the puppet fights are on the level of watching a kid play with his toys. However, it’s good-natured, eager to please and, of course, any film featuring the marvellously un-PC “Kamikaze” puppet is worthy of at least some credit.

PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH **** USA / UK 2018 Dir: Sonny Laguna, Tommy Wiklund. 84 mins

With diminishing budgets, Charles Band is still making PUPPET MASTER movies almost three decades on from the comparatively lavish 1989 original; this “reimagining” was designed to spark a new chain of movies without infringing on Band’s cycle. Co-directed by the guys responsible for proficient EVIL DEAD riff WITHER, it boasts a script by S Craig Zahler, responsible for the finest latter-day B movies BONE TOMAHAWK and BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99. Following a 1989-set prologue in which Toulon is recast as a heavily scarred Udo Kier lamenting “disgusting homosexuals” in a bar, the modern-day story follows divorcee / comic store worker Thomas Lennon as he returns to his childhood home to get his shit together. Discovering the “Blade” puppet in his dead brother’s old room, takes it to a 30th anniversary convention at Toulon’s home, where tour guide Barbara Crampton (who played a different character in the original film) provides exposition while attendees are gruesomely offed by the revived Nazi puppets in what are defined as “hate crimes” due to the race / sexuality / proclivities of the victims. Complete with a “Junior Fuhrer” puppet that gets oven roasted (“See how you like it!”), Zahler succeeds in reviving an increasingly barren series much in the way Don Mancini was able to restore relevance and creativity to his Chucky franchise. In an age where everyone is offended by everything, this relishes the chance to cut loose as the puppets slaughter kids, Jewish couples, fake-boobed blondes, lesbians and, in a show stopper, the unborn foetus of a heavily pregnant guest. It’s engagingly merciless, with terrific old school gore FX and a gleeful sense of PC-trashing fun. Shame about the lazy “To be continued” ending, however.

Reviews by Steven West Widgets

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