31 Days Of Hell: The Puppet Master Series Part One

Chris Jordan begins his review of the entire Puppet Master series.

"We are the members of the Lollipop Guild.
Now die!"
At the dawn of the 1990s, B-movie mogul Charles Band reinvented straight-to-video horror with Full Moon Entertainment: a subsidiary of Paramount Pictures dedicated to low-budget genre films for the VHS and laserdisc markets. When his theatrical film studio Empire Pictures (Re-Animator, Ghoulies, Robot Jox) went bankrupt at the end of the '80s, Band rightly saw that home video was where his particular brand of post-Corman pulp horror and sci-fi could thrive. Being the shrewd (and some might say cynical) businessman that he was, he was able to boil what horror fans want in a low-budget B-movie down to a formula, and with scientific precision he built a new empire on films that weren't necessarily good, but did their jobs extremely well. While Full Moon eventually broke away from Paramount and promptly took a nose-dive into awfulness, those first five years of Paramount/Full Moon movies are some of the most fun and well-done straight-to-video flicks ever produced. They're goofy and cheesy, but they know it, and they have just the right sense of humor to make them hugely enjoyable. And in at least a few areas – good cinematography, moody atmosphere, great low-budget practical effects – they're honestly quite well-done.

The first film by Full Moon Entertainment was 1989's Puppet Master, and it was such a home video hit that it launched a flagship franchise for the studio and provided them with some iconic mascots. It was so popular that it often gets named alongside other franchises that were theatrical releases, like Child's Play, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, and many people forget that the first film even was straight-to-video. Its pop-cultural significance is hard to deny... but just how good are these films, two and a half decades after the release of the first few? The series is way too big for just one review, so for now let's take a look at the first three films, and see how they hold up to the nostalgic memories.

Puppet Master (1989)

Full Moon's reign begins with a fantastic, imagination-grabbing opening sequence that introduces us to 1930s toymaker Andre Toulon and his living puppets. It's a great scene, packing some fun effects, a unique supernatural premise, and a genuine shock. Viewers are immediately hooked, and in just these first few minutes Toulon's sentient puppets are already horror icons. The puppets display personality, and great character actor William Hickey brings a warmth and humanity to Toulon that is rather unexpected in a film like this. Then, with the movie's success already more or less secured, it proceeds to flash forward to the present day and settle into a routine of mediocrity.

"No one better touch my sex puppets!"
Puppet Master has a few things that it does really well – and it builds its entire success on those strong points – while the rest of it is exactly what you'd expect from a straight-to-video flick of this era, and never really matches the strength of its opening prologue. But that's ultimately not a deal-breaker, because it delivers the goods in the two areas that viewers really want: spooky gothic atmosphere, and killer puppets. Let's be honest – the puppets are why we're here. The human characters, aside from Hickey's small but memorable role as Andre Toulon, are entirely disposable, but most viewers won't be too bothered because the larger-than-life tiny villains steal all their scenes.

This ultimately, though, only results in a half-satisfying film. Puppet Master has some major flaws, and when all is said and done it's enjoyable for what it is, but isn't one of Full Moon's best films. Of the four main characters, one is a lot of fun, one is incredibly flat and forgettable (and boasts one of the worst hair styles ever), and two are bizarrely over-the-top and out-of-place, not in a good way. This unevenness also carries over to the script: when it's good, it does some pretty cool and unique things, but when it's bad... it's bad. Early Full Moon films, at their best, have a fun, campy, pretty retro and sometimes even naïve attitude about them; they feel like throwback drive-in features amped up with awesome '90s practical effects. For the most part, they don't go for sleaze or shock value. There are a few moments where Puppet Master does – and one where it just goes too far for no reason – and these moments feel out of place. Most of the movie is goofy and fun and nostalgia-inducing... so when out of nowhere there's a (thankfully brief and non-explicit) rape scene for no reason except to add shock and sleaze, it's painfully unwelcome. Pro tip to horror filmmakers: never do that. It just grinds the fun of the movie to a halt and makes it feel misogynistic and uncomfortable. The same goes for two psychics whose main character traits are horniness: it's a bizarre and unnecessary shoehorned-in bit of exploitation that clashes with the rest of the script, and the inconsistency hurts the movie. It's as if it isn't sure if it wants to be a retro drive-in movie or a grindhouse exploitation flick, and trying to have it both ways hurts it. Which is a shame, because when it's in retro drive-in mode, it's a lot of fun. The Old Dark House atmosphere is very well-crafted, and the story has a really cool and unique mythology behind the puppets and their powers. The puppets themselves are great: the special effects are honestly really good, with some excellent claymation work by David Allen (Willow, Ghostbusters II, The Howling). In particular, Blade – a Jack the Ripper-ish puppet modeled after Klaus Kinski – is a very memorable little villain. The cinematography is strong with plenty of steadicam work, and the art design and blue-tinted lighting gives it a great vintage-horror aesthetic. These are usually the high-points of any early Full Moon movie; it's just too bad that the script wasn't given the same level of care and scrutiny.

Ultimately, the scenes involving the puppets are great, and the opening scene and last act serve to create an interesting mythology, but most other areas are disappointing. The script needed some work, and the moments of sleaze clash uncomfortably with the things about the film that clearly just want to be fun. As a fan of what Full Moon would soon become before I actually saw this film, I was hoping for something better. Still, for its strong points it is probably worth a look for fans of this era in horror, and the seeds are clearly planted for a fun franchise. By focusing on the puppets and their mythology instead of this particular group of human characters, and by fixing this script's problems, there's clearly potential for a series to follow that's better than this initial film.


Puppet Master II (1990)

The original Puppet Master was so wildly successful for Paramount and Full Moon that a sequel was ordered immediately, and rushed onto store shelves just one year later. Puppet Master II follows the formula of its predecessor pretty closely, as a group of paranormal investigators come to the same spooky old hotel from the first film, and likewise run afoul of the murderous little puppets. But despite the near-identical premise, this sequel has some cool tricks up its sleeve – including a new addition to the puppet army – and it delivers exactly the funhouse of carnage that fans would hope for. It addresses some of the problems the first film had, but largely it just trades them for new problems of its own, rather than making any great improvement. But while it may not be an objectively better film than the original, I would argue that it is a more fun and enjoyable one.

"Wanna play hooky?"
The biggest narrative improvement is that Puppet Master II is much more totally consistent than its predecessor, and altogether less sleazy. The first film greatly suffered from its indecision over whether to be a funhouse of horrors or a grindhouse exploitation flick, but this one sits firmly in the funhouse category from the opening frame. Gone are the out-of-place moments of sleaze, replaced by an even greater emphasis on campy/gory puppet mayhem. This makes it a much easier film to enjoy, and takes a step in the right direction towards realizing the first movie's potential for the franchise. But as soon as it has addressed the film's flaws, it trades them for new ones. Puppet Master, for all its problems, created a unique and imaginative mythology of alchemy and magic, which Puppet Master II almost entirely ignores or rewrites. Instead, it offers a slightly different origin for the puppets, rooted in routine and cliché mad-scientist tropes, and in the process it creates some glaring continuity flaws. Not least of which is totally altering the backstory and motives of Andre Toulon, the first film's most interesting character. All of these things are changes for the worse, and the result is a fairly confused and cobbed-together story. It's made even stranger by the knowledge that Puppet Master III would ignore or walk back at least some of these narrative meddlings.

But ultimately all of that can be more or less overlooked, because it does a great job of delivering what we really want the film to deliver. Let's be honest, we're not watching Puppet Master II for high-quality writing; we're watching it to see evil puppets wreck stuff. And do they ever. One big benefit that this sequel enjoys is that it doesn't need to introduce us to the puppets, since they're already established as the real main characters. Literally the first image of the movie is an evil puppet doing its evil-puppet thing, and that sets the tone for the whole film. With the focus so strongly on the tiny villains’ shenanigans, this feels much less like the original’s supernatural slasher movie vibe, and much more like a little-monsters flick along the lines of Ghoulies or the Critters sequels.

David Allen’s special effects are front and center once again – and again there are some great stop-motion sequences, which form the film’s most memorable moments. Allen also took the director’s chair this time around – though unfortunately, he proves to be not as strong a director as he is an effects artist. Perhaps due to his inexperience as a director, or perhaps due to the rushed production, Puppet Master II is not quite as well-shot as the first film; not bad, but with a visual style that is more utilitarian than artistic. The cast is likewise serviceable but not great; at the very least much less irritating and over-the-top than most of the first film’s characters, but no less generic.

Objectively speaking Puppet Master II isn’t any better than Puppet Master, nor any worse; it basically just trades strengths and weaknesses. But that said, I certainly had more fun with part II. It delivered the stuff that I had wanted the original to deliver, and it did it better, even if the story was worse. I’m not sure I would exactly recommend it much more than I would recommend the first, so I’ll say the same thing I said about that one: if you’re a genre fan, it’s probably worth a look. But next up is the one that is commonly viewed as the best of the series; the sequel where the franchise is said to really grow into its own. Let’s see just how true that common wisdom is…


Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge (1991)

Just when it seemed like the Puppet Master series had settled into a trend of mediocrity, Toulon and his toys do something even more impressive than their usual magical nastiness: they actually give us a good movie. Not just fun-but-bad; honestly enjoyable and solidly made. The rumors are true: Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge really is the moment when the series realizes its potential and sets itself apart from the tiny-monster crowd. This sequel finally finds that balance between fun effects sequences and an actual good story that had eluded both of its predecessors in different ways. It also takes the series’ story in a very logical new direction: since the puppets were basically the things that everyone liked about the first two movies, it not only makes the film all about them, but actually makes them the good guys. Or at least the antiheroes.

Puppet Master III is actually a prequel, giving us an origin story for Toulon and his puppets. It’s a slightly different origin story than the one we got in flashback in part 2, but that’s for the best: this is a big improvement that undoes some of the first sequel’s continuity flaws. It introduces us to Andre Toulon (played this time by Guy Rolfe) as a kindly puppeteer in early-1940s Berlin, who is forced by the events of World War II to use his magic to fight the Nazis. Soon the puppets are full-on resistance fighters, battling against the sadistic SS Major Kraus (Richard Lynch, doing his best Klaus Kinski). Their tactics may be as bloody and over-the-top as ever, but hey, when they’re killing Nazis that’s ok, right?

"I can't find Buzz Lightyear anywhere!
But when I do, he's dead!"
The decision to reframe the puppets from mini-slashers to Nazi hunters was an inspired one, as it serves both to give them a more compelling back-story, and to allow the viewers to more freely do what we were pretty much already doing anyway: root for them. Sure, they’re still pretty sadistic – more vengeful antihero than outright good guy – but desperate times call for desperate measures, and it’s immensely satisfying to see them slice and dice through Hitler’s troops. Toulon’s story also gets much more depth, and the film allows us to reconcile how someone who seems like such a nice guy could have created such vicious creatures.

As Toulon, Guy Rolfe gives a very good performance, with a dramatic range that brings humanity and relatability to his character’s journey and decisions. The story of Puppet Master III is definitely the strongest yet, but the script certainly has its share B-movie flaws, and Rolfe’s performance has enough depth to gloss over those flaws and sell the sometimes ham-fisted dialogue. Lynch goes in the opposite direction when it comes to making the script work: he simply turns up the crazy and gives us the most ruthless and sadistic bad-guy he can. It definitely works: he is just the sort of truly evil villain the film needs to get us 100% behind the once-villainous puppets as heroes.

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Since they are the protagonists, the puppets themselves get a lot more screen time in Puppet Master III, just hanging out and doing their thing even when they’re not fighting the Nazis. This likewise lends them some depth, and also allows David Allen’s effects work to stand out even more than it did in the previous two films. This sequel certainly has the highest volume of effects shots, both of the stop-motion variety and some very complex wire puppets. The rest of the production looks good, but rough around the edges due to its budget level and B-grade direction; anyone who knows B-movies knows that David DeCoteau is no great director. Allen’s effects, however, look solid all the way, and that they get so much visibility does a lot to give the film a visual flair.

It took three tries to do it, but finally Full Moon put together the strong flick that we wanted Puppet Master to be in the first place. It’s still unquestionably a low-ish-budget B-movie, but within that realm it’s a good one. For the first time in the series the plot works as well as the effects, and it’s a uniformly strong (if still kind of cheesy) package. Plus, since it’s a prequel, it does not require familiarity with the first two to enjoy. If you’re only going to see one Puppet Master movie, skip the others and make it this one; it’s really the only one you need.


Of course, this isn’t nearly the end of the Puppet Master saga. Two more entries in the series were made during Full Moon’s golden age when they were at Paramount, and a handful more after that. We’ll continue reviewing the series, so check back for part 2 in which we cover the two-film story arc of Puppet Master 4 and 5. In the mean time, you can probably give the first two films a pass unless you really like this kind of movie, but definitely consider checking out Puppet Master III to add some tiny terror to your Halloween.

- Christopher S. Jordan

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