Friday, October 19, 2012

Full Moon Friday: The Best of 'Puppet Master'

Over the past couple of weeks, I have encountered three different movie fans who had never heard of the 'Puppet Master' films, one of Charles Band's signature creations and quite possibly his most famous. One of these people hadn't even heard of Charles Band, nor even the possibility that someone would make a horror movie featuring dolls and puppets.

It's probably one of the many signs that I and the rest of my generation are getting old... and that there's a changing of the trash pop-culture guard going on, as we steadily shuffle off Stage Left and the new kids are taking out place, with whatever icons they are bringing with them.

But as I fade into that gentle night, I want to make a shout-out to a couple of films *I* found scary as a kid... a couple of films I think some of you young whipper-snappers with your youPhones and iTubes might find entertaining. They've even recently been released on BluRay, so you know they've got to be good.

This Full Moon Friday is devoted to the three (out of ten so far) Puppet Master films. Two of them are also the best films--perhaps the only decent films--from director DDavid DeCoteau. Check them out, my young friends. See how weird your parents REALLY are... because these are the sorts of films we rented when when we were your age. Yes... we watched movies about killer puppets and nefarious Nazis. And we had to ride our bikes all the way to the video stores or corner gas stations get them them, sometimes even having to reserve copies in advance. And we watched 'em on video tape. That had to be rewound. AND WE LIKED IT!

Puppet Master (1989)
Starring: Paul Le Mat, Robin Frates, Irene Miracle, Barbara Crampton, Kathryn O'Reilly, Matt Roe and William Hickey
Director: David Schmoeller
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

After their friend commits suicide following his discover of a supernatural secret possessed by WW2-era puppeteer and toymaker Andre Toulon (Hickey). four psychics travel to the mansion he killed himself in to investigate. They soon regret launching their investigation, as Toulon's greatest creations--a group of singularly twisted dolls--come to life in order to stalk and kill them in gory ways.

There are some films that one should allow to live in memory. For me, "Puppet Master" is one of those. I first saw this movie in 1990 or so, and I remembered the general story, and the cool stop-motion killer puppets. However, I had absolutely no memory of how awful the acting is, nor how bad much of the dialogue is.

This is probably still one of the best movies to ever emerge from Full Moon Entertainment, and while that may sound like I'm damning with faint praise, I'm not intending to do so. The stop-motion photography and the design of the very creepy killer toys in the film are top-notch, as is the use of sound throughout the film (especially where the toys are concerned). Leech Woman is every bit as disturbing as a I remembered! In fact, this is really the only time where Leech Woman is as gross and disgusting as she needs to be.

Aside from the puppets, the only other thing that works here is the villain (whose nature I won't comment on for fear of ruining the film for those who may not have seen it). He is a truly monstrous character and the final act of the film, where he is revealed along with the full monstrousness of his actions--making the killer puppets look like the toys they are by comparison--is some of the very best movie making that Charles Band has ever presided over.

Although crippled by the bad acting, the creativity of the story and the deadly toys go a long way to making up for that shortcoming. The stop-motion animation is extremely well done, and it's worth seeing this creepy movie for that alone.

Puppet Master III: Toulon's Revenge (1991)
Starring: Guy Rolfe, Richard Lynch, Ian Abercrombie, Kristopher Logan, Aron Eisenberg, Sarah Douglas and Walter Gotell
Director: David DeCoteau
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When a vicious Gestapo commander (Lynch) murders his beloved wife Elsa (Douglas), Andre Toulon (Rolfe), a puppeteer with the ability to bring his puppets to full and independent life, turns his creations from instruments of mirth and entertaiment into tools of hatred and revenge.

"Puppet Master III: Toulon's Revenge" takes viewers back to a time fifty years before the events of the other films to fill in some of the backstory of the magic puppets that are the main monsters of the film, and to explain why they and their creator is so hate-filled and driven by an urge to destroy.

(It's not quite in step with "Puppet Master II", but then that's a big plus in its favor. As a matter of fact, none of the various Puppet Master movies are perfect fits for each other as far as continuity goes.)

The film has a cast that's each perfect in the role that they play, with the classical-featured Guy Rolfe as Andre Toulon and ferret-faced Richard Lynch as the dispicable Major Krause being giving especially noteworthy performances, and a script that actually feels like it could been lifted from a horror movie set during the time the film takes place. (In fact, the pacing of this movie and the style of the dialogue is one of the things that makes this movie so good... it has a classic 1940s-era horror film feel to it, while still delivering all the Full Moon stop animation and creepy puppets that we expect. Leech Woman is as gross here as she ever was. That we witness her tragic origin makes her even grosser in some ways' I wonder if Toulon ever had a lucid moment in which he asked himself, "Why in God's name did I do that to what was supposed to be an immortalization of my wife's beauty?!")

"Puppet Master III" forms a bridge between the horror world inhabited by the likes of Bela Lugosi, George Zucco, and Lionel Atwill, and the modern B-movie horror era of Full Moon regulars Jeffrey Combs, Tim Thomerson and Robin Sydney. It's a film I think any lover of cheesy horror flicks can find something to like in. (Plus, we get to watch Nazi Ubermenchen be killed by tiny puppets while shrieking like schoolgirls. How can you not love a movie like that?)

Retro Puppet Master (1999)
Starring: Greg Sestero, Brigitta Dau, Stephen Blackehart, Jack Donner and Guy Rolfe
Director: David DeCoteau (as Joesph Tennent)
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

It's 1892 and Andre Toulon (Sestero), the young owner and operator of an avant-garde puppet theater in Paris becomes smitten with Ilsa (Dau), the daughter of the Swiss ambassador, when she attends one of his shows. But before romance can bloom, Toulon and Ilsa become the targets of an ancient cult of demon worshippers attempted to retreive the secret of animating dead matter with the spririt of the living that was stolen from them by an Egyptian mystic (Donner). Even as the minions of the cultists destroy everything Toulon holds dear, they place him on the path to his destiny as the beloved and feared Puppet Master.

"Retro Puppet Master" is the seventh entry in Full Moon's most successful franchise, the Puppet Master series. It's actually a decent movie that offers a level of fright that I haven't seen in the series since the original "Puppet Master" film, as well as featuring a decent script and a talented cast of actors (including Guy Rolfe, in his final role). The gore is low, but the tension and excitement is high, as we witness the creation of Andre Toulon's first set of magical puppets and they go on a rampage in defense of their master and his lady love.

Although the heart of the movie is strong, it still has some fatal flaws.

First, we have the usual Full Moon sloppiness as far as continuity goes. The seventh Puppet Master is a prequel that gives fills in more of Andre Toulon's backstory, but its pieces don't quite fit with what we learned in "Puppet Master", "Puppet Master II" or "Puppet Master III: Toulon's Revenge". (Of course, ignoring "Puppet Master II" counts in this film's favor, as it doesn't fit with any other film in the series, presenting Toulon and Ilsa both as evil psychos.) I've been been a bit bemused by Charles Band's apparent purposeful disregard for continuity in the movies he produces... it's one thing for Universal or Hammer to not give a rat's ass for continuity in the 1940s and 1950s when movies weren't readily available at the corner drugstore or from, but why Band & Company--whose films have been direct-to-video/DVD for most of his career--can't get with the times where it's easy to watch an entire film series back-to-back is beyond me.

Second, "Retro Puppet Master" offers an incomplete story. It ends without explaining a mystery that was set up in the film's framing sequence--how was Toulon's first set of puppets destroyed?--and it ends on the cusp of what sounds like a far more exciting adventure than the one we have just watched, one that will see Toulon and Ilsa in a showdown with the demon cultists. When I see a movie, I expect it to come to a satisfying close, even if the filmmakers are already planning a sequel. This film comes to a close, but it's far from satisfying. (And, to make matters worse, we'll probably never see this story completed, as Band has returned to the series in the "Puppet Master III" mode, with a couple of films set in the 1940s with Toulon's puppets against squaring off against the Nazis.)


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