So here’s the plot of Puppet Master II in a nutshell: a group converges upon the Bodega Bay Inn and are picked off one by one by killer puppets at the behest of a human villain, but the puppets eventually turn on their master. Sound familiar? Well, okay, they do hammer in a love triangle involving reincarnation and a sort-of immortal being halfway through, but we’ll get to that. The puppets go to a cemetery, conveniently located just outside the hotel, and dig up their creator Andre Toulon (who was now killed in 1941 instead of 1939, but this isn’t a continuity error; apparently Charles Band decided that this movie must take exactly 50 years after Toulon’s death). They pour a green liquid (not that green liquid…I think) onto the corpse, and it begins to stir. Since I already heavily spoiled this movie that’s so old it probably just graduated from college, let me just say that, yep, Andre Toulon is the villain. Given that I know a little bit about what happens in the sequels, this might end up being a case of retconuenza. But, of course, if I shot myself in the head and was brought back to life after five decades of decay, I’d probably be a little off too.
This time around, the Bodega Bay Inn is being visited by a team of paranormal investigators sent from the government who apparently, by their own admission, operate on a shoestring budget and exist just to amuse the public. Alas, no Agent Mulder or Scully are on the team. Instead we have Carolyn, the scientist; Lance, the tech guy; Wanda, who…uh, well, she walks around topless during a scene later; and Patrick, Carolyn’s brother, who just seems to be tagging along. Like with Dana in the last movie, the movie likes to drop hints that there’s more of a backstory between the lines. Wanda and Lance are sleeping together and doing little to disguise the fact, even though it’s very briefly suggested that Lance might be married and has a newborn child. Patrick is an ex-con who can easily pick locks, but we don’t know his crime or if because of his release he doesn’t have much of a choice but to work with his sister. I don’t mean all this as a criticism; movies that leave blanks to be filled by the audience’s imagination are usually doing a good thing, and it’s still more fleshing out than what slasher movie cattle usually get. But, just so ya’ll don’t forget this is a Full Moon production, the interior of the Inn looks nothing like it did in the last movie, with a couple of exterior shots to assure the viewer, “Hey, this is totally the same place!” But that’s not the only thing out of place. See, the investigators are there to figure out why Alex Whitaker went insane after he experienced whatever caused his psychic colleagues to disappear – you know, the same Alex Whitaker who was calmly leaving for a cab at the end of the last movie. As for Megan Gallagher, her corpse was found with its brain missing and evidence that it was extracted through her nose. Poor Megan, but I really am concerned for Dana’s resurrected dog, whose ultimate fate goes unmentioned. (Now there’s an idea for a fan fic!) The team is later joined by Camille, a genuine psychic who is nonetheless reduced to writing a transparently phony column for tabloids. Already unnerved by a run-in with a redneck couple who both serve as this movie’s Crazy Ralph, Camille gets bad vibes and vows to leave as quickly as she came – but not before she’s dispatched by Pinhead. Carolyn’s assumption that Camille just left without telling them gets rudely overturned when Patrick falls victim to Tunneler (who, oops, I called Driller last time!) in a rather gruesome sequence.
However, the team does score a small victory when they nab Tunneler and dissect him, but are shocked to find that he has no organic components whatsoever. This leads Carolyn, who is pretty much your archetypal “Scientist who can only science because she sees the world through a sciencey lens” character, gets exasperated, exclaiming, “It has to be subject to physical laws!” Ha, tell that to Pinhead and his physics-busting strength! Anyway, as Crazy Ralph himself found out the hard way, even rednecks who try to warn the future victims aren’t safe from the malevolent forces they ineffectively warn outsiders about. As the couple lie in bed, Leech Woman, who dispenses with her usual impractical modus operandi and goes for the beautiful simplicity of a dagger, cuts into the brain of the husband. Tragically, the wife proves much more adept at dealing with killer puppets, and Leech Woman gets burned alive. Alas, poor Leech Woman, we hardly knew ye. Luckily, she’s swiftly avenged in the old-school “eye for an eye” fashion by an (inexplicable) newcomer to the gang, Torch, who…you don’t really need me to explain, do you? I have to say, while the design on all the puppets is classic, Torch is probably my favorite. He’s like what would happen if you put all of World War II in a tangible form. Back at Bodega Bay Inn, Carolyn and the rest meet a couple of unexpected guests. The first introduces himself as Erique Chaneé (Get it? Chaney?) and dresses up like the classic Universal monster-style Invisible Man. Of course, it’s actually Andre Toulon pretending to be suffering from a crippling medical condition that isn’t undeath. Now, I know that when we saw him in the first movie he definitely didn’t have a French accent, but here he not only has a French-sounding name but gives himself an even more French-sounding alias. Yet for some reason his accent here is best described as “Transromangarian.” The second interloper is Camille’s son Michael, a motorcycle-riding novelist who came searching for his mother and who promptly discovers, through the autopsied Tunneler, what’s really going on. The two hit it off – and I mean really hit it off – despite…well, who knows, maybe a man and a woman dealing with a likely dead mother and a brutally murdered brother respectively would be inclined to hump away their grief?
In any case, it’s around here where Puppet Master II shifts a bit and turns into basically a love letter to the old-school monster movies of Universal Studios, especially The Mummy. Like in that movie, Toulon becomes convinced that Carolyn is the reincarnation of his dead wife Elsa, who was with him when he first discovered the secrets of bringing life to inanimate objects in Cairo in 1912. Also, just like a villain from that era, Toulon loves to monologue – at the puppets, at Carolyn, at empty air…It doesn’t help, at least for me, that between the fact that Toulon’s actor makes Toulon softspoken and the phony accent I understood maybe half of what Toulon was saying. But the gist is that Toulon has crossed oceans of time yadda yadda. But it is left ambiguous whether or not Carolyn really is the reincarnation of Elsa or if Toulon has gone insane, or at least the script just doesn’t leave any clues that reincarnation is part of the mix other than the same actress playing Carolyn portraying Elsa in a flashback. I would call the movie’s driving plot in its second half a love triangle – but Carolyn is never anything but suspicious of and disgusted with Toulon, treating him like a stalker and unsympathetic to his claimed medical condition, and Michael is conventionally handsome but more wooden than the puppets. But luckily for the audience the puppets are still out killing, with Torch taking on a little boy who…strips his action figure shirtless and begins to whip his back? Okay, this is already my favorite Puppet Master movie, just for not only having the guts to count a kid among its victims, but to also depict said kid as a blossoming sadomasochist. We learn from one of Toulon’s barely audible yet very lengthy monologues that the puppets, particularly Jester, are running low on the liquid that gives them life. To survive another 50 years, they’ll need more of the liquid, which can only be made from a particular part of the human brain. Again, it’s going to be really interesting seeing Toulon as the hero later on in the series. Also stacking the deck against a sympathetic view of Toulon is that he’s modified the plan to include Carolyn. He schemes to use the liquid to transfer his and Carolyn’s consciousnesses into human-size puppet bodies, which really are the scariest things in this film. Yet Carolyn is not sent running when she finds them as she snoops around Toulon’s room, which allows him to capture her when he returns. Oh, like the screenwriter I almost forgot about Wanda and Lance and their tragic and adulterous love affair! They die. (But during their final sequence can you folks at home catch the scene that was in desperate need of a reshoot? I may spoil the plot, but I won’t spoil that). Rather impressively, Michael becomes the first person in the series able to take on most of the puppets (although it helps that they follow martial arts movie rules and only fight him one at a time). Still, it looks like Carolyn is about to be condemned to at least 50 years in a dead-eyed, wooden body…until Toulon makes the amazing blunder of telling the puppets that they’re going to die while he uses up the last of the liquid on Carolyn. Needless to say, the puppets rebel against their own creator, and luckily for them it doesn’t seem like Toulon managed to make his new body all that durable. After the puppets rectify their mistake in bringing their creator back to life, Jester takes a goblet of liquid and heads over to Camille’s corpse… In an epilogue, we see Carolyn and Michael are still a couple, and will hopefully not suddenly go mad and have to be institutionalized between movies.
Meanwhile the puppets are on the road and performing again with a revived Camille in the body Toulon made for “Elsa.” They’re headed to the “Balderston Institute for Troubled Tots and Teens” where hopefully, Camille muses, if any of the audience notices anything strange in their performance nobody would believe them because of their mental illness. If nothing else, it’s a handy allegory for fans of Full Moon! (And naturally I don’t exclude myself…). So how does the first sequel hold up to the original? I’m of two minds. Technically speaking, it is a better movie with a tighter story, apart from the abrupt introduction of Michael and the whole “lost reincarnated love” cliche. On the other hand, it’s not as delightfully chaotic as the original, with your Nazis, psychics, and killer puppets all running loose. Plus here we don’t get to see Leech Woman in action before her tragic death, although the movie does almost make up for it by giving us Sado-Boy…who also tragically perishes. Overall, I’m still optimistic! We’ll soon see what Charles Band has in store for me next time.