To be honest, I’ve really been kind to the first two Puppet Master movies, solely because I’m inclined to be generous to Full Moon Video. Only Chaos! Comics rivals them in my nostalgic slack-giving. Come on, these were the closest things I had to friends when I was growing up!
Anyway, while I did genuinely have a fondness the last two movies in the series, III is the first I’ve seen that I’d really recommend to people, even those who aren’t huge b-movie buffs. The story is better constructed with no out-of-nowhere elements and well-rounded characters that are more than just plot devices, the puppetry is even better with maybe only one or two brief moments where the effects wizardry falters, and it’s even the rare prequel that actually adds something substantial to the mythos. Well, okay, there’s still a lot of continuity clumsiness, but a Puppet Master movie without inconsistent continuity would be like, well, a Puppet Master movie without puppets.
For instance, this movie opens in Berlin in 1941 (what is it with Charles Band insisting that Toulon’s death take place exactly fifty years before the viewing audience’s time?). Toulon is putting on a puppet show that shows a new puppet, Six Shooter, who has six arms with one gun each (hey, NRA, I found you a mascot!), threatening and then shooting at a Hitler puppet. So, yeah, Toulon is putting on a show…where Hitler cowers while being shot…in Nazi Germany…at the peak of World War II…although to be fair you wouldn’t know that part watching the movie. I mean, freedom of speech is great and all that, but it does look like Andre Toulon is begging for a one-way trip to a concentration camp.
This does raise one question: is the Hitler puppet animated? If so, what happens to him? And why can’t we have a sequel where the puppets battle Hitler-puppet?
Admittedly, it’s not just the openly held puppet shows with the Führer getting shot that seals Toulon’s fate. A Doctor Hess (it’s Mr. Pitt!) has been commissioned by the SS to devise a formula that will animate the corpses of fallen soldiers in order to use them as human shields. However, the bodies are only reanimated briefly and, well, basically act like post-Romero zombies. Breathing down Dr. Hess’s neck is a SS commander, Krauss (Richard Lynch!), who himself is feeling the pressure to produce results from General Mueller. Given that in at least half his scenes General Mueller is enjoying orgies, it looks like he’s on loan from a typical Nazisploitation movie. Really, if this movie has one flaw, it’s that it lacks a cameo by Dyanne Thorne.
Krauss, however, is too much a hardass for even the Nazis, probably because he’s played by Richard Lynch. He wants to kill Toulon tout suite, despite Hess’s protests that Toulon might fill in the missing step that keeps his experiments from being successful. So when Krauss’s SS squad is dispatched to capture Toulon, Krauss ruthlessly guns down Toulon’s beloved wife, Elsa, when she spits at him, much to the surprisingly naive and delicate Hess’s horror. On the way to prison, Toulon manages to escape from his Nazi captor thanks to his killer puppets. Finding refuge, he vows to his puppets, “No mercy, my friends! No mercy!” Indeed, Toulon quickly proves his ruthlessness by sending his puppets into a mortuary and they kill an innocent worker while Toulon takes the brain fluid of his late wife, injecting it into a puppet those who’ve seen the last two movies would recognize as Leech Woman.
Does this mean the puppets contain at least part of the consciousness and personality of the people whose brains were harvested for their animation? Yes, yes it does, but we’ll get to that.
After Toulon sends Six Shooter to take out General Mueller (who dies post-coitus, of course), he takes the identity of a beggar and hides out in an alley. There he runs into Peter, an adolescent fan of his show, and Peter’s father, who are also on the run from the SS after Peter’s mother was arrested as a spy. Toulon allows them to take refuge too, but this proves to be a mistake – doubly so. Peter’s father goes to Krauss to try to bargain for his wife’s freedom in exchange for Toulon’s location, while Peter is tricked by Hess into leading him to Toulon.
Here Toulon (who, by the way, doesn’t discount that he wouldn’t send his puppets to kill Hess later) does reveal to Hess the origins of his puppets as he explains that for the animation process to work the brain fluid has to come from an individual with the will to continue living. They’re not only fueled by brain fluid, but, at least in some sense, they do absorb the personality of the individual whose fluid is transferred to them (which really makes Leech Woman’s fate in II extremely dark, as well as confusing considering that Toulon also thinks he’s found Elsa’s reincarnation, but anyway…). Not only did Toulon transfer his late wife’s mind to Leech Woman, but the other puppets (except maybe Torch, who is conspicuously absent) were animated from the remains of friends of Toulon’s who were all killed by Nazis. First, damn, does this put events in II in a whole new light (no wonder the puppets turned on Toulon so violently!). Second, it even darkens Toulon’s character in this movie. We don’t really see how much of the original people’s personalities and memories are retained by the puppets, or if any of the people turned puppets gave their consent before dying (we know Elsa didn’t, unless it was agreed upon in one of the most awkward conversations between spouses in history!). Whether or not the screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner meant it, Toulon doesn’t exactly come across as heroic, even if you do find yourself rooting for his bloody revenge spree.
When Krauss and his SS goons show up, both Peter’s dad and Hess are killed, but Toulon and his puppets manage to flee. This (and not making for the Prussian countryside ASAP) proves to be a fatal oversight for Krauss, who meets the puppets face-to-face in his own office, including Blade, who presumably has been animated through what’s left of Hess and has a face ironically modeled after Krauss’s. The meeting doesn’t last long, as Toulon puts his skills toward giving Krauss a particularly agonizing death as the star of his very own “puppet show.” Next we see Toulon using Krauss’s papers to leave Germany with Peter for Switzerland and then the United States, unaware that the Nazis are still hunting him…
I know it won’t last – trust me – but so far the sequels have been topping the other. And for a series notorious for chucking continuity into the trash, III‘s presentation of Toulon does make it believable that he could turn into the madman, callous toward human life and even his beloved puppets, we encounter in II – no longer having the vaguest of Eastern European accents in III notwithstanding. At least it’s more believable than thinking the villain in II is the same guy as the kindly, meek old man in I. Making Toulon a morally ambiguous hero even in the shadow of the Nazis (and Richard Lynch being his most deliciously psychopathic) does set up a pretty interesting narrative that goes beyond its “avenging my dead wife” premise. It definitely makes for a better horror movie. In that regard, it also helps that the movie, beyond the requisite gore, actually has a few genuinely disturbing scenes: a zombified suicide who shot himself in the head trying in vain to repeat his fatal action, and Toulon looking on passively as the newly animated Leech Woman, carrying what is left of his beloved wife’s consciousness, convulses and groans on a table.
And really just seeing a Puppet Master movie that pits the killer puppets against Nazis is a lot of fun, bottom line. It will be interesting to see what directions the franchise goes in now, and hopefully Full Moon won’t just mine the same old ground over and over again…