Goes to the Movies

Trash Culture Goes to the Movies: Retro Puppet Master (1999)

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After my write-up about Curse of the Puppet Master, which was supposed to be the beginning of the series’ descent into awfulness but instead I found it to be perfectly okay, I thought the series had drilled into my head much like the aptly-named Tunneler and filled me with sympathy for Charles Band’s most beloved creations. Luckily, Retro Puppet Master came along and showed me that, no, it’s still possible not to like a Puppet Master movie.  Oh, Sutekh as my witness, is it possible.

Now the idea is actually rather brilliant, and manages to work from both a storytelling and marketing viewpoint. Aside from a brief flashback in II, which was part of more scenes that didn’t make it to the final cut, we don’t really know much about what Andre Toulon was doing before World War II or how he learned the ability to bring puppets to sentient life. Do a movie about that! But the puppets we know and adore weren’t created until the events of III. So let’s have an earlier set of killer, intelligent but more primitive looking puppets we can sell to our fans!

The execution…well, let me put it this way for those of you who have been following along. Retro Puppet Master makes Puppet Master 4 look like Puppet Master III.  

Our “lost episode” begins with Andre Toulon stopping for the night at an abandoned inn on the German-Swiss border…in 1944.  That’s five years after he committed suicide in California according to the original film (and, putting aside the sliding timescale of Andre Toulon’s escape from Nazi Germany and death which has been sliding since II, you’d think by 1944 the Nazis would have much bigger concerns than just learning the secret recipe for making a living puppet). While Toulon scrounges for food and talks to the puppets, Blade somehow discovers the damaged head of another puppet that Toulon identifies as Cyclops – and by “somehow” I mean his discovery is conveyed by Blade waving his hookhand at the camera and Cyclops’s head rolling on the floor from nowhere. Toulon admits that Cyclops was one of several puppets he had before he created them, and goes on to tell the tale of what happened in 1904. Hopefully Toulon’s recounting includes a description of this frilly ensemble we see his younger self wearing…

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Seriously, I think that’s too many frills even for someone from 1704, much less 1904.

And, yes, that’s Greg Sestero pre-The Room wearing that costume that would provoke homophobic slurs from Richard Simmons. If I remember his account of working on the movie from “The Disaster Artist” correctly, he got cast largely because his mother was French, meaning he could sound convincingly French. That makes sense, since “sounding French” is 95 percent of Andre Toulon’s character here.

Anyway, after a performance at a high-class theater in Paris, Toulon meets an audience member, Ilsa, whose overprotective father is the Swiss ambassador to France. In a twist of fate, he also encounters and saves an old man who appears to just be a victim of a random mugging. In reality, he’s a 3,000-year old sorcerer from Egypt who stole the secret of creating life from the Elder God Sutekh, who has marked him for death. This was a vital move because apparently the only thing standing between Earth and conquest by the Elder Gods are weaponized puppets (although Puppet Master 5 does see Sutekh being destroyed with the help of puppets, so…well played, Charles Band, well played).

Before killing himself as a grand gesture to “protect” himself from being a victim of Sutekh’s, the sorcerer teaches a skeptical Toulon how to bring one of his puppets to life, which he does using the consciousness of a deceased beggar Toulon had befriended. Unfortunately, Toulon doesn’t have much time enjoying his quasi-godhood before he becomes the target of Sutekh’s undead minions, whose powers include killing people with bad special effects and pointlessly repeating each other’s statements and wearing snazzy sunglasses.

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Unfortunately, Toulon’s life goes très mal after becoming a sorcerer’s apprentice. Ilsa has one more awkward and supposedly romantic encounter with Toulon before her father’s henchman whisks her away and practically imprisons her at the embassy. Then Sutekh’s goons murder all of Toulon’s assistants, who conveniently give him the final ingredient needed to bring all of his puppets to life: Blade (not to be confused with non-retro Blade), Pinhead (not to be confused with…you get the idea), Six Shooter, Drill Sergeant, and Dr. Death.

The goons attack Toulon, but luckily they don’t see the puppets get out of Toulon’s suitcase, or approach them from the sides. Perhaps vision among the undead is usually poor. After that skirmish, Toulon decides, rather than risk being blamed for the deaths of his assistants, to leave Paris. However, he’s forced to backtrack when the goons kidnap Ilsa, which turns out to be an effective tactic even though Toulon and Ilsa spent about five minutes of screentime together, and none of them showed Ilsa and Toulon sharing a tender, erotic moment amidst candles and silky sheets. (Honestly, not taking advantage of Greg’s…assets is one way in which this is actually a worse movie than The Room).

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The final battle unfolds on the train back to Paris. Toulon finally saves Ilsa and kills Sutekh’s goons by…having the puppets flank them again while Toulon confronts them head-on. But the fact that the goons fall for the exact same tactic again is somewhat more believable than Ilsa only being slightly discomforted by being kidnapped by supernatural beings and rescued by a man she had a brief, mildly flirtatious relationship who happens to have a small brigade of killer puppets. It’s tru wuv. 

Of course, the happy ending here is somewhat diminished knowing that Ilsa will end up shot to death by a Nazi officer, her consciousness or soul or whatever transferred into the wooden body of a leech-vomiting puppet, and then slowly burned to a second death by a redneck matron. And that Toulon will bite a bullet, get resurrected, and end up an insane stalker mummy killed by his own beloved creations.

As for the retro puppets…Toulon tells the current puppets that their final fate is a tale for another time.  In other words, they joined Camille, Torch, and Rick in the giant black hole that rests in the center of Puppet Master continuity.

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I will admit that Retro Puppet Master may not be the worst movie on Greg Sestero’s resume. I mean, it is from Full Moon Video’s infamous Romanian years with stilted lines delivered from Romanian actors and bad dubbing being abundant, but on a technical level it’s…a film, a statement that can’t be made with 100% confidence about The Room, enjoyable as it is. Nonetheless, the puppetry is a stepdown from even the lows of Curse of the Puppet Master, with the puppets not even appearing to be on the same dimension as their human costars. Plus all the show’s characters are so flat that you would be hard-pressed to think of adjectives to describe Ilsa beyond, say, “female”, or “human.”

Even though Charles Band seems to have wanted the puppets to be very small superheroes from the start, the films that have the puppets as heroes tend to be a wash. Retro Puppet Master is definitely no exception. There’s a hint that the puppets aren’t too happy about being people transferred into small artificial bodies, but it’s barely even suggested. The darkness lurking behind Toulon is nowhere in evidence like it was in the more memorable Puppet Master III. It’s almost as if the series has lost its horror roots, despite the clearly menacing nature of its stars.

But, hey…at least this movie wasn’t 95% footage from previous installments!  Oh, God, what have I gotten myself into?

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