Goes to the Movies

Trash Culture Goes to the Movies: Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys (2004)

pmvsdtcoverHonestly, when I read that Charles Band himself declared that Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys isn’t canon I assumed he was just being peevish. After all, this installment was just licensed out from Full Moon and produced and released by the Sci-Fi Channel (yes, pre-Syfy, although even then they were making movies, well, like this one!). Charles Band does have an “executive producer” credit, but as most people with even a passing familiarity of showbiz might tell you, executive producers often have even more of a purely symbolic role than the Queen of England (see also Clive Barker with Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth and Tim Burton with Batman Forever).

Anyway, a good reason why Charles Band exiled this film from canon is that it manages to irreconcilably contradict Puppet Master and Demonic Toys continuity. I know I talk a lot about continuity when discussing Puppet Master, but the series’ lack of fidelity to its own overarching story really is fascinating in some deep, profound way. Seeing this movie, which manages to make itself completely incompatible with what little consistent background this series has kept up, is like seeing someone insist on paying for free samples in a grocery store. What makes it even weirder is that this movie was written by C. Courtney Joyner, who does come from Full Moon’s stable of writers and directors and previously wrote for Puppet Master III and the framing story for Puppet Master: The Legacy. I actually tried to dig around to see a reason for why the film’s script is so out of sync, but, apart from finding out that the film had been in Development Purgatory for something like a decade or so, no dice. It’s a mystery for the ages! Or at least until someone not as lazy as me or with actual contacts asks Joyner or Charles Band about it.pmvsdt2Adding to the weirdness is that the puppets just don’t look the way they’re supposed to look. The rest aren’t quite as off as Jester here, but, well, it’s just enough that it feels like you’re watching a knockoff of the franchise, like Marionette Lord or something. It gets even more off when the puppets get turned into cyborgs. Seriously.

Enough about this being faux-Puppet Master; how does this movie set up the clash of the ages? Andre Toulon has a nephew, Robert, who is played by Corey Feldman sporting gloriously unconvincing grayed hair and a bizarre, unnecessary gravely voice that tops Christian Bale’s Batman voice in every possible way. Whether this was the director’s idea or Feldman’s adds to the enigma that is this film. Robert once worked for the toy-selling mega-corporation Sharpe Toys, but now runs a humble doll-repair shop with his daughter Alexandra (Danielle Keaton). Unfortunately, the CEO of Sharpe Toys, Erica Sharpe (Vanessa Angel, of Weird Science: The TV Series…fame?), hasn’t completely washed her hands of her ex-employee. As she spies on him via a ladybug toy, he and Alexandra use their special “Toulon blood” and information from Andre Toulon’s notes to create a formula that revives Blade, Six-Shooter, Pinhead, and Jester, who were found in a Paris auction and weren’t already in the Toulons’ possession, even though Robert describes the puppets as beings who “protected the Toulon family for generations, like guardian angels” (tell that to Andre Toulon!). If they were so important, why did they get separated from the Toulon clan? Or why does it sound like the Toulons got the puppets back by chance? Who the hell knows?

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Erica wants the secret to the Toulon puppets, naturally, but she has a supernatural secret of her own. Her father had sold his soul to the arch-demon Bael to create toys that actually live, resulting in the three Demonic Toys (needless to say, this too has nothing to do with the plot of any of the three Demonic Toys movies). Like any good businessperson, Erica wants to build on the terms of the original deal. She’ll enact a ritual, fueled by the blood of countless virgin receptionists and topped off with Toulon blood, on the dawn of Christmas day that will demonically empower millions of toys modeled after the Demonic Toys sold across the world and bring about the deaths of millions of very disappointed children, all in exchange for her being granted world domination. (It’s also implied that Erica wants to create her own puppet praetorian guard from Andre Toulon’s formula because she’s afraid Bael or the Demonic Toys will try to double-cross her, but the whole thing gets dropped in the film’s third act).

Took notes? No? That’s okay. This movie’s strangely convoluted set-up gets the broad stroke treatment anyway. You’ll just be left wondering why they completely ignored the backstories of both series for the sake of stuffing in brand new details, like that the Toulons got their puppets and the magic blood from a sixteenth century ancestor, Jean-Paul, who also made a deal with Bael but cheated him, which is why Bael wants revenge by wiping out the Toulon bloodline!  *phew*

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Oh my God, in that screenshot Robert Toulon looks at least a little like Mama from Mama’s Family, doesn’t he?

Anyway, the Toulons get an ally, Sgt. Russell (Silvia Suvadová), who investigates a fire caused in an early attempt by Erica’s thugs to steal the puppets and Toulon’s formula. Naturally she’s skeptical when she has to bust Robert Toulon, who while covertly investigating Sharpe’s warehouse interrupts a public relations event while fleeting from the Demonic Toys’ leader (or at least the only one who can talk), Baby Oopsie Daisy, setting up my favorite exchange of the movie:

Have you ever been committed to a mental health facility?
Yes. No. Once, but they released me immediately.


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However, Sgt. Russell changes her mind when she has a run-in with the Demonic Toys at Robert Toulon’s repair shop, brought about by the God of Plot Convenience. Unfortunately, while she’s knocked out by Baby Oopsie Daisy, Erica’s goons storm the (unseen) Toulon grandmother’s spacious mansion where Robert and Alexandra are hiding out and were getting ready themselves to assault Sharpe headquarters with the repaired and cyborg-ized puppets. (“They’re cooler than ever!”, Alexandra Toulon declares unconvincingly). Hilariously, Robert is taking a pre-adventure pee break when Alexandra is captured. Thankfully, Robert has his pants up when he’s soon taken.

It seems like everything’s in place for Erica Sharpe to pull a total Halloween III: Season of the Witch, but she doesn’t take into account three things. 1) Erica being alive and fully recovered from her run-in with the Demonic Toys (this sets up another of my favorite moments; when Sgt. Russell barges in, Erica glares at Baby Oopsie Daisy, who just exclaims, “She looked dead to me!”). 2) The fact that the puppets managed to escape from the steel box they were locked into because Robert Toulon outfitted Six-Shooter with lasers, but, to be fair, I wouldn’t have expected that either. Maybe the mysterious and invisible Grandma Toulon is a higher-up at SPECTRE. 3) Her right-hand man, Julian (Nikolai Sotirov), who had been uncomfortable with the whole “child genocide” scheme, goes to set Robert free…while bringing with him Jack Attack as if he wants to kill Robert…but either way Jack kills Julian with his banshee scream. Alright, Robert and the puppets just escape and Julian gets killed, okay?

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In the secret Satanic altar that rests in the hidden basements of the central headquarters of all huge international corporations, the puppets dispatch the Demonic Toys with disappointing ease, although not before Baby Oopsie Daisy gets to let loose a couple of one-liners, and Blade spoils Erica’s machine-assisted sacrifice of Alexandra. For “reneging” on their deal, Bael takes Erica with him to Hell. Thus ends one of the greatest Christmas movies ever.

So as you might expect from a Sci-Fi Original that tries to adapt a b-movie franchise, this movie’s got issues. The script shows signs, like so many films with a years-long development history, of being messily pieced together from earlier drafts and concepts, which might explain, among other things, why it’s so oddly disconnected from its own parent franchises and why Corey Feldman plays Robert Toulon like he can be anywhere from his late thirties to his sixties. The puppet action actually isn’t quite as bad as we’ve seen from the last couple of Puppet Master installments, but it’s still far, far from being a highlight of the movie, and veterans of low-budget b-movies will probably not be surprised that the puppets versus Demonic Toys portion of Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys is pretty brief.

But to be honest…I rather like it. Corey Feldman’s portrayal of Robert Toulon is as endearing as it is inexplicable. While the subject of some pretty lame fart jokes, Baby Oopsie Daisy is…well, I shouldn’t need to explain the appeal of a serial killer baby doll that talks and cusses like a gangland thug. All things considered, though, it’s Vanessa Angel who steals the show as Erica Sharpe. The scene where she leads a teenage receptionist to her violent death with sociopathic yet childlike glee is almost worth the price of admission alone, and throughout she brings life into a character who is otherwise your standard sexy b-movie villainess.

All that said, it’s still no Dollman vs. Demonic Toys. 

Alright, next time it’s back to the canonical series with two more to go!  Sutek protect me.

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The Forsaken

The Forsaken: It’s Your Move

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As hard as it is to deny that cultural gatekeepers from Hollywood to Doubleday screw up and pass on or outright kill a good project, there are few gems in the cultural landfill. This is even true in the notoriously cutthroat world of network TV. For every Profit or Firefly or Korgoth of Barbaria, there’s at least three Heil Honey I’m Home!s. And if a show is acclaimed but wound up in the slaughterhouse before its second season, it usually ends up a cult classic with more acclaim than even shows that had much longer runs. For an obvious example, it’s a safe bet that people won’t stop hailing Firefly and whining about its treatment by the network until the Earth is consumed by the expanding, dying sun.

So it’s always a rare and wonderful hipster-y thing when you know of a show that’s genuinely very good, never met cult hit status, and yet had its life cut short by executive decree. My own cherished diamond in the rough is It’s Your Move, the entire first, last, and only season of which can be viewed (as of this writing) on YouTube thanks to the Internet’s tireless pop culture preservationists. The show was the second brainchild of producer duo Michael G. Moye and Ron Leavitt, conceived between The Jeffersons and Married…With Children (I bet you – yes, you – didn’t know that, did you? Now that episode of Married… where Peg and Marcy try to drag Al and Jefferson (get it?) to a Jeffersons nostalgia stage show makes more sense!).

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Oh, and the star of the show is a 15-year old Jason Bateman, of “Totally ducking the child star curse” fame.

But besides the element of hindsight what still makes this show stand out is its premise. Matthew Burton (Bateman) is a juvenile con-artist who sells term papers among other things, but covertly gives all the money he illicitly makes to his struggling single mother Eileen (Caren Kaye). Matthew hopes that his mother will marry Mort, a sleazy lumber magnate who will nonetheless keep his mother set for life, and has been driving away all of her less financially secure suitors. Unfortunately for Matthew, an unsuccessful writer named Norman Lamb (David Garrison, whom Leavitt and Moye would bring with them to Married… as Steve Rhodes) has just moved into their apartment building. What Norman lacks in published works he makes up for wits, and proves a match for Matthew’s schemes to drive him out of his mother’s life.

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In a medium and a genre mocked for reheating old premises ad nauseam, it’s a really clever concept for a show, albeit one that might have been hard to sustain for more than a few seasons. The jokes might not seem all that noteworthy today, but in a time oversaturated with family-friendly sitcoms they had that edge that would later carve out a special place for Married…With Children. You can see the resemblance in dialogue like this:

Eli (a friend of Matthew’s): Gee, I wish I had a sister to torture.
Matthew: Ah, use your imagination.  You got a grandmother!

Matthew: Hey, guys today wouldn’t know class if it came up and bit them.
Eileen: I’ve tried.
Matthew: Huh?
Eileen: Nothing.  Nothing.

Matthew: How about calling Mort?  You got his number?
Eileen: Oh yeah.  He makes it very easy. You just dial ZOOLIFE and there he is.

That’s right, two sex jokes in a conversation between a woman and her teenage son!

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Besides the fact that I do think the show is genuinely funny, if perhaps not as distinctive now as it was in 1984 and 1985, it’s really well acted with fleshed-out characters who manage to leave an impression even in the span of 24 minutes. David Garrison is admittedly more or less playing Steve Rhodes here, but his rivalry with Matthew clicks, even if by necessity it and his interest in Eileen are rushed a bit. Matthew himself is a strong center, who gives the show more of a heart than you might expect, more so than Married… anyway with the exception of a few episodes. He goes from conning people to gently urging his mother not to be down herself, showing compassion without losing his core as a genius grifter-in-training.

Speaking of which, it’s the relationship between Matthew and his mother that’s really the most interesting part of the show, at least in the pilot. Without getting too unnatural or precocious, the two have a relationship of familial equals that promised to be a core of the show. The exception is Julie, who is a bit too much the “bossy older sister” archetype, although she too gets a moment where she shows she genuinely sympathizes with Matthew’s motives, just not his methods.

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Fans of Married…With Children might catch glimpses of the show to come, aside from a proto-Steve Rhodes in the spotlight. Eileen’s life of financial and romantic desperation and even the clever Norman Lamb’s status as a failed writer-in-denial are all part of a “comedy of failures” that’s similar to the Bundys’ universe. Matthew and Julie’s interactions are Bud-and-Kelly-esque, but on a slightly more subtle level there’s the underlying idea of streetsmart teens heavily armed with a very adult cynicism.

So why didn’t It’s Your Move get a second season?  The Wikipedia oracle claims it was largely if not entirely because the show was put up against Dynasty. That may very well be, but I suspect its premise was too much to carry. Even the great sitcoms have premises you can spell out in a tiny blurb; not so much with It’s Your Move. It’s tempting to say that this show was before its time and might have thrived in our current “golden age” of television, but I can’t easily imagine it working as a sitcom on a network even today, unless it was put on as “prestige television” on HBO or Showtime, or got retooled as a comedrama.

But luckily, especially if you’re a Married…With Children or a Jason Bateman fan, you can and should dig out this gem for yourself.

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Literary Corner

Trash Culture Literary Corner: Batman & Robin, Chapters 14-15

One of the genuinely interesting things that comes from reading a novel or graphic novel adaptation of a film is that sometimes they’ll include scenes left out of the theatrical cut of the film or only included in earlier drafts of the script. In this case, there are more scenes with Julie Madison, a character from the earliest years of Batman’sjuliemadison existence who in the movie, like in the comics, is Bruce’s fiancee. However, there aren’t as many scenes even in the novel as were actually filmed, and it’s been rumored that on the cutting room floor is a scene where Poison Ivy stabbed Julie to death in the Gotham Observatory. Now that would have jarred the tone up!

Unlike her cinematic predecessors – Vicki Vale, Selina Kyle, and Dr. Chase Meridian (God, I will never not hate that stupid name) – Julie really barely qualifies as even a love interest. In fact, even with all her scenes intact, she barely exists in the film’s universe. She’s even more of a non-entity than Commissioner Gordon, if that’s possible. It’s almost like the filmmakers wanted to crack jokes about Bruce’s real love interest in this movie being Dick. It writes itself!

Anyway, we do get at least one allegedly funny scene where Poison Ivy accidentally ends Bruce and Julie’s engagement when she infects him with her pheromone powers.

“Make a choice,” said the starlet, intensely aware of the swarming reporters. “Her or me, Bruce.”
The rich man hesitated – but only for a moment. “Well, um…her.”

Again, while the movie does show Poison Ivy kill people, even if they’re not Julie herself, her effectiveness as a villain does seem limited to ruining Bruce’s relationship with a woman we barely see.

Speaking of broken hearts, next we switch to Robin, who is more full of angst than a ’90s X-Men comic. Featuring only Rogue and Gambit.

why couldn’t Bruce just be happy for him, for godsakes? Why couldn’t he, of all people on earth, understand how good it felt to be loved again – really loved – and to have someone to love in return? […] The wind howled around him, echoing the howling in his heart. How could Bruce be so cruel to him? How?

Okay, now I’m convinced that Michael Jan Friedman is in on the big gay joke too.

Actually, even though for a while it seemed like Michael Jan Friedan was on auto-pilot, this might be another case of the author’s good ideas being constrained by the crappy script he’s adapting.  Whether or not Robin’s tantrum is being brought on by Poison Ivy’s influence, there is a germ of an interesting concept in exploring how Bruce, who obviously has one or two emotional issues, might actually have problems being a paternal figure and offering psychological comfort to even someone who went through a trauma very similar to what he did. Bruce might just assume that bringing Dick Grayson into his mission of justice is all the resolution he needs, which is very much not the case. There’s something to how troubling it is, and yet so natural to the character, that Bruce Wayne’s worldview is so shaped by one horrible event that he would subconsciously assume that anyone who also lost family to criminal violence would be made whole by becoming a vigilante like he did. The implications of that for all young characters who adopt Batman’s legacy, including both Robin and Batgirl, can fuel many stories (all better than this one, of course).

batmanandrobinrobinAt least I think that’s what Michael Jan Friendman is hinting at. Even if he is, it still gets buried under the stupid and forced “love triangle” between Batman, Robin, and Poison Ivy. I mean, someone had to realize at some point that it’s not much of a conflict when everyone knows Robin and Batman are just under Poison Ivy’s influence, right? Trust me, in prose form it’s even more obvious.

What’s not expected is what Alfred planned as his “replacement” in the event of his death. In the movie it comes across as a bizarre, lazy, and deranged deus ex machina. In the book, it…comes across as a bizarre, lazy, and deranged deus ex machina.

“I anticipated a moment might arrive,” said the image, “where I became incapacitated. As a precaution against such a circumstance, i programmed my brain algorithms into the Batcomputer and reated a virtual simulation – the one you see before you.”
Bruce stared for a moment. then he shook his head in admiration of the older man’s genius.

Oh, my elderly butler and father-figure created an AI clone of himself – impressive, but ain’t no thing.

Okay, I can buy the charitable arguments that Batman & Robin was scripted with not only the ’60s television series, but also with the campy Silver Age comics in mind, but I think even in those stories this would have been too much of a plot convenience. And I mean it would have strained suspension of disbelief even right next to that Silver Age saga where Alfred was believed killed by a boulder, secretly brought back to life but accidentally turned into a monster by a scientist, and plotted to destroy Batman and Robin for no reason.batmanandrobinalfredai

It doesn’t help that Alfrednet only exists to help Barbara figure out that Bruce and Dick are Batman and Robin, and help her become Batgirl…say it with me, for no reason. At least in the book that stupid blazing red Batman logo doesn’t glow on her face from the computer screen, showing the worst kept secret in history.

To be fair, in the book Alfrednet also does pretty much everything to get Bruce to figure out that he and Dick have been under the control of Poison Ivy’s pheromones, which…you know what, Batman, you do not get to call yourself the “World’s Greatest Detective” anymore. Bad Batman!

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