Goes to the Movies, Uncategorized

Trash Culture Goes to the Movies: Future Shock (1994) (a.k.a. the “Satan’s Slut” movie)

If in the mid-late ’90s you watched a lot of movies over the weekend on USA Network (like me), you may recall being exposed to a quirky horror/sci-fi anthology film titled Future Shock. But, like me, you might not have even remembered the actual title of the film, instead only recalling a memorial scene where a shy, uptight man is driven to shout “Satan’s slut!” in recognition at seeing a woman’s dead body. Indeed, if you’re even more like me, you might have thought that the line “Satan’s slut!” was said multiple times, which, sadly, isn’t the case.

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If not that, you might know this movie for Vivian Schilling, the writer/director and star of Soultaker of MST3K notoriety and who stars in the first segment, “Jenny Porter”. And if not that, you might have heard this movie stars Bill Paxton in its second and most well-known segment, “The Roommate”, or that the third writer/director to contribute to this anthology through its last segment, “Mr. Petrified Forrest”, is Matt Reeves, who created the TV series Felicity, directed the modern Planet of the Apes films, and has recently been tapped to fire up a new Batman film franchise yet again.

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The narrative glue that brings this anthology together concerns Dr. Langdon (the hugely prolific Martin Kove), a psychologist who delves into the cutting edge of ’90s virtual reality for therapeutic purposes, treating his patients’ phobias and anxieties by subjecting them to intense and convincing false memories. Each of the anthology’s stories revolves around a different patient: a wealthy woman Jenny (Vivian Schilling) faces her fear of being home alone as she experiences being stalked by a mysterious wolf-like creature that defies even her paranoid security measures; a shy, neurotic, and easily intimidated morgue attendant George (Scott Thompson) gets stuck with the ultimate roommate from hell Vince (Bill Paxton), but things quickly get far more serious than just sleepless nights and late rent payments when George becomes the prime suspect in the brutal murder of Vince’s one-night stand, “Satan’s slut” (Timothi-Jane Graham); and a photographer Fred, after witnessing the sudden death of a close friend, has to choose between conquering his paranoia about death and a blossoming romantic relationship with a woman named Elfie (Pat Alexander)…that is, if he hasn’t already been marked by death itself.

As an anthology, it actually works quite well. The theme of being irrationally paralyzed by fear actually runs strongly through all three vignettes and the tone and quality remains consistent, although I do agree with the critical consensus—well, such as it is out there—that “Jenny Porter” is the best of the segments, especially in how it communicates a genuine feeling of helplessness and dread. It’s undermined a little by some constant shots of wolves and dogs where the story would have been better served by keeping the threat reduced to growls from an invisible source, but that’s a mild complaint for an otherwise genuinely well-presented and well-acted study of terror in isolation.

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But that’s not to say the other two segments are worth skipping; far from it. “The Roommate” is darkly funny from how Bill Paxton captures the spirit of a grown-up bully in the same mold as the thug who kicks sand in the skinny guy’s face at the beach to George’s boss, who is (mostly) mute and communicates his emotions and instructions through very grim facial expressions. And while “Mr. Petrified Forrest” is probably ill-fitting for what is to some degree a horror anthology, it does its work through some pretty effective storytelling, like a fairly subtle scene where Fred’s father nearly breaks through his son’s paranoia but he realizes some badly timed news has made his efforts futile. It also has some beautiful shots, from Fred slowly watching a small plane that crashed and is burning in someone’s front yard to him sitting in bed bathed in blue and surrounded by film stock, highlighting his fear and its consequences better than dialogue ever could. There isn’t much to say about the framing story about Dr. Langdon because it isn’t much of a story in of itself, although it does also have a genuinely funny section in which a staff member frightens away a couple of prospective patients by arguing about a previous patient who went insane from the virtual reality treatment on the phone.

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That said, there are some baffling creative choices here and there. There’s a bizarre sequence meant to communicate the idea of a “food chain” that involves a random man who is implied to have violently kicked a dog for no reason (!!). Also the ending, which sees Dr. Langdon apparently tempted by his own virtual reality device or questions his own sense of reality, and a brief scene where Jenny’s virtual reality experience is being observed by a group of doctors within the dream itself don’t really make sense and feel like remnants of an earlier draft of a script left in. This is somewhat supported by the fact that this movie had an indie comic book adaptation of all things, discussed by Linkara here, which does give more context to both the doctors and the ending with Dr. Langdon, but in my research I couldn’t verify if the comic is actually based on an earlier draft of the script, in which Dr. Langdon had much more sinister motives but was also himself a patient experiencing virtual reality, or if the comic was deliberately “dumbed down” for a stereotypical comic book readership or a little from column A and column B.

As for the movie itself, it doesn’t quite transcend its low budget, so it has an unpolished feel, which depending on your tastes is part of its charm or one of its flaws. Nor do all three of the segments seem to have been originally written for the virtual reality motif. Only “Jenny Porter” really feels as if it was intended for the framing story. “The Roommate” has a twist ending that really doesn’t make sense as part of George’s virtual reality experience while “The Petrified Mr. Forrest” has its own framing device of sorts, Fred having a near-death experience in Purgatory, which means in a way that the story is double framed. Again, though, the stories do share and effectively convey a common theme, which is more than can be said for a lot of movie anthologies.

While I’m more conscious of the flaws here than I was when I first saw the movie as a kid, I’m still very fond of it. It’s genuinely a solid anthology that I would still say is worth watching if you catch it on YouTube or dig up the DVD or VHS copy somewhere. This is even more true today, as it’s the sort of creative, low-budget movie that’s sadly an endangered species in our current era of mega-media monopolies and creatives who are spoiled by choice for potential platforms yet are starved of opportunities for getting their work out there.

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Goes to the Movies, Uncategorized

Trash Culture Goes to the Movies: Puppet Master X: Axis Rising (2012)

It’s been a long, tough road, full of disappointments that would have broken a lesser person, but at last we come to the final mile, Puppet Master X: Axis Rising.

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It’s entirely possible that watching all of these movies in such a short time framewell, by the standards of my glacial posting schedule, anywayhas warped my perception of quality. I’m certainly seeing the merits of an entire franchise built around killer puppets more than I once thought I would, and I have spent many hours in vain fretting over Puppet Master continuity (or lack thereof). So when I say that Axis Rising really isn’t all that bad, my opinion might be as reliable as someone who’s been in a cult for ten years. But honestly it’s not the worst Puppet Master movie, and it’s definitely not as bad as Axis of Evil. For starters, they actually got the budget to use Six-Shooter!

Of course, it’s still plagued by all the problems that come out of recent Full Moon films. There’s the racism that would get even the most anti-tumblr blogger go, ”That’s so wrong,” and was on the same level as the buck-toothed Japanese tourist from Gingerdead Man vs. Evil Bong, but at least that was (allegedly) a comedy. Then there’s the script that seems to have been ab-libbed from a few notes scribbled down on a couple of deli receipts. Or to put it in Full Moon terms their recent output makes their own ’90s third-rate Anne Rice-y Subspecies saga look like an Akira Kurosawa film.

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What plot there is directly follows up on the events of Axis of Evil (then shouldn’t that film have been Axis Rising and this one Axis of Evil? Well, yeah…). Ozustill dressed like a geisha and not using a gun for reasons that can only be discerned from Charles Band’s fever dreams—is betrayed and killed by Moebius (!) (Scott King), a Nazi officer whose skills at infiltrating enemy territory is best illustrated by the fact that he shows up in full Nazi regalia out in the alleys of Los Angeles just to dispatch Ozu. But before Ozu dies she hands a captive Tunneler to Moebius, who then gives the captive puppet to a captive Austrian scientist, Dr. Freuhoffer (Oto Brezina), and his Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS-like aide, Uschi (Stephanie Sanditz). See, Moebius got his hands on the same secret knowledge about creating and preserving life from the Old Ones that Toulon did, because he [backstory needed], so he just happens to be having Dr. Freuhoffer develop a resurrection machine.

And as sick as I am harping on the franchise’s infamous lack of continuity there’s no reference to the events of Puppet Master III, no matter how obvious that would be. In fact, neither Dr. Freuhoffer or Moebius seem to even acknowledge that the Nazis have been after Toulon for the very same knowledge Moebius is currently using. Even though they could have made the connection with just one line.

…we’re though the looking glass here people. The looking glass of really sloppy continuity.

However Moebius got the not-so-secret secrets of Sutek, he’s oblivious to their applications to the world of puppetry, until Dr. Freuhoffer stumbles upon a way to create his own Axis-themed puppets.

Still, it is excusable given how tight this film is. The director couldn’t be expected to sacrifice the pivotal scene where Dr. Freuhoffer changes from his street clothes to a lab coat, after all.

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Anyway…Danny and Beth (now played by Kip Canyon and Jean Louise O’Sullivan, respectively) are acclaimed as heroes by the military, barely managing to hide the truth about the involvement of Toulon’s puppets. Nor does any of this put a stop to Danny’s endless whining about how he can’t enlist with the army because of his bad leg. It does mean, however, that Danny and Beth are given a military escort in case they are targeted for retaliation. At the same time they are invited to meet a famous American general, who will be visiting Los Angeles instead of at the European or Pacific theaters because [half-assed explanation not found]. Unfortunately, the general’s visit comes to the attention of Moebius, who decides to test Dr. Freuhoffer’s team of puppets—Bombshell, Blitzkreig, Weremacht, and Kamikaze—by sending them to assassinate the general…

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I guess I can sum up the problems with this movie by talking about the subplot, where Dr. Freuhoffer is only working with Moebius because he and Uschi (who, by the way, doesn’t deserve to even hold Dynanne Thorne’s riding crop) are holding his daughter captive and Uschi is sadistically toying with him erotically. Then Dr. Freuhoffer never mentions his daughter again and is genuinely in some kind of weird erotic yet unfulfilled dom/sub thing with Uschi, which is enough to get her killed by a jealous Moebius and turned into Bombshell by a Freuhoffer who genuinely mourns her. Then Dr. Freuhoffer seems to go along with Moebius 100 percent, especially because he has at least one perfect opportunity to kill him, even though he’s murdered the woman he apparently genuinely has fallen in love and/or has his daughter captive. Then Dr. Freuhoffer seems to turn against Moebius, but still isn’t upset when Bombshell, who really is all that’s left of Uschi, is destroyed. I’ve seen a lot of bad movies over the years, but this is the first time I’ve been almost positive that the script was being written as the movie was getting filmed.

To be fair, though, by the last act if you’re anything like me you would have given up trying to figure out what the hell Dr. Freuhoffer’s entire character arc is supposed to be. And Dr. Freuhoffer’s subplot seemingly gets almost half the screentime! You are getting more plot for your buck than you did with Axis of Evil, in that at least Axis Rising actually feels like it’s leading up to something. That something is the showdown between Toulon’s puppets and the Axis puppets. Okay, the showdown is less than epic because the puppets look cheaper than ever (especially Leech Woman, who looks like a discount doll picked up at a flea market) and they didn’t have the budget to show the puppets do…much, but honestly the very idea of Axis puppets is awesome.

Well, awesome, except for Kamikaze, who looks like…

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…yeah.

Okay, you could make the point that, like the racist-patriotic dialogue from the last movie, it is appropriate to the context. After all, it’s a puppet designed by a Nazi sympathizer (well, depending on which point in the movie you’re watching) or even outside the Nazi connection someone who’s a European born sometime around the end of the nineteenth century. But context still doesn’t quite change the fact that Kamikaze would have looked offensively jarring in a 1972 movie, much less a 2012 one!

As for our protagonist…what is there to say? They’re both portrayed by better actors this time around, but the characters barely have any personalities to work through. There’s a few cute moments as Beth and Danny cope with being babysat by your standard issue military hardcase with a heart of gold, Sgt. Stone (portrayed to low-key perfection by character actor Brad Potts). You might think that Danny gets a real character arc, which ends with him realizing he can contribute to America’s war effort without actually being on the battlefieldwhat with him having killer puppets who are totally loyal to him, and allbut you’d be wrong! What passes for his character arc ends with him getting a promise from the general to allow him to finally enlist. You probably shouldn’t be getting your life lessons from the Puppet Master series anyway, much less from the tenth installment, but all the same ”People should contribute to a cause in one narrow way, regardless of their particular skills or disabilities” doesn’t strike me as a particularly solid moral.

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So, you may be wondering as you read the above, how exactly is Axis Rising better than Axis of Evil? Well, you know, in militantly low-budget affairs like these a concept means everything, and having an enemy team of puppets is such a good idea it’s shocking it wasn’t done in, say, 4 and 5, which were handicapped with aggressively boring antagonists. Also the acting was slightly better, with more professional actors in the pot, and it felt like it actually had much more going on, albeit a plot where one of the villains’ motivations change with every act.

Between writing this and writing about Axis of Evil, I found out that Charles Band, like how even established indie and middle-tier directors have to do nowadays, is crowdfunding the latest installment in the Puppet Master saga. So if reading these reviews has whet your appetite for some killer puppet action, here’s my official ranking. (Keep in mind, though, that it’s all relative, so I’d definitely only recommend the top three for people who aren’t already Charles Band devotees).

  1.  Puppet Master III
  2. Puppetmaster
  3. Puppet Master II
  4. Curse of the Puppet Master [probably the one disagreement I’d have with most fans of the series, who’d probably put 4 & 5 on this slot if not higher, so…watch at your own risk!]
  5. Puppet Master 4 & 5 (they’re already the same movie)
  6. Puppet Master: Axis Rising
  7. Retro Puppet Master
  8. Puppet Master: Axis of Evil
  9. Puppet Master: Legacy [dead last because it’s not actually a movie!]

Of course, I’ll be the first in line to watch the new movie, because I’m in this for the long haul! And with a new Puppet Master coming out maybe we’ll finally get an idea of what Legacy was supposed to lead up to…

Nah, just kidding, it’s also going to be about Danny and Beth’s adventures during World War II!

Can you feel my excitement?

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Goes to the Movies, Uncategorized

Trash Culture Goes to the Movies: Puppet Master: Axis of Evil (2010)

We have hit the nadir, everyone.

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The worst offense of Puppet Master: Axis of Evil isn’t really that it’s very bad, but that it’s very generically bad. Full Moon’s output the past decade or so has generally been a sour crop, but at least even Evil Bong and Gingerdead Man have that surreal, home-movie-filmed-in-your-garage quality to them that, for me at any rate, salvages a few of Full Moon’s movies in the 21st century. Plus for Evil Bong and Gingerdead Man an awesome voice for the titular bong and Gary Busey, respectively. With Axis of Evil, it’s like you’re getting your bad movie served watered down and mixed with flat soda to boot. Even the parts of it that are downright offensive—which we’ll get to, definitely—are somehow lazily, uncommittingly offensive.

Given Charles Band’s obsession with comics, I suspect this movie is the oddest Captain America adaptation ever, even more so than that Reb Brown ’70s Captain America movie where he doesn’t have a costume and only gets into a fight once. See, our new puppet master is Danny (Levi Fielher). He only wants to join his brother Don (Taylor M. Graham) who is fighting as a soldier fighting in World War II, but Danny was crippled by polio. Instead Danny switches between living with his mother Elma (Erica Shaffer) in Los Angeles and working for his uncle, who owns the Bodega Bay Inn.

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Of course, instead of being exposed to a secret formula developed by a Nazi defector, Danny happens to not only befriend Andre Toulon, but witnesses him being menaced by two German agents and finds his body (using footage from Puppetmaster intercut less than seamlessly with original footage). Danny retrieves Andre Toulon’s hidden cabinet and returns to Los Angeles with it. He manages to work out how to revive the puppets—although he tells Don he doesn’t have time to fix Six-Shooter’s arms, a bit of handwaving so clumsy that his dialogue might as well have been “We just didn’t have the budget to animate Six-Shooter.”

Like most Puppet Master protagonists, Danny is surprisingly nonplussed at the prospect of living, sentient puppets, but to be fair he does have other problems. Danny gets even more self-conscious when he visits his girlfriend Beth (Jenna Gallaher), who works in a bomb factory, and is berated by her boss, Mr. Gifford (Mike Brooks), for—somehow not being able to disguise his limp long enough he can join the army and keep fighting throughout the war? I don’t know; “it was a different time” and all,  but berating a disabled polio survivor for somehow not miraculously deceiving the US Army into letting him join the war effort seems politically incorrect even for the 1940s. Honestly, what really seals this as a bad horror movie is that Mr. Gifford is set up as such an asshole, but he suffers no well-deserved karmic death.

Luckily, though, Danny is going to be given a shot at serving the war effort, whether he wants to or not. He recognizes one of Beth’s co-workers as one of the two men sent to kill Andre Toulon, Max (Tom Sondoval), and that gives him enough thread to untangle a conspiracy between Max and a Japanese spy, Ozu (Ada Chao), to blow up the very same factory Beth happens to work in. When Danny’s family pays the price for his nosiness and Beth is kidnapped, it’s time to unleash Toulon’s puppets, including a new one of Danny’s own making containing the consciousness of his freshly murdered brother…

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I already pointed out the Captain America parallels, but the whole affair really does feel like a filmed Golden or Silver Age Marvel superhero origin story. You could replace Mr. Gifford with “Flash” Thompson or any of the nameless bullies who always appear in Stan Lee-penned origin stories, for example. The filmmakers also aren’t shy about recreating the casual racism of both the era and the comics from it. Danny and Don drop the “Jap” and the “Kraut” words like…well, like Americans from the time would have said them.

Unfortunately, the movie goes a little too far in its quest for uncomfortable authenticity. Alright, followers of this blog—all twelve of you—know that I’m not one of those cultural commentators to casually cry racism or misogyny or homophobia. Also I’m sure what the screenwriter, perhaps at the prompting of Charles Band himself, was deliberately going for a simple World War II morality tale, in the style of the comic books of the 1940s and Stan Lee’s heyday. There’s something to be said for that approach, especially after we recently got a Captain America movie that ducked the whole issue of 1940s social attitudes, not even really trying to establish that Steve Rogers pre-superhero was a forward-thinking guy like the comics have, to the point that even the Nazis got quietly shoved under the rug.

However, I cringed—not just physically, but on the level of my very soul—when Ozu first shows up looking like a geisha (despite the fact that she’s supposed to be pretending to be a Chinese-American in Chinatown!). And then when she has two goons who dress like they just stepped out of a movie about feudal Japan. And then when she battles the ninja puppet (yes, there’s a ninja puppet now, and it looks like it was put together during the lunch period right before art class) she says a line of dialogue that implies that the ninja should be on her side, because…ninja. I think I blacked out from sheer embarrassment by that point.

Again, I’m sure (well, reasonably sure) that the screenwriter doesn’t really believe that the Japanese of the 1940s went around acting like the modern age never happened. This was, after all, how the Japanese might have been depicted in a real comic book from the time. It’s just there’s a reason you can’t do these types of portrayals anymore, at least not without an injection of irony or without giving your ethnic villains a couple of humanizing aspects. It just doesn’t help that Beth earnestly spouts lines like “You’ll never defeat freedom and democracy!”to Max. Or that the two Nazi agents hate baseball but easily fit in with Americans just by pretending to like it. Or when Danny self-righteously lectures Ozu that kamikaze pilots may have guts but they’re not actually brave (whatever that means).

There is a tiny bit of humanization when Max seems to have fallen for Beth and is genuinely concerned for her even after he’s kidnapped her, but rather than becoming even just a half-baked subplot it just switches back to Max threatening to murder her.

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Of course, none of this is helped by the fact that the acting is uniformly terrible. I haven’t really talked about the acting in this series much because I thought it didn’t need to be said that it was for the most part what you would expect from an outfit like Full Moon, but some of the performances here are outshone by the dubbing in Retro Puppet MasterI will admit that we do get a more than decent performance out of Tom Sondoval as Max, despite him playing a villain who barely even has one dimension, but even he doesn’t try to bother with the hint of a German accent or an obviously affected American accent, something that gets clumsily explained away by a line about his “excellent English.” By this point in the series, it’s probably no longer worth discussing at length that the puppetry has gotten so cheap and half-assed that just using the term “special effects” is a stretch.

There are really only two nice things I can say about the movie. One, for a low-budget film the set design is genuinely good-looking with an air of authenticity, especially with Danny’s patriotically decked bedroom. Two, at least it’s not a painfully self-aware “comedy” like most of Full Moon’s recent output or, to put it another way, at least it’s not Gingerdead Man vs. Evil Bong. Otherwise I don’t even know if I can justify why this movie exists. It’s a prequel that doesn’t even fill in any gaps in the movie’s mythos. I guess it’s meant to just milk more out of the World War II setting of what’s generally agreed to be the franchise’s strongest outing, but even there it’s a hollow effort. The money poured into the historical set design would have been better spent on halfway-decent puppetry. At least the film does have the triumphant return of Leech Woman in her full disgusting glory, I guess?

While writing this I was debating with myself over whether or not this is worse than Retro Puppet Master. I have to conclude that it really is. At least Retro had an interesting idea, however lazily executed, and a point for the series. Even that much cannot be said for this outing.

But you know what’s really sad? There’s one more movie in the series, and it revisits World War II again!  I suspect I might just end up copying and pasting most of what I said here.

 

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Goes to the Movies, Uncategorized

Trash Culture Goes to the Movies: Children of the Corn 666: Isaac’s Return (1999)

Oops, looks like I picked up the wrong long-running horror franchise! Well, okay, honestly I just need to take a break from the Puppet Master franchise, especially because we’re about to enter the Dark Age of Full Moon, when the company catastrophically tries to get into the joke. (If you don’t know what I mean, try watching Gingerdead Man 2: Passion of the Crust. Actually, no, for God’s sake don’t do that! No!)

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Honestly I do think the original Children of the Corn is underrated today, especially by the usual standards of Stephen King adaptations. I probably would never go so far as to claim it’s a dishonored classic, but it is a film I’d recommend to the right person. The premise is fantastic, the setting is classic American gothic, and while the execution has its flaws it’s still got its pluses even there, most particularly in John Franklin’s performance that manages to give film history the most petulant dark messiah ever.  I do think it should have kept the ending of the source material where the protagonists are killed, but…to be honest, I say that about everything. Also the plot is not the most fertile ground for a string of sequels, but it was the ’80s and ’90s so we got them anyway.

…which is why calling it 666 does seem like they’re actually calling it film number 666 as a joke about how many damn sequels every horror movie got back then.

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For what I suspect is the first time in the series someone actually willingly goes to Gatlin, Nebraska. A college-aged woman, Hannah (Natalie Ramsey), arrives searching for her birth mother, about whom she knows nothing except that she was a member of the child-cult that murdered all of the adults in Gatlin. She finds that Gatlin is still half-abandoned, populated mainly by grown-up cultists and their children, who are at oldest teenagers. Her welcome into town is, naturally, a bizarre one. First she picks up a hitchhiking preacher who mysteriously disappears, shocking Hannah into nearly crashing the car. Next she’s confronted and grilled by Sheriff Cora (Alix Koromzay), who is just old enough to have been a former cult member and who assumes that Hannah is one of apparently many tourists who have read about the “Gatlin Massacre” online and have come to gawk. However, when Cora gets Hannah’s full name off her driver’s license, her attitude suddenly changes and she graciously takes Hannah to the nearby hospital.

In an all but deserted hospital filled with equipment that hadn’t been touched in many years and institutionalized ex-cult members, the only above-35 adult—indeed, the only actual medical professional—Hannah encounters is ”Doc” (Stacy Keach!). (I think the film is subtly laying out that ”Doc” is Burt from the first film. There’s one flaw with that theory that I’ll get into later, but having a somewhat mysterious doctor character who is the right age, who is very invested in what happens in Gatlin, and who Isaac recognizes be Burt just makes too much sense). After being checked out by Doc, Hannah is accosted by a mental patient in the hospital, Cora’s brother Jake (William Prael), who tries to warn her about Isaac but unfortunately he takes the ”ranting would-be killer” approach. In fact, Jake’s earnest if deranged attempt to warn Hannah backfires so badly she ends up in Isaac’s hospital room, where he’s waking up as if in response to Hannah’s presence.

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And…well, he is! According to a prophecy from the cult’s god, He Who Walks Behind The Rows, Hannah, as the first female child born to any cult members, is meant to have sex with the first male child, which will…hm, result in something unspecified but really bad! Fresh and rosy from his coma, Isaac quickly takes control of the town, with apparently little resistance. Hannah at least realizes her quest has become much more complicated. Can she trust her biological mother, Rachel (Nancy Allen!) or the cute guy who has happily come to her aid Gabriel (Paul Popowich)? Who exactly is supposed to ”help” Hannah fulfill the prophecy? And is it too late to stop the return of not only Isaac, but He Who Walks Behind The Rows? (Spoiler: it totally is!)

Anyway, Children of the Corn 666 is not a particularly good film, but it’s a pretty good sequel, if that makes sense. Granted I might be biased since I’m coming right off the Puppet Master series, and really as a connoisseur of bad horror movie franchises in general, but I was impressed just how faithful to the original film this sequel is and how it genuinely tries to—shock—build on the first film’s story. First there’s the vague presentation of Doc as Burt. I mean, it is possible I’m off-the-mark because Isaac accuses Burt of taking Rachel away from Gatlin when in the first film the girl he rescues is actually named Sarah, but even if it’s a mistake by the screenwriter it doesn’t dispel the theory. Then there’s   Isaac being shaken and disgusted when he feels he has to personally kill a ”heretic”, a nice bit of characterization referring back to Isaac’s squeamishness being the reason for his original downfall. However, even that’s ruined by the decision to turn it into a goofy gore moment where the human body can apparently get cut apart as easily as paper mache.

Plus, in a confrontation between Isaac and Hannah, there is this fantastic exchange:

“Did you kill my father?
He sacrificed his life to a power greater than himself.
He Who Walks Behind The Rows?
No.  Me.”

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And, generally, I want to give this movie kudos for having a genuinely good premise for a sequel to a movie that’s closer to the Highlander end of the scale for films that could spawn natural concepts for sequels. Exploring the aftermath one generation later is a really strong idea, and I like some of the implications the film hints at, particularly that most of the surviving cult members of the Children of the Corn either stayed in town or ended up so damaged they were institutionalized, albeit in a hospital that should really look into novel ways of restraining their patients…like putting them in rooms with the doors locked.

So, yeah, there’s a surplus of the goofy quirks you expect from movies like this. Like how the hell Cora managed to grab Hannah’s keys from her own ignition without her noticing. Or what the hell is going on with the preacher’s ghost (was it even a ghost, or was he alive and inexplicably teleported from Hannah’s car and got killed in Gatlin later for no reason?). Or how Jake stole Jason Vorhees’ convenient teleportation powers? Or why Hannah seems to know who He Who Walks Behind The Rows is at least halfway through the film but demands to know what He Who Walks Behind The Rows is in the film’s climax? Or…well, you get the idea.

Overall the movie doesn’t delve into ”ooh, it’s all a mystery” territory like seemingly almost every contemporary low-budget horror movie on Netflix; there’s a few vague things like Doc’s identity (but he’s totally Burt, you guys!) or what exactly He Who Walks Behind The Rows is trying to achieve by masquerading as Gabriel (beyond the obvious pulling-a-Omen), but nothing that gets in the way of understanding the plot. What does muddle the proceedings, though, is such lazy horror movie scares like the ghost-maybe-or-not hitchhiking preacher or the scars from one or two slashed scenes, if not whole subplots.

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But there are bigger issues that get in the way too. Once he’s revealed, the mysterious, seemingly all but omnipotent big bad of the entire franchise, He Who Walks Behind The Rows, comes across as just another ’90s wisecracking horror villainalthough his treatment of Isaac, especially his succinct command, “Get on your knees, bitch”, does seem like a poignant allegory for the Old Testament God’s relationship with his most loyal followers. Still, making He Who Walks Behind The Rows a second-rate Freddy Krueger does take the potential epicness completely out of the long-waited confrontation between a tragic fanatical yet somehow reluctant disciple and his insane, bloodsoaked god. It’s all enough to make you wish Stephen King would do a ”reverse adaptation” and make the premise of this film into a novel.

All that said, as far as low-budget, straight-to-video, late-stage sequels to franchises that have been milked to bone, it’s honestly better than it should be. In fact, it makes me reluctant to go back to Puppet Master. Damn my obsessive completionist-ism!

 

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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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Goes to the Movies

Trash Culture Goes to the Movies – Puppet Master: The Legacy (2003)

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So you know how sitcoms from the ’80s and ’90s would sometimes have one or two clipshow episodes, and no one ever liked those episodes even when they bothered to have a few scenes of new material? Well, movie franchises that have gone straight-to-video have the movie equivalent of those too! That’s exactly what Puppet Master: The Legacy is, with a whopping eight minutes of original footage.

At least those eight minutes end with a cliffhanger. But this also happens to be the last film in the series, chronologically, so there you go. I did my homework and couldn’t find out if, like the similarly flashback-heavy Phantasm IV: Oblivion, the film was made to raise money and get investor interest in a “real” sequel. If so, it clearly didn’t work, or at least not in helping get the sequel that was originally intended.

Plus if you thought the filmmakers would take this opportunity to patch the many, many holes in the franchise’s continuity, well…forget it, Jake, it’s Full Moon.

The quickie plot involves a hitwoman named Maclain, who has been sent to piece together Toulon’s secret formula. She confronts and threatens a man, Peter, at the Badoga Bay Inn, the very same Peter who befriended Toulon in Germany as a boy. Peter claims that he knows nothing about Toulon’s formula, even though he is surrounded by the puppets and has apparently set up a fully functioning lab in the hotel’s basement. Apparently noting these little discrepancies, she shoots Peter in the knee, although it seems you can recover from that because he’s standing on both legs without any difficulty just a couple of scenes later.  Nonetheless cowed, Peter plays a tape recording.  Of Toulon.  Who has been dead for at least several years. And who narrates everything including the events of and 6, except it seems that part of it is also narrated by Rick. So did Rick and Decapitron get together and just relay everything? And the recording even goes all the way back to Toulon talking to the puppets in Retro Puppet Master, but when did that happen?!

Oh God, it’s only eight minutes of story and already there’s at least twenty different ways it doesn’t make any sense!

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Anyway, Toulon’s recording begins by narrating the events of Retro Puppet Master. Maclain channels my own feelings about that particular installment by blurting out, “I don’t care about this drivel!” Then we move on to III, which I think contributes the longest flashback in what might be an acknowledgment that it’s still the best film of the franchise.

When Maclain disses Toulon, Peter claims that Toulon only ever unleashed his puppets against people who deserved to die. Maclain naturally responds by narrating some of the events of and II (although Toulon, still being pretty dead, wasn’t behind the events of – in fact, Neil Gallagher isn’t even brought up, much less why the puppets were following his whims – but there I go, expecting a movie that’s all about Puppet Master continuity to be…well, about Puppet Master continuity).

We do find out that Maclain unceremoniously pumped Rick from and full of lead just before this movie’s events. I would feel bad, but since he apparently sold the puppets off (how else did they end up in Curse?) after they saved his life and apparently saved the world from Sutekh, he had it coming. Oh, right, and for some reason Toulon knows about and narrates everything that went down in Curse too.   puppetmasterlegacy3

Maybe Blade wrote – well, carved – it all down after the puppets found their way back to the Badoga Bay Inn – somehow.

Okay, we already got a question about continuity (or lack thereof) every second this goes on, so let’s wrap things up. The puppets finally get around to attacking Maclain, allowing Peter to get the drop on her and shoot her. While dying (or dozing off into a nap, it’s hard to tell), Maclain tells Peter her employers’ real motive for wanting Toulon’s formula wasn’t for creating new puppets or achieving immortality, but for learning how to stop their own immortality. Her bosses themselves are “immortals” who are in “agony” because they were trapped in wooden bodies using Toulon’s formula. Of course, given how easily Toulon went down in II, you’d think ending their own lives would be as easy as falling out a third story window; it’s not like wooden puppet bodies regenerate after all.

But there I go again. Instead let me say one nice thing. This actually is an interesting twist and instead raises the good kind of questions. Are her bosses some people made unwillingly immortal by Toulon’s formula that we haven’t seen yet, perhaps as a result of Nazi experiments based on the information gotten from Toulon’s research during III? Or is it Neil, Camille, or Robert? Or all of them as kind of a Puppet Master Injustice Society? Or could it even be the Retro Puppets, whose final fate was significantly never revealed? Whoever it is, she, he, or they surprise Peter in the basement, and the closing shot is Peter firing Maclain’s gun at them. Who could be the mastermind, ruthless enough to send a hardened assassin after anyone between them and Toulon’s secrets, and so filled with hatred and despair they’re willing to do anything just to achieve death? Find out…in the sequel that never happened! (I do dimly recall reading years back that the person who ambushes Peter at the end was intended to be Neil Gallagher, but even with the power of the Google oracle I couldn’t verify that one way or the other).

What more can be said about what is, essentially, a movie that’s technically less than ten minutes long? Nothing, really. It’s a shame they passed up the opportunity to try to add some depth to the series’ happenings, beyond just saying that, by the way, the protagonist of two of the series’ films was brutally murdered off-screen. Still, to be fair, kind of, it’s hard to get upset when the filmmakers have never shown much if any consideration for the series being a coherent whole, so…there you go, Puppet Master: The Legacy, I guess you did good after all.

Next time, it’s the officially non-canon black sheep installment of the franchise!

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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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