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

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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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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Goes to the Movies

Trash Culture Goes to the Movies: Curse of the Puppet Master (1998)

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I will at least admit that this film has the best cover of the series. It’s creepy, it’s unexpected, and it’s actually relevant to what happens in the movie!

The film itself…well, it has a rep for being the “beginning of the end” for the series. And it did come out in the late ’90s, when Charles Band’s media empire was beginning to slip off of its mom-and-pop rental store throne. The very fact that Curse of the Puppet Master itself wasn’t supposed to be – originally the plan was for a trilogy of films where the Puppets face off against the classic Universal monsters, but presumably that proved too ambitious for Full Moon’s dwindling resources – is a testimony to Full Moon starting to be, well, eclipsed in this era.

It’s also true that the puppetry in this film, no longer handled by David Allen Productions, just isn’t nearly as good as it had been. The puppets’ movements no longer look fluid, with one scene where Tunneler and Blade are supposed to be walking looking like they’re levitating across the room. Also when Blade kills shots of him unconvincingly slashing at the air are just interspersed with shots of his victim struggling and showing facial wounds. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad if they didn’t play the same trick twice in the movie.

And yet, it’s really not that bad…

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I mean, okay, the movie’s plot is best described as a cliche casserole, combining the Instant Love Interest/Sex Partner, Inexplicable 20-Something Bullies, and even thunderstorms taking place during the movie’s first kill and the climax. But honestly the way it uses the core concept of little killer puppets and its antagonist is pretty interesting, more so than their purely heroic (and baffling) turn in 4 and 5.

The puppets end up in the care of Professor Magrew and his daughter Jane, who operate a puppet museum/show. In true Puppet Master tradition, there’s no explanation as to how the Puppets got there, except that Magrew found them at an auction. Prof. Magrew’s last assistant Matt mysteriously vanished – or so he tells the obviously corrupt local sheriff, but in reality he was the victim of Magrew’s so far failed experiments to transfer a human’s consciousness fully into a new puppet. Poor oblivious Robert, a gas station attendant who is for some reason constantly tormented by said 20-Something Bullies, is enlisted by Magrew as his new assistant when Magrew discovers that he has a knack for woodcarving. Robert, who moves in with the Magrews (and promptly has sex with Jane; how rude!), is not really taken aback when Magrew introduces him to the Puppets. A bit more worrying to him than sentient puppets with obvious means to kill are the dreams Robert starts having of turning into a puppet himself.

curseofthepuppetmaster2(Wait, you ask yourself, did Prof. Magrew learn how to create new puppets using human minds from Toulon’s research? Were Toulon’s notes auctioned off too? If so, does that mean the existence of living, sentient puppets is kind of public knowledge, which is why Robert isn’t really freaking out over this? But anyway the transference of a human mind or soul or whatever to a new puppet isn’t anything like what happens in III. So how did Prof. Magrew figure it out? Was his doctorate in occult puppetry? Did he also find Sutek, or at least communicated Sutek before he got killed in 5?  But what happened to Rick anyway? Did he just auction off the puppets? What an asshole! Or maybe this movie takes place after II, in which case, whatever happened to Camille? And speaking of that, Leech Woman is back, even though she was thoroughly destroyed in II! But whatever happened to Torch? And plus..)

[For consideration of these questions and more, please refer to my upcoming book, “Hand Inside the Puppet Head: The (Dis)Continuities of the Puppet Master Series,” from Oxford University Press.] 

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Because the main plot doesn’t allow for many warm bodies to slice up and drill into, Robert and Jane have a violent run-in with the 20-Something Bullies, whose leader retaliates by breaking into the Magrew house and attempting to rape Jane, until Pinhead drives him off. Magrew manages to follow the bully leader in his truck (even though the leader had too much of a lead in his car, but that’s the least of this movie’s logic holes) and sics Blade and Tunneler on him.

Jane later admits to her father that she’s fallen in love with Robert. This leads into one of my favorite moments, as Magrew tries to explain why she shouldn’t delve into her new relationship without coming clean. He says, in perhaps one of the most awkward conversations a father can have with a daughter, “If he were to leave…I’m just trying to say…I’m trying to say I don’t want you to get attached to him. Like if I were to…murder him for some occult purpose…or some similar scenario.” (Okay, I made that last part up, but the rest is real!).

The sheriff, already suspicious of Magrew, finds out that the bully leader wanted to attack Jane and goes to confront the professor. Unfortunately, that goes about as well as expected, especially because Magrew has sent Jane off on a pretext and is going about his plans to put Robert’s consciousness into the puppet Robert has been working on.

The puppet that’s…metallic and electronic…even though Robert’s talents have been clearly established to be woodworking…

Wait, I’m going to defend this movie! Honest!

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So the film is admirably downbeat. Professor Magrew turns out to be pretty much insane, believing that he can engineer a new species that will be free from humanity’s more animalistic impulses, and convinced that he’s doing Robert quite a favor. Magrew even succeeds in transferring Robert’s essence into the new puppet body, but the Puppets immediately turn on a disbelieving Magrew (disbelieving probably because he too is wondering why they waited until after it was too late to save Robert to mutiny or, hell, why they didn’t betray him after what he did to his last assistant), and Jane arrives just in time…to see her father hacked up by Blade and then ruthlessly finished off by Robert, the man she fell in love with, despite her pleas.

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This might sound like watching this franchise has finally broken me and turned me mad like poor Professor Magrew, or that my expectations have gotten even lower, but honestly the film’s villain and conflict are pretty well thought-out elements. Predictable as the plot is, there are hints dropped in the dialogue, particularly when Magrew and Robert have a heart-to-heart about the 20-Something Bullies and Magrew remarks that people always seem to be more animal than angel, about Magrew’s deranged philosophy. There’s also a good but easy to miss moment that speaks well of the acting chops of George Peck, who played Professor Magrew. As Blade hacks away at the sheriff, Magrew is laughing with delight – but then, slowly, he closes his eyes and bows his head, as if praying for forgiveness. That one scene suggested as much about Magrew’s motives as any of his dialogue, and was a small part that was genuinely…dare I say it?…really smart.

Also, intentional or not, it’s interesting how much Magrew fails in this movie, even when he wins. Sure, he essentially “killed” Robert and reduced him to a puppet, like he planned. However, it is puppet-Robert, the supposed culmination of his idealistic theory, who kills him without hesitation and remorse and refuses to extend to him the same mercy he showed even to the bully leader earlier. In trying to distill human nature down to its best elements, he only, through his own cruelty, took a decent person and turned him into a monster.

So I do want to give the movie props for having small but much appreciated moments like that, although it’s spoiled by things like how Puppet-Robert looks…

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You know, this movie might actually have a message about the futility of utopian schemes for improving human nature, especially when those schemes rely on violence and depriving individuals of their free will and…oh my God is that a rejected monster from 1960s’ Doctor Who?!?!

Next time, we get a prequel, which will at least spare me from bitching about the many, many, many continuity problems…or will it?!

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