With the emergence of the VHS format in the mid-eighties, production companies had a whole new method of getting films to a paying audience. This was cheaper than producing expensive 35mm prints and putting together huge marketing campaigns to ensure the month or two of their cinema runs proved popular enough to give any kind of life to the film. Producers realised that through video rental shops audiences would often just head over to look for films of a particular genre that interested them. They didn’t necessarily have to have heard lots about a film through it’s marketing campaign, they just wanted to see on the box whether it promised the scares, action or laughs that they were in the mood for. The horror market in particular was huge on video and a number of independent production companies found great success either with films that had finished their theatrical runs or had gone straight to VHS. One of these successes towards the end of the 80’s was Puppet Master/em>. It helped launch the career not necessarily of its director or cast, but of its producer Charles Band, who set up Full Moon Pictures to roll out a huge number of Puppet Master sequels and a barrage of straight to video ‘classics’ still to this day.
A year or two ago, distributors 88 Films appeared in the UK and have begun to bring back the early output of Full Moon to modern audiences as well as keep their new releases flowing through. And they’ve really gone to town on some of their first features, polishing up the prints and adding loads of special features when possible. Well, Blueprint: Review has recently struck a relationship with the company to cover a number of its releases. Jason has already covered Beach Babes From Beyond a couple of weeks ago and I thought I’d run a feature on the company’s most lucrative and popular series, by reviewing the first three Puppet Master films, which have all been given the deluxe high-definition treatment by 88 Films. Below are my thoughts on the films and details of the well-stocked sets.
Director: David Schmoeller
Screenplay: David Schmoeller
Based on a story by: Charles Band, Kenneth J. Hall
Starring: Paul Le Mat, William Hickey, Irene Miracle
Producer: Hope Perello, Charles Band (executive producer)
Running Time: 90 min
BBFC Certificate: 18
Puppet Master opens intriguingly by intercutting an old man, Toulon, collecting together his elaborate living puppets with some SS officers making their way towards his hotel room as well as some sort of ‘puppet-cam’, following one of his creations as it tries to get to its ‘father’ before the officers do. The old man manages to hide the puppets in a special case he places in the wall cavity and shoots himself in the head before the SS officers arrive.
We then jump forward to the present day (well, the late 80’s) where an oddball group of psychic investigators of varying talents converge at the very hotel where the film began. One of their fellow experts has died and they want to discover the secret of bringing the dead back to life which he claimed to have uncovered. This secret is of course Toulon’s ability to bring life to inanimate objects – in his case his puppets. These puppets are still alive, hiding out in the hotel, and don’t take too kindly to these grave robbing psychics, so begin to pick them off one by one. That is until some twists and turns towards the end when you learn who is really ‘pulling the strings’ (sorry).
Now, I never saw Puppet Master as a teenager (I saw it first a couple of years ago), so watching this doesn’t really have the nostalgia factor that it probably has for a lot of people picking up this new re-release. So its weaker aspects were more difficult to get past, although I do have a love of 80’s B-Movie fare (see my regular Weekend of Trash series) so I’m always going to better appreciate this than your more discerning film enthusiast. What lets the film down are some poor performances which range from hammy to wooden. Hammy I can live with in a trashy horror movie, but what lets things down most of all is the painfully bland hero of the film, Alex. There isn’t enough life to his character to keep you interested in his story.
I did still enjoy the film though so I won’t get bogged down in its problems. The filmmakers were aware of the limitations of their resources so keep things lovably daft and sensibly short. There isn’t too much padding and the film stays of interest largely due to its original concept (at the time) and unusual narrative, as well as a healthy dollop of sex and violence of course. Some of the kills are still pretty cool too, with leech girl proving quite disturbing with her wonderfully peculiar method of killing people by spewing leaches onto them. The smattering of stop motion effects in the film are impressive too and for such a low budget affair which is over 20 years old, the puppets just about hold up, although there is always going to be an inherent silliness and lack of believability in them.
That said, a few of the set pieces are rather flat, feeling slow and drawn out and ‘pin head’s abilities take suspension of disbelief a little too far. It’s more tame than I expected too. Where most straight to video horror titles would revel in throwing gore at the screen, this only has a couple of nasty moments and even cuts away for ‘driller’s time to shine near the middle. This isn’t always a problem in horror if the tension and fear is there, but I would never call Puppet Master scary. It is an enjoyably bizarre ride though and fans of retro horror movies will still have a blast with it.
Puppet Master II
Director: David Allen
Screenplay: David Pabian
Based on a story by: Charles Band
Starring: Elizabeth Maclellan, Collin Bernsen, Steve Welles
Producer: David DeCoteau, John Schouweiler, Charles Band (executive producer)
Running Time: 88 min
BBFC Certificate: 18
Puppet Master II chooses to not bring back any of the original cast (there weren’t many left anyway). Instead, a new group of ‘paranormal investigators’ arrive at the hotel to see what sent Alex Whitaker (the hero from the first film) crazy. They of course come across Toulon’s creations, who once again don’t take too kindly to unwanted visitors. This time though they’ve got something more important to them to protect – Toulon himself. In the film’s opening, the puppets head to the graveyard housing the rotting corpse of the magician and reanimate him using the same potion that gives them life.
However, in using this magic fluid on their master, the puppets are running low (they need to keep topped up), so must harvest more ingredients. The finishing touch to this green goo of course is taken from the human brain, so the puppets head around the area to pick off numerous people with juicy brains to utilise. What’s more, one of the new guests to the hotel bares a striking resemblance to Toulon’s long-dead wife so he has an idea to bring his true love back to life through this woman and his potion. He’ll need lots of brains for that though.
As you can imagine from the above description, this first sequel is even sillier than its predecessor. And that’s why I liked it a little more. Once again our heroes are rather dull and uninteresting, but this time you get the ludicrously over the top Toulon to keep you entertained. Although hardly deep, his character is a little more complicated and sympathetic too (aided by a few flashbacks to his youth) which makes him a richer, more rounded (if less frightening) villain than is to be expected in this type of film.
The murder set pieces are a bit more effective here too. The gore quota is increased with ‘driller’ getting a more graphic sequence and a new flame-throwing Nazi puppet entering the series to wreak havoc. There’s an amusing if rather disturbing sequence where he meets a sadistic young boy that is torturing his action man figure. The stop motion effects are improved and more prominent too in the film, largely due to the fact that the effects artist from the first film directed this entry.
All of that said, it’s not much better than the first film overall though. It’s stronger in fits and starts and a lot sillier, which I appreciated, but it is a little too similar and has more downtime, with some clunky sequences slackening the pace. I lost interest from time to time here, where the first film kept me engaged despite it being a more flat overall affair. Your enjoyment of this second instalment will depend on how ridiculous you like your horror films too as it won’t appeal to those looking for hardcore thrills. Again it isn’t scary in any way, but there’s enough camp, gore, gratuitous nudity and puppet-killing action to keep B-Movie fans on its side.
Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge
Director: David DeCoteau
Screenplay: C. Courtney Joyner
Based on an idea by: Charles Band
Starring: Guy Rolfe, Richard Lynch, Ian Abercrombie
Producer: David DeCoteau, John Schouweiler, Charles Band (executive producer)
Running Time: 86 min
BBFC Certificate: 18
The Puppet Master series has spawned an incredible number of sequels, but the last one to be currently released by 88 Films in this run of remasters is Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge. I think the makers realised that the old formula of picking off guests in the hotel could only sustain so many films, so with the third entry we go all the way back to Toulon’s (relatively) early days back in Germany in 1941. Dr. Hess, governed by the evil Major Kraus, is running experiments to uncover the secret of reanimation so that Hitler can control thousands of corpses of dead soldiers to aid in the fight for world domination. His experiments are not going particularly well though (as we witness in the grisly opening sequence), that is until he is introduced to the work of Toulon, who has been seen making puppets move without the assistance of wires.
The Nazis try to capture Toulon and learn his secret, with Kraus wanting to torture and kill him due to his anti-Nazi stance, but Hess is more interested in utilising his scientific mind. Toulon is captured, but escapes after his wife is murdered by Kraus. This of course doesn’t go down well with the puppeteer/magician, who sends his puppets out to get revenge.
This was my favourite film of the trilogy. Right off the bat you can see it is a more classily produced film. The cinematography is actually pretty good, with nice use of colour, high contrast lighting and smoke machines. The higher production values also help it get away with the period setting even if some stock footage and stills are clearly employed from time to time. The effects and set pieces are improved too, with a new character, ‘six shooter’, allowing for some even more impressive stop motion animation due to his six arms.
Again, the Toulon character is quite interesting (for a B-Movie) although he is performed with less hammy gusto as in the second film. Luckily, the film’s villain Kraus is effectively evil and makes up for once again a rather bland cast of heroes. Knocking the film down a fair few notches is the introduction of the Jewish boy that befriends Toulon though. He is annoyingly perky and painfully cheesy whenever on screen, spoiling the nasty fun that you expect from a Puppet Master film.
The sequences with the boy drag the film out a bit too and although on a whole this is much classier and more interesting than previous entries, it feels more padded out with shaky attempts at substance and drama and there aren’t as many kills as before. That said, some origin stories for the puppets are welcome inclusions and it does feel like a more solid film than before. Overall, although it loses steam towards the end, I still found part 3 more effective than the previous entries and I recommend fans of the first film check this out as it isn’t just more of the same yet is still entertainingly barmy.
Puppet Master and its first two sequels are available separately now on Blu-Ray and DVD, released by 88 Films. All three films look surprisingly good, especially on Blu-Ray. Of course they’re not that old, but they’re not the kind of films you’d expect to be kept in mint condition in a vault somewhere given the throwaway nature to much of the straight to video films from the 80’s and 90’s. The audio is strong too and you even get the option of 5.1 remastered tracks.
On each film you get a newly recorded introduction from Charles Band. These are short and simple (with poor sound quality at times) but give a nice introduction to the backstories of the productions and the remastering process. You also get retro ‘Videozone’ making of featurettes. These are great – marketing tools from the time and a bit dated of course, but fun to watch. You get commentaries on the sets too, with the first film having two, one with Band and Chris Gore and another with Justin Kerswell and Callum Waddell. I listened to the Band and Gore one and it was a little disappointing to be honest. The sound quality is all over the place and it takes itself a bit too seriously as well as dipping out for long stretches. It’ll still be of interest to fans of the series and has some nice anecdotes here and there, but I was hoping for something a bit more fun and goofy.
You also get a ‘trailer park’ with tonnes of trailers for other 88 Films releases, which are fun to watch and got me excited about working my way through some of the other screeners I’ve been sent over. Original trailers for the Puppet Master films are included too as is to be expected and round off a set of three surprisingly decent re-releases of the sorts of films you’d never imagine in your Blu-Ray collection.