Retro Puppet Master (1999)

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If you think about it, these films are pretty weird. The closest they have to a central character, Andre Toulon, is the protagonist in some installments, the antagonist in others, and either doesn’t appear at all or pops up to offer advice for a few minutes in the rest of them. The most recent (11th) film in the series is, if you take them chronologically, fourth; and the way they ignore continuity is almost at the level where it might be a joke from the filmmakers – we have another couple of juicy examples in this one.

This is film 7, and takes place immediately after the events of film 3, although the majority of the film is set in 1902, making it the earliest Puppet Master appearance. Toulon is on the run from the Nazis, and while hiding out in a disused cafe, one of his other puppets finds the head of Cyclops, a former puppet of his. This inspires him to tell the puppets the story of his early life and how he came upon his powers.

Flashback to 1902, and Paris. Young Andre Toulon is…Greg Sestero! Sestero is bad film royalty, thanks to his role in “The Room” (his book about it, “The Disaster Artist”, is well worth reading), and he gives ample demonstration of why he’s never become a leading man with this performance, which is, dare I say it, more wooden than the puppets. Hey, it took me 7 films before I finally used that pun! Give me a break! Anyway, Young Toulon gives a puppet show, which looks boring and terrible, although the audience seem to love it – one of the audience members is Elsa, Toulon’s future wife, and they have a brief interaction when Afzel, who stole the magic scroll from Sutekh, is rescued injured from outside his theatre.

Oh hai Andre Toulon

Oh hai Andre Toulon

In terms of the continuity of the story, we learn in part 1 or 2 (I forget, and I’m certainly not going back to check) that Toulon was in Egypt in 1912, touring with his puppets, and took the scroll from someone there. The power of reanimation is through mechanics and a weird green goo…until now, when it’s just straight-up magic that one person can teach another, without needing the scroll. I’m far from the most observant film viewer, and if I can notice this stuff then the people whose job it was to make the films make sense really ought to have. The problem of having Sestero, 21 at the time, play the part of young Toulon, when the 40 years later version Guy Rolfe was actually 67 years older, is small potatoes by comparison.

Sutekh sends some of his boys, who actually look pretty scary, to finish off Afzel and anyone else who gets in their way. Cleverly, they decide against using the Sutekh puppet from parts 4 and 5, as it looked terrible. The actual puppets they do use are crude older versions of the little guys and gals we’ve come to know and love, hence the title, which is quite a fun little touch.

The accents in this film are, unsurprisingly, awful. Sestero attempts half a French accent, one or two other people give it a go, but most of them just don’t bother. The acting is even worse, though. When you’ve seen your tenth person just stood around in the background, doing nothing and looking blank, either because they suck or because the director gave them nothing to do (or more likely both), you begin to get a bit annoyed by it all. The sole person who looks comfortable on camera is Elsa, played by Brigitta Dau, but she’s nowhere near enough. Her romance with Toulon is told to us rather than shown, so it all feels like box-ticking rather than an organic part of the film.

This film looks cheap too, with strings being visible for the supposedly self-propelling puppets, and the camerawork and lighting reminding me of a 1980s episode of “The Twilight Zone”. That’s really where these films belong, as hour-long TV episodes telling the story of the Puppet Master from the beginning of his career, through his death, then onto tales of his puppets after he’s gone. Even the “good” films in the series could benefit from a little trimming, and this film could comfortably tell the same story in an hour (even an American TV hour, which is about 45 minutes after adverts).

It just doesn’t feel like a film, and that’s, after everything else I’ve criticised about it, the main problem. It’s the bits that should be edited down to make flashback sequences in another film, stretched out to feature length. I’m now really not looking forward to the last four films…god, there’s still four left?

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The VRAs – The Ghastly Ones (1968)

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This is our ongoing series about films that were banned by the British government, using the Video Recordings Act of 1984. You have the right-wing gutter press and a few Christian pressure groups to thank for these films becoming more famous than they had any right to be (in all but a few cases), and the fact they’ve now virtually all been re-released, uncut, while the law remains in place, tells you more about moral panics than it does about the content of the films. See the VRAs “mission statement” here.

Andy Milligan was an interesting fellow. One of the founders of the off-off-Broadway theatre movement, he started making films…actually, I’ve got no idea why, he wasn’t particularly a cinema fan by all accounts and he got in the habit of leaving films unfinished, either for budgetary reasons or because he just wasn’t all that interested. I watched “Compass Rose” recently, but didn’t want to write a review of it for the ISCFC because it was missing an ending, and the sound was so appalling at times that understanding what the characters were saying was genuinely impossible. But “The Ghastly Ones” appears finished (despite the last thirty seconds of the film being a black screen with “dramatic” music playing over it, clearly where the credits were supposed to go), so here goes.

A couple make their way to an apparently deserted island, presumably near-ish to New York, at some unspecified point in the past (although probably the late 19th century). They’re just the table-setting cannon fodder though, as a deranged hunchback offs them both sharpish and we cut to the stars of the film, three sisters and their husbands. Their father wrote in his will that they couldn’t get his stuff until they were all married and settled, which must have put some pressure on the last one to be single, so they head off to his house, which they are also obliged by the will to spend three days in before it’s read…on the island we just saw! The hunchback is one of the servants, along with a couple of pretty crone-like women.

She tried to stay awake through this film

She tried to stay awake through this film

The actual plot of the film is entirely unremarkable – the people in the house get bumped off by an unknown assailant, there’s a shocking reveal, and so on. If you’ve seen a slasher flick set in a big old house like this, you’ll not be surprised. But it’s the tone of the film which is worth looking at. Milligan was by all accounts a pretty unpleasant guy, a misanthrope whose attitude to humanity shone through in his films. One of the wives believes she should get more of a share, being the eldest, and despite there being murders going on around them, no-one makes much of an attempt to leave, knowing that if they do they get no money. One of the husbands rapes his wife because she won’t shut up. “The Ghastly Ones” of the title almost certainly doesn’t refer to the person doing the murdering, if you know what I mean.

Provided you know a little about the director, there’s a lot of interest in this film. But sadly, it’s buried under a fairly terrible film, both in acting and execution. The three central couples have the faintest wisps of characterisation, and the husbands all look, dress and act alike, making it difficult to tell them apart. Colin the hunchback, despite being seen murdering a couple at the beginning, isn’t the main villain of the film, and even saves the two survivors at the end. This is deeply confusing, and there’s further confusion in a red herring so absolutely blatant that it not being that person just makes no sense in terms of how they were acting.

Let’s say you’re a guest in a house which you’re about to inherit, and the servants act like horrible people to you. Do you just go “ah well, never mind” or do you ask them why they’re behaving like that, and get them to stop? At one point they’re served a decapitated head on a platter for dinner. Now, I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but my first question to the servant who brought it me would be “how the hell did this head get on this plate?”, something no-one seems curious about. Milligan’s characters show basically no agency, just waiting around to get murdered in gruesome fashion while the rest of the cast vamps it up around them. I’m prepared to be convinced that this is further part of his style, although it seems to me like he was making a splatter movie cheaply to be bottom of a few drive-in bills. But then there’s not really any gore for the entire first half of the movie, past the initial killing. It’s a very unusual affair that makes me feel my film-reviewing brain isn’t quite up to the task.

There’s a book about Milligan, “The Ghastly One: The Sex and Gore Netherworld of Andy Milligan”, which is apparently well worth reading, and “Drive” director Nicolas Winding Refn is working to put Milligan’s films back into circulation. He’s certainly not your typical slasher film director, and I’d rather see something like this a hundred times ahead of your average multiplex movie. But equally, I shouldn’t be afraid to say, despite all the interest around the man, his method of working and his personal style, that this film in particular was pretty rotten.

EDIT DECEMBER 2013: This is an old review with a few tweaks, as I didn’t realise it was one of the films that was banned by the VRA until yesterday. Enjoy!

The Ghastly Ones on IMDB 
Buy The Ghastly Ones & Seeds of Sin [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]

The VRAs – Toxic Zombies (1980)

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This is the first in our ongoing series about films that were banned by the British government, using the Video Recordings Act of 1984. You have the right-wing gutter press and a few Christian pressure groups to thank for these films becoming more famous than they had any right to be (in all but a few cases), and the fact they’ve now virtually all been re-released, uncut, while the law remains in place, tells you more about moral panics than it does about the content of the films. See the VRAs “mission statement” here.

Have a watch of the trailer, which is under it’s American release title, “Bloodeaters”:

We start with a woman having a shower in the middle of the woods (my thought: did her shower break down, and the nearest one was in the wilderness?) and a couple of men tracking her with guns. Now, this is a fairly clever fakeout by the director, as it’s revealed that the woman is part of a large group of “hippies” growing tons and tons of weed in the remote countryside, and the two guys with guns are federal agents. There’s a fight, the woman is shot in the throat and the two feds are beaten to death, and from that seed this film grows.

The feds are reported missing after a couple of days, and their bosses decided that rather than cover the 60 square miles of wilderness, they’ll just use a highly experimental, untested herbicide called Dromax in a crop-duster. Nothing could possibly go wrong with that, right? The local crop-duster pilot is a mean old alcoholic with a wife who gives as good as she gets in the insult department, so with them, the cartoonishly evil main federal agent and the weed growers, who only care about making as much money as possible, you’ve got a decent amount of people ready for the toxic zombies, whenever they decide to show up. The film’s “hero” is a local Fed who recommends against spraying and just wants to go on a fishing trip with his brother, but his wife ends up tagging along as well.

Oh, we mustn’t forget Jimmy, who may well be the main reason this film got banned. He’s clearly supposed to have some disability (I apologise for the use of the word, but his own parents called him “retarded” during the film) and we’re treated to a clueless portrayal of mental problems done by an actor who, to the best of my knowledge, was entirely able-bodied. If it makes you feel any better, he’s clumsy and useless and only ever slows the group down too! The guy playing him had an interesting career – “Toxic Zombies” was his one and only film credit of any kind, until 2011, over 30 years later, when he co-directed a documentary called “Bill W”, about the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Back to the film, the crops are dusted and wouldn’t you know it? The hippies and the pilot both get absolutely covered in the stuff, and it’s not only not safe, it turns everyone exposed to it into a kill-crazy zombie! Most of the rest of the film is the zombies happening upon groups of people out in the woods and killing them in extremely graphic ways, intercut with the two Feds driving for what seems like forever (and is definitely more than a day) out to the woods to make sure no-one reports their illegal chemical use.

This film is cheap. Very cheap. The sets, such as they are, seem to be in peoples’ homes – the local Fed’s office is clearly just a corner of a larger room in a house, decorated to look a bit like an office; and the pilot’s house is probably the director’s own, or something similar. But most of it is out in the woods, a sign of a low-budget production since time immemorial. Bear in mind it’s not actual wilderness, though, as you can occasionally see other campsites a few hundred yards away that aren’t supposed to be in the film, and when you see across the river you see beautiful farmland, not trees and undergrowth.

The music is also hilariously bad, too. When they’re not ripping off The Exorcist (if the bigger film had been aware of the smaller one, I’m sure they’d have sued) they’re putting in stupid little musical stingers for “here comes action!” or “here comes Jimmy!” I only hope the music guy was a relative of one of the producers, otherwise they ought to have asked for their money back. Talking of people who did something to a producer in order to get a role, if the main fed’s wife wasn’t sleeping with one of the producers, then they need to fire their casting guy.

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You’ll thrill to the car journey scene where they crack appallingly racist jokes! You’ll wonder how a group of zombies managed to find, light and carry without dropping, flaming torches! You’ll try and figure out where those Feds were driving from and to that it took them so long! You’ll be grossed out by some pretty horrific special effects! You can play the “guess which horrible thing this film got banned for” game (there are at least three options)!

There’s a good case to be made for this film having an anti-Government bent,as it’s their fault the dangerous chemical gets sprayed, and a guy they meet near the end having no time for them either (with good reason, as the film shows). But it’s so cack-handed that any attempt to spin this into subtle intelligence on the film’s part is doomed to failure.

Without its notoreity, this film would have legitimately been almost completely forgotten by now. It’d be at the back of a few zombie film guides, and every now and again, one of the yawnsome Kim Newman types would do an article on its status as an undiscovered “classic”. But it’s lumped in with “The Evil Dead” and other genuinely good films, all thanks to Mary Whitehouse and the Daily Mail. The director Charles McCrann also played the good guy Fed, and like Jimmy this is his one and only film credit – sadly, his post-film career took him to the World Trade Center, where he died on September 11, 2001.

It’s not the worst film I’ve ever seen. It rips along, they drop in gore every now and again and they make the people so unpleasant that you’re cheering for the zombies for most of the film. It’s just cheap and dirty and moderately offensive and technically incompetent and acted by a bunch of people who’d be laughed out of the average Amateur Dramatics group. I was so busy going on about Jimmy that I forgot to mention the hefty strain of sexism that runs through it too, but that sadly almost goes without saying in these films.

Curse of the Puppet Master (1998)

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This film is completely appropriate for the sixth entry in a horror franchise – entirely lacking in any wit or originality, made purely to cash in on a name made famous years ago, and really really boring. Oh, and the video box sort of gives away the ending.

Leech Woman, thrown in a fire and destroyed in part 2, is now back with no explanation at all, and the puppets are under the control of a completely different guy, Dr. Magrew, with the lamest possible explanation of how they got from Rick at the end of part 5 to him now. Who cares about stuff like that though? He’s in charge of a small-town puppet show, and his daughter Jane is about ready to go to college; the last of the main cast is Tank, who they meet at the local garage while he’s being bullied, then offer him a job. He’s a little simple, but is an amazing wood-carver, so he’s quickly employed designing new puppets for Magrew.

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The bullies in this are so over-the-top evil that you’ll be amazed they’ve madeit to their 20s without growing horns, but luckily the town cop is just as awful as they are so nothing happens to them. Tank stops them from hassling Jane, and wouldn’t you know it but the two of them fall in love. He also takes the living puppets in his stride, even doing some repairs to Pinhead after he gets damaged protecting Jane from Bully 1.

Nothing happens in this film for the longest time. I counted, and the first seriously dramatic scene, briefly described in the last paragraph, doesn’t happen til minute 41. No puppet gets involved until minute 46, and it’s minute 50 before anyone dies. If the film were better made, I suppose I could tolerate it, but the acting is average at best and no-one is renting a Puppet Master film to see a sensitive romance between the soon-off-to-college woman and the borderline-disabled man.

The puppets are sort of back being baddies in this, I suppose, due to their new owner. He burns a puppet-sized sack at the beginning of the film, and to maintain some sense of drama for you, the potential viewer of this film, I won’t reveal it or his plans (but the picture at the top of this review will give you a clue).

Most importantly, this film is terrible. After an impressive run of five films where a level of quality was maintained that I did not expect at all, we’re right down where I expected for part 6, the first of the films to not be numbered (maybe because they’d not thought of a 666 pun for the title, which seems to be standard issue for horror). It’s really cheap looking, the direction is flat and uninteresting, and it’s so undramatic that it took me a while before I was able to remember how it ended, even though I only watched it yesterday. I’m going to go through to the end of this series, but I think afterwards we all ought to pretend that it finished with part 5.

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Puppet Master 5 – The Final Chapter (1994)

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And so the “original” five films come to an end. From here on out, it’s going to be compilation films, even lower budgets, and no actors you’ve ever heard of, but this last one has the guy who runs the pawn shop in “Pulp Fiction”, the guy from “The Saint” who wasn’t Roger Moore, one of the guys from “Return of the Living Dead”, and one of the guys from “Mil Mascaras vs. The Aztec Mummy”, so you know you’re in for a good time.

For those of you who didn’t watch part 4 yesterday, we’re treated to a fairly lengthy recap and then right into the story, featuring most of the cast from the previous film. I was sort of expecting them to have been written out in some bizarre way, or just ignored, but there they are (probably to do with both films being shot concurrently). Sutekh, the demon from the last film, is there as well, and this time he sends his most powerful Totem to finish off the job, with all Sutekh’s mojo. That the process of giving him this power involves some weird hip-thrusting and an incomprehensible speech is neither here nor there. Rick and Suzie go back to the Bodega Bay Hotel to help their friends the puppets; add to that a group of thieves being led by Ian Ogilvy, one of Rick’s bosses at the biotech company, and you’ve got yourself a film.

There are signs that the filmmakers read criticism similar to mine at the time the films were in production, because there’s a little nod to the timeline issue. One of the characters says “Toulon died shortly after the War”, and when you bear in mind that he died in 1939 in the first one, 1941 in the second, and some time between 1943 and 1945 in the third, there’s a definite hint that someone at Full Moon recognised the mistake and is having a laugh alongside us. Or they’re just terrible at making films. Whatever.

"I must have been really drunk last night"

“I must have been really drunk last night”

Before I get into the main bit of this review, I want to talk about how the film seems to play fast and loose with its own continuity, again. Sutekh, in a preparation scene that goes on way too long, talks about how he’s trying to save humanity, and that Toulon is the bad guy and is trying to “escape”, although from where is never mentioned. Toulon’s original possession of the ancient scroll is the cause of every death in the films, really, but it’s never mentioned at any other point so maybe I misheard it? I replayed the scene twice, because I don’t want to misrepresent the film, but that’s the only reading I can come up with, like the scene survived from an earlier draft and no-one thought to replace it.

Ultimately, this film should have really been the last half-hour of part 4. Watching the two films together, they don’t feel like a film and its sequel. Rick has to reanimate DECAPITRON in both films, even though they’re only set a week apart and he doesn’t suffer any damage the first time. The two secondary groups in both films could easily be turned into the same group (the asshole scientist from 4 could be a corporate spy sent by Ian Ogilvy’s character), psychic girl Lauren could be written out, and given the relatively short length of both films, a bit of chopping and you’d have one much better film. I’m not trying to be an armchair quarterback here, more trying to illustrate that if I was a betting man, I’d bet on Full Moon having written it as one film originally and split it into two so they could make more money.

At the almost-halfway point of the franchise, though, I’m pretty happy with how they’ve gone. They’ve been mostly fun, and while it’s been entertaining to pick over the inconsistencies, if you watched them years apart that sort of thing wouldn’t be on your mind at all.

If any of the site’s readers want me to go on with Full Moon’s output, I’m happy to. Although the “Evil Bong” series might be a bit too much, don’t make me watch those.

DID YOU KNOW? According to IMDB, I was right about this and part 4. Originally designed as one film, which was going to be released to cinemas (all previous installments being direct-to-video affairs). I feel ever so slightly smug about it.

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Puppet Master 4 – The Demon (1993)

"When Good Puppets Stay Good", but whatever

“When Good Puppets Stay Good”, but whatever

Sutekh is an odd looking skeleton demon, and he’s not thrilled with humanity. Firstly, Andre Toulon got his formula for reanimation and used it on his puppets and now, decades later, a group of scientists are close to figuring out the secret of reanimation through science. So, he needs to do something, and that something gives us the backbone for the fourth Puppet Master film, “The Demon”.

A couple of scientists get killed, thanks to letting completely unchecked mysterious packing crates, delivered by a shadowy stranger in the middle of the night, right into the middle of their labs. They both mention Rick, the super-genius whose work is the inspiration for everything they’re doing, and we’re introduced to him, who’s taken a job as winter caretaker at…the Bodega Bay Hotel! Now, I don’t mind an artful coincidence or two when it comes to driving a plot along, but his presence there is never inspired by any visions, or research, and he’s got no idea what the puppets are, keeping Blade on one of the shelves in his “lab”. Oh, and no-one makes a reference to “The Shining”, either, which I expected.

Luckily, he’s not alone, as his…girlfriend?… Suzie comes to visit (I don’t think they share any romantic time on screen), and she brings a few of their friends – Cameron, a scumbag scientist who is jealous of Rick’s success, and Lauren, a psychic who’s studying “metaphysics”. Either it’s a coincidence she’s a psychic, or the people who made this film have no idea what metaphysics means. I hate psychics, boring vision-having lazy devices for advancing plots.Puppet_Master_4-3

 

Sutekh, after dispatching the scientists, goes after Rick, but before his “Totems” can make it to the hotel, Rick and his friends stumble upon Toulon’s old case and decide to reanimate all the dormant puppets, who are nice and friendly this time round. Now, for those of you who watched part 2, you’ll remember that Toulon was a villain in that, and after he died (again) the last woman he killed, her soul inside a mannequin body, took the puppets to a home for troubled kids. Clever place to hide weird stuff, but this film just ignores all that. She never existed, Toulon is the genial guy from part 3 and we the audience are left scratching our heads that they never even bothered with a minute or two of explanation. The link between this film and part 3, on the other hand, done in diary form, is pretty clever.

The last bit of the film is the friendly puppets vs. Sutekh’s totems, with Toulon appearing in voiceover form to give advice. This includes the introduction of a puppet we’ve never seen before, the amazingly named DECAPITRON, who has a Wurzel Gummidge vibe to him (look it up). Lauren the psychic turns out to be a scream queen but the people I thought were introduced as cannon fodder do okay, apart from Cameron who deservedly gets sliced up and then ignored.

The thing I’m quite surprised by is how much fun these films have been. The plots are tight, the puppets are well characterised and the endings are usually satisfying, unlike every other horror franchise. But the treatment of them all as individual films causes problems, chief of which is the way part 2 doesn’t fit into the continuity at all. Part 1’s evil puppets can be explained as them having an evil puppet master, the WW2 timeline issue repeated on every Puppet Master page on Wikipedia doesn’t bother me that much, the way the person who delivers the Totems never has his identity revealed is a bit weird, but it’s the confusing treatment of Toulon along with the part 2 problem makes me wish Full Moon Pictures had a stronger continuity department. With the film being under 80 minutes, too, they did have time to fit an explanation in there.

Part 5 is billed as “The Final Chapter” and apparently does provide some conclusion, and that’s going to be next. Of course, Full Moon decided to keep making them after a break of a few years, so we’ve still got many films to look forward to, including a Demonic Toys crossover with Corey Feldman in it. While trying to avoid future spoilers, I get the impression that Full Moon underwent the same fate as Jim Wynorski (whose story was told in the documentary “Popatopolis”) and their more recent films are super-low-budget quickies, thanks to the bottom falling out of the video rental market. I get the feeling these first five films are going to be the highlight of the series.

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Puppet Master 3 – Toulon’s Revenge (1991)

"When Bad Puppets Go Good" would be more accurate, but whatever

“When Bad Puppets Go Good” would be more accurate, but whatever

After a couple of films set mainly in the beautiful Bodega Bay Hotel, we’re taken back to Nazi Germany for part 3, “Toulon’s Revenge”. For those of you keeping score, my prediction during the part 2 review was wrong, and Toulon does not become the villain of the series. This goes with my incorrect prediction from the review of part 1, to indicate I may not be the best person to review these movies. But let’s try anyway.

Dr Hess, whose lab is apparently just on a normal street somewhere, is trying to reanimate dead soldiers under the supervision of Major Kraus. First up, they’ve confusingly given Hess the same surname as one of the most famous Nazis – Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s Deputy Fuhrer who for some reason flew to the UK in 1941, was immediately arrested and after the end of WW2 spent the rest of his life in Spandau Prison before committing suicide in 1987, aged 93. It’s not him. These two are played by two of the all-time great “That Guy” actors, people you’ll recognise from hundreds of shows and films but who never got the huge name recognition.

Of course, Hess is failing, and it’s only when a young Nazi goes to see Andre Toulon’s puppet show that he realises with the help of the special goo, introduced in the last film as the method for “feeding” the puppets, he can create super-soldiers. Toulon, for some reason, hasn’t figured out that the Nazis are the bad guys and it really takes the murder of his wife at the hands of Kraus for him to come round to the right way of thinking- and when a man who controls a group of badass puppets promises revenge on you, you know you’re going to get it.

6 arms to hold you

6 arms to hold you

This film also operates as the origin story for two of the series’ most iconic puppets, Leech Lady and Blade. As I’m far too lazy to do it myself, some kind souls have done a timeline of which puppets appear in which films – should you ever think “well, I’m only interested in films where Decapitron appears”.

Toulon spends the lion’s share of the film sending his little friends out to kill themselves some Nazis, and, a few minor hiccups aside, that’s exactly what he does. Which is odd, really – the first two films were haunted-house-esque horror films, and now we go to a fairly straightly played revenge film (admittedly, one with magic puppets in it) set in WW2. It’s so different a prequel that it barely qualifies as one, and that’s leaving aside the timeline issues. Toulon dies in 1939 in part 1, but this film is set in 1941 and he’s still alive and kicking; also, he says he found the magic for his puppets 15 year ago, which would be 1926, but when we’re treated to the same flashback from the last film (edited to remove the different actor playing Toulon, of course) the poster saying 1912 is clearly visible. I don’t know, I try not to nitpick these films. Sorry.

Despite my misgivings above, any film where Nazis get slaughtered and outwitted is okay in my book. And surprisingly it’s not that bad a film, with three solid veteran character actors at the centre of it – Guy Rolfe, Richard Lynch and Ian Abercrombie (who is best known nowadays for a hilarious recurring character on “Seinfeld”). In purely film terms, it’s the best of the series so far, but it might be worth pondering what we’re seeing for a moment. Toulon is a reanimated villain in part 2, so seeing the story of his earlier life where he seems to be a genial, loving, decent person, without seeing any hint of the man he would become, is disconcerting. Parts 2 and 3 were produced at almost the same time, by the same few creative people, so we can’t blame forgetfulness or retooling on any of this.

Still, as has been established, I continue to be wrong about these films, so perhaps a few of the future films, judging by the “Axis” in the title set around the same time, will give us more of this backstory. It feels like a sea change for the series, so let’s see where they go with it next. Although I can’t help but think there’s going to be a lot of different stories, linked only by the puppets and “hey, a distant relative has discovered Toulon’s horde and needs to use the puppets for evil purpose X”.

DID YOU KNOW? Puppet Master 3 is one of those films where a sequel is announced during the end credits that never happened – the name of their potential part 4 never materialised. This joins “Chasing Amy”, “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai” and a few others – read all about it here.

"Hang around" LOL

“Hang around” LOL

Christmas Movies: Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

Merry Christmas everyone!

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It’s really difficult to talk about this film without talking about the controversy when it first came out. Siskel and Ebert’s review of it is amazing, where they list the companies involved in producing and the main crew members, in case you want to make a complaint about it. The problem seems to stem from pre-release publicity showing Santa wielding an axe, which apparently upset a few kids somewhere, or more likely upset some mothers, and from this we got an almost unending torrent of abuse heaped on it, all of which no doubt delighted the production company, as there’ve been four sequels and a 2011 remake.

The central message of the film seems to be, treat kids better, otherwise there’s a fairly good chance they’ll turn into spree killers. A family goes to visit their extremely sick Grandpa, and during the thirty seconds they manage to stay, Grandpa, from deep in the pits of dementia, tells five-year-old Billy the truth about Santa Claus, about how he punishes the naughty as well as his present delivery activities. Billy is understandably freaked out when a guy dressed as Santa, on his way from murdering a convenience store employee, murders both his parents too while they’re driving home.

Three years later, and Billy and his younger brother are at a Catholic orphanage. The Mother Superior really doesn’t seem to like children very much – do they not get to pick their jobs when they become Nuns? Anyway, she ignores the gigantic amount of Santa related trauma Billy’s gone through, and forces him to sit on Santa’s lap, makes sure he thinks sex is dirty and sinful, and so on.

Ten years later than that three years later, and Billy at age 18 is helped into a job at a local toy store by the one nice Nun at the orphanage. One day, the store Santa doesn’t turn up, and guess which employee has to don the suit, helping him have a psychotic break and think he’s the “real” Santa, as described by his Grandpa? Better watch out, people doing literally anything at all!

This film is a real old dirty un-self-aware slasher film, and the first clue of that is how Billy doesn’t start on his spree until the halfway point of the film – but when he does, he really gets into it. Everyone at his store, a couple of horny teenagers, two guys who’ve stolen sledges from teenagers…Billy is everywhere, and he’s inventive when it comes to killing too. Nothing is left to the imagination, and luckily every non-Nun female cast member was instructed they’d have to take their tops off before they were brutally slaughtered. This film is a real window into the casual sexism of the time, when it was just ingrained into every aspect of the process.

If you think about it for more than a few seconds, this film is really bleak as well. It’s about how a series of horrible events and bad decisions lead to the creation of a murderer, but because of the way it’s structured, we spend most of our time with that murderer, on some level sympathising with him. But there’s no redemption, no moral to be learned, and the last scene with Billy’s younger brother Ricky indicates that the whole sorry cycle is going to repeat itself. That the trauma which happened to Billy is inflicted (by Billy) on an orphanage full of kids is an irony the producers probably didn’t give a damn about.

I certainly don’t feel as strongly negative towards it as Siskel and Ebert, but there’s a darkness at the centre of this film that puts it above and beyond your average entry in a horror franchise. Those films are about implacable forces of evil, but this is about a poor kid who never had a chance. In the hands of people who didn’t just want to make a quick buck from showing boobs and violent murder, this could have been a decent film, as it is…go and give people a hug and be there for them if they have problems. Be friendly to people this Christmas, because your smile might stop a Billy. Okay, it won’t. But do it anyway.

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