The Puppet Master series exasperated us over the late 2013 / early 2014 period, but the main takeaway was that Full Moon head honcho Charles Band tried, repeatedly, to make half a movie’s worth of plot stretch to feature length. This is literally the case with parts 4 and 5, which was going to be one cinema release, but when it was decided to release it straight to video, Band decided to split it into two movies to make more cash.
His penny-pinching tactics eventually caught up with him, and he went from having a major label distribution deal with decent budgets, to just hanging on at the outskirts of the micro-budget market, with hardcore fans and people who think a title like “Evil Bong” is intrinsically funny his only customers. Getting annoyed with Full Moon movies became boring a long time ago, but they’re still going, even if no-one’s really paying attention. “Puppet Master” is Band’s most abused franchise, stretching to 11 instalments (plus a “non-canon” entry where they took on Band’s other group of mini-things, the Demonic Toys). As well as the split movie mentioned above, there’s the ultimate scumbag’s trick, the clip movie – yes, part 8 of this least glorious of all franchises has about 5 minutes of new material in it
Which made the news that Fangoria Films were making a reboot of the series, with no Full Moon involvement, sort of good news. A proper budget! Actual actors! I heard Thomas Lennon, Charlyne Yi, Michael Pare and Mathias Hues were going to be in it, I started having the thought that…maybe this would be good? Add in sitcom “That Guy” Nelson Franklin and Full Moon veteran Barbara Crampton (who was actually in the first “Puppetmaster”, briefly, and was amazing as the star of “From Beyond”) and I was sold – the writer and co-directors seemed like new faces, but free of the “let’s do it for $10,000 in a week” impulses of Charles Band, I was ready for a winner.
I was not disappointed! This is easily the best “Puppet Master” movie, which is admittedly a low barrier to clear, but it’s funny, well-acted, actually quite frightening in places, transgressive, and liberally drenched in gore. It makes the puppets, who’ve long been cutesy figures of fun, into genuinely scary monsters, and left me really wanting more – a feeling that has yet to trouble with me any other Full Moon movies.
There’s a cold open with Udo Kier in it! He’s Andre Toulon, who’s been in most of the Puppet Master movies, as their initial creator, then a villain, then a sort of benevolent voice from beyond the grave. Here, he’s a full-on Nazi who escapes Germany with his inventions in tow when he sees the writing on the wall for Hitler and his lot. But we first see him in 1989, in a dive bar, when he butchers two women who make fun of his weird appearance and habits, and think he’s a creep. I mean, they were right, as he did murder them.
Thomas Lennon is Edgar Easton, a recent divorcee forced to move back in with his parents – the father seems to hate him, the mother is kinder. He works in a comic store but also draws a well-regarded strip, which has been on hiatus since the divorce. His employer at the comic book store, Markowitz (Nelson Franklin) and he have a fun, banter-filled relationship which actually sounds like how real nerdy friends talk to each other; and he meets a woman, too. The younger sister of one of his old high-school friends, Ashley (Jenny Pellicer), and they fall almost immediately into the sort of perfect romance that you get quite a lot of in movies, but sadly too little of in real life. But, the characters are good, and it’s enjoyable to watch them interact.
But this is a Puppet Master movie! It’s not just about well-observed characters and too-sudden romance! While cleaning out his old room, he finds a box of his deceased younger brother’s toys, including our old friend, Blade (who’s had a slight character redesign, but still looks good). He discovers it’s an original Toulon-created toy, and is worth a small fortune, and luckily there’s a convention coming up with a guided tour of Toulon’s old home (who was a well-regarded toymaker as well as being a famous murderer).
Markowitz and Ashley decide to accompany him, because of course, so the main table is now set. We’ve got a bunch of people bringing their old toys to a hotel, so you know there’s going to be some puppet-based mayhem. And mayhem there is! The puppets begin disappearing and people start turning up dead, and they do not spare the blood.
When I mentioned “transgressive” earlier, I really meant it. An early death scene involves a puppet flying up a pregnant woman’s vagina, then tearing out of her stomach and stealing the foetus from inside her; and it becomes clear that the puppets preferred murder victims are those who don’t correspond to Nazi ideas of ideal people – a lesbian couple, a black guy, and a Jewish couple, are among their early victims. There’s an amazing scene later where Markowitz, who’s a fairly observant Jew, takes a Hitler-looking doll and throws it in a lit oven, saying “see how you like it”. Limbs get chopped off, innocent children die and the corridors of the hotel are covered with bodies. There’s also a fair bit of sex and nudity, well, more than you’d expect from a movie with Thomas Lennon in it I guess.
Michael Pare turns up as the cop, Barbara Crampton is the tour guide, being one of the cops who killed Toulon back in 1989, Charlyne Yi is a hotel employee who strikes up a flirtatious friendship with Markowitz, and Mathias Hues is a random German tourist who gets his spinal cord replaced by a puppet and turned into a puppet himself. By a distance, the best cast any Puppet Master has had.
For us Full Moon-heads, a bit of puppet talk. Pinhead, Blade and Tunneler are the three main puppets from the original series to make an appearance here – there’s also Kaiser, who looks a bit like one of the Nazi puppets from the more recent movies, and Happy Amphibian, who replaces Jester. One of the models has six arms in tribute to Six-Shooter, who doesn’t make an appearance, but Torch does (who’s not been in the “classic” movies since part 5). Oh, and talking references to earlier movies, one of the characters drives a van with “Bodega Bay” on the side, the name of the hotel from multiple previous movies.
So, it’s a gore-drenched masterpiece, in terms of Puppet Master movies, anyway, but there’s some criticism too. Ashley’s character feels like she was waiting around for Edgar to come back into town, and the beginning of their relationship is horribly under-written (although they work extremely well together as characters). The three of them being so excited about going to a fairly niche convention about a Nazi murderer is a bit unlikely, too. It feels like Barbara Crampton’s police officer had a bigger role left on the cutting room floor, although it’s nice to see one Full Moon alum in this. It feels like there’s a few too many people with significant roles in it, and it could have stood with being a bit longer, or having a few of those actors trimmed. But, again, this is still so much better than every previous Puppet Master movie that I can’t even begin to tell you how much fun I had watching this.
The writer, S Craig Zahler, is already something of a genre superstar, having written “Bone Tomahawk”, “Brawl in Cell Block 11” and the soon-to-be-released “Dragged Across Concrete”. He must have been a fan of these movies growing up, but like any half-sensible human, figured he could have written better, and did. The two directors have their upbringing in low-budget horror, but I’m interested to see what they do in future.
I hope there are more of these movies, and the hilariously perfunctory “to be continued” scene indicates there might be. There are some excellent images and ideas, and I hope it was enough of a success that we get more. Although that will no-doubt encourage Charles Band to knock out more in his “original universe”.
A quick word before we say goodbye, dear reader: one of the more mainstream reviews of this movie said it robbed the puppets of what made them special. Comparing this unfavourably to any of the Full Moon movies? What had that reviewer seen? Special? Did he see part 8? Okay, they don’t have a ton of personality, but I’ll take this over 80 incident-free Full Moon minutes any day of the week.
Rating: thumbs up