Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Heath Holland On...The Puppet Master Challenge

by Heath Holland
Ten movies. Six puppets. One bloated franchise. Can Heath Holland survive the Puppet Master challenge?

I can be a little bit OCD about my movies. I can’t sit down and watch a random James Bond movie, I have to start with Dr. No and work my way through. By the time I get to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, I’ve forgotten why I wanted to watch License To Kill. It’s exhausting and it can lead to burnout, but it’s how my brain works. I’ve learned to live with it over the years.

So when I decided to watch all of the Puppet Master movies for Scary Movie Month, I thought I knew what I was getting myself into.

I did NOT know what I was getting myself into.

The Puppet Master series currently consists of ten movies, and though the quality does vary wildly from film to film, they’re pretty consistently low-budget. Some of them are B-movies. Some of them are worse than that. The cast changes with almost every single new release. The only true constant is the titular puppets themselves.
I’ll stay away from the major spoilers of the movies and try to give you an overview of how they were able to wring ten movies out of this idea.

Puppet Master, the first movie released direct-to-video in 1989, shows a lot of promise and presents a pretty cool concept: it’s the height of World War II and an old puppeteer has discovered how to bring his puppets to life. The Nazis want the secret so that they can use it for their own nefarious purposes. Hiding his puppets, the puppeteer Andre Toulon (here played by the ever-creepy, ever-annoying William Hickey) sacrificially blows his brains out in the Bodega Bay Inn before Hitler’s minions can capture him.

The very loose plot of the first movie involves some present-day psychics arriving at the Bodega Bay Inn to investigate funny visions they’ve been having. Toulon’s puppets are loose in the hotel and kill them off one by one. The tone is established and it’s people versus killer puppets. There’s a bad guy, but I won’t spoil it, especially since the first film is the shiniest and most commercially accepted. This is not the greatest foundation for a horror franchise, but it makes for some mostly mind-numbing entertainment.

The second movie finds the puppets resurrecting the body of Toulon from the grave using the same formula that keeps them alive. What comes back is not exactly human and they have to destroy it. This, of course, comes after a bunch more people die.

By all rights, that should have been the end of it.
Someone, somewhere, got the idea that the next movie should go back in time and show Toulon fighting the Nazis in occupied Europe during World War II. Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge is the first major turning point in the series. The movie is entirely set in the past, before the events of the first two movies with the killer puppets.

This time, Toulon has been recast. Gone is the eccentric William Hickey. In comes an elderly English thespian named Guy Rolfe. Wise move, because Rolfe plays Toulon with a grace and intelligence (and an English accent) that make the character warm and kind, like a grandfather in a Christmas television special. While William Hickey is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me, Rolfe feels a little like Obi-Wan Kenobi. But, you know, with puppets.

We see Toulon making the puppets and giving them life, thanks to a mystical Egyptian formula. We also discover that the puppets are not just killing machines, but are the resting places of a bunch of freedom fighters.

That’s right. They’re good guys. Heroes, even! It’s absolutely crazy, but it’s also pretty genius. By taking the killer puppets from the first two movies and recasting them as a rebel band waging a war against evil, the creators of the series open things up to go ANYWHERE.
The fourth and fifth movies bring us back to present day California at the Bodega Bay Inn where a young scientist has found the puppets. Sutekh, the Egyptian god of everything bad, is scheming from the underworld to take over Earth. He animates his own evil puppets and sends them through a portal (which happens to bring them to the Bodega Bay Inn, natch), and…puppet fight! Cue Mortal Kombat music.

Guy Rolfe returns for both of these chapters once again as Toulon. How in the world do you force Toulon into a movie that takes place 50 years after his death? Well, you have a puppet that he is able to inhabit, of course. It makes no sense, even in the context of the movies. But the Obi-Wan comparisons continue as this Englishman-in-a-puppet (which I’m pretty sure is also the name of a British pastry) says things about the fight that must continue without him and how the torch must be passed to a new puppet master.

The story concludes, the day is kind of saved (but not really because Sutekh is still alive), and we get a warm, fuzzy ending with a bow on it.

And really…I mean, REALLY...that should have been the end of it.

But uh-uh. After a four year hiatus, Curse of the Puppet Master (movie 6) comes along like a fresh outbreak of cold sores, gets rid of all the characters we already know and half-care about, and gives us a new cast with zero charisma. And the worst news is that there are barely any puppets. And there’s barely a plot. And there’s barely any reason to watch this movie unless you have a perverse, stubborn drive to see something through to the bitter end. Hi, that would be me.
It’s hard to stop your bike when you’re going down a sharp hill, and it’s also hard to stop making Puppet Master movies when you’re driving the franchise straight into hell. The next movie, Retro Puppet Master (movie 7) tries to make some sort of cohesive storyline out of the SIX movies that have come before by showing Toulon as a young man in Europe. Sadly, because Toulon is really young in this movie, we don’t get Guy Rolfe back. Instead, we get some young guy with a French accent (which is more accurate, I suppose). During this movie we see him acquire the secret of bringing puppets to life. Retcons abound.

The next movie, Puppet Master: The Legacy (movie 8) commits a crime for which it can never be forgiven. It’s a clip show! Almost all of the movie’s running time is composed of clips from the previous films bookended by a new “story.” The idea was apparently to send Puppet Master gently into the good night with a loving look back. Or, cynically, I’d say the idea was to crank out another direct-to-video chapter with almost zero production cost and scrape any goodwill left from the fans and their wallets.

It’s a failure in the worst of ways. The only interesting idea comes at the very end (spoilers?) when it’s disclosed that the puppets don’t want to be alive and would rather just rest. Immortality has brought them nothing but pain and suffering. Sounds kind of cool, right? It’s a nice idea. If they’re so miserable, they’d probably be more than willing to kill in order to get some peace.

This idea has never been followed up on because that was the last chronological entry on the Puppet Master timeline. Pfffttt!
But it sure ain’t the last movie. Nope, there’d be two more (and counting). Why? Charles Band, like Conan O’Brien, can’t stop.

Puppet Master: Axis of Evil (movie 9) tries to recapture the last decent idea the franchise had, which was to have the puppets fighting Nazis. The movie begins immediately following Toulon’s noble suicide from the first movie. A kid working at the Bodega Bay Inn finds the puppets that Toulon hid before the Nazis found him, discovering a secret plot that involves an alliance between the Nazis and the Japanese (it’s just history) and then fighting that alliance with the puppets. In spite of low budgets and awful acting, a good time is had by all.

Then along comes Puppet Master X: Axis Rising to ruin everything. It’s bad. Really bad. It’s also directed by Charles Band, the creator of the whole thing. This chapter suffers from some pretty egregious missteps, including (but not limited to): lack of plot, lack of puppets, the worst acting of the whole franchise, and racism. Yes, racism! There’s a Japanese kamikaze puppet, complete with the exaggerated buck teeth and squinty eyes that you used to see in propaganda posters. It even talks like a racist making fun of a Japanese person. It’s the equivalent of having a puppet named “sambo.”

And on that down note, the Puppet Master series has, for now, come to a close.

It’s a strange thing, because as bad as these movies are (and they are very bad), there’s a charm to them that I can’t help but fall for. The first two movies are very workman-like horror movies. The only thing that really stands out about them is the puppets, but the puppets are a real achievement in design. There are six core puppets and some ancillary puppets that pop up here and there. Each of them is completely unique and memorable.

Blade is the most popular of the puppets and would probably be classified as the leader. Pinhead has a tiny head and real, human hands (think Swedish Chef). Tunneler has a drill on his head, and Jester is a creepy court jester with a spinning face. Six Shooter is a cowboy puppet with six arms and six pistols. Lastly, Leech Woman is by far the most disturbing. Her mouth stretches open to regurgitate huge leeches onto her victims.
There’s also a DIY enthusiasm to most of the movies that wins me over. There appears to be almost no budget for any of these. In fact, as the series goes on you can tell that they’re basically using chewing gum and tape to hold things together. I like this earnestness (stubbornness) and backyard filmmaking sensibility. I don’t think financial limitations should stop anyone from making something and putting their heart into it.

I’m a big classic Doctor Who fan for the same reason. The BBC allotted almost no budget to that show. It’s been said that the budget for one episode of Star Trek in the sixties was the same budget for an entire season of Doctor Who.

I think that the connection I’m making to Doctor Who is not a coincidence. Sutekh, the baddie of Puppet Master 4 and Puppet Master 5, is also a classic Doctor Who baddie. It’s also probably not a coincidence that two names near the bottom of the credits for Puppet Master: Axis of Evil are Tom Baker (the fourth Doctor) and Lethbridge Stewart, a long-running Doctor Who character. It seems to me that those are tips of the hat to a very big influence on the Puppet Master series.

Plus, low budget does not equal low entertainment. If you’ve ever stayed up late at night to watch Forever Knight or Highlander: The Series, those shows have the exact same feel that these movies have: lots of foggy alleyways and abandoned buildings. They have their charm, if you’re in the right frame of mind.

In fact, the Puppet Master series, when watched back to back, almost plays like an HBO series from the early 90s. Each installment runs between 70 and 80 minutes. The storyline rarely wraps up at the end of each movie and it just leads from one film to the next. There’s definitely a serialized quality. Though, by the end, it’s more like a SyFy series, with the lowered budgets and reused footage and effects.
It’s a funny thing when you watch a bunch of movies from a series in a short period of time. Sometimes it makes you want to claw your eyes out. But sometimes it elevates the content because you can find a running theme or a strand of an idea that keeps popping up. It’s also entirely possible that it’s just Stockholm Syndrome as you learn to identify with your captor.

I have no idea how these movies will stick with me as I get a little distance from them, but at the moment I’m really glad I watched them. The first five movies really work well together, warts and all, and those are the ones I will be most likely to revisit.

But beyond that, I’m now a huge fan of the puppets themselves. I want them on everything: bed sheets, lunch boxes, t-shirts, and underoos. I want action figures and life-sized versions of them. Despite the title, the puppets are the real stars. It’s the puppets that shine the most in these movies.

Unfortunately, the puppets seem to require a budget and time-consuming effects shots, so we don’t get to see nearly as much of them as we’d like. But maybe that’s for the best. I’m not sick of them. Truthfully, after ten movies, I still can’t get enough of them.

8 comments:

  1. The actor playing young Toulon in RETRO PUPPET MASTER? That would be Greg Sestero, who would a few years later achieve infamy as "Mark" (as in "Oh, hi, Mark!") in THE ROOM.

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  2. Heath, if you can stomach it (long after SMM is over) you should watch Stuart Gordon's 1986 low-budget flick "Dolls." Patrick slammed it in one of the podcasts as a bad flick, but I find it fascinating and charming in its mix of gore, fantasy and childhood fancy. Guy Rolfe stars in a title role, Charles Band produced it and, in the DVD commentary track with writer Ed Naha (one of the best commentary tracks I've heard) Gordon reveals that it's this movie that inspired Band to get the "Puppet Master" series started. Naturally, since Stuart Gordon is a talented (?) filmmaker, "Dolls" runs circles around the "Puppet Master" movies and had better SFX work in '86 than all "PM" movies combined. Treat yourself, if you can stand to watch another movie with little wooden things moving/talking/slaughtering on their own.

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    1. Oh, wow, that sounds really interesting. First off, if Guy Rolfe was in the inspiration for Puppet Master then why in the name of Zeus' butthole did they cast William Hickey? The fixed that later when they brought in Guy Rolfe (can you tell I love Guy Rolfe?) but that's such a strange casting choice to me if you're looking for a "Guy Rolfe type."

      Also, the DVD appears to be out of print and is going for about 20 dollars used. I'm going to keep looking and see if I can find it cheaper because I'd really like to see it.

      Thanks for the information. Sounds like even if it's a bad movie, it's still worth a look, just to fill out my knowledge in that area.

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  3. In my excitement for SMM last year I watched most of the Puppet Master movies before October even started.

    The more distance I get from the series the less I remember about them, to the point that beyond very broad strokes (ie hotel, puppets, Nazis, elevator) I don't recall much of any of the story.

    I think Blade is a great design and is terribly underused. He had an iconic simplicity that could have rivaled most 80d horror icons if placed in better hands. But he too often gets pushed aside by the far inferior pin head and the annoying jester or six shooter.
    I need to stop writing now. .. I'm starting to remember... no. No. .. Nooooooo!

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    1. Oh, yeah, Blade is definitely the coolest of the puppets, no contest. I agree completely. He's iconic.

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  4. I'm blown away by this. I really can't believe there's ten of these! I don't think I've seen any one of them all the way through. I'm a little curious, I have to admit.

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  5. Props to you Heath, I'll be honest I like to spread out my watching of series over some time (the original star wars trilogy is the only one I can watch bang bang in a row) I have never seen any of the puppet master movies but after your review I will have to give it a shot since it seems to involve in some way taking out Nazis.

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  6. Wow, Heath, this was quite the commitment and I love the rundown of the franchise and how it was run into the ground. I remember watching the first Puppet Master at a young age (am I correct in remembering someone gets a finger(s) sliced off and green shit comes out?) and I might have even seen the sequel, but I had no idea there were so many of these f'ing movies. I might get around to this franchise by like the 10th Scary Movie Month or something.

    To comment on franchise-binging in general - I'm just about finished my go at the Halloween franchise (just the new Part 2 to go) and for me there was something about immersing myself in the series that I think made me a tad more forgiving of some pretty terrible sequels that would've seemed like complete garbage if watched alone. It's like a road trip - if you had driven specifically to eat at that shitty diner you stopped at along the way you would've been pissed, but as part of a bigger trip it doesn't seem so bad. Know what I mean?

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