Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Full Moon Fever: Puppet Master II

by Patrick Bromley
Good things (still) come in small packages.

Here's the thing. My next piece in this ongoing Full Moon Fever series was originally going to be Blood Dolls by request, but then I recently listened to a horror podcast do an entire episode on Puppet Master II in which the hosts spent an entire hour more or less shitting on the film, pointing out all of the things that are "boring" and/or "stupid." I decided to change gears. I don't mind that these podcasters don't like Puppet Master II, even if I don't agree with them, but the nature of their criticisms rubbed me the wrong way. It's one of these shows on which, week after week, the discussion consists of recounting the plot of a given movie beat for beat with the only editorial interjection being something like "It's so stupid." The failure to try to see any good in the movie or to appreciate it on its own terms just makes no sense to me, and it's something I'd like to rectify with this column.
When I first saw Puppet Master II as an eighth grader in 1991, I remember finding it disappointing. Having been such a fan of the first Puppet Master, released two years prior, the follow-up felt like a sequel that offered only more of the same -- another group of parapsychological investigators, another hotel, another round of killer puppets. I didn't dislike the movie, but I did find it to be more of a lateral move than evidence of the series really moving forward. Revisiting the movie years later on Blu-ray, more than 20 years' worth of Full Moon movies and eight or nine more Puppet Master sequels behind me, I had a whole new appreciation for the sequel and now consider it maybe the best entry in the long-running franchise.

Puppet Master II opens with the puppets -- Blade, Tunneler, Leech Woman, Jester and Pinhead -- digging up the grave of Puppet Master Andre Toulon and pouring the life-giving formula he invented on the corpse, reviving their creator. Cut to a new team of psychic researchers arriving at the Bodega Bay Inn to investigate the claims of murderous killer puppets made by Alex Whitaker, the only survivor of the original film (played by Paul Le Mat). Once there, they are attacked by the puppets and killed off one by one, all leading to the return of Toulon and the creepiest man-sized doll ever committed to film. To call it the stuff of nightmares is an understatement; this is the shit that keeps nightmares awake. While the idea of a human Big Bad revealing himself at film's end only to have the puppets turn on him will sound familiar to anyone who saw the original Puppet Master, the second film improves on that idea and does it in a way that's more interesting and memorable -- an apt description of the entire sequel, actually. It's basically the first movie redux, only more ambitious and inventive.
With almost twice the budget of the original movie, Puppet Master II is a bigger, more ambitious effort in most ways. The puppets move and do a whole lot more. The effects are more elaborate. Taking over for Puppet Master director David Schmoeller is Dave Allen, the stop-motion effects legend David Allen, who worked on everything from The Howling to Ghostbusters II to Q to Willow to most of the Empire and Full Moon productions until his untimely death in 1999. Having previously only directed one segment of Empire's The Dungeonmaster, Puppet Master II is the only feature Allen ever made. That's a shame, because like a lot of FX makers-turned-filmmaker, Allen knows how to shoot his creature creations for maximum impact and can stretch even the increased budget to feel like more than it is, as this is a movie that looks like it cost a couple million bucks (and before you scoff at this observation, you would be amazed at what movies cost multiple millions; suffice it to say, they don't have as much cool shit as this one). He's better with the effects and the technical side than he is with the storytelling elements, but I'm willing to cut him some slack there. Most Full Moon movies are about effects and technical stuff -- a fun concept and the right tone, properly executed -- than they are about telling a great story. The stories have to work, but they're not what charms us.
The characters, though, are much less colorful and distinct than they were in the first Puppet Master. While Paul LeMat was a wide-eyed mass of vanilla pudding, the rest of the cast managed to create distinct characters in just a couple of broad strokes -- and I do mean "broad." I would take that over this group of interchangeable fodder, distinguishable mostly because one has red hair and one is Corbin Bernsen's brother (Barney Bernsen) and one is Charlie Spradling, who stands out in any project in which she appears. I have a hard and fast rule that any more with Charlie Spradling is better than that same movie without Charlie Spradling, and Puppet Master II confirms this hypothesis. Her character has absolutely nothing to do -- she's basically "scared scientist with requisite nude scene" -- but she stands out in a way that a lot of other actors wouldn't. It's a weak ensemble overall, but Charlie Spradling is the brightest spot.
The puppets are the real stars here, and one of things I love about the Full Moon movies that I love is the fact that they can't help but eventually side with their monsters. Puppet Master II sees fit to get rid of Leech Woman, which is too bad because she's the only female puppet in the gang. At the same time, I think the effect might have been difficult and frustrating (I have a questionable memory of Charles Band saying something like this on the Blu-ray commentary, but this might be something I completely made up) and so it was easier to just throw the puppet into a fire and kill her off. She's replaced by Torch, a puppet wearing a German soldier helmet from WWII with a blowtorch for a hand. Unlike his puppet pals Blade and Jester, who manage to express some sort of personality despite being hunks of wood and cloth and stuffing, Torch is little more than a weapon and a costume design. His most significant moment in the movie comes when he sets fire to a little kid, because Puppet Master II is not fucking around. In Torch's defense, that kid was being a bit of a shit.
Despite only liking half or fewer of the movies, I remain a fan of the Puppet Master franchise. I attribute a lot of this to nostalgia, as the original movie was one I watched a lot when it was released on VHS in 1989. It was when I first got bit by the Full Moon bug, and the affection for the company has continued for almost 30 years (Jerry Smith, you are the only one who gets me). The series went through a number of iterations, from the period piece sequels in which the puppets were the heroes through the prequel that is Retro Puppet Master to the clip show travesty of Puppet Master: The Legacy to the campy comedies that the franchise has now become. Puppet Master II remains, for me, one of the high points of the series in that it still actually functions as a horror movie -- a concern not shared by later installments -- and does so with a determination to be bigger and better than what came before. Less a sequel than the refining of an idea, Puppet Master II is the strongest iteration of the puppets-as-monsters approach that gave this series its start.

I'm legitimately excited for the upcoming reboot, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, partly because it's being written by Bone Tomahawk writer/director S. Craig Zahler but primarily because it's starring Barbara Crampton, whose participation in any movie is reason to celebrate. I have no idea what to expect from a Puppet Master movie being made in 2017 but mostly without Charles Band (who is still credited as executive producer). The cast list, which includes comedian Thomas Lennon and martian vampire Udo Kier, makes it appear that the film will embrace a kind of camp. I don't know. Maybe that's the way to make this material palatable to a modern audience? We'll see. In the meantime, I can always get my fix of O.G. Puppet Master with Puppet Master II, a movie that is neither stupid nor boring no matter what some podcast claims. I dig it.


Got a movie you'd like to see covered in Full Moon Fever? Let us know in the comments below!

5 comments:

  1. I owe a huge part of my horror fandom to this series. It was part 3 that served as my introduction to the series (and Full Moon itself). It was the first (non-edited for TV) horror film I was able to see.

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  2. I've never seen this, and you had me at "Charlie Spradling." What's the most appropriate day in June for my first viewing?

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    1. Any Free Space day would work! Or you could get away with it on Monsters day.

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    2. 30. Monsters! - Puppet Master 4/Puppet Master 5

      Thanks, Patrick!

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  3. Thank you very much for the information you shared, it's all I've been looking for

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