The further adventures of Blade, Pinhead, Jester, Tunneler and Leech Woman.
Charles Band likes his franchises. To date there have been six Trancers movies, four instalments apiece of Killjoy and Subspecies (plus one vampire themed spin-off), a trio of Gingerdead Men and three Witchouses. Characters from Dolls, Demonic Toys, Dollman, Bad Channels and When Puppets and Dolls Attack!, meanwhile, have all crossed paths at one point or other, plus newer arrivals to the Band roster – such as Killer Eye and Evil Bong – appear to be on the verge of breaking out into their own multi-part series. All of which pales in comparison to the number of sequels, prequels and cross-overs inspired by 1989’s video hit, Puppet Master. The head count currently stands at ten, with Puppet Master X: Axis Rising being just the latest entry. In the years since they made their VHS debut, the well-travelled tiny terrors have journeyed to 19th century Egypt, Nazi-era Berlin, occupied France, Chinatown and the bowels of Hell. They’ve also evaded the Gestapo, played laser tag, encountered the Demonic Toys (during Christmas, no less) and killed an impressive number of second-rate actors.
Having released the very first Puppet Master onto Blu-ray in August, 88 Films are now moving onto the sequels. Next week will see instalments II and III make the transition to HD alongside a bunch of worthwhile additions. Originally these two films debuted a mere eight months apart, with the first sequel appearing in video stores February of 1991 and the second in October. Despite the close proximity they’re also very different beasts. Puppet Master II is the more traditional follow-up, picking up where the first film finished off and pretty much rehashing its plot. Puppet Master III, on the other hand, rewinds the action to Nazi Germany to provide us with a little backstory and escape any hint of going over old ground. To further cement the disparities, each sequel also comes with an entirely different cast and crew. The only mainstays are Band himself (a producer and story credit on each), his brother Richard serving as composer and Dave Allen Productions doing the special effects.
Allen and Band had been regular working together since the late seventies. Allen provided some of the effects work on Laserblast and The Day Time Ended and would continue to collaborate even when the bigger budgeted offers began to roll in. Indeed, mere months after he’d secured an Oscar nomination for his work on Young Sherlock Holmes, Allen was back with Band providing some of the optical effect shots for the cheapo cyborg flick Eliminators. Such loyalty wasn’t lost on the producer and so, when Puppet Master II came around, Allen was offered the chance to make his fully-fledged directorial debut (having previously helmed a ten-minute segment of Band’s 1984 anthology pic, Ragewar). Unfortunately, it didn’t come with the best of scripts or, for that matter, the best of casts.
As you may recall, Puppet Master concluded with Paul Le Mat’s wonderfully bequiffed Professor being the sole survivor. According to a bit of expositional dialogue in part two he’s ended up in the madhouse, although his ravings haven’t gone unnoticed. The Bodega Bay Inn, setting for the first movie and its succession of slayings, attracts the attention of a group of paranormal experts and soon enough they’re moving in with their monitors and other bits of technical jiggery-pokery. What they don’t know is that the titular Puppet Master, Andre Toulon himself, has been resurrected by his little creations and is now residing in the hotel in a zombified form. One of their number also happens to be a dead ringer for Toulon’s long-deceased wife prompting him to dream up a scheme involving both their souls being transferred into life-size mannequins…
Such a description perhaps makes Puppet Master II sound a lot busier than it is. The reality is that the plot developments are generally hurried through with an emphasis instead placed on delivering a murderous set-piece every fifteen minutes or so. Much like the first film the hotel’s new residents are dispatched one-by-one, each time by a different puppet. Thus Pinhead (human sized fists, tiny everything else) gets a kill, as do Blade (hook and a knife for hands, Klaus Kinski-inspired visage), Leech Woman (coughs up deadly leeches on her victims) and Tunneler (drill piece where the top of his head should be). In the interests of merchandising, the film also introduces a new character, Torch, who combines an SS helmet with a flamethrower for a limb.
The problem with Puppet Master II is that Torch proves to be an all too rare addition. There’s little here that we didn’t see in instalment one, albeit with less mystery and a far worse cast. Indeed, the characters and their various entanglements (a bit of romance, an alcoholic brother) simply aren’t interesting enough, which partly down to the script and partly down to the players. Collin Bernsen (brother of Corbin), for example, is required to little more run about in a selection of denim – although I did like the unexpected touch of making him a writer of Westerns – but then I suspect he couldn’t handle much more. Ultimately there is little here beyond standard direct-to-video horror thrills and that’s a shame as the Puppet Master franchise was capable of more.
Whether by accident or design, David Schmoeller’s concept of the original movie – which opened with Toulon committing suicide before the Gestapo could get hold of him plus hints of Egyptian mysticism – left enough unexplained (or undeveloped) to ensure some interesting spin-offs. The Egyptian angle was briefly covered in a Puppet Master II flashback (and would later be built upon more fully in Retro Puppet Master, the seventh entry in the series) but only perfunctorily. The Nazi angle, however, encompasses all of Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge, which is set entirely in Berlin in 1941. This fudges the chronology a little (the suicide in the first movie supposedly happens in 1939), but not to worry. What it sacrifices in strict adherence to the original it makes up for with invention.
Toulon during World War II is a happy man. He and his wife eke out a moderate living thanks to his puppet shows. However, their satirical – and anti-Hitler – nature attracts the attention of local Major who comes across more than he bargained for. Realising that the puppets are alive, he seeks to discover their secret so that it may be used to create Nazi zombies. (A surprisingly prolific sub-genre, incidentally; see Shock Waves, Oasis of the Zombies, Outpost, Dead Snow and plenty more.) The revenge part of the title comes into play once Toulon’s wife is murdered, thus sending the tiny terrors out on a series Nazi-killing missions. Bulking out the narrative we also find a Swiss father-and-son escaping persecution as well as genesis stories for a number of the miniature monsters. Blade, it transpires, is based upon Richard Lynch’s evil Major despite the real-life Kinski inspiration. (Schmoeller had worked with the German actor on Crawlspace and decided to commemorate their time together by making him the chief villain in the original Puppet Master.)
Beyond the far more entertaining plotting, Puppet Master III also trumps the previous sequel with its casting. Initially director David DeCoteau (previously responsible for Creepozoids and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama) had hoped to get Herbert Lom and former Hammer regular Ralph Bates on board. Lom was busy with Michele Saovi’s The Sect at the time and Bates was in the final stages of pancreatic cancer, prompting DeCoteau to look for alternate cult figures. For the part of Toulon he chose Guy Rolfe, who had made an impact a number of years earlier in the title role of William Castle’s Mr. Sardonicus. And for our chief villain he sought the services of Richard Lynch, whose scarred face (the result of misadventure during an anti-war protest in the late sixties) had adorned many a low-budget genre movie. Also worth a mention are Sarah Douglas as Mrs Toulon – practically unrecognisable in comparison to her famed turn as Ursa in Superman II – and Ian Abercrombie (later to play Mr Pitt in Seinfeld) as a more kindly strain of evil Nazi scientist.
Such cult-ish casting neatly sums up the approach DeCoteau and screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner bring to the picture. They recognised that whilst most people will be coming to a Puppet Master movie in order to see murderous little special effects, that doesn’t mean they should forego a bit of invention or wit or even a hint of class. Of course, Puppet Master III satisfies its kill quota with the requisite gore and charming FX work, but that’s only part of the story. Indeed, you need only watch part two immediately followed by part three to make that very obvious distinction.
88 Films are releasing Puppet Master II and Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge individually and onto both DVD and Blu-ray formats. The latter were supplied for review purposes and so it is the HD offering which will be considered below…
Both Blu-rays are encoded for all regions, come with a nice selection of extras and, generally speaking, share the same flaws and qualities when it comes to the presentations. The overall response is a mostly positive one. Detail is strong in both films and to the point where we’re seeing things the filmmakers probably hoped we wouldn’t. Strings are much more noticeable then they were in VHS times, whilst Kristopher Logan twitches quite a bit for someone supposedly playing a corpse! Colours are similarly impressive and contrast levels mostly fine. A bit of edge enhancement makes itself known from time to time in both pictures (perhaps a little more in the first sequel) and some of the smokier scenes in part three reveal some banding. Some noise reduction has also been applied to some scenes (more so those with SFX shots), though the degree of its use differs. Sometimes it’s a touch too liberal, but mostly detail and clarity remain intact. Both films are presented at a ratio of 1.78:1 which doesn’t appear to pose any problems, whilst the original stereo soundtracks are presented in DTS-HD form. No issues on this front though do be aware that optional subtitles, English or otherwise, are not available.
Audio commentaries are available on both discs. Charles Band takes up the duties for Puppet Master II, with David DeCoteau and C. Courtney Joyner chatting their way through Puppet Master III. The former is a more general affair with Band taking us up to date with his filmmaking efforts (it was recorded earlier this year) and the roadshow tours that he now embarks on. Some mention is made of the main feature, of course, especially his memories of working with Dave Allen (who died in 1999), though this is mostly a crash course in the current state of the industry from a low budget filmmaker’s perspective. As Band notes, most hit movies nowadays are just B-movies with A-movie finance behind them. By way of contrast DeCoteau and Joyner take us on an enthusiastic tour with their movie’s production encompassing everything from shooting on a Universal Studios back-lot to reminiscing about the more troublesome cast members. Given their work on a number of Band-related features such discussion necessarily invokes a number of his productions.
Elsewhere each disc also offers up a selection of trailers, toy commercials and a brief intro from Band himself. Best of all, however, are the old VideoZone featurettes that originally played at the end of the VHS tapes. Averaging a length of 25-minutes, these pieces would offer up behind-the-scenes footage, cast and crew interviews, forthcoming attractions and other tidbits, all of which is introduced by a then-baby-faced Band. Nostalgia plays its part, of course, but these are highly engaging little pieces, free of the usual EPK fluff that has now become standard. Particularly charming is the enthusiasm of the special effects crew and I was particularly taken by the array of T-shirts worn during Puppet Master III’s ‘making of’: The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (which DeCoteau models), VistaVision and a Pixar one a full four years before Toy Story made them a household name.
The below ratings encompass both films and discs. Whilst the video, audio and extras ratings remain the same for both, Puppet Master II is deserving of 4/10 when it comes to the main feature and Puppet Master III 7/10 – which also bumps its Blu-ray up to 7/10 overall.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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