EDITOR’S NOTE: This was originally on the site on August 20, 2018.
Despite being direct to video releases (yes, some have had limited releases in theaters and the first was considered for theatrical release), the Puppet Master series is one that’s packed with content. Produced by Full Moon Features, the series started in 1989 with Puppet Master, which has been followed by ten sequels/prequels, a non-canon crossover with the characters of Demonic Toys, two comic book mini-series, an ongoing comic book series, toys and now, this reboot.
Opening in Postville, Texas, where that “old guy” comes into a bar where he’s been frequently upsetting the female customers. That “old guy” is Andre Toulon, the inventor of the puppets who this movie is all about and he’s played by Udo Kier, of all people. After bothering the bartender and her girlfriend, he leaves into the night, upset as they embrace and kiss.
Later that night, the girls leave the bar and discuss their future. After hearing a noise, one of them is attacked. Soon, we see Toulon lying in a basement, telling the puppets to come to him. This scene felt really disjointed — setting up the murder but not showing it actually happening. Everything jumps forward to the police investigating the crime scene, with both girls dead and small footprints running away from the car.
The police rush — with no backup or warrant — to the Toulon house, where we see Andre rise painfully and pull down a concrete pillar. They enter the house and we hear gunfire as the title card appears.
Note: the producers have stated that this film takes place in a parallel universe, which is why Andre Toulon is an evil Nazi instead of battling against the Third Reich.
Dallas, Texas. Today. Edgar (Thomas Lennon, The State, Reno 9-11 and a character actor who has shown up in plenty of films way below his talent level) is recovering from a divorce and has retreated to his childhood home to heal. There, he discovers a mint condition Blade doll in his dead brother’s room and decides to sell it at a convention that celebrates the Toulon Murders for a big profit. Joining him on the way are Markowitz (Nelson Franklin, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and Ashley.
They sign up for a tour of the Toulon house, led by Carol Doreski (Barbara Crampton, Re-Animator, Chopping Mall, We Are Still Here), the officer who raided the mansion thirty years ago. She explains the backstory of how Toulon began creating the puppets and where everything went wrong.
Once Toulon escaped World War 2 — his wife committed suicide at sea — he settled in this small Texas town. On the night the police were called in, they found a house of horrors, including a soundproof room where Jewish women were tortured. There are also books in the house on all manner of subjects like astrology, numerology, demonology and more, as well as books that came directly from Adolf Eichmann, the creator of the Final Solution.
Finally, Doreski shows the tour group where Toulon was shot as she finishes the tour at the mausoleum where his body lies in rest. There are rods inside the building that some feel have occult significance, but that no one can really explain.
When Edgar and Ashley — now a couple who make out at every opportunity — come back to their hotel room, his Blade doll is missing and the front desk answers back in French, saying “Remain in the shadows.” If you think things are going to get normal from here on out, well, things are only going the other way. Soon, Torch appears and makes the first two gory kills. In a world of CGI, it’s nice to see some practical effects here! The burn effects are really well done.
This isn’t a film that skimps on nudity, either. We cut right from those brutal kills to a couple in the throes of passion — including breasts against the window ala Catholic High School Girls in Trouble from The Kentucky Fried Movie. Blade soon gets involved, slicing them to ribbons, including a Pet Semetary style ankle shredding.
Say what you will about this movie, but it knows its audience. We find another convention goer watching some wrestling in his room (I recognize David Starr, which I wonder is intentional as he’s a Jewish pro wrestler). Man, I don’t want to spoil the kill that follows, but suffice to say I’ve never seen anyone urinate on a decapitated head before. Just wow. If you’re looking for the red stuff — and I guess the yellow stuff — this movie has you covered.
While Markowitz tries to get some action at the bar, Detective Brown (Michael Paré from Streets of Fire! This is the kind of casting I’d dream of if Italian exploitation movies were still being made!) shows up to investigate the missing Blade doll. Soon, he learns that everyone that brought a doll has lost them. And man do they pay. We don’t meet a single character really and get to know them, we just watch puppets decimate them. But hey — isn’t that why you’re watching this?
This movie totally needs a Joe Bob Briggs breakdown of the kills. Spinning robot fu. Intestine ripped out fu. Drill fu. Puppet abortion fu. Seriously, that last one is on the level of Joe D’Amato or Ruggero Deodato depravity.
The police make everyone leaves their rooms and gather in the lobby as multiple crime scenes appear. Can everyone survive the onslaught of Blade, Pinhead, Tunneler, Torch, Mechaniker, Happy Amphibian, Grasshüpfer, Mr. Pumper, Junior Fuhrer, Autogyro and Money Lender?
“Lots of terrible shit happens to people who don’t deserve it,” says a fan at the end of the film. “I don’t think things are fully resolved,” says our sole survivor as a TO BE CONTINUED comes up. Well, here’s to hoping!
Directed by Sonny Liguna and Tommy Wiklund (Animalistic) and written by S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99) with credit given to Charles Band, there’s a major narrative shift that changes up this film from any that have come before. Where in the past, the puppets were created to battle the Nazis and have been taken over by whomever can command them, here they were explicitly by a Nazi to kill their enemies, like Jewish people, blacks, gay people and gypsies. Essentially, the characters that you want to cheer on are committing hate crimes. That’s a pretty big jump to make. Then again, if you see this is an exploitation film, you know that all bets are off. Creator Charles Band told Entertainment Weekly, “You’ve got to go back to what exploitation movies were 40-50 years ago. I mean, it’s hard today. There’s so much out there. We’re so jaded. I mean, television news, when something bad happens, it’s worse than most horror movies I’ve ever made: decapitations and terrorism. And, you know, what do you do to an audience that has seen it all, to get them talking? What [Cinestate] has done is gone full-on exploitation. They’ve got something going there, where there is going to be controversy.”
I’ve hinted at it before, but the Italian sleaze roots of this film run deep. So deep that Fabio Frizzi (The Beyond, Zombi, Manhattan Baby) did the score! And the role that Skeeta Jenkins plays totally feels made for Bobby Rhodes.
Band has stated that he still has plans to make his own Puppet Master movies and that Cinestate has plans to make a big budget version of Castle Freak next. Here’s hoping that movies like Trancers and Subspecies also get their shot!
Despite the changing of the series’ premise — I’ve never been a hardcore fan, so I got past this quickly — this movie is exactly what it should be. Quick, brutal and filled with the red stuff. Sure, we never find out what the hell is going on in that mausoleum. And we have no idea what happens next. But isn’t that the beauty of a fun exploitation movie? Shut your brain off and enjoy.