Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Unnecessary Retrospective #2: The Puppet Master Decilogy, Part One

Hello everyone and welcome to another edition of Unnecessary Retrospectives, wherein I attempt to find an answer to what some people might consider to be a simple question, namely, what exactly is supposed to be so frightening about puppets? I ask this not just as a general question going along with a theme but as a personal one, because I've honestly never understood it. Don't get me wrong, I know exactly why I don't get it - I was raised by a puppeteer and developed an appreciation for the medium at an early age through things like Sesame Street and the Muppets, but even trying to look at it objectively and allowing for the small minority of people in the world without puppeteer parents, I just don't see the terror.

If I had to come up with an explanation, I think it might have something to do with the Uncanny Valley. It's an idea that is often applied to robotics and CGI, that the more something non-human appears human-like, the more endearing it becomes to us, until it reaches a plateau where the opposite becomes true and we reject it. It becomes too human, only to remind us that it is not human. There is a point where our natural instinct to anthropomorphize everything from our cars to our gods backfires on us, like when you look at your cute little kitty cat that you've named and ascribed various motives and personality quirks to, and then you think, if you had a heart attack right now, how long would this feral creature wait before eating your face off? When you look at a puppet, maybe you think the idea that this thing might come to life is admittedly remote, but if it does, it almost certainly will not be as human on the inside as it looks on the outside. It betrays its form; It will be shaped like you but not have your capacity to love and not murder you in your sleep. And maybe the puppeteer aspect reminds us all subconsciously of our own unseen controllers, pulling the strings of our lives and controlling our fates. Perhaps in the dead eyes of the puppet, we see a stark reflection of our own souls.

Also, some of them have blades for hands and spit giant fucking leeches out of their mouths. Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Puppet Master.

I've decided to split this retrospective into two parts, focusing on the first five and last five films in the franchise respectively. I did this mostly because, given how much I was able to write about Critters with only four movies to work with, I think if I tried it with ten, the Internet might collectively try to retaliate against me somehow. Also, the fifth film was intended by the creators to be the final installment before the series' relaunch a few years later, and it also represents the last one I saw at a young age, only watching the second run years after they were released, so it's a natural demarcation point for me. Anyway, on with the show.

Puppet Master (1989)

Our first foray into the world of Puppet Master begins in the Bodega Bay Inn in 1939 where the elderly puppeteer Andre Toulon (William Hickey) is staying with his cadre of living puppets, whom he loves as his children, until he is forced to hide them away and shoot himself in the head before he is found by Nazi assassins. The movie picks up years later with a group of psychics brought together by an old friend and summoned to the same hotel, where one by one they are stalked and murdered by Toulon's puppets, now under the control of an evil force. If that description alone did not excite you enough to want to watch this movie, than I would submit that, unlike Toulon's puppets, you have no soul, but I digress.

The set up is a little more clever than the typical "random people trapped with a killer" story, and only gets more interesting as the rules of magic and psychic phenomena are explored further. Though the acting isn't always top notch, it's never so bad as to make the film less entertaining or less serious, save for possibly the character of Dana (Irene Miracle), also known as the White Witch, whose fake Cajun accent might be the worst ever committed to film. Still her character and her abilities are intriguing enough that it doesn't drag on the movie, and the same is true for pretty much the entire cast. Of particular note is the film's ultimate villain Neil Gallagher (Jimmie F. Skaggs), who appears through most of the movie in visions and as a mysteriously mobile corpse before finally revealing himself in the final act. His performance, though brief, is probably the most memorable in the film and his death at the hands of the puppets, all working together to turn against their manipulator, is nothing short of epic.

Paul Le Mat stars as Alex Whitaker, a professor with the power to see the future in his dreams and the only one of his group who isn't in some way morally degenerate and who is therefore the only survivor. He's joined by the aforementioned Dana, a fortune teller, possible con artist, and mean drunk, Carissa, an adept at psychometry (the ability to see the past of an object or location) which she uses mostly to achieve orgasms, and Frank, who is implied to be some sort of mind reader though it is never really made clear, introduced using his ability in a lab to read the sexual fantasies of a female test subject.

Frank and Carissa are a romantic couple and their various "experiments" encompass an odd subplot that ultimately proves their mutual undoing. They fashion themselves as scientific researchers, but they seem to use this as merely a flimsy pretext to have sex in strange ways and places, leaving them distracted during an S&M romp and quickly dispatched by the puppets. I say quickly, but that really only applies to Carissa, who takes a drill to the face. Frank's death is almost comically slow and is only accomplished due to his being blindfolded and tied to the bed, at first mistaking the puppets' touch for the tender caress of his now dead lover, their whirring gears the activation of a new sex toy, in what amounts to a fatal though perhaps understandable error.

The human cast is rounded out by Robin Frates as Gallagher's naive young wife/widow Megan, and an annoyingly mousey maid (Mews Small) existing only to up the body count, but really, the true stars are obviously the puppets. Led by the gothic Blade, with knife and hook hands and what I only realized at the end of the film were nails for eyes (the purpose of which still eludes me), Toulon's puppets are instantly captivating. They walk that fine line between creepy and endearing, owing to that uniquely eerie magical quality of stop-motion and puppetry sadly rarely seen in movies since the advent of CGI. Blade is accompanied by Pinhead, a super strong pugilist in a turtle neck, Tunneler, dressed as a dictator with a drill coming out of the top of his head, Leech Woman, with an endless supply of leeches she can vomit out on to her enemies, and finally Jester, whose head is segmented into three spinning parts that allow him to change his expression. All of the original puppets introduced in the first film carry over into the rest of the series with new members added to the group in many of the ensuing films.

Surprisingly, the conceit of puppet killers, which could have very easily come off as extremely silly, lends the film's various death scenes an extra level of excitement and suspense in a way that almost flips the typical modern day slasher concept on its head. The film, though generally fantastical, is very realistic in terms of its portrayal of the puppets' attacks, specifically in that it does not avoid the reality that a living puppet would have a very difficult time killing a fully grown adult by itself. This forces the puppets to work together and find different ways to use their environment or circumstances to their advantage. This doesn't just apply to murder but also to the simplest tasks like opening doors and moving around the building. Our first introduction to Blade has him using his hook hand to arduously drag a chair from room to room, just so he can reach high enough to spy through the key holes at his future targets. This welcome element of challenge results in the kills being more satisfying than they otherwise would be and makes you root for the puppets to succeed, not because the victims are unlikable or badly written as in other movies (while they all have their faults, the psychics are mostly engaging to watch), but rather because the killers are working so diligently that you can't help but celebrate their hard-fought victories.

As mentioned before, the film ends with the grisly death of the villain Neil Gallagher, whose attempt to use Toulon's ability to imbue life to that which does not live on his own dead body is ultimately for naught, as he provides the first example of the simple lesson learned by at least one character in every movie, namely - Don't Fuck With The Puppets. Sometimes they're used for evil, more often for good in later films; either way they seem to be cool with it, but the bad guys always seem to make the mistake of doing one thoughtless thing that the puppets see as a slight or insult against them, and they proceed to launch a puppet jihad on their asses almost instantaneously. This is brought to a glorious apotheosis in the third installment, but more on that later. As for this entry, the audience is left with a twist ending revealing that Megan, the innocent young owner of the inn, has developed Toulon's ability to bring the inanimate to life, but this is contradicted almost immediately in the second film, as the arcane science of the process is explored in greater detail.

Puppet Master 2: His Unholy Creations (1991)

The second film picks up a few months after the first one, with the puppets, now without a master, taking the initiative and digging up Toulon's grave so they can use his own methods to bring him back to life. After this very enticing set up, the story follows a team of parapsychologists apparently funded by the government (because in the Puppet Master universe, the Republicans are 100% right about wasteful government spending), who take up residence in the Bodega Bay Inn to investigate the events of the first film, at first unaware that Toulon has moved back in. It seems Alex from the last movie has since gone insane, and Megan was brutally murdered, her brain ripped out through her nose. Neither character returns and the replacement group is nowhere near as interesting or amusing to watch as the team of psychics in the first movie, except perhaps for the character of Camille (Nita Talbot), who is ironically the only one in the film with psychic powers and unfortunately the first to be killed.

The standout is Toulon, recast with Steve Welles taking on the role, assuming an over-the-top German accent. Driven insane by his time in the grave, he has gone from a sympathetic old man to a cackling super villain with a look to match, wrapped in bandages to conceal his zombified face and wearing a cape and arm-length leather gloves. He looks like the Invisible Man had a baby with Doctor Doom (and then presumably raised their child with a fashion sense amalgamating their two styles, as that sort of thing typically isn't genetic). His performance is a delightful throwback to the stereotypical mad scientist of classic B-movie science fiction, and while it does somewhat undercut the character's later heroic turn in the sequels to come, in the greater context of the entire series it only makes him more complex. He delivers several awesomely crazy monologues throughout the film while talking to his puppets about his master plan, and as he becomes more unhinged, believing the female lead to be the reincarnation of his dead wife, it is evident that he has lost his parental love for the puppets and sees them merely as a means to an end, exploiting their loyalty and in the end betraying them, sealing his own fate.

The kills are a little more gory, but because we're not able to invest as much into the characters, they are not really as effective. Tunneler barrels his way through one guy's forehead while he sleeps, and there's a scene with Blade turning around and running at one of his victims that is done very well and again makes great use of the stop-motion style that is the hallmark of the series, but it seems like the movie is just going through the motions after a while. A few exceptions are the deaths of the hillbilly couple, particularly the wife, who manages to take out Leech Woman before being set on fire by the newest puppet Torch, and obviously the finale when Toulon learns his lesson like only the puppets can teach it. Last but not least, there's a scene that every horror fan knows and loathes, when one of the movie's monsters encounters an annoying little kid. You know what's going to happen, there will be a lot of fake tension as if the kid is going to get killed, but because we can't kill kids, he will eventually escape or be spared at the last minute. Oh wait, except this time, that totally doesn't happen, and the kid is totally fucking murdered - burned to death in fact. It's easily the biggest payoff in the movie even if it is done off screen, and its a rare movie that has the balls to go through with it. Kudos Puppet Master 2. Kudos

We learn a lot more about the mythology this time around, some good, some bad, and some later retconned away by later movies. First, there's a flashback to Toulon learning the technique of bringing puppets to life, but this is later contradicted and expanded upon in the second half of the series. The mechanics of animating the unliving are revealed to rely on the creation of a special formula (glowing green, naturally) made through a process combining elements of magical alchemy and pseudo-science right out of a Frankenstein movie, with the secret ingredient being the frontal lobe of the brain. This contradicts the end of the previous film which implies that the secret is more akin to another kind of psychic ability, which personally I think would have made for a better story overall. Making it a secret formula just makes the whole thing seem so, well, formulaic, and the idea that murder is required makes the Toulon of the third film much less sympathetic. It is noted that animal brains can be used as a less efficient substitute, which one can assume is how the stuff is made going forward. We are also first introduced to the idea of soul transference, which becomes a much more integral part of the series' mythos later on, particularly the third and sixth installments. This element also leads to a cliffhanger ending with a supposedly new Puppet Master, this time chosen by the puppets themselves and given the immortal body of a mannequin, on their way to entertain children at an institute for mentally challenged kids with a (presumably evil) puppet show, but once again this is never carried on in later films.

Puppet Master 3: Toulon's Revenge (1991)

Though the title is perhaps more apt for the prior film, that is probably one of only two complaints I can feasibly muster for what is by far the best film in the Puppet Master series, so good that it spawned its own prequel and sequel within the series itself (two sequels if you count Legacy, and possibly a third currently in production as of this writing). I mentioned before that the cliffhanger from the last film was never resolved, and while I would have liked to see that at some point, I am so glad they decided to make this movie instead of that one. Set during World War II (retconning Toulon's suicide to occur several years later), it follows the original puppet master as a younger man, living in Nazi Germany. When his wife is murdered in front of him by Nazis in search of his secret formula, he goes on a personal mission to seek vengeance on the men who killed her one-by-one with the help of his band of murderous puppet commandos. Yes, that's right, you heard me: it's Inglorious Bastards with puppets! I literally just came out of every orifice in my body upon writing that sentence. Why are you not watching this movie right now, on a loop 24 hours a day on every TV in your home?

Toulon's been recast yet again, this time with Guy Rolfe who maintained the role until his death in 2003. Rolfe is wonderful in the role and the change is for the best, as Welles' version, while good in its own right, probably would not have worked for this new take on the character. Rolfe's Toulon is a good man driven to the edge of madness, at first wanting only to use his magic to entertain children, but ultimately pushed too far, turning his puppet friends into killers. Here we find out that the puppets in fact possess the souls of Toulon's dead friends, all Jews killed by Nazis in the past, and that a soul must be willing to be placed in a puppet for it to come to life (a rule that later sets up the central plot of the sixth film). Leech Woman is brought to life for the first time, implanted with the soul of Toulon's wife, and Blade is given the soul of Toulon's friend, the defecting Nazi scientist Dr. Hess, at the end of the film. We're also introduced to a new puppet, the six-armed cowboy Six Shooter, who appears in every film afterwards.

The back-story of Leech Woman given here could be seen as a plot hole, as in the last film Toulon shows no feeling when Leech Woman dies, despite apparently having this deep connection to her. The obvious reason is that they had not planned this plot twist when the second movie was being made, but I like to think that it just shows how far gone the resurrected Toulon was, that either he forgot who she was or was so insane and single minded that he didn't care. Remember, he thinks his wife's soul was reincarnated, but here we prove he knows otherwise. It either doesn't make sense or adds a new sad dimension to the character, and given the choice I prefer the latter.

Unlike the last film, the supporting cast in this one is top-notch all around. Toulon's wife, played by Sarah Douglas (Superman II), uses what little screen time she's given to craft a character loving enough that her death and resurrection is both tragic and haunting, and the late Ian Abercrombie (Seinfeld) shines as Dr. Hess, whose love of science and respect for Toulon's mind forces him to betray the Nazis and become a fugitive. But of course, the standout is Richard Lynch as the unrepentantly evil Major Kraus. He's a proudly bigoted monster who loves what he does and doesn't question his actions for a second, and is so committed to the cause that he is willing to let the secret of eternal life die rather than let a fugitive of the state live. He's naturally the one to pull the trigger on Toulon's wife, and his death is the kind of poetic justice you always want in a movie like this. All I'll say is that it involves hooks and the burning of a Nazi flag. Finally, and I never thought I'd say this about a Nazi, but the General (Walter Gotell) is just delightful to watch. He's played as the genial, almost reasonable Nazi to Lynch's evil monster, and his most important character trait is that he loves prostitutes. By the way, is it wrong that when one of his prostitutes puts on his Nazi general hat, it makes her like ten times hotter? Not sure if I've got a She Wolf thing or what, but it's got me a bit out of sorts.

Oh, and I believe I mentioned a second criticism I had with this film? Okay, maybe I'm overreacting on this, and you might consider it nitpicking, but here goes. Early on in the film, Toulon is shown to have a puppet show, which is what first attracts the attention of the Nazis because it contains a big-headed puppet of Adolf Hitler that is made to look foolish in front of the children. This doll is later smashed by Kraus and never seen again. Here's my thing: if you're making a movie with "Puppet Master" in the title about a man able to bring puppets to life, then go out of your way to introduce a Hitler puppet, isn't it a little unfair to the audience that this is the one puppet not brought to life in the entire movie? I mean, come on, I talk about missed opportunities a lot in these retrospectives, and this might be the biggest one in the history of film making. There's a rule in writing fiction called Chekhov's Gun (so named for Pavel Chekhov from Star Trek and his love of firearms, I assume). Basically it means you don't introduce a gun in the first act unless you plan on someone firing it in the third. I submit we change this to the Puppet Hitler rule. You don't suggest the possibility of a living killer Hitler puppet unless you're willing to make this dream a reality. Shame on you, producers of Puppet Master 3: Toulon's Revenge, shame on you.

Puppet Master 4: The Demon (1993)


Puppet Master 5: The Final Chapter (1994)

Yeah, I'm doing them both at once, you got a problem with that? You want to fight about it? Didn't think so. The main reason I decided to combine these two movies is because they are basically the same movie, with 5 feeling like they filmed too much footage for the previous one, so they came up with an expanded plot and filmed a few more scenes over a weekend. And as you may have guessed, 4 and 5 are also similar in that they both suck about the same amount of ass. These two movies suck balls so big that all the original puppets could fit inside of them at once, with room to stretch their tiny puppet legs. If Puppet Master 3 was the Critters 2 of Puppet Master movies, then Puppet Masters 4 and 5 are collectively the Critters 3 of the franchise (which would presumably make Puppet Masters 1 and 2 collectively the Critters 1 of the franchise, but then again, Critters math was never my best subject).

The story follows a new puppet master Rick, played shittily by Gordon Currie as a typical 90's teenage computer genius researching artificial intelligence, who finds Toulon's puppets while serving as the caretaker of the Bodega Bay Inn, only to be attacked by demons that just so happen to be puppet-sized. The demons are sent by Sutekh, ancient Egyptian god and occasional Doctor Who villain, who supposedly invented the secret of animation and wants it back, and who in this incarnation looks like something out of Power Rangers, with jerky puppet arms attached to a human sized rubber suit. Some of the scenes in his hell dimension, which looks sort of like a live-action version of Mumm-Ra's temple, are visually interesting, but this whole aspect of the plot is so cheesy that it can't be taken seriously. The idea of going back to the demonic origins of the power is a good one, but it just isn't executed well.

Sutekh's demons might as well just be another group of puppets, with claws, spikes, and fangs, sent through the mail to their master's enemies, and most of the movie centers around their tiny war with Toulon's crew, who all return save for Leech Woman, who died in the most recent chronological film. We also get a new puppet called Decapitron, brought to life in a scene lifted from Frankenstein, with interchangeable heads, one of which harnesses the destructive power of lightening, and another which can take the form of human heads in a plot point that is never sufficiently explained or paid off. Guy Rolfe returns as the spirit of Toulon, apparently not crazy anymore since being killed in the second one, and his appearance is completely wasted here, just popping up occasionally to tell the new guy that he's the new puppet master and that he's got his back. The second movie follows the same plot of the first, except there's only one demon, now super powered, and there's a stuffy British guy trying to steal the puppets for some reason. Truly a disappointing end to the franchise, which is no doubt why they felt the need to bring it back. Well, that and money.

Since I have so little to talk about concerning these two movies, I guess here is a good place to wrap up with some random thoughts about the series as a whole that didn't fit in anywhere else, the first being that I've never understood the distinction between puppets and dolls in this franchise. Toulon goes out of his way in the third film to correct a little girl who calls them dolls and says they are definitely puppets, but really, they are more like dolls. They don't have strings or any built-in mechanism to be manually controlled. They move on their own and if anything are more like little magical robots or golems. The last new puppet from the original series, Decapitron, is practically an action figure (as is Tank from the sixth movie, but we'll get to that). I get the feeling that maybe he's just really self-conscious about it because he doesn't want to be called the Doll Master.

Also, one of the puppets, named Jester, makes no fucking sense to me at all. All the other puppets have something about them that is useful in combat or murder, like blades, drills, flamethrowers, guns, or just giant fists. Granted, leeches are a pretty slow way to kill a dude, but at least it's better than a spinning head. Seriously, what is Jester's contribution to the group? Oh, he can have different expressions? Blade doesn't need that shit. He has one expression - evil smile (and sometimes nails pop out of his eyes, but whatever).

To Be Continued

And finally, just to touch on another killer toy movie, if you've never seen the 1987 movie Dolls, I highly recommend it as a precursor to the Puppet Master series. It's made by Empire Pictures, Charles Band's studio before he made Full Moon Entertainment, and actually features Guy Rolfe as a different sort of puppet master, part of a husband and wife team of witches who turn bad people into dolls for their collection. It's directed by Stuart Gordon, famous for the Re-Animator series, which is a retrospective to come, and is a great way to get in the mood for some evil puppet action.

Typically here is where I would talk about how I would continue the franchise with some geeked-out fan fiction, but because we still have five more movies to go, I'll save that for next time. Stay tuned for part two of the Puppet Masters saga, featuring a morality tale about turning people into puppets, a prequel to a sequel, a clip show that might actually be worth watching, a non-canonical sequel crossover of two Full Moon movies, and yes, more Nazi hunting. See you soon, internet!

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