Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Evil Comes in All Sizes: Ranking the Puppet Master Series

So, I recently delved into a massive, masochistic undertaking. I sat down and watched all the way through the Puppet Master franchise. For those of you who don't know, Puppet Master was a 1989 movie from legendary B-Movie producer Charles Band--the man responsible for such movies as Re-Animator, Ghoulies, From Beyond, Laserblast, Trancers, Subspecies, Demonic Toys and a whole slew of others. It was the first film from Full Moon Entertainment after the bankruptcy of Band's Empire Pictures. Puppet Master was one of the most successful home-video releases of all time upon its initial release and has launched a legacy of straight-to-video horror fare and merchandising, not to mention becoming the most successful straight-to-video series of all time.

The problem? I just oversold it way too much. Because what started as a great B-Movie series about wacky killer marionette puppets has gone through massive budget cuts (for, again, a series that started out straight-to-video) and two bankruptcies (Full Moon Pictures into Shadow Entertainment into Wizard Video into Full Moon Features) and so, ten films later things are not exactly where they started. But nonetheless, Full Moon claim they're on top with yet another new Puppet Master film on the way in addition to a TV series coming to their recently launched streaming network in 2014. It's a long journey with continuity errors that would make the Friday the 13th franchise jealous and story lines ranging from unique to insane to vaguely racist, so without further ado, let's begin the countdown.

11. Puppet Master: The Legacy (2003). What's the worst thing about any TV series? That moment when they first run out of ideas and hit the inevitable clip show episode. It's one trope that obviously couldn't really translate to film, right? Well, nobody told Charlie Band. This movie marks the only one to be made during the company bankruptcy and maybe the only film of all time co-produced by Blockbuster. Puppet Master: The Legacy starts as a noble effort to bridge together to the (many) continuity errors of the series, explaining what happened to most of the characters who never appeared again and trying (and failing) to make sense of the convoluted timeline. The problem is that it goes through all this in about 15-20 minutes of new footage shot with two actors over two days, while the rest is filled in with "flashbacks" to recap the entire series so far. Oops.

10. Retro Puppet Master (1999). Another entry that started with very noble intentions, the best thing I can say about this movie is that at least it doesn't use any stock footage. This one's a prequel set in 1902 starring a bunch of people who were maybe thinking about attending acting school some day. Let's not kid ourselves, the stars of these movies are the puppets, their great designs and wonderful effects. Neither of those things are present here. Instead, Retro Puppet Master focuses on a youthful Andre Toulon (the titular puppet master of the series) and his very first batch of living puppets, which are based on the unused concept art for the original movie, no joke. And they look it. This also marks the first PG-13 puppet master film, so we can't even look forward to some interesting kills. Instead, the pseudo-puppets face off against a gang of demonic blues brothers while Toulon sometimes remembers to do a French accent.

9. Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys (2004). Growing up as a Full Moon fan (back when they were a popular b-movie company, and had fans) this felt like one of the most hyped up movies I could ever remember. It was probably one of the movies I spent my youth most looking forward to, alongside Freddy vs. Jason. It was first announced way back in the early 90's and was going to be the second Demonic Toys film and the fourth Puppet Master film, but they couldn't pull it together at that time, or multiple times over the next twelve years. It was finally scheduled for release in 2000, with an accompanying action figure series and a plot that would have seen Traci Lords buying the puppets on eBay. But once again, this brings us back around to the bankruptcy. Around 2000, Full Moon went under, completely. Charles Band, who knew fans were looking forward to the film, also knew he didn't have anything near the money to make it, so he sold the rights to.... the SyFy (SciFi) Channel. What we have now is a 'movie' starring Corey Feldman and Vanessa Angel as rival toy manufacturers, one who owns the puppets, one who owns the Demonic Toys. The film borrows most of its plot from Halloween III as the toy lady wants to use a commercial to take over the world with Demonic Toys on Christmas morning. The showdown of the title takes under four minutes.

8. Curse of the Puppet Master (1998). The was the first major dip in quality for the Puppet Master series after Full Moon split from distributor Paramount Pictures in 1994. After Puppet Master 5 claimed to be the final chapter, this was deemed worthy to reinvigorate the franchise. This one centers on an old man who runs a doll museum and recruits a brainless gas station attendant to build him a new puppet (but what a twist, he actually plans to turn him into a puppet). This entry is actually nearly a shot-for-shot remake of, of all things, another B-movie titled Ssssss! Anyway, by this point Full Moon was so out of money that the puppets just sit there the whole time and when they do move 90% of their action is stock footage taken from the other movies.

7. Puppet Master: Axis Rising (2012). The most recent movie, made after Full Moon's declarative comeback continues to be a step in the right direction but with still too little budget to make much of any kind of impact. It's got a little more puppet action and tries to have a bit more story than the average fare (especially with what Full Moon's making these days) and it relishes in being campy as fuck. After all, this is the first Puppet Master movie actually directed by Charles Band (who won't admit he directed "The Legacy" under a pseudonym). Released under the title Puppet Master X, because Band refuses to acknowledge Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys as a film and insists this is the tenth in the series.

6. Puppet Master: Axis of Evil (2010). This was Full Moon's comeback tour. The first film since '04 and the first from Full Moon since '03. For the first time since 1993, the puppets have the ability to do their respective things, head drilling, head spinning, vomiting leeches, etc. without resorting to stock footage. It even tries to have a plot line, picking up from the flashback prologue of the original film and continuing the story from there. But the acting is not up to the ambition of the script, especially the racist, overdubbed Dragon Lady.

5. Puppet Master 4 (1992). We did it, guys. We made it to the watchable movies. We've made it through the Z-movies and into the B-movies. Puppet Master 4 and 5 were shot at the same time, initially intended to be one big theatrical movie titled, of all things, Puppet Master: The Movie. I don't know either. Here, we've got most of the puppets in action and the great stop-motion effects in their heyday. The plot shifts from earlier entries to a crazy story about a genius robotics nerd working to crack the key to artificial intelligence who uncovers Toulon's living puppets. But, it turns out the magic that makes the puppets live was stolen from an ancient demon who is willing to kill to get it back. The puppets find themselves the good guys, protecting the nerd and his friends from puppet-sized demon minions called Totems. It's a lot of fun from a time when Full Moon had the budget to at least half-match their ambitions.

4. Puppet Master 5: The Final Chapter (1993). And it should have been. The last absolute blast of a Puppet Master movie is the second half of the story started with 4. The plot is mostly the same, demon sends a super Totem in his own image a couple days later to finish off the nerd and his girlfriend while a sleazy scientist wants to figure out a way to benefit from the puppets, somehow. It takes about 40 minutes to get going, but the effects are great and the showdown between the puppets and the Totem pulls out all the stops and would have been a perfectly high note to end the series on. But alas. Worth noting that the film lost one day of production because the entire crew walked off the set when their checks collectively bounced.

3. Puppet Master II (1990). This is probably the most accessible Puppet Master film for new people looking to step into the series. As a slasher, a killer toy movie, and a campy B-movie good to watch with a group, this one works the best. In other words, Puppet Master II works the best as a horror movie. The plot is very simple. The puppets have used the fluid that keeps them going to animate their creator, Andre Toulon. But now they have precious fluid left. But! A group of paranormal investigators have just taken up residence in the hotel that the puppets and their pruny master call home. Steve Wells gives a great, if awkwardly German, performance as an undead Toulon under a lot of invisible man bandages. The kills are great and one of the best puppets, Torch, sees his introduction in this movie.

2. Puppet Master III: Toulon's Revenge (1991). This film almost feels like an honest to god motion picture. The plot, story, and occasionally the acting are better than a straight-to-video sequel about killer puppets has any right to be. Toulon's Revenge is a prequel set during WWII that sees Toulon as a kindly old puppeteer who just wants to entertain the children. His show, however, pokes fun at Hitler and so his company is shut down and his wife is shot. The Nazis also uncover the secret that his puppets are in fact alive and they want to find out how. Badly. This film adds weight to the series by centering the emotion, depicting Andre Toulon as a tragic antihero and lets us in on the secret that the puppets all used to be human. Shot down by the Nazis, all of them just wanted the chance to keep on fighting, and so their souls were transferred into wooden bodies. We get to see the origins of classic puppet Leech Woman (Toulon's murdered wife brought back for a special kind of revenge) and the bread-and-butter of the franchise, Blade (Nazi doctor who died trying to make amends and do the right thing, taking a bullet so Toulon could escape). Six-Shooter, a fan-favorite puppet, makes his first appearance here. He was initially designed as a ninja/mercenary type, but changed to a cowboy to visually represent Hitler's opposition.

1. Puppet Master (1989). This one is about on equal quality with the previous two, it's admittedly nostalgia that makes it take the top prize. This one will always hold a special place in my heart. It takes a little time to get going, but this is a fun and quirky little slasher about a group of psychics who are called to a hotel by an estranged colleague, only to get there and discover that their one-time friend is dead. Mix into the plot an old puppeteer named Andre Toulon who killed himself in the hotel in the 30's, and you have a steadily building thriller... about a bunch of killer dolls. The puppet effects are the stars of the film, and the puppets are indeed stars right from their first appearance. Blade, Tunneler, Pinhead, Jester and Leech Woman all get to show off their talents in unique and imaginative ways. The film that launched an ill-fated franchise, nearly a dozen sequels, but when you sit down and watch it as a casual B-moviegoer, you can kind of see why.

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