Death by Puppet: A ‘Puppet Master’ Series Retrospective
From the late ‘80s to the early ‘90s, killer dolls were a trend in horror that I couldn’t get enough of. From Dolls, Childs Play, and even Dolly Dearest, I enjoyed them all to varying degrees. Which meant that Puppet Master, with its trunk full of evil puppets on the cover box, was an instant rental growing up. Like most in its sub-genre, the true stars of the film were the creepy, yet somehow endearing cast of killer puppets that spawned a very lengthy franchise; the ever so cool Blade, the terrifying Leech Woman, the sweet Jester, the brawny Pinhead, and deadly Tunneler. While other puppets would be brought into the fold, these five became the face of the franchise that propelled Charles Band’s Full Moon Productions into success after his previous film studio, Empire Pictures, collapsed.
Intended for theatrical release, Band realized Puppet Master would likely be more profitable with a straight-to-video release, an instinct that proved correct as it became massively popular on the home video market. The little indie film that could develope a huge cult following, and with an insane amount of merchandise, 10 sequels, a crossover with another Full Moon Entertaining series, and a reboot in the works.
As the series progressed, continuity was ignored and the timeline became muddied as the films jumped around in the increasingly complex narrative of puppet master Andre Toulon’s long history with Egyptian reanimation elixirs, his connection with his puppets, and his antagonist relationship with Nazis. None of that really matters though, because the reason fans return again and again is for the puppets. From villain to heroes, the murderous yet loyal puppets of Toulon’s are the most entertaining underdogs of horror. While we’re still eagerly awaiting Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, we look back at the extensive history of the Puppet Master franchise:
The 1989 film that started it all; our introduction to the Bodega Bay Inn, our first meeting with the killer puppets, and a startling introduction to Andre Toulon in 1939 with the Nazis closing in. Though the rest of the film focuses on a group of psychics gathered together at the inn for the death of their friend Neil Gallagher, Toulon’s brief opening scene would ultimately provide the backbone of the franchise as the series’ hero. The featured puppets of Blade, Jester, Pinhead, Tunneler, and Leech Woman ruthlessly killed the unwitting psychics, but it set the tone that whether the puppets were good or bad ultimately depending on their master. In this instance, it meant the selfish and vengeful Gallagher, that stumbled upon Toulon’s secrets before death. Puppet Master also marked a notable cameo by Barbara Crampton, who is set to return to the series with a larger role in Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich.
Puppet Master II: His Unholy Creation
Released a year later, the first sequel also tends to remain at the top of the pack in terms of audience favorite. Picking up some time after the events of Puppet Master, where the film’s protagonist has since been committed to an asylum, this sequel follows the formula laid out before it. A new group of arrives to the Bodega Bay Inn, this time to investigate the events of the preceding films, before getting picked off one by one by the puppets. It also brings about the introduction to life-sized mannequins, which is sadly never again brought up again in the franchise. Blade, Jester, Pinhead, Tunneler, and Leech Woman all returned, and the sequel marked the introduction to Torch, a stylish killer with a flame-thrower for one arm. As cool as Torch is, especially his kill of a child that played too rough, he’s a puppet that didn’t return to the series very often.
Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge
The third entry, released in 1991, finally leaves the Bodega Bay Inn to travel back to 1941, during a World War II Berlin (never mind that this contradicts the opening scene in Puppet Master). It follows Andres Toulon’s satirical puppet show, which catches the attention of the Nazis, who then becomes obsessed with obtaining Toulon’s puppet animation secret. It erases the villainy of Toulon from the previous film, and gives more meaning behind Leech Woman- she’s injected with the essence of Toulon’s lost wife Elsa. This marks the first-time actor Guy Rolfe takes over as Andre Toulon, bringing with him an endless well of empathy. The core five puppets return, and Torch is swapped out for new puppet Six Shooter.
Puppet Master 4: The Demon
This 1993 sequel brings us back to the Bodega Bay Inn, for the silliest entry yet that’s pure ‘90s horror. If you don’t believe me, then see the scene where Tunneler and Pinhead play laser tag with their newest puppet master, Rick. Andres Toulon returns as a sort of Obi-Wan figure, guiding his puppets to accept a new master, and Rick in embracing the puppets and in overthrowing Sutekh’s demons. Who’s Sutekh? An angry demon from Hell that wants his stolen secrets back from Toulon. This marks the first sequel that doesn’t include Leech Woman among the core puppets, Six Shooter taking her place instead. The powerful new puppet introduced is terribly named Decapitron, who’s namesake comes from his interchanging heads.
Puppet Master 5: The Final Chapter
The original intended ending to the franchise is a direct sequel to Puppet Master 4: The Demon, continuing Rick’s story as new puppet master. The surviving humans return, as does the demon Sutekh and his henchmen of cool Totem puppets. Though the lineup of good guy puppets is mostly the same, right down to the save-the-day Decapitron appearances, part 5 does mark the return of Torch. While cool, it does point out the weird continuity gaps the series tends to be fond of. Where was Torch during the events of the previous film? Once again, when a series is this fun, does it ultimately matter? Alas, being that this film was meant to conclude the series (and obviously didn’t), it does mark the end of the series as we know it. None really lived up to what we loved about the first five past this point.
Curse of the Puppet Master
With a few years between the “final” installment and this new sequel begins the franchise anew, forgetting almost everything that came before. Gone is the Bodega Bay Inn, and the puppet’s new master Rick. I don’t think the film even makes mention of Toulon himself. Instead, the puppets we know and love have been transported to a doll museum in some little town. Their new master is the terrible Dr. Magrew (who?). While Leech Woman returns to her rank among Blade, Pinhead, Jester, Tunneler, and Six Shooter, the puppets wind up playing second string to their own film in favor of a weird love triangle. It’s a terrible low in the series that can be ignored and avoided.
Retro Puppet Master
Are you a fan of midnight movie favorite The Room? The perhaps this Puppet Master sequel is for you, as it stars Greg Sestero as a young Andre Toulon. Framed as a sort of bedtime story that Andre Toulon (reprised by the great Guy Rolfe) tells his puppets of his very first batch of puppets, where he first learns of the secrets of life. So, while the core lineup was seen in the bookend story, most of the film is spent with a retro, wooden batch of puppets. Six Shooter, Blade, Pinhead, and Tunneler all had retro counterparts, and the film introduced retro puppets Doctor Death and Cyclops. This sequel is an improvement over the last sequel, but that’s not saying much. Continuity has always been super weird with this series, but if someone can explain why young Toulon (Sestero) suddenly developed a terrible French accent, I’m all ears.
Puppet Master: The Legacy
There’s no other explanation for this bizarre sequel other than perhaps an attempt to streamline the entire series into something more coherent and linear. Which is a super nice way of saying this sequel spends a lot of time on archival footage of previous films in attempt to link them all together in a fashion more befitting of a series that honors continuity, which this one doesn’t. The story is irrelevant this time, because it’s nearly all footage you’ve already seen with a small, maybe 10 minutes’ worth of new footage. I suppose if you need a not so great summary of the series, instead of watching them, you could start here.
Puppet Master vs Demonic Toys
This made for TV movie isn’t considered canon, but it is a vast improvement over The Legacy. Crossing over Puppet Master with other Full Moon film Demonic Toys, which was written by David S. Goyer (yes, the same one behind Batman Begins), Corey Feldman stars as Andre Toulon’s great-great-grandnephew Robert. Making for a horror-filled holiday movie set over Christmas, Robert becomes the new puppet master, and his good puppets are pitted against the demonic toys for one big rumble in the toy box. It’s total cheese, but it’s far more fun than the previous two entries. Which I suppose isn’t saying much.
Puppet Master: Axis of Evil and Puppet Master X: Axis Rising
These two prequel-sequels were released back to back, and are essentially just two halves of a whole. While Axis of Evil begins the tale of Toulon’s puppets versus Nazis, and an introduction to new puppet Ninja, Axis Rising brings Nazi puppets into the fold. So, think of this as the canon take on Puppet Master vs Demonic Toys. The battle of the plastic weight main event. The showdown ends how you expect, save for one little cliffhanger that leaves the door open…
Puppet Master: Axis Termination
The Axis trilogy comes to an end with yet another round of puppets versus Nazis and their evil Nazi puppets. It’s the first film of the franchise to have been crowdfunded, and as such Six Shooter was written into the script once the crowdfunding reached a certain level of donations. Blade’s hook hand was swapped out for a green filled syringe in homage to Re-Animator. Hyper-colorful, Axis Termination doesn’t look a lot like its predecessors, but from a story level, it’s more of what the previous two films offered. The series has come a long way from its origin, growing campier in its journey. Puppet versus puppet action is fun to a certain extent, but I can’t help but miss the tone of the original few films.
Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich
Between directors Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund (Wither), and a screenplay by S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99), this upcoming reboot promises to be downright brutal. Which sounds utterly fantastic. I miss the creep factor of the first film, and the more earnest approach to the little iconic, murderous puppets. The little glimpses revealed so far have hinted at a dramatically different Blade and Tunneler, as well as new puppets. I’m ok with this. I’m ready for a shakeup. As a fan who grew up with these films, there’s a level of nostalgia that keeps me attached, even when I’ve outgrown the direction they’ve taken. I can’t wait to see where this takes the puppets next.