The Puppet Master franchise is put under the microscope, with every film in the surprisingly long series, being ranked accordingly.
“We have children to enchant.”
Horror typically lives and dies off of recognition.
Freddy Krueger. Jason Voorhes. Michael Myers. These are all horror icons that are in the ether and whether you’ve seen any of their films or not, you’ve no doubt heard of them. Most horror that ends up turning into a franchise—Hellraiser, Amityville Horror, Saw, Scream, even Leprechaun—are properties that share that same degree of recognition. And yet, maybe you’ve never even heard of the Puppet Master films. Surprisingly, after a staggering twelve films, the Bodega Bay Inn doesn’t conjure up the same terror as Camp Crystal Lake. My association with the movies is certainly from the foregone era of video rental stores where you could aimlessly wander through the horror aisle, looking at cover art and cataloging titles in your brain. I didn’t bite the bullet then, but their distinctly ridiculous covers, paired with the plentiful amount of films in the franchise solidified it as a series that would continue to rattle about my curiosity until I gave in.
Part of the Puppet Master series’ quirky charm is due to it being such an underdog of a franchise. It’s a series that has always strived to be more than it is. Every good horror franchise gives you a great mascot, and Puppet Master gives you five, and yet it’s still largely remained a footnote to the larger beats of horror. For whatever reason, it’s never been able to truly penetrate the mainstream and reach the next level. Now that S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99, both of which contain some of the most brutal scenes I’ve ever seen in film in recent years), Sonny Laguna, and Tommy Wiklund, have rebooted the series, so to speak, with the impressive Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, it seems only fitting to rank the lengthy series of films from best to worst. And if you’re new to the world of Andre Toulon and his miraculous, murderous puppets, then this will be the perfect puppet primer to tell you when to jump in!
1. Puppet Master II: His Unholy Creation
Sequels can sometimes crumble under the weight of the first film’s success, but with the original Puppet Master merely being a moderately strong start to things, Puppet Master II gets every opportunity to expand on the ideas, but with none of the baggage of setting things up. This sequel follows the creative idea of the puppets using Toulon’s rebirth formula on his own corpse to bring him back to life. Due to Toulon’s corpse conduit being…you know—a corpse—he’s eager to find a new host, as well as one for his beloved Elsa, too.
This is a solid concept made only stronger by the fact that Toulon’s corpse status has left him looking like some Invisible Man/Dark Man substitute that’s covered in bandages (which no one questions at any point). This alone adds a level of crazy to everything that’s present right from the start. It’s such an absurd visual to take in, and Toulon’s Crazy Scientist Voice adds even more to the package. It’s the perfect film to show someone out of context and they’ll pretty much be WTF at any moment, which I think is part of the mark of a good horror film.
This trend of over the top villains continues in the best possible sense, with the film also introducing some highly disturbing, giant puppet humanoid hybrids into the mix. One of these, Camille, is truly frightening and a great visual that transcends anything from the original picture. Even the living corpse version that we see of Toulon (not to mention the visual of him slitting his throat and having the fluids funnel down someone’s gaping mouth) during the end looks surprisingly well done. It’s these touches that make this the better movie.
With the kills being a major enjoyment factor in these films, each one feels fresh and is put to good use here. The puppet work has also come much further along allowing each kill to function as more of an impressive set piece too, showing off the puppets in motion. This culminates with all of the puppets destroying the giant puppet, which is a great little sequence of teamwork. This film also gives us the introduction of Torch, a flame-based puppet, who is wonderful and ups the stakes and effects department appropriately. He’s straight up setting people on fire and watching them burn to death, which is a pretty considerable “talent.” There’s also one of my favorite scenes from out of any of the Puppet Master films where the movie goes out of its way to needlessly show Torch killing an obnoxious child. That’s the sort of Puppet Master film that I want.
The film also explores the lore of the series in a creative sort of way. The first film establishes these killer puppets and this film digs into the mythos and embraces it all. There’s a greater confidence with all of this material this time across and scenes that wouldn’t dare be attempted in the first film—like puppet autopsy—are plentiful here. Puppet Master II is a film that feels like it’s constantly on the verge of collapsing under the weight of its own insanity, yet it maintains its composure through it all. The reason the movie works so well is because it tows that line as closely as possible without crossing it.
If nothing else, the film concludes on such a crazy note that’s as big an exclamation point as possible. It’ll stay with you long after the credits roll and it’s truly some upsetting stuff.
2. Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich
Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is unmistakably a “better” film than Puppet Master II, but there’s something about the kitschy, homemade look to the 1990 film that just adds an extra level of creepiness to it. The Littlest Reich without question features more gruesome, impressive death scenes, but there’s arguably nothing in the entire franchise that’s more disturbing than Puppet Master II’s life-size puppet version of Camille and what that visual represents.
The film wisely restarts the franchise in a modern setting rather than returning to Nazi Germany for the umpteenth time. It also employs a simple, yet reliable structure where a bunch of individuals get held inside of a hotel/convention center as the evil puppets run amok. It takes on a somewhat Dawn of the Dead approach for its final act, which isn’t a bad thing. This also allows the film’s final half hour to really go off the rails and just let the puppets reign carnage down on these victims. Furthermore, the people under attack are grown adults, police, and other officials, not reckless teens, which also adds a certain validity to the film.
The best thing about The Littlest Reich is that it doesn’t give one single fuck and it goes for broke, which is exactly what a new Puppet Master film needs. The Littlest Reich even insults the previous films’ tendency to get lost in Nazi iconography, as it takes a critical eye to the past trilogy of films that promised a lot, but ultimately sputtered out. This is also is by far the funniest of any of the Puppet Master films, with arguably the sharpest, most proficient script of the lot, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering S. Craig Zahler’s past efforts. Furthermore, strong comedic actors like Thomas Lennon, Nelson Franklin, and Charlene Yi actually have the ability to elevate this script to something decent, rather than these actors being bargain bin direct-to-DVD performers. Beyond these strong comedic talents, actors like Barbara Crampton and Udo Kier (as Andre Toulon, no less!) also lend their skills to this picture.
None of these actors need to do a film like this, so it’s clear that this is a passion project for the high caliber of talent that’s involved. That speaks volumes for the quality of this film. This isn’t some cash grab that’s supposed to milk an already-dead franchise even drier, but it genuinely wants to make a bonkers, extreme killer puppet film and that’s why this works so well. Yes, it’s intended as a reboot of sorts (and another entry is more than deserved here), but more than that this is just some people having fun with an audacious concept. Strangely enough, that’s not something that can be said for the majority of the Puppet Master films.
All of the deaths in The Littlest Reich are truly masterful and go above and beyond what the franchise is used to giving its audience. Perhaps in the most gruesome murder from the entire series, a puppet bursts through a pregnant woman’s chest, only to then make off with her unborn fetus, complete with the umbilical cord dragging behind them. Later on, Pinhead casually rips off a character’s arms and basically, each puppet’s trope gets pushed to new extremes in this offering. Furthermore, the puppets all have a sort of vindictive nature this time around where after they get a kill they stick around and add insult to injury. They know that they’re the stars here and the film lovingly films these tiny murderers as epic heroes in this encounter. It’s also kind of fascinating to see the Nazi’s prejudiced point of views being carried out by the various puppets as they commit hate crimes for their dead leader. That may sound kind of stupid, but it’s actually a smart incorporation of the series’ lore. It also results in ridiculous scenes like a moment where a Jewish character has to head out and hold a menorah as he poses as bait for the puppets to attack.
The film does decide to cut back on the glutton of puppets that have accumulated through the series (Leech Woman is sadly absent, in what’s really the film’s only downfall), but it also adds some new ones that go a long ways here. For starters, there’s a helicopter-esque robot puppet that not only makes an incredibly strong first impression, but his initial kill turns into one of the most extreme, ridiculous deaths from out of the entire franchise. The same can be said for the new jack-in-the-box type puppet, Mr. Pumper. All of the new puppets, like Happy Amphibian, Grasshupfer, or Mr. Pumper stand out while not stealing focus from the series’ original puppets. However, new puppets that are extra-Nazi-centric like Junior Fuhrer and Money Lender are just offensive enough to push buttons but not cross lines.
3. Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge
After the balls-out crazy ending of Puppet Master II, having part three be a step backward into Toulon’s past feels like a bit of a cheat. This, however, turns out to be far from a wasted detour, with it actually getting a ton of mileage out of this flashback story. All while still managing to be one of the crazier, satisfying installments in the series.
This very much works as Toulon’s origin story so to speak, where you see his relationship with his puppets blossoming in the first place and him needing to put his skills to use during World War II. The film also hinges upon the love between Toulon and Elsa, as well as his affection for his creations, where all of this feels very genuine and connects on a surprising emotional level. It leaves you really wanting to see Toulon succeed through all of this.
This is also the film in the series that introduces Six Shooter—the six-armed trigger-happy cowboy—into the mix, which is absolutely good news. He’s one of the better puppets in the series and throws a nice heap of creativity into the fray. Most importantly, there are a lot of murders up in this Puppet Master film! I want to say that it contains the most murders out of any film in the series. The deaths start out surprisingly early and don’t hold back in the brutality department. Tunneler gets everyone in pretty much the worst spots imaginable. The fact that these are all Nazis that are being killed makes it feel like the film takes license to be a little more ruthless and go harsher with the violence and group deaths. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but they’re definitely the focus of the puppet-filled mayhem here.
Oh, and there are Nazi zombies in this, too! Before that was an overdone cliché in pop culture! It still plays as a cliché and largely gives an excuse to knock up the body count. The idea here though is that these Nazi zombies are the results of failed reanimation tests, which isn’t the worst idea out there. It makes sense that there’d be some trial and error to perfecting Toulon’s secret, but at the end of the day, this is still Nazi zombies.
The film goes out with a pretty fitting revenge set piece. This final death is an over the top culmination of Toulon and his puppets taking the man who killed his wife, stringing him up like a flag, no less, only to then impale him in the most inhumane way possible. It’s a crazy ending that’s literally dripping in symbolism. If you only watch one Puppet Master film set during Andre Toulon’s younger years, make it this one.
4. Curse of the Puppet Master
Curse of the Puppet Master is a soft reboot in the best possible sense after the series gets bloated with all of the demon and Sutekh material that would dominate the fourth and fifth “final” entries in the series. The demons are ditched here in favor of just focusing on the puppets, which is exactly what you want here. The simple repositioning of the films’ premise sees a new puppet master in charge of the scamps. The film doesn’t feel the need to provide an ornate origin story here, with the montage of puppet footage that occurs under the opening credits acting as a strong primer on what these puppets are and what they’re capable of. This is the perfect sort of economical way of reintroducing this world after the (long) four years between films
The puppets end up finding themselves in Dr. Magrew’s house of curiosities, where they’re discovered by the film’s new puppet master, a mechanic who the film lovingly nicknames “Tank.” One of Curse of the Puppet Master’s assets is that it actually spends time on characters and their development rather than simply puppet fatalities. The film even juxtaposes Tank’s talented hands and inner beauty with his love interest’s actual wisdom and beauty in a really touching way. Their romance blooms from all of this in a super sweet way, as crazy as that sounds.
Magrew is also too much fun as a stereotypical bowtie wearing, pipe smoking dad. This is a guy that is just dripping in character who says things like, “Well, I’m going to take advantage of a luxury and read the Sunday paper.” In a similar sense, Tank and his boss are also satisfying stereotypes that feel right out of the painting crew in Leprechaun. The bullies here are also the very best sort who are dangerously committed to their trade.
I understand that this might be a controversial choice to have so high, especially above the original film. But I daresay it does as good a job as Puppet Master at throwing this concept at the audience and living up the expectation of what a campy horror film under the title “Puppet Master” should look like. This is a clear case of ridiculous camp and implausible filmmaking raising a film’s popularity and cache. Curse of the Puppet Master isn’t high art (but nor is the original), but it’ a damn good time. Them calling Jane a bitch and Dr. Magrew freaking out over it is the perfect sort of dated, cliché situations you want in a film like this. It’s hardly great cinema, but it’s a hell of a lot more fun than the dour detour into 1930s Germany that the later films in the franchise decide to make their home. There are plenty of puppet murders, but where is the campy horror charm with stupid teenagers?
It’s kind of nuts how far the film takes Joey and his bullies. They’re about to borderline gang rape Jane in one scene until Tank steps in. It’s really uncomfortable, out of control stuff. Then, they later try to break into her bedroom that night to finish the job! It’s nuts. There’s a scene later on where Joey furiously works out while fantasizing about Jane giving him oral sex while he says things like, “That’s right! Do it, bitch!”. He just doesn’t stop getting worse. He’s the perfect villain, to a fault, even. He can’t die soon enough.
The film still gets some great scares out, too, like in the case of Tank’s nightmare of being a hobbled puppet or having a stomach full of clockwork guts, both of which work well and are practically done to great effect. There’s a failed puppet/human hybrid buried underground that is also great, scary stuff as well.
Curse of the Puppet Master gets the most points with me though because it has the most ludicrous ending of any of the films. Magrew has managed to transfer Tank’s consciousness into a robot puppet. This monstrosity then proceeds to electrocute Magrew in the head while Jane screams in horror as her father dies. Roll credits.
It’s so absurd and doesn’t even allow itself a chance to explain things. It’s not really even the end of the story, but this ridiculous ending again gives the film a little more lasting power than it would usually have. I suppose these films also do have a history with WTF abrupt endings but this is just madness in the best possible sense.
5. Puppet Master
The original film that started it all, with Charles Band surely having no idea how much of an impression these creepy characters would leave on their audience. The film is grabbing right from its opening frames as Andre Toulon, puppet master, suddenly blows his brains out as the G Men come for him and his secret. That’s an engaging intro that gets you on board, has you wanting more right from the start, and that’s before the film has even gotten to the topic of killer puppets.
There’s a fantastically ‘80s vibe to this film where a team of psychics are sent to the Bodega Bay Inn, as if psychic teams are the most natural thing in the world. The way these characters “experience the past” is wonderful and feels very era-appropriate. This leads to some welcome recurring dreams that have such a hyperbolized tone and are really bonkers. In fact, all of this psychic material is deliciously weird and off-kilter. It feels like something from out of a different film, like one of the later Silent Night ventures or some manic Carpenter entry. Even the sterile white rooms from the dreams aren’t a look typically associated with Puppet Master. There’s also a particularly over the top performance by Neil Gallagher, the guy pulling the strings on all of this, with everyone being the trope-y sort of characters that you want in something pulpy like this.
It would have been interesting if this psychic angle was what was doubled down on in subsequent sequels, rather than the Nazi material because who knows what fruit that could bear. Imagine people getting into the heads of these puppets and seeing what they’ve been through or even temporarily possessing these puppets and acting as them? That feels a whole lot more interesting than just throwing in pint-sized demons and turning the puppets into de facto heroes.
A crucial factor here is that all of the puppets get in a good, frightening kill in this establishing venture, with their specific gimmicks all feeling fun rather than derivative like in later films where it’s like they’re not even trying. These deaths are all well executed and high in the gore department. Jester is still a bit of an anomaly since his “talent” essentially just sees his expression changing as a gag, never as a means of actually hurting anyone. I don’t think he ever gets a solo kill in during the entire franchise. There’s a weird side story to explore there, I’m sure, digging into Jester’s puppet psyche…
Band’s excitement with this universe is also very clear, with creative touches being in play to show off the film’s puppet subject matter. Low angle POV shots from the puppets’ perspective are such a great idea and establish a voice very early on in this quirky horror series. That voice is further accentuated in truly shocking deaths like the initial Leech Woman leech expulsion. This kill is a pretty big deal and put together in a very impressive fashion. It’s kind of ridiculous that the victim mistakes a puppet’s kisses for a woman’s, but that just adds to the absurdity of it all. It’s commendable that they could pull something like this off, even in the first picture. The series’ ambition certainly didn’t stop there though.
6. Puppet Master 4: The Demon
I think that ultimately Puppet Master 4 gets a worse reputation than it deserves. It is still very much a fun piece of horror with some wonderfully campy ‘90s moments and characters, but it also introduces demons into the series and pivots Toulon’s puppets into good guys, which holds this title back from being a classic. That’s the direction that 4 and 5 take, which is a bit of a bummer, but the puppet mayhem is still in wide supply. Rick Myers is also a worthy addition to take on the mantle of puppet master, too.
“The magic that gives my puppets life was stolen from a tribe of ancient, Egyptian sorcerers, who pledged their allegiance to the demon lord, Sutekh.” This pretty succinctly sums up the series’ new direction and current focus. The craziest thing about this is the series acts as if this was always a part of the story when there’s never been a trace of it prior, That’s like going ahead and claiming that Jason Voorhes was abducted by aliens or Michael Myers is also a werewolf and saying it’s always been canon, It almost feels like Brand and DeCoteau just came into some demon puppets and wanted to turn demons into demonade.
This whole demon mythos dominates a lot of these pictures though and basically, these tiny totem demons are there to act as puppet-sized foes for the puppets to annihilate rather than humans. This was never an aspect that felt missed in the series though, and it comes off as being pretty cheesy. The giant demon, Sutekh, rings more silly than menacing, which is kind of a crucial detail. He looks like a rejected Beetleborgs villain, which is simultaneously awful and wonderful. They’ve done such a good job with miniatures in this series that it’s laughable that they struggle with bigger man-in-suit fare so badly
There is also the treat of getting a new puppet added to the roster in the form of Decapitron, a little more avant-garde of a puppet who contains Toulon’s soul and wield electricity powers. In fact, this marks a point in the series where electricity becomes a fun, flashy toy that they can’t get enough of. Lasers and lightning are all over the place here. There’s even a glorious, lengthy laser tag sequence that’s meant to function as efficient puppet training but is just a screaming reminder of the time period it’s taking place in. There’s even a reintroduction of psychic characters—for no reason at all other than to move things back to this sillier direction for the series. Puppet Master 4 takes a lot of bold swings, not all of which work, but it’s still a satisfying time with these creations.
7. Puppet Master 5: The Final Chapter
Puppet Master 5 very much feels like the second-half of Puppet Master 4, with this one picking up right after the events of the previous film with Rick in a police station getting grilled over the murders from the past film. Flashbacks are used to fill in much of the previous film in a very clunky way. Plenty of stuff that doesn’t need to be shown is detailed, including copious laser tag footage.
There’s a bit of a different structure to this one with much of the film working as a rescue mission to get Rick and Blade reunited with the rest of the puppets. They’re in the danger of a corporate shill who wants them as well as Toulon’s secret formula, which will bring him in a nice cash reward from his “sponsors.” Meanwhile, frequent scenes in Sutekh’s dimension show him trying to invade the real world and gain increasing power.
It’s a little disappointing that there’s no real violence until 45 minutes into this one, and even then it’s usually just the totem demons scratching people’s faces. There are a lot of puppet versus demon scenes, with every totem that dies somewhat reducing Sutekh’s power. They do manage to fit in a scene where Torch sets someone on fire and they then proceed to fall down an elevator shaft, so it’s not all losses. While feeling like average Puppet Master in many respects, it’s still an interesting entry in the series, if only to see how it decides to wrap things up.
8. Retro Puppet Master
Here’s where the massive drop off in the series begins, with the final five titles here being much worse than the seven that precede them. Retro Puppet Master feels like the “Jack’s tattoo” episode of LOST of these sequels. The film is based around the idea of exploring how a young Andre Toulon learned Egyptian to do the spells necessary to achieve his puppet work. At this point, the franchise is really scraping the barrel in the series’ lore with this unexplored chapter really not needing to be dug into. They’d be better off to just do a one-off with a new puppet master rather than being burdened with this intricate backstory. These are killer puppets! No one cares about the rest!
Early on a young Toulon meets a dying sorcerer (yup) who doesn’t want his craft to die with him, so he passes it onto Toulon. A nonplussed Toulon responds with, “I get it, you’re a 300-year-old sorcerer from Egypt and you want to teach me the secret to life?” This leads to them stumbling upon a corpse and using magic upon it (which is the first of many sequences of cheesy special effects), which is a solid enough sequence that’s different from the rest of the series, as this film chooses to unpack the resurrection aspect of the films a little more.
This stems into mummies being conjured back to life with preliminary puppet master magic—something that’s simultaneously both stupid and brilliant. I guess I like the idea of mummies being the proto-puppets, but this same sort of concept is played within Puppet Master III with the experimental Nazi zombies that are created, ultimately making this feel like more of the same.
There is a certain charm to seeing a young Toulon in 1902 France making rudimentary versions of the puppets that we’ve grown to love, as well as ones that obviously fell to the wayside through his revisions, like Cyclops (whose design is great, in my opinion) and Dr. Death. Even getting some sort of scene that explains what happened to these reject puppets would have been appreciated, and wouldn’t have been hard to pull off. I also love this version of Toulon where he’s treated like some Liberace-esque, Dawson Leary-looking misunderstood artist. He’s shown as a beautiful soul who can’t express himself properly.
His puppet shows are genuinely interesting to watch as well, and I can’t help but imagine what someone like Tim Burton would have done with this material, if this prequel story were its own self-contained film. There’s a lot to mine from the backdrop that’s established here.
Retro Puppet Master takes its time to dig into young Toulon while fleshing him and his relationships out. “Make some girl puppets—some naked ones,” is a glimpse of this version of Toulon caught in a puppet sex comedy while on this bizarre journey. The film almost tries to play itself off as a humble romantic comedy between Toulon and an impassioned fan, weirdly enough. It’s 35 minutes before any puppet resurrection begins, and then not 45 until any murders are happening (and even then, it’s really just like three set pieces). But as far as backstory goes, it’s a gold mine. We even see Toulon and Elsa (you know, the woman who would become Leech Woman) meet for the first time. It just repeatedly feels like this is a movie that wants to be anything other than a horror film. It’s very much The Wizard and Glass of the series, if you know what I mean.
The film also chooses to frame itself as some sort of bedtime story that Toulon is telling his puppets in the present, which is so ridiculous, it kind of works. It’s yet another element that certainly isn’t needed though. The same can be said for the tired Dark City/The Adjustment Bureau rejects using magic to attempt to take down puppet science. It doesn’t help that there’s some truly atrocious acting going on from all of the supporting characters and extras; like extremely stilted work.
Unfortunately Retro Puppet Master contributes to a wide feeling that nothing really happens—and in the boring way, not the mockingly fun way—with there being very little pay-off behind it all. The real interest of this film is in adding to the series’ mythology, while even introducing new puppets into the fold, too. It’s just a shame that something with the same backdrop couldn’t have moved at a much faster, bloodier pace. You barely remember that there are deaths in this.
9. Puppet Master: Axis Termination
Puppet Master: Axis Termination is arguably the strongest film of the “Axis Trilogy” (and notably directed by the series’ creator, Charles Band, at that), but that’s truly not saying much. This effort is still a pale shadow of what the original films were all about. Axis Termination tries to make some bold decisions and catch the audience off guard, like how Danny and Beth, the two leads that survive from the previous Axis films are unceremoniously killed off in the film’s opening minutes, almost as if to say “fuck you” to everything that they and the audience endured through the previous two entries. The puppets then team up with a group of Allied Operatives with superpowers as they vow to end this Nazi threat once and for all. That’s not a terrible premise for a film and Axis Termination at least fully understands how stupid it is and mostly acts like it just wants to get out of this party before it’s too late.
What’s also interesting here is that Axis Termination feels like the offspring of both extremes of this franchise. It heavily leans into both the Nazi angle, as well as the supernatural magic power direction that Puppet Master 4-6 play around with. However, Axis Termination really embraces the camp here and basically creates a supernatural Avengers of sorts, each with their own psychic powers like telekinesis or a voodoo priestess, none of which exactly makes sense, but it at least has fun with all of this instead of wading through dour Nazi imagery. While Axis Termination remains the bloodiest of Band’s sequels, it’s also arguably the most colorful and the director finally starts to make some ambitious decisions when it comes to the film’s lighting and style. There are seriously moments in this movie where it feels like you’ve maybe stumbled into a Mario Bava picture.
While this is far from a “good” film, what is admirable about it is just how absurd it’s willing to take things. The film self-describes itself as the final film in this trilogy and it’s clear that it plans to go out with as bloody and wild of a finish as possible. It’s worth noting that the following reboot in the series, The Littlest Reich, takes the same approach, but it brings a level of skill to the project whereas all of this Axis fodder is impossibly lost in the territory of camp. That being said, this film deserves some credit for its insane choices like its syringe glove that would likely even give Freddy Krueger nightmares.
10. Puppet Master: Axis of Evil
Axis of Evil does some interesting things right away by taking place immediately before Toulon’s infamous suicide that kicks off the original Puppet Master. The film then shows us that there was actually more to this sequence, involving a war-hungry, crippled cobbler, Danny Coogan, in the Bodega Bay Inn’s basement that was on his way to meet Toulon before his suicide. The cobbler ends up taking some of Toulon’s puppets and secrets, and heads back to war country accordingly.
While the time period and climate very much hang over the film’s head, it’s still comforting to see the movie returning to the fun, low-angle puppet POV shots that the original films played with so well—even if they are just largely cribbing on the same sequence from out of the first film. It marks an appreciated respect for the franchise’s history.
A lot of the story here has to deal with Danny and his brother, eager to enlist and fight in the war for their country. Like many of the later entries in the Puppet Master series, this one takes its time with it not being 45 minutes until Danny and his brother’s malaise leads to any considerable puppet action. And after that point, there’s really only two major death pieces to speak of. Thankfully the film does throw some new puppets at us (and it’s about time), it’s just a shame that they have to be so steeped in the xenophobic times that these films are set. The “Ninja”-looking puppet is simply named Ninja, and is introduced extremely late in the game and feels more like an afterthought. There’s some particularly embarrassing material involving a geisha that also cranks up the cringe meter.
Really the best part of the movie is seeing the film integrate Leech Woman with the film’s inherent Asian flavor. A ridiculous scene—which is also maybe the only piece of the film that you really need to watch—sees her spewing leeches into someone’s sushi, them being eaten obliviously, and it killing them from the inside out. It’s a sequence better than anything out of the past two films and actually one of the better kills to come out of the series in some time.
In spite of any missteps taken here, Axis of Evil opens the larger question as to whether Band always intended for Puppet Master to be such a companion piece to Nazism, or if he just found a niche from the series’ chronology that made sense to explore further. It’s a shame that the other Puppet Master trilogy that was supposed to happen post-part 5 that was a big love letter to the classic Universal monster movies and Hammer films never ended up coming together, with this instead being the trilogy that the franchise would ultimately be known for. Each film in this proposed trilogy would have taken on a different classic monster, from Dracula, to Frankenstein’s Monster, to the Mummy. Arguably still a contentious direction for the series to take, it’s one that’s still undeniably more fun than this rabbit hole into the Reich.
11. Puppet Master X: Axis Rising
Axis Rising picks up right where the previous film left off, but manages to up the stakes considerably. Now Danny is looking to use Toulon’s formula to bring to life an army of immortal soldiers to battle the Nazis. On the other side of things, the Nazis are trying to build a Resurrection Device using the same science in order to make sure their army is unstoppable. Take a second to process those sentences because that almost doesn’t even feel like a Puppet Master movie, but rather the premise to some grindhouse venture where science fiction is the key to winning some “What If?” version of WWII. Unfortunately, it’s not as bonkers of a ride as it should be.
A lot of the film spends time on Danny, his Peggy Carter-esque girlfriend, and her crotchety drill sergeant father as they all struggle to live together in this weird dynamic. Again, this isn’t a premise that you exactly need in a Puppet Master film, but it continues the ongoing “persevering for love theme” present, I suppose.
There’s graciously some murder present right out of the gate in the film’s cold open, but honestly, a lot of this film is just the bad guys posturing their evil plan while very little actually goes on.
Some goodwill is earned on the film’s behalf by the Nazi zombie warrior rejects having legitimately horrifying make-up and looking like something reminiscent of The Fly. I’d be much more entertained if the film took the direction of looking at failed puppet master experiments and the ensuing body horror that accompanies it. Axis Rising, alas, merely broaches the topic.
On the plus side, the film does contain the Nazis creating their own brand of puppets, Blitzkrieg, Bombshell, Weremacht (who arguably does nothing), and Kamikaze (a tremendous Asian stereotype). It is nice to get some new puppets (and it’s this introduction of new puppets that alone elevates this from a 2.5 to a 3 out of 10), as well as the inevitable puppets versus puppets showdown that it leads to. There is even a stupid puppet “catfight” scene where Leech Woman and Bombshell slap each other and have at it.
The film is also just a bombardment of gratuitous busty Nazi dames (complete with riding crop) that are meant to be eye candy. The film also gets pretty “Master Race-y” for a while as you just watch Aryans macking on each other. The film has you spend a lot of time with Nazis, and while admittedly a lot of them are stereotypes, you do acclimate to them some. This is a weird headspace to find yourself in, especially when so much of Puppet Master’s theme is about the underdog overcoming odds.
As disappointing as these “Axis” entries are, they found enough of an audience to greenlight Puppet Master: Axis Termination, the final part of this “Axis Trilogy” that brings this saga of tiny historically-based terror to a close. These later films are just slower than the original ones and are arguably more about the war than puppets, and debatably resembling bizarro historical dramas more than horror films. Hopefully, this balance will be reconciled some in the final piece of this story.
12. Puppet Master: The Legacy
This is it, guys. Nadir city. Right off the bat, let me say that this might be the worst movie that I’ve ever seen. The thing barely even earns the right to be called a movie. I used to think Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 was the laziest, most insulting sequel that I’d ever seen with how egregiously it reuses footage. The Legacy not only goes even further in the recycling department, but it’s got a shorter runtime to boot, and is lacking anything like SNDN2’s bewildering “Garbage Day” sequence. At least SNDN2 is fun in how it insults you…
This spectacle is a mere seventy minutes long and only seven minutes feature new footage! How can they get away with that! The credits (which steal their idea from the superior Curse of the Puppet Master) even state, “Additional Material Written by Gabriel Yarbrough” so as to make an actual distinction between how much of the script is recycled material. This entire “movie” should just be a DVD extra or special that airs on TV that primes you for the next film, catching up the initiated, not a film unto itself. It’s just such an insult, especially when it kills so many beloved characters off screen and reveals it all through clunky exposition.
The basic structure of this begins with a forced, “Okay Puppet Master, tell me everything…” and then the film immediately going into recycled footage. So much of the initial flashbacks that are shown are only from the previous film too, making their inclusion even less necessary. Basically, The Legacy gives you approximately fifteen or thirty seconds in the present as Toulon’s tape recorder is being listened to, before then shifting back into footage from previous films. It’s all just wraparound material.
When a story does manage to reveal itself through all of this, it focuses on the idea of Toulon’s puppets wanting to have their magic reversed and be turned back into humans—an ending that would actually be pretty fitting to everything and connecting back to these restless spirits receiving autonomy. The concept of puppets wanting revenge on their puppet master and hating their “life” is an interesting one, but immediately wasted. I also actually kind of like the idea of an assassin being hired to take out the current puppet masters so someone new can inherit them. That being said, the execution of all of this is done in the worst possible way and hits every cliché in the lady spy handbook.
Almost half of this movie’s flashbacks are devoted to young Toulon and events that happen pre-Puppet Master, which I guess makes sense for a film that’s interested in the formula to life. These aren’t the fun clips from the series that the fans want to re-visit! Show us stuff from the good films. Show us crazy giant puppet lady, Camille! Granted, the flashbacks do eventually get into the events of Puppet Master 4 and 5 (they even get Baker from Puppet Master 4 to record a fancy new voiceover to fill in gaps rather than actually having him appear), but the film still shows so much of useless content that is only relevant to the actual films in their original context. The supercuts that they assemble don’t even make sense without watching the original films and are left feeling super disjointed. It’s like these people have no idea on how to pull relevant clips in the first place, and yet that’s all that the movie is.
The most insulting thing about all of this is that the movie doesn’t even have an ending! A white flash goes off, meant to signify some unseen assailant firing a weapon. It ends on a question mark of a whodunit, as if some big reveal is waiting in the next chronological film, yet it’s something that’s never followed up and even if it was it wouldn’t mean anything! The creators don’t even know how this wraps up. This film is literally five pages of exposition spread out across seventy minutes that doesn’t even have a resolution to fall back on. Then, to rub salt in the wound, the film decides to use all of this as some sort of celebration of the series as a whole, using this horrible non-ending as some sort of finishing touch to go out on. The following text plasters the screen:
“THE PRODUCERS WOULD LIKE TO THANK ALL THE CAST AND CREW WHO HAVE HELPED MAKE THE PUPPET MASTER SERIES SUCH A TREMENDOUS SUCCESS OVER THE YEARS”
Clearly, this is meant to be some sort of conclusion to the franchise since no other film in the series concludes with such a finalizing acknowledgment. It’s like it’s saying, “Here! Let this embarrassing excuse of a film be your final memory of it while it leaves a bad taste in your mouth!” Every decision here is maddening.
Over the course of several decades and a dozen films, the Puppet Master franchise chooses to tackle a lot, whether its Nazis, resurrection, or demons. In spite of this jumbled perspective, there’s still an absolute charm to this horror series that so frequently tows the line of the absurd. With such an uproar being voiced when iconic horror villains like Jason or Freddy get re-cast, it’s surprising to remember that the antagonists here are stop-motion, and yet they still connect. It’s also one of the few franchises where the original creator remains involved in some capacity for every film, maintaining its authenticity and keeping its voice—albeit a wonky one—intact.
Zahler’s “reboot” of the franchise has continued to keep the series’ Nazi angle in the spotlight, but the fact that it’s pushed the series to modern times and even boldly goes out on a “To Be Continued…” title card strongly implies that this isn’t the last that we’ve seen of Blade and friends. Zahler and company’s update might finally be the push that the franchise needs to reach some sort of mainstream acclaim. Furthermore, with the Child’s Play series also going through a reboot of sorts, maybe these two properties that are back on the market will somehow end up crossing over. Crazier things have certainly happened. In the meantime, there are a slew of Puppet Master comics that continue much in the tradition of the “core” five films, with the demon angle being a prominent focus, too. Regardless of which of these directions for the series you prefer, you’re not going to be in short supply of these deadly puppets killing for their Puppet Master any time soon.