|Directors: David Schmoeller, Dave Allen, David DeCoteau, Jeff Burr
Starring: Paul Le Mat, William Hickey, Irene Miracle, Elizabeth Maclellan, Guy Rolfe, Richard Lynch
Screenplay: David Schmoeller, David Pabian, C. Courtney Joyner
At the end of the 80's Charles Band's production studio Empire Pictures was going bust. Relocating from Rome to the US he started up Full Moon, which much like Empire would concentrate on low budget genre flicks. First intended for theatrical distribution but destined instead for video, Puppet Master was their first production. Similar to the Charles Band produced Dolls from two years earlier Puppet Master concerns an unlucky bunch falling victim to some rather deadly animated toys. Unlike Dolls, it would go on to spawn a seemingly never ending franchise and accumulate a legion of fans along the way.
The questions is, is Puppet Master any good?
Well... It's definitely an important film in the context of direct to video horror, and in laying the foundations for Full Moon's formula for success. As a movie however it's not particularly impressive, if mostly because it tends to plod more than thrill.
Opening with puppet maker André Toulon's suicide in the 1930's, then skipping forward to "present day" in which a bunch of old acquaintances gather at the same location (an old seaside mansion), we witness much chatter and soap operatics as the guests ponder the mystery of what exactly the hell is going on. Yes, there's much strangeness afoot, and it may just involve some deadly little puppets that seem to be able to walk around on their own. Only... who is the Puppet Master?
The good news is that when the puppets are on-screen, often with the aid of some nice stop motion effects, the film works pretty well. Unfortunately they're rarely seen, and are oddly incidental to the plot when all's said and done. What we're left with is fairly timid and talkie movie with only sporadic moments of interest.
There's fun to be had with The Puppet Master, it's just not quite as strong or effective as one might expect given the enduring franchise. At the very least it does an ok job of laying a foundation for the more entertaining entries to follow.
Puppet Master II
This ok sequel sees the Puppets from the first going after the brain fluids of a group of Paranormal Investigators unlucky enough to enter that same old seaside mansion. Why brain fluids? Turns out they need them to survive!
While the setup may be quite close to the original, what Puppet Master II does right is bring the killer dolls into the fore. Now joined by a black-skulled Nazi flame-throwing puppet named Torch, the Puppets are now more present and integral to the plot, which also involves the resurrection of the original long dead Puppet Master Toulon. The result is a movie that's a little more fun to watch this time around. Some of the problems of the first film remain, such the tendency to be a little talky, which may not have been such an issue if the characters had been slightly interesting, but generally this feels like a step in the right direction for the series.
As far as the production goes this is pretty typical Full Moon fare, so expect cheesy effects, minimal use of locations and more than its fair share of exposition. Chances are if you've seen the first (or a few Charles Band productions in general) then you'll know what you're in for. Everyone else; be warned.
Puppet Master III: Toulon's Revenge
A step up again, this third entry abandons the previous films 'visitors getting picked off in a seaside mansion' formula and relocates to 1941 Berlin in a plot that sees the puppets and their master take revenge on a group of Nazi's responsible for the death of Toulon's wife.
More violent, more exploitive and more interesting than before, Puppet Master III is a standout in the series. The all star B-movie cast adds to the fun, with Richard Lynch (Invasion USA, Bad Dreams), memorable as a Nazi Major, Ian Abercrombie (Army of Darkness) well cast as the Nazi scientist and Guy Rolfe (Dolls) good as André Toulon, a role he would reprise in the next three instalments. Also present is Walter Gotell (best known for playing General Anatol Gogo in no less than six Bond movies), great as the Nazi General .
Expect some revelations regarding the nature of the puppets reanimation, but also expect them to come hand in hand with a few lapses in logic and series continuity (Didn't Toulon commit suicide in 1939?). Actually, it plays more like a series reboot than a prequel, ignoring the first 2 movies and forging its own mythology and tone. As with the others, pacing a still an issue here, despite the brisk 78 minute running time. Effects are on par with previous entries but somehow that low budget look continues to be part of the series' charm.
All in all this is a pretty decent effort from Full moon that delvers exactly the kind of cheesy b-movie rubbish fans expect.
Puppet Master 4
Reasonably watchable 4th instalment follows the continuity of the third, with the puppets now essentially the good guys and acting of their own accord. What might sound like a strange direction for the series actually comes off ok, with the killer toys in present day now taking on some nasty looking demon dolls from another dimension. Joining them is a new cast of 20-something's who happen to be staying in that same old seaside mansion, one of which is looking for the secret to artificial intelligence.
Director Jeff Bur, no stranger to horror sequels (Stepfather II, Leatherface), delivers a reasonably slick well-paced entry. Effects are above average for the series and the mostly unknown cast do just fine.
Unfortunately it just isn't quite as much fun as its predecessor. Despite its occasional outlandishness (love those under-worldly dimension scenes), this entry feels rather generic, kind of like a Gremlins knock-off with the Puppet Master dolls thrown in. It's also generally less exploitive too, which might come as a letdown to series fans.
Certainly worth a watch for Full Moon followers, it happily delivers more mindless B movie trash for the so inclined.
Puppet Master 5
Shot back-to-back with part 4 by director Jeff Bur, Puppet Master 5 presents itself as a continuation of the story established in its predecessor. What we get instead is a needless retread. A couple of cast members from the previous film are back with some new additions and once again they're running about that seaside mansion in danger. Thankfully the Puppets are here to save the day.
The only notable difference here is we have one supposedly powerful Demon Doll making trouble (the entertainingly nuts-o demon lord from the underworld) instead of the minions seen in the 4th. The production and performances are comparable to the previous entry, but the film just can't shake free of it's over familiarity.
If you've made it this far, you might as well check out part 5. It's not really any worse than the 4th as a bit of rubbish entertainment, but it does feel like something of a cheat.
Just a quick note about this collection's classification: Despite the MA15+ rating on the cover, all five films in this set were and continue to be rated M. Whether the incorrect rating is a mistake on behalf of Big Sky Video, or a ploy to attract horror fans to the set, I don't know. What I do know is that it's not the first time Big Sky has released a DVD with an incorrect rating.