Holy. Hell. This movie.
Maybe I should be ashamed to say this, but I have seen every Puppet Master movie, including the crossover with Demonic Toys. They’re corny, they have such bad continuity errors that they literally made a film that is mostly archive footage just to address them, they’re usually cheaply made, and they hardly ever have scary moments at all, tending to be more horror-comedies. But, they’re also just fun to watch. For people who like horror kills, this series at least tends to make them unique, since, well, puppets and the puppets are interesting in design and as characters, having been both villains and heroes.
In the most recent movies before this one, they even have been fighting evil Nazi puppets back in WWII. In fact, of the eleven movies, five of them involve killing Nazis, which is something everyone can enjoy.
When I heard there was a new higher-budget film coming out produced by Fangoria and starring comedians Thomas Lennon and Charlyne Yi and legendary German character actor Udo Kier, I was on-board immediately. But I’ll be damned if I saw this film coming.
SYNOPSIS (Spoilers for the first 10 minutes of the film)
Get ready for something different.
The movie literally has that line said right before the title drops and that’s about as unsubtle of a hint as you’re going to get, because in case you didn’t get what they were saying, the opening credits depict the history of the puppets in this world and make it clear that you are no longer in the same continuity as the previous films. In fact, you get some horrifying images of the puppets exterminating Jewish families during the Holocaust, followed by images of Andre Toulon (Udo Kier) fleeing Germany for America. In the late 80s, Toulon uses his puppets to kill people he disapproves of (he’s a Nazi, that’s almost everyone).
Yes, that’s right, in this film, the puppets are the Nazis. 8 minutes into the film, they have not only changed the backstory, but they have just made it much, much, scarier. Before, even when the puppets were the bad guys, it was usually because they were being forced to act against their original purpose. Now, their original purpose is about as evil as it gets.
The movie then flashes forward to the present day, where comic book proprietor Edgar (Thomas Lennon) has just moved back in with his parents, following his divorce, and finds an inanimate Blade in his dead brother’s room. He decides to sell the doll at a convention for the “Toulon Murders” and heads there with his friend Markowitz (Nelson Franklin) and his childhood friend/crush Ashley (Jenny Pellicer). Unfortunately, once they get Blade there, all the other dolls start coming to life and going tiny-Nazi on the convention goers and the staff.
This is actually an example of how to do a reboot well. Reboots only work if they give you something A) different or B) better than the original. This movie picked A. There’s just enough elements of the original to remind us that they watched it, but the rest of it is different enough that we don’t feel like they’re just rehashing old stuff.
Part of it is that, aside from the cold open, the puppets aren’t animated in the first 1/3 of the movie. Instead, that time is spent building up the new backstory of Andre Toulon, making him not just a Nazi, but a particularly horrifying Nazi. That build-up makes the first wave of kills feel even more brutal because now the puppets are intentionally targeting minorities in accordance with their Nazi ideals.
Some of the puppets, too, have been given some redesigns that make them somehow even creepier, because now their weapons are concealed, making them look harmless when they aren’t about to kill people. Also, there are multiple versions of some of the puppets, which allow different appearances throughout the film. There are also way more of them, despite not having that many different core models to base it on, with many coming from previous films. The new ones, however, are pretty crazy. I’m not including them just to avoid spoilers.
The kills themselves range from semi-comical to disturbing, with one or two making me legitimately uncomfortable. I’m not a huge gore-horror fan, but it usually doesn’t bother me much, yet a few of these creeped me the hell out. They also had a “nobody is safe” rule established pretty early on. Honestly, this might be the most legitimate horror film in the franchise, because you never know when or where the next kill will come from. It does maintain the horror traditions of “random nudity” and “some characters are blatant stereotypes,” but also updates parts for the modern audience that wants to see tropes subverted.
The cast, for the most part, is pretty solid for a horror film, even the nameless victims that exist solely to be torn apart. A few notables include Charlyne Yi, Barbara Crampton (from the original Puppet Master), long-time horror veteran Michael Paré, and Skeeta Jenkins as the ultra-lovable Cuddly Bear.
There are some downsides, though. Udo Kier is barely in it, despite being the perfect casting for the role. Some of the redesigns aren’t super great. But, the biggest one is that the puppets don’t actually have the personality that they’ve had previously in the franchise. In this, the puppets are just tools of Toulon and his version of the Final Solution. They’re also not really much of a team of individuals, but more like a group of faceless automatons, which… well, they are. The ending, too, while logical within the framework of the movie, will probably leave some people pissed and wanting more, which it also promises to give them. It also leaves us with a pretty grim message about the nature of reality versus fiction, even if it’s only a short one.
It’s not quite what I would usually look for from a Puppet Master film, but, if you put that aside, it’s still a solid horror monster movie. I don’t know that it fills any particular niche like the rest of the series, but I would be surprised if this wasn’t the most mainstream acceptable film in the franchise and I’d be happy if it got the sequel it advertised. Oh, and watch for the after-credit scene. You can rent it on Amazon video or a ton of other video-on-demand places, or you can see it in some theaters.
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