Wednesday, November 3, 2010

DVD Review: The Midnight Horror Collection: Puppet Master 1,2,3


Somehow I've never seen the Puppet Master films. I'm not sure why or how this has come to be. When I recently discovered that Echo Bridge Home Entertainment was releasing the first three volumes as a triple feature DVD as part of their The Midnight Horror Collection series it seemed the time was right to finally check out this killer puppet franchise, the first three anyway.

"A box of little toys has just become a gang of little terrors. This is not child's play..."

DIRECTOR: David Schmoeller
CAST: Paul Le Mat (Alex Whitaker), Jimmie F. Scaggs (Neil Gallagher), Matt Roe (Frank)Irene Miracle (Dana Hadley), Kathryn O'Reilly (Frank)Robin Frates (Megan), Barbara Crampton, William Hickey (Andre Toulon)

SUMMARY: Psychics investigating Andre Toulon battle his five killer puppets—each one uniquely qualified for murder and mayhem: Tunneler, who has a habit of boring holes in flesh; Ms. Leech, who sucks her victims dry by regurgitating killer leeches; Pinhead, a professional strangler; Blade, who's armed with razor-sharp, killer hands, and Jester, the ruthless brains of the bunch. Together, they're an army of skilled assassins, diabolically programmed to guard the deadly secrets of the Puppet Master. Enjoy this original cult classic in all its bloody glory.

FILM: Puppet Master (1989) opens at the Bodega Bay Inn, California 1939. Puppeteer Andre Toulon is putting the final touches on a puppet called Jester. Toulon is played by the great William Hickey whom you may recall as Drogan from the "Cat from Hell" segment of the Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990) or as the voice of Dr. Finklestein in Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). I recall him most fondly as the cantankerous Uncle Lewis from what I consider one of the top 3 Christmas films of all time - National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989). Toulon performs a short incantation and the puppet springs to life. At the same time there are two puppets keeping a watchful eye on the Bodega Bay Inn; an unnamed oriental puppet (that never reappears during the film) and the menacing Blade who notices two Nazi operatives arrive at the inn. Blade makes a mad dash to Toulon's room to let the puppet master know he may be in danger. We get some great point-of-view cinematography as Blade traverses the lobby and hallways of the inn climbing over baggage and furniture. It seems that the Nazi's are after Toulon's secrets which is later expanded on in the prequel/sequel Puppet Master 3. Toulon takes his puppet and places them into a chest which he then hides in a hidden wall panel. Just as Nazis break down his door Toulon blows his brains out as blood splatters the wall behind him. That's the last we see of Hickey, a far too brief appearance in my opinion but a memorable one at least. Flash forward 50 years later and four psychics are being psychically summoned to the Bodega Bay Inn by their colleague Neil (Jimmie F. Scaggs) who's been searching for Toulon's alchemy secret for years, his investigations have led him to Toulon's last known whereabouts. As the psychics converge at the inn they meet Neil's wife Megan (Robin Frates) who informs them that he has committed suicide in a manner eerily reminiscent of Toulon's own death 50 years earlier. The psychic friends are Alex (Paul Le Mat) a Yale professor, Dana (Irene Miracle) a white witch fortune teller and lovers Carissa (Kathryn O'Reilly) and Frank (Matt Roe). Also in attendance is the nosy inn keeper Theresa (Mews Small). As the group settles in for the night several among them have visions foretelling of their own or other's deaths. The dream/vision sequences are well done, particularly those of Alex. As night falls the psychics and the innkeeper are killed off one by one by Toulon's puppets. But to what end? I won't spoil the rest of the film as it's definitely worth a watch.

The puppets featured in the film are the aforementioned Jester - an emotive clown. Blade - a knife and hook wielding puppet with a face modeled after actor Klaus Kinski.  Pinhead - the muscle of the bunch with a head that's too small for his body. Tunneler - a Nazi-uniformed puppet with a drill-bit head. Ms. Leach - a lady puppet who can regurgitate deadly leeches. Oddly, he oriental puppet from the start of the film is never seen again. The marionettes do not get a lot of screen time in the film until the last 3rd but their sequences are well shot and their interactions with the actors are believable and eerily effective. I love stop-motion animation and rod puppeteering and there's some really great work here in that respect, and even more so in future installments.

Puppet Master is a bit slow in spots but is permeated by that peculiar Full Moon atmosphere that is so evident in most their films. The puppet design and articulation is very good and the psychics make for interesting characters. Alex is the most likable character of the bunch. He seems good natured while the others have selfish agendas. The films eroticism comes from the character of Carissa whose particular psychic talent is to channels past events. Throughout the film she becomes aroused while channelling trysts that have occurred at the inn. Dana as played by Irene Miracle is the bitch of the bunch. Genre fans may recognize her as the character Rose Elliot from Dario Argento's Inferno.

The gore effects of the films are handled well, nothing too bloody mind you. This film was Full Moon Entertainment's first offering and was intended for theatrical release until Charles Band realized there was more money to be made in the home video market. The rest is Full Moon history.

DVD: Puppet Master is presented in an anamorphic wide screen 1.85:1 aspect ratio, which is surprising. To my knowledge the 1st time that Puppet Master was released in it's proper wide screen aspect ratio was the 20th Anniversary Blu-ray released in June 2010, so its great to have it in a budget-minded triple feature. The print looks really good. Very clean, only minor blemishes, the image is a bit soft but otherwise very good image quality. The 2.0 stereo audio is not very exciting but adequate. 
VERDICT:  A very enjoyable film. I was reminded of another Charles Band production while watching it, that being Stuart Gordon's Dolls. I think the direction of that film is superior but Puppet Master is not without its charm. Great puppet design, interesting characters, creepy atmosphere and a fairly good premise and finale.  It definitely made me want to watch the other films in quick succession.
***1/2 (3.5 out of 5 stars)

"His unholy creations hold the strings to your life"

DIRECTOR: David Allen

CAST: Elizabeth MacLellan (Carolyn Bramwell/Elsa), Collin Bernsen (Michael Kenney), Gregory Webb (Patrick Bropmwell), Charlie Spradling (Wanda), Steve Welles (Andre Toulon/Enrique Chanee), Jeff Weston, Nita Talbot (Camille)

SUMMARY: The nasty little puppets are back to take care of unfinished business. Joined by Torch, the newest member of the sinister troupe, they exhume their beloved creator Toulon to gather the brain matter that keeps them alive. But the Puppet Master has a deadly plan of his own…

FILM: Puppet Master 2 open up as Pinhead is unearthing  Toulon's grave at the Shady Oak's cemetery which is conveniently located just a stones throw away from the Bodega Bay Inn. Pinhead pries open the casket and pours a potion of some kind onto his skeleton as the other puppets look on. The skeleton is the reanimated. Some time later we see a group of paranormal researchers led by Carolyn (Elizabth Maclellan). They are at the Bodega Bay Inn to investigate the murder of the hotel's previous owner as well as the psychotic ramblings of the lone psychic-survivor from the previous film who is suspected as the murderer. Apparently the victim had their brain extracted through the nose - Egyptian mummification style. Carolyn is joined in her quest for paranormal activity by Kenney (Nita Talbot), Wanda (Charlie Spradling), Patrick (Gregory Webb) and Lance (Jeff Watson).

That night Camille sees the puppets and plans to leave the Inn in fear of her safety but is taken by Pinhead and Jester before she can do so. The next to go is Patrick who gets his head bloodily excavated by the Tunneler, it's a great gory scene. Lance runs into the room after hearing Patrick scream, it's too late to save Patrick but he is able knock-out Tunneler. While looking at Tunneler's body under x-ray the team deduce that the puppets are being sustained by a chemical in their bodies. Soon after a man named Enrique Channe (Steve Welles) appears and announces that he has inherited the inn. Mr. Chanee is really Toulon's reanimated corpse decked out in a Darkman style costume of gauze, goggles and cape. Chanee/Toulon retires to his room were he creates a new puppet, Torch - a  flame-throwing assassin. There is a flashback to Cairo Egypt where we see the origins of the reanimating formula and how it came into Toulon's possession. We also find out that the formula involves human brains, and this is why the puppets are murdering people. In fact, the puppets are not content to murder guest at the inn. They travel to a nearby farmhouse where they attack a farmer played by George "Buck" Flowers (They Live, The Fog) and his wife in an effort to get more brain tissue to complete the formula.  Torch also takes out a small child using his flame-thrower, dark stuff. Toulon's is portrayed as an obsessed madman in this film, not very likable, it seems that rotting in a casket for 50+ years has had a poor effect on his mental health . He also comes to believes that Carolyn is the reincarnation of his long dead wife Elsa and has devised a plan by which the two can be reunited forever.

So, this time around the puppets are more fully realized and articulated than the first film, great stop-motion effects works. We get to see them on screen more which is a treat and their movements are more fluid. I enjoyed the flashback to Cairo and the origins of the formula. Toulon's disguise is creepy and effective. For 90% of the film he remains bandaged and his face is not visible. Welles performance and vocal characterization recalled the great Christopher Lloyd, and the final unmasking of his rotting face is well done.

Something I did not care for was the need for brain-tissue to create the life-giving formula Toulon uses to reanimate himself and the puppets as I feel it it vilifies both Toulon and the puppets. In the first film you liked Toulon. He sacrificed himself so that the Nazi's could not use his formula for evil and without giving too much away about either film the puppets obey their master until they realize they are being used or mistreated for evil purposes. Here they are more villainous and it degrades the film in my opinion. Other shortcomings of the films would be that is lacks the style and atmosphere of the previous installment. The ending of the film is also a bit wacky and felt too out of left field for me. It's telling that future installments dismiss or out right ignore the events of this film.

DVD: Puppet Master 2 is presented in a full frame 1.33:1 aspect ratio with 2.0 stereo audio. It's a fairly terrible looking transfer film. It's an interlaced transfer which look even worse when viewed on a high definition television set. There's rampant compression artifacting of both the audio and visual variety is clearly evident throughout. The image is soft and lacking fine detail and audio is equally lamented by compression issues most notably the metallic-ringing throughout. The film is flawed but decent so it's a shame that it is marred by such a poor transfer.

VERDICT: Puppet Master 2 lacks much of the charm of the first film. It's definitely a bit darker and more menacing, the puppets get more screen time and are rendered with more detail and articulated movement, but the film is a bit hollow in my opinion and is outmatched by parts 1 and 2 of the franchise. Definitely worth a watch at least once even though I feel it misses the mark. **1/2 (2.5 out of 5 stars )

"When good puppets go bad"

DIRECTOR: David DeCoteau
CAST: Guy Rolfe (Andre Toulon), Ian Abercrombie (Dr. Hess), Sarah Douglas (Elsa Toulon), Walter Gotel (General Mueller), Kristopher Logan (Lt. Eric Stein), Matthew Faison (Hertz), Aaron Eisenberg (Peter Hertz), Richard Lynch (Major Kraus)

SUMMARY:After learning that Andre Toulon's puppets have no strings and seem to have a life of their own, Dr. Hess, a WWII Gestapo henchman, sends his officers to kidnap them. During the melee, Toulon's wife Elsa is killed, but the puppets fight back and escape with their leader. Toulon creates a new puppet, Six Shooter, models Blade after a pasty-faced Nazi and uses Elsa's essence to create Leech Woman. The army is ready. Body part by body part, revenge will be theirs…

FILM: The third installment of the Puppet Master franchise a prequel taking place three years after the start of Puppet Master ...huh? The year is 1941 in Berlin during WW2. Dr. Hess (Ian Abercrombie) is a scientist in the service of the Third Reich. He's been tasked to create a serum that will create an army of undead zombie soldiers. He's had a modicum of success but the serum is too unstable. Hess is overseen my Major Kraus (Richard Lynch) from the Gestapo. Kraus's driver Lt. Stein is an amateur puppeteer and attends a puppet show for children presented by Andre Toulon and his wife Elsa. During the puppet show a marionette of Adolf Hitler is fired upon by a puppet called Six Shooter, modeled after American gunslingers. He's got six arms and six guns, it's a great character design and he has a great Jack Nicholson laugh that I just love. The Lt. sneaks around after the show and witness the puppets being fed their serum by Toulon and he sees that they walk on their own unassisted by strings. He reports this to Krauss and Hess the next day. Krauss takes an SS squad to Toulon's residence the next day to arrest the puppeteer for treason. Hess convinces Kraus that he must speak with Toulon to gain his secrets of reanimation. Kraus agrees but then kills Toulon's wife Elsa after she spits in his face. As Toulon is being transported the two soldiers guarding him are killed by Tunneler and Pinhead allowing him to escape and plot his revenge. It's a great shot when Tunneler tunnels his way through the back of the driver's seat and through his chest.

This film has a lot going for it. Setting it during WW2 in Berlin is a good choice and it's a great backdrop for the film. The acting is superb from the key players. Richard Lynch (Bad Dreams, Laid to Rest) as the despicable Major Krauss is inspired, he's a great and wicked villain. Ian Abercrombie as the Nazi scientist Hess is also great casting. You get the feeling he's being forced into working for the Reich and he seems genuinely amazed by the work of Toulon. In fact, he redeems himself towards the end of the film. Abercrombie is most recognized at Mr. Pitt, Elaine's boss from the television series  Seinfeld, or as the Wiseman from Sam Raimi's Army of Darkness. And then there is Guy Rolfe (Dolls) as Andre Toulon. Hands down the best Toulon I've seen so far.

There's very little I did not enjoy here. The setting, the acting, the special effects - all great stuff. I wish it had been wide screen but as with most Full Moon productions it was created with the home video market in mind and catered to the fulls screen format that dominated the market.  Highlight for me include the origins of Blade and Ms. Leech, the awesome introduction of Six Shooter and that we find out why the Nazi's are pursuing Toulon at the start of the first film. A goof of sorts would be the including of Jester in the film who we saw Toulon create in the first film. The ending of the film more or less sets up the first film.

DVD: Puppet Master 3 is presented in a full frame 1.33:1 aspect ratio with 2.0 stereo audio. The image is not nearly as poor as the presentation of Puppet Master 2. It should be noted that these three films are presented on a single flipper disc. Side 1 contains Puppet Master 1 and Puppet Master 2 while the flip side contains Puppet Master 3: Toulon's Revenge and a Full Moon Video Zone behind-the-scenes featurette.

VERDICT: Of the the first three installment of the Puppet Master films Toulon's Revenge inches out Puppet Master as my favorite.  The acting is  fantastic and Guy Rolf's portrayal of Toulon is the best of the bunch, I cannot imagine anyone else capturing the essence of Andre Toulon the way he did here. Despite the films modest budget the WW2 era sets are well rendered, the film definitely has a sense of time and place. The stop-motion effects are really good though I think they may have been a bit better in Puppet Master 2. Despite the audio and visual misgivings I have for the presentation of Puppet Master 2 I am very pleased that Echo Bridge Home Entertainment have put together a budget-minded triple feature for fans of the film to enjoy. **** (4 out of 5 stars )