Sunday, September 23, 2012

Blu-ray Review: PUPPET MASTER II (1991)


Label: Full Moon Features

Rating: R
Region Code: A
Duration: 88 Minutes
Video: 16x9 Widescreen (1.85:1) 
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1
Director: David Allen
Cast: Elizabeth MacLellan, Collin Bernsen, Gregory Webb, Charlie Spradling, Steve Welles , Jeff Weston, Nita Talbot

Tagline: They're Back. No Strings Attached!

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 with a nicely macabre pre-credit sequence as Pinhead, Leech Woman, Jester and Tunneler unearth the grave of their departed master Andre Toulon 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 the re-animating serum onto the rotted corpse as the other puppets look on in wonder and awe as Toulon is the reanimated, his rotted skeletal arms reaching toward the sky from his casket. Some time later we see a group of paranormal researchers led by Carolyn (Elizabeth Maclellan, Crash and Burn) arrive at the Bodega Bay Inn to investigate the murder of the hotel's previous owner as well as the lunatic ramblings of Alex Whitaker, the lone psychic-survivor from the previous entry. Apparently the victims had their brain-matter extracted through the nose - Egyptian mummification style. Carolyn is joined in her quest for paranormal activity by her brother Patrick (Greg Webb, TV's Boone), the psychic Camille (Nita Talbot, Chained Heat), sexy red-head Wanda (Charlie Spradling, Wild At Heart), and techie Lance (Jeff Watson, The Player).

That night psychic Camille spots the puppets and plans to leave the Inn in fear of her safety but before she can go is pummeled  dragged off by Pinhead and Jester. The next to go is poor Patrick who gets his forehead rather bloodily excavated by Tunneler, it's a great gory scene. Lance runs into the room after hearing Patrick scream bit it's too late to save Patrick though 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 mystery-man calling himself Enrique Channe (Steve Welles, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers) appears and announces that he has inherited the inn. Mr. Chanee is really Toulon's reanimated corpse decked out in an Invisible Man-esque costume of gauze, goggles and a cape. Chanee/Toulon retires to his room were he sets about creating a new puppet, Torch, a  flame-throwing assassin. There is a flashback to Cairo Egypt at the turn of the century where we see the origins of the reanimating formula and how it came into Toulon's possession and catch a glimpse of two unique animated puppets; Mephisto and Hermuncules. 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 visitors 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, the scenes wherein Torch, Blade and Leech Woman murder the couple is fantastic, she's set afire in a blaze and then Blade hacks a chunk of her brain with his hook. Torch really amps up the kills this time out including roasting a young boy he encounters in the forest with his deadly flame-thrower, it's 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's also laboring under the belief that the gorgeous Carolyn is the reincarnated soul of his long dead wife Elsa and has devised a plan by which the two can be reunited forever. 

This time around the puppets are more fully realized and articulated than the first film, great stop-motion effects works from director David Allen and his team of puppeteers, really imaginative and wonderful artistry on display here. 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 and while for 90% of the film he remains bandaged and his face is not visible Welles performance and vocal characterization recalled the great Christopher Lloyd, wonderfully dramatic and the final unmasking of his rotting face is just grotesque 

Something I did not care for was the need for brain-tissue to create the life-giving serum Toulon administers to reanimate himself and the puppets as I feel it it vilifies both Toulon and the puppets, which I guess was Allen was going for here, it really ramps up the gore and horror. In the first film you liked Toulon, he was a good man who 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 characters a bit in my opinion. The ending of the film is also a bit wacky and felt too far out of left field for me. It's telling that future installments dismiss it or out right ignore the events of this film, which on it's own separate from the series is a very strong entry. 

In closing I must say that viewing the film in anamoprhic widescreen for the first time was a revelation, the 1080p visuals were popping off the screen at me with great locations, wonderful set dressing and seeing this 35mm film get the high-definition treatment made this feel like a first time viewing which is quite wonderful, very excited to see future installments of the series and other Full Moon titles like Stuart Gordon's Castle Freak (1991) and The Pit and the Pendulum (1995) get the 1080p treatment - let's hope they all look this good if not better,. 

Blu-ray: To my knowledge this may be the first-time ever that Puppet Master 2 has been presented in it's original anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) aspect ratio. The MPEG-4 encoded image is transferred from the original negative and remastered in high definition with all new color timing and color correction and the results are simply stunning, it's like night and day. I've seen this film several times in it's VHS and DVD incarnations and it's always been the same fullframe standard-definition transfer, interlaced with rampant compression issues and artifacting of both the audio and visual variety. The cropped image was always soft, murky and lacking any fine detail. What we get with this Blu-ray release is a pleasingly crisp 16x9 widescreen presentation from a very nice negative with a pleasant amount of natural grain left intact, with that though we also get a fair amount of noise, too. The noise is mostly noticeable during the darker scenes naturally but overall this widescreen presentation blows away any of the previous SD transfers of the film with wonderfully saturated and vibrant colors, natural skin tones, decent black levels and a fair amount of fine detail.

On the audio front we have something a bit less exciting than the image. Sure, we get a newly created 5.1 sound surround mix but it's Dolby Digital and not lossless. Like the previous DVD edition it is equally lamented by compression issues most notably with a metallic-ringing throughout the film. Dialogue and score sounds very nice but this is a disappointing oversight. More so than even the video upgrade that the 1080p format allows for is a sonic upgrade and this is a bit of failure.  

On top of the sweet widescreen transfer we get a nice array of bonus content beginning with a new Introduction (2:35) to the film from creator Charles Band filmed on the set of the forthcoming Puppet Master 10 in which the always fun auteur discusses the difficulty getting the early Full Moon Films on Blu-ray. Band also offers up a brand new commentary track for the film beginning with explaining that director David Allen passed in 1999. The commentary is regularly off topic but  quite a treat for fans of the series and of Full Moon Entertainment in general. It doesn't get too scene-specific but there's a ton of FM anecdotes and history, his association with director David Allen whom he met in the 70's whom he co-credits with creating the Puppets and commenting on his skill as an effects artists and director and that he was a protege of the works by Ray Harryhausen. Bands again goes into the troubles with getting early FM films on Blu-ray, creating new high-definition transfers and the financial woes that were prohibitive to that end. He speaks to his love of practical effects and disdain for CGI when overused it becomes cartoonish and he prefers the jittery stop-motion technique over it because of it's 3-dimension physicality. Band specifically talks about Dave Allen creating the iconic Bodega Bay Inn on a cliff shot used in the PM series. The interiors of the Bodega Bay Inn were shot at a an actual castle were they also shot Meridian, Skullheads, Castle Freak, The Pit and the Pendulum, and Demonic Toys 2. Lie k a lot of the commentary it's not Puppet Master II specific and he talks at length about the evolution of the FM Roadshow and the trials, tribulations and rewards of going theatrical with the film Ghoulies, including acquiring an R-rating from the MPAA. My favorite anecdote about Ghoulies being hate mail from pissed-off parents who had a Hell of a time potty-training their toddlers after viewing the film.  Band also discusses his wish to find all the deleted scenes and reinstate them, he also mentions wanting to find all the deleted scenes from this film and others and re-instating them at some point, it's a pretty entertaining listen. There's a Killer Puppet Montage (1:52),  a Rare Puppet Master Toy Promo (1:30) and one of FM VideoZone video magazine which were probably some of the first featurette/bonus content I ever recall seeing from the VHS era. This one featuring a behind-the-scene glimpse of  of PM2 highlighting the new character of Torch and some of the SFX work with interview with David Allen and the puppeteering team, Steve Welles, Jeff Weston, Nina Talbot, Gregory Webb and others. Also featured on the episode is an interview with director Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) who speaks about his film The Pit and the Pendulum plus trailers for the film and Puppet Master (1989), Shadowzone (1990), Meridian (1990), Crash and Burn (1990). Finally we get a selection of eight Full Moon trailer in HD widescreen including Stuart Gordon's Castle Freak (1995) and The Pit and the Pendulum (1991) which are both slated for Blu-ray editions in the near future, so psyched for that!

Special Features:

-Brand New Introduction by Puppet Master creator Charles Band (2:35) 16x9 
-New 2012 Audio Commentary by Charles Band
-Behind the Scenes VideoZone  (21:37) 4:3
-Killer Puppet Master Montage (1:52) 4x3
-Rare Puppet Master Toy Promo (1:30) 4x3
-HD Full Moon trailers:
Puppet Master (1:38) 16x9
Castle Freak 2:15) 16x9
Zombies vs Strippers (1:19) 16x9
Demonic Toys 2 (1:15) 16x9
Evil Bog 3  (1:00) 16x9
Gingerdead Man 3 (1:02) 16x9
Killjoy's Revenge (1:39) 16x9
Puppet Master: Axis of Evil (2:06) 16x9 

Verdict: In the past I felt that Puppet Master 2 lacked much of the charm of the first film. It's definitely a bit darker and more menacing, the horror elements are ramped up and the puppets
are rendered with more detail and articulated movement plus they get more screen time but the film just seemed a bit hollow in my opinion and was outmatched by the first film. However, viewing the film on Blu-ray and in widescreen for the first-time I think it's definitely stepped up a few notches, presentation is everything, it's a wonderfully entertaining watch, the Blu-ray looks great and while the audio leaves a bit to be desired this is still recommend. 3.5 outta 5