Retro Puppet Master

Lava Lamp
Our rating: one lava lamp.

Information about this film in the Internet Movie Database.

Retro Puppet Master
One of the many rejected design concepts
for Kermit the Frog.
If you've been lurking around the horror section of your local video store for any amount of time, you've doubtless run across the film company known as Full Moon. Responsible for film series like Trancers and Demonic Toys, as well as more recent efforts such as Kraa! the Sea Monster and an endless string of Subspecies films, Full Moon has had an up and down financial history, buoyed upwards in the past several years by the inexplicable success of a particular line of toys, pulled from the film series entitled Puppet Master. For whatever reason, Puppet Master toys are incredibly popular in Japan, and their miraculous sales streak there has apparently replenished Full Moon's coffers in a big way.

Hoping to create demand for even more toys, the brains at Full Moon came up with Retro Puppet Master, a time-turned-back story of the Puppet Master himself and how he came by his ability to infuse mere puppets with life. As with many such franchises (including Godzilla), when the villain becomes the central figure of a film series, there's a tendency on the part of the producers to turn him into the hero. By the time RPM was made, the evil (or perhaps just misunderstood?) Puppet Master Andre Toulon is not only the hero of our story, he's also young, blonde, and good-looking.

Retro Puppet Master
"I vant to suck your blood!
...wait, that isn't right."
The puppets, too, have changed -- they're actually different puppets, but supposedly "the originals" of the old favorites fans know and love, and thus they look a bit less sophisticated. Still, most of the basic ideas are there: Six-Shooter, the deathly cowboy with six arms and six operational (!) miniature pistols; Blade, a frightening figure with knives for hands; Pinhead, the relatively large and strong puppet with the tiny cranium; and Tunneler (billed here as "Drill Sergeant"), the puppet that looks like he could have inspired a certain Saturday Night Live sketch. Some of the more complex and anachronistic puppets like Leech Woman are not provided with "retro" counterparts, but a few new faces are thrown into the mix. Full Moon will doubtless begin pitting the old puppets against the new (however you want to interpret those terms) in some future incarnation, but for now we are treated to the adventures of these simpler, cruder puppets who don't need strings.

The plot (400 words in and we're just getting to the plot!) concerns Toulon's early days as a puppeteer in Paris, which looks a lot like Romania. Come to think of it, a lot of Full Moon locations look a lot like Romania, perhaps because that's where they make a lot of their movies. Toulon is played by Greg Sisero, whose heavy (Romanian?) accent impedes his ability to play a Frenchman. His attempts to speak French-accented English sound like he is impersonating a drunk, French Elmer Fudd. The theater at which Toulon plies his craft is the Theatre Magique, which posts all of its signs regarding performances and cancellations in English. Naturellement. There, our puppeteer protagonist entertains the Paris elite with his "amazing" puppet shows, performed with his troupe of eccentric artists:

Retro Puppet Master
The operation was a success, but the doctor died.
Six Shooter: Why do we stay here? Let us escape!

Drill Sargeant: There is no escape from Fate!

Blade: We are all puppets, dancing on a string.

Cyclops: Free will is an illusion!

Dr. Death: We can only act at the whim of the puppeteer!

Six Shooter: Then your path is clear! Into the fire with all of you, and with me as well, and thus the comedy ends.

It should be noted that all of this heavy dialogue is shouted in those same Elmer Fudd voices. At any moment we expected the members of Monty Python to leap out from behind a pillar and act out scenes from Life of Brian. Toulon does, after all, command cwack wegions -- of puppets.

Hmmm. An off-beat theater in Paris with an allegedly profound, arty show, entertaining the rich, and soon to have supernatural roots. Is anyone else reminded of the Vampire Theater in Anne Rice's The Vampire Lestat? No? It's just us? OK, back to the flick.

Retro Puppet Master
"You will watch Dawson's Creek!"
One night, after charming the lederhosen off of Ilsa, the Swiss ambassador's daughter (it must have been the way he said "bwing huh a kewwiage"), Toulon is left with an old man who was mugged outside the theater. The kindly puppeteer offers him sanctuary in the theater, and the old man, whose name is Afzel, explains that in his 3000 years of life, he has never heard such a silly accent. He also offers to teach Toulon the secret of reanimation, which has kept him alive all those years and which can bring Toulon's puppets to life, especially if they can find some dead people, whose souls can then be transferred into the puppets permanently. Conveniently, the acolytes of the Egyptian god, Sutekh, from whom Afzel stole these miraculous powers, arrive to slaughter Toulon's friends and fellow puppeteers while searching for Afzel himself. Now there are plenty of souls to put in the puppets! The rest of the movie half-heartedly shows us Toulon's escape from Sutekh's henchmen and the part that the living puppets play in it.

Origin stories told after the fact are never big on shocking twists. After all, we already know where the story is going, so how many surprising twists can there be? From previous installments, we know that Toulon will end up with five particular animated puppets, and we know his wife will be named Ilsa. But even though we acknowledge that the script was written under these constraints, Retro Puppet Master is disappointingly straightforward. The plot offers not a single twist on what we already know about the Puppet Master mythology, and the villainous minions of Sutekh are rather too obviously inspired by the bad guys in Dark City. Sutekh himself stays off-screen for the entire movie (just because he's an evil god doesn't mean he isn't cost-conscious), but his voice sounds suspiciously like that of the Doctor Who villain of the same name.

Retro Puppet Master
"Must... stop... watching... Dawson's Creek!"
Full blame for the script has to go to one Mr. Benjamin Carr, who wrote Zarkorr and Kraa, as well as the majority of Full Moon's recent offerings. We can only guess Carr is continually employed at Full Moon because he works fast and cheap, not because he has any talent for writing. Every scene seems to be constructed from lines Carr half-remembers from better films, while Carr's attempts at original humor cause considerable pain:

Ilsa: (after being apprehended by Diplomatic Toadie) You will pay for this!

Diplomatic Toadie: Oh Mademoiselle, I have already been paid.

What does that mean?

Compounding the bad script is the low budget nature of the production. In the first couple of Puppet Master movies the puppets were fairly active, and they were brought to life by stop-motion animation more than a couple of times a movie. In Retro Puppet Master the puppets are usually shown in extreme close-up, like muppets, so the special effects crew won't have to worry about making the puppets stand or about hiding the control mechanisms. There are only a couple of scenes in which the puppets walk, and the two fight scenes are limited to shots of people wrestling, Ed Wood style, with inanimate props. Drill Sergeant never even uses his drill!

Full Moon is continuing its bad habits when it comes to film franchises. Rather than approaching an existing story line with something creative and new, the filmmakers take the same old device (puppets that are infused with life, energy-sucking vampires, or whatever) and make as cheap and stupid a rehash as they can, all the while planning exactly what line of merchandise they're going to push while doing so. (And yet, we still haven't seen a Jack Deth action figure!) Full Moon does its best work when taking its first crack at exploiting a concept, but they inevitably follow up their successes with disappointing sequels. The Puppet Master franchise is simply the most heinous example.

Rent or Buy from Reel.

Review date: 3/2/2000

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* The name of Full Moon's studio there is Snagov. Really.Go back!