It’s hard to say whether the Puppet Master/Puppetmaster franchise, inaugurated by David Schmoeller’s 1989 film, is the most extended and metastasing series in the low-budget horror arena … because producer Charles Band’s habit of cobbling together entries like When Puppets and Dolls Attack from repeated footage, retrospectively bringing in unrelated films with team-ups like Puppet Master vs Demonic Toys, and delivering serial-like instalments rather than whole films (Puppetmaster completists will anticipate a ‘to be continued’ end title) confuses the issue. However, it seems likely the saga has now bested the Witchcraft series (fifteen entries) and the Howlings (a relatively modest eight), though there are a few Asian quickie franchises that are probably edging ahead. Still, the Puppetmaster score isn’t bad for follow-ups to a decent enough film that went straight to VHS in most territories … and the Band Empire (or Full Moon) is built on the notion that audiences have an endless appetite for seeing grown people cut down and mangled by nasty little special effects critters and creeps.
This soft reboot lands some serious behind-the-scenes talent, with a script from S.Craig Zahler (writer-director of Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99) and direction from the Swedish team of Tommy Wiklund and Sonny Laguna (Wither, Blood Runs Cold). It has a metafictional aspect as Edgar (Thomas Lennon), a just-divorced comic book artist, heads to a convention being held to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the ‘Toulon murders’ in order to auction off a sinister puppet he has found in the closet of his late little brother. In a prologue, we meet scarred puppetmaster Andre Toulon (Udo Kier, stepping into a role which has been played by William Hickey and Guy Rolfe, among others) and fill in some blanks in the original film to set up his posthumous vengeance and eventual resurrection. In most of the previous films, Toulon was an anti-Nazi – but here he’s a full-on fuhrer fan, and in a quite queasy sub-plot his puppets are especially enthusiastic about hate crimes, crawling into hotel rooms to visit gruesome fates on Jews, lesbians, a gypsy, etc. Zahler’s films feature some of the most extreme, battering gore sequences in contemporary cinema – here, with Fangoria involved on the production side, he comes up with a few gross-outs that go further into bad taste even than Troma, with the added fillip of taking its fascist puppet threat semi-seriously. Nelson Franklin is obnoxious as the hero’s stereotype Jewish nerd-bear pal, but when the nature of the enemy becomes clear turns it around to stand as an unlikely hero.
If the story is a bit of a mess, with some set-pieces dropped in that never really connect with the main plot, and there are too many characters to keep track of, the film at least has a consistent, edgy attitude. Lennon and Jenny Pellicer, cast as Edgar’s suspiciously hot new girlfriend, underplay effetively, allowing everyone else room for outrageous caricature – Michael Paré and Barbara Crampton are tough cops, Charlyne Yi is a sweet nerd hotel employee, Skeeta Jenkins the much-abused security guy intent on making it home to his wife, and Matthia Hues is a gigolo possessed by a particularly far-out there Nazi puppet. Made outside the aegis of series originator Band – with a score that collages bits of Richard Band’s original and Italian schlock cuts from Fabio Frizzi – it doesn’t quite jibe with most of what has gone before – a few of the original puppets are held over but show little personality beyond meanness (and the truly bizarre leech-puking ballerina sits this one out) and the new ones seem to be nice designs (with a feel for the 1920s/30s era of their supposed creation) but don’t really register since the emphasis is on sloshing guts and gouts of gore. I get the impression that this won’t be the last we hear of Andre Toulon and all his works.