Retro Puppet Master (1999)
WRITER: Original story by Charles Band
Screenplay by Benjamin Carr
DIRECTOR: Joseph Tennent
STARRING: Greg Sestero as Young Toulon
Brigitta Dau as Ilsa/Elsa
Jack Donner as Afzel
Stephan Blackehart as First Servant
Guy Rolfe as Elder Toulon
QUICK CUT: As we near our 100th review, and on this Friday the 13th, journey back with us to a time beyond time, puppets before puppets, and witness the creation of the Puppet Master, in this final review from the boxed set, and one of the main influences behind Trisk.
Andre Toulon - Geeze, this guy has probably been summarised in this section more than anyone. He started off, well in the second movie, as a right bastard, but I'm going to chalk that up to being badly reanimated by incompetent puppets. Otherwise, Toulon has been protrayed as a good soul, who sometimes has to do horrible things to protect his secrets, his loved ones, and himself.
Ilsa - Andre's love, the daughter of the Swiss ambassador to France. She's a free spirit, defies her father in small ways when she can, and loves to sneak off to watch the magic shows put on by Toulon.
Afzel - Or as I refer to him through most of the movie, The Sorcerer. He's the man who has stolen Sutek's secrets, trying to arm humanity against the rise of angry gods for some future conflict. Yeah, that ain't happened yet.
THE GUTS: In a MOST WELCOME change of pace, in this the final Puppet Master movie in the boxed set, it seems like the series is going back to basics. After three movies that slowly scuttled everything good about the series, we're back to this. Look! We're back in World War II times! AND GUY ROLFE IS BACK AS TOULON! As the Puppet Master!! These are all plusses that are either good signs...or maybe softening me up for much pain.
On the downside, the audio is garbage and I can't understand half of what Toulon is saying. Sigh. But we meet our puppets and their dad shortly after the events of PM 3, because who needs linear storytelling? They're still on the run, and making their way as best they can through abandoned places, and have holed up for the night for shelter.
While Toulon searches the abandoned hotel for some food, Blade kicks out a puppet head we've never seen before. Toulon comes back over, with much amusement at the discovery of the puppet head, which he calls Cyclops. This prompts the bulk of our movie, flashing back many years to Cairo.
That starts us off with a guy running from two others, and they start saying he has stolen the secrets of the gods, and invoke our old pal, Sutek. Ahh, continuity. I also like how this is VERY reminiscent to me of the very first scene, of the very first movie, with Hickey's version of Toulon being chased by the two Nazis to the Bodega Bay Inn.
They try and blast the sorcerer, but they do no good, not with Sutek's power waning, and it gives the mage a chance to use his own hoodoo against them. And it's much more effective.
Sutek doesn't take too kindly to that, and since these moments are set in Egypt, he calls forth a trio of mummies. He commands them to disguise themselves and kill all who learn the secret of life. Hide your moms!
With those guys set up as our threats, we jump to Paris in 1902, and a young Toulon making Cyclops and a bunch of other puppets that aren't quite familiar yet and rough around the edges. But a damned sight better than Tank and Decapitron.
They give a brief overview of each of the new puppets, some of them familiar yet not, and some of them entirely fresh, like Cyclops. And with Toulyoung declaring, Let's begin!, the movie...uh, begins, as the credits roll. That's a pretty lengthy teaser.
We don't really know WHAT he is beginning besides the movie and the Puppet Master saga since this literally is the beginning, but it's a good line to cut to the credits with, so logic and plot be damned! To hell with the fourth wall!
So, the credits...they definitely harken back to the original movie, from the font to just the way its done, panning slowly across the candles and the puppets. That's a good way to build up some faith. Say we're jumping all the way back to the beginning, and beyond. Sadly, they ditch the classic PM theme, which is a minus. But we also get a nice closeup of the puppets, and I really like the olden, wooden look to them, very rough, yet charming, and still creepy.
We meet Elsa at the Swiss embassy, sneaking out to see Paris, and her first stop is a magic show, where Andre is busily getting ready backstage. So much for beginning. Slacker.
I love that one of Toulon's fellow puppeteers has an eyepatch. Gee. Who could he end up being? If there wasn't a puppet named Cyclops wandering around this movie, it would look like one of those, "How can I make this character I'm playing be quirky and memorable?" decisions.
Toulon starts his show, which is about what you would expect for a turn of the century puppet show. Cheesy, silly, pointless. They sure were easy to entertain back then, eh? I easily recognise an early take on Six-Shooter minus the Americanisms, Tunneler, and a Blade. And the heavy-handed "We are all puppets, and there is no free will!" commentary is just that. But hey, the SYMBOLISM! isn't too bad for a cheap horror flick.
Meanwhile, our sorcerer is bumbling around outside, and unawares that his pursuers are lurking in the sewers just beneath his feet, being lead by some local tramps who know the area better than they do.
They pay off their minions and send them to kill the sorcerer. They think it's because he can sense them coming, but I say it's more likely he can just smell the rotting corpses.
So it comes to pass that a pair of lowlife thieves and bandits in Paris do a better job of beating down a great sorcerer than anyone else does, at least until Ilsa comes by and calls for help. Toulon to the rescue!
And that's how these two lovebirds met. Somehow, having it be over an attempted murder explains a whole lot about their relationship, and the series of movies that would be borne out of it as well.
While the Sorcerer rests, Toulon heads outside to help out a beggar friend of his, whom is worsening more than he's acting out his sick guy routine. After handing over some coin, Andre heads back inside where the sorcerer has awoken after his ordeal.
He takes one look at the puppeteer, and pulls a Ganthet with a resigned, "I suppose you'll do." Does this make Toulon the Puppet Master equivalent of Kyle Rayner?
The sorcerer goes into exposition mode and explains most of what we already know. The best part is Andre gives the old man the exact look we all would when he says he stole the secret of putting souls of the living into dead things.
We are given a new bit of information that expands on the mythology, even if it's something they've never touched upon since. But, it does add to the importance of things, and why Toulon fights so hard to guard the secret. The sorcerer believes the elder gods will one day return, and at that time, the secret of life may be the only thing to save humankind.
As Toulon expresses his great big whopping, "Riiiiiight," the sorcerer uses his powers to make the puppets rise. Toulon is suitably impressed, even though this is just magical puppetry, and no real soul migration.
I get the impression, while they talk, that Toulon is more interested in what he can do with special puppets, and furthering his own career, than guarding the secret to someday save the world. But he's young.
The puppets make some warding symbols to guard against the evildoers lurking around, and the sorcerer's apprentice heads out. He jokes around with his beggar friend, but finds little response, what with his being dead and all.
So they take the body inside, and the sorcerer gives Toulon a crash course in the secret of life. He also passes on his secret decoder ring, proving he IS Kyle Rayner, with the handy needle to puncture the brain and drain the tasty Mountain Dew inside our skulls.
Toulon begins to chant the words, and I swear, if he blurts out Yanapatapa or anything close, I am SO done with this movie. Fortunately no, and the beggar's soul enlivens a puppet that is a proto Pinhead. I was guessing that was his fate, since the poor guy had matching gloves before he snuffed it.
Andre quizzes the puppet about what has happened, and makes it clear that yes, the puppets do indeed know what's been done to them. Which makes me question certain plot points from other movies, but whatever.
So after Andre dumps the beggar's body back outside, he finds the puppetized version has gone walkabout. He scours the theatre for his transformed friend, just as Ilsa is paying them a visit.
Sparks start to burn between the two, but Andre is eager to get her out of there, before she sees the self-aware and walking puppet. She takes his efforts entirely the wrong way, and feels like a fool for flirting with him. The guy's been puppet-blocked.
Before they can awkwardly stammer much longer, someone can't be bothered with knocking, and just breaks a window, stomping down into the theatre. It turns out the Parisian goon squad are police hired by Ilsa's father to find her and bring her home.
At the Swiss embassy, Ilsa confronts her father briefly, but he shuts her down and says he will be sending her home to Geneva. Next, he brings in Toulon, who has no idea who this guy is, what's going on, and is just sent on his way. Seriously, not a single bit of explanation! He gets roughed up, dragged through the streets of Paris, then, "Now get out of here!" There was a quicker way to do this, and it's called 'leaving him at home.'
Back at the Theatre Magique, one of Toulon's puppeteer pals is stomping around before heading out, and knocks one of the sigil wards off its post, alerting the mummies three of the sorcerer's location. Boy, those are some crappy-ass wards if falling from point A to the floor ruins their efficacy.
While Toulon awakens in the woods after the ambassador tossed him out, the gang at the theatre has repaired the door JUST in time for the mummies to break the window again and clomp in. Sigh. GUYS! It's got a handle, use it!! Were you raised in a ziggurat?!
The mummies make short work of the puppeteers, killing all four of them off rather quickly. The good guys do put up some fight, but they are ultimately no match for the wobbly air blasts of the Mummies. But at least one of them does get a good knifing in, and Patchy shoots one a bunch of times. But yeah, that's four dead bodies, all in a row.
It would've been nice to spend ANY of the last 45 minutes building up their characters so I gave a flying Kaufman that they are dying so quickly and easily. Then use their characters to establish caring for the puppets beyond what we have now, but oh well! They got that balance almost right with the beggar/Pinhead, and I wish they'd done more. Because of the movie had done that, made these guys more than nameless faces that hung around Toulon, with actual personalities that then went on to become our puppets?
I mean, can you imagine? If at this stage of the game, you spent a good ten minutes learning about the person who was stuck inside Tunneler for the next fifty years?? That's some powerful stuff, if done right. That's some hefty gravitas. But since this is Puppet Master...
The sorcerer reveals himself, but he denies the mummies their chance at killing him, and he commits suicide to stop them. The villains get a great look on their faces over being denied, before praising themselves and their god for a job well done.
Toulon finally returns home, and discovers one hell of a mess he has to clean up. AND the broken window. He closes the theatre and cancels the performances and...wait, why is the cancellation sign in English? Ah well...
And at this point, you should be totally unsurprised with what transpires next; Toulon puts the spirits of his friends (And the sorcerer) into the puppets. The bad news is, the mummies sense the process, and are pretty much, "Aww, damnit. I thought we could go home..."
The puppets come to life, Toulon names them all, and I find it an odd choice to put the sorcerer into Six-Shooter, if I'm reading it right. They really shouldn't have had 'Cyclops' do the shooting earlier, but one of the others, and had him end up in that puppet, but again. If they'd given them characterisation, and built this up, it would make more sense with who ended up where, and have more weight. At least it was 'Blade' who did the stabbing.
Andre declares that he and his puppets are the first Avengers, to hell with Captain America, destroyers of evil, and set about to disappear. Too much has happened, too much he could ever explain, while Blade carves the warding symbol into his master's arm. Hopefully that one sticks.
I can't help but smile as the movie pushes that nostalgic continuity button when Toulon packs away the puppets into a trunk. Not THE trunk, but the first one, the trunk to begin all trunks. It's one of those epic moments you wait for in a prequel like this, and aside from being underplayed, they almost nail it.
Just as he's about to leave, the mummies return. So, they didn't get very far, I see. They use their ripply air effects on Toulon, but fortunately he has protectors, and they all have a grudge to settle with these pasty bastards.
Pinhead tries to strangle one with a rope, while Blade and Doctor Death make stabby on another, dropping their power by a third, leaving Toulon himself to deal with the last one. They uh...don't do a good job of it, really. Because choking and stabbing don't work too well on the already dead mummies, and while Andre is more capable against one than three, he is still outmatched by experience.
Fortunately, Six Shooter blasts a chandelier down on top of their assailants, buying them precious time to get the heck out of Paris.
Sutek sends a wake-up call to his minions, and they beg for more power to deal with the much younger, much better armed thief of power. Their master delivers with a glowy green hand. That vague enough for ya? But considering the rest of the movie, I guess it's pure willpower.
The trio scour the theatre for any clues they can use, and they find one in Toulon's pants. Which is something I never thought I'd say. Anyways, they find the letter from Ilsa she was delivering the other night, and they have the woman he loves they can now dangle as bait.
So it's off to the Swiss embassy to fetch Ilsa, and at least we get an awkwardly humourous scene of the mummies dealing with the doorman, or front desk clerk, or whatever he'd be in this situation. He thinks they want to leave a message, and a hilarious exchange ensues. Until they kill him.
They find the girl, who has NO clue what's going on, and I can only presume they made short work of the guards they kept showing us watching over her, but not being dispatched. At the very least, they used the whole wave your hand and command them to sleep gimmick they swiped from the Strangers in Dark City.
One of the mummies points out the flaw in their plan with not knowing how to tell Toulon about their kidnapping. Fortunately, the lead mummy has an idea to put the entire city to sleep and edit the layout of the city and the lives...no, wait, that's Dark City again. He uses Sutek's power to force everyone to sleep and send the same dream to them all, including Toulon.
The Puppet Apprentice receives the message and gets on a train of their choosing. While everyone is distracted with the late night journey, Toulon and the puppets creep about to try and find the mummies. And I'm sorry, I don't care how sneaky they are, someone, ANYONE should notice six creepy puppets walking on their own down the aisle.
After a lengthy scene of creeping and searching, Toulon finally finds Ilsa and friends. The lead mummy and Andre face off, blah blah blah, threats, blah blah blah, look at my hand... Get to it!
The fight begins...unimpressively. Pinhead tries more strangling, the mummies waves his hand of Rassilon around, and sends Toulon back, clutching his throat. They couldn't even be bothered with any effects. It just looks so weak.
I will give the puppets this, they are tenacious. They may not get much done with their stabbing, but they keep at it, and keep at it, and KEEP AT IT. It's what they do, and they do it, by damn! After much stabbing, and throwing the leader out the window, I guess they're done? Kinda...anti-climactic, no?
Toulon unties Ilsa, and declares mission accomplished. You guys didn't really do much! You tossed one guy out the window, and the others just got stabbed until they couldn't be stabbed no more! And I am STILL not convinced they're dead, what with earlier results. In fact, did Drill Seargant even do a single bloody thing?? Is he this era's Jester?! Tunneler was always our surest method of blood and carnage, and he just sat this movie out.
Ilsa takes the news of living, moving puppets very well, all things considered, and is more happy to see Andre than anything. Hell of a first date, man.
That wraps things up, pretty much, and it's back to WW2 era Toulon, who doesn't really answer his modern puppets' questions about what happened to the rest, and he says that's a story for another time. Hey, this movie is only 80 minutes long, you COULD tell us now! I've got nothing better to do!
But it is at least a decent cut off point, a more or less self-contained story of the birth of the puppets and the beginning of Toulon's journey. While it leaves things open, it doesn't drop them off a giant cliffhanger like Puppet Master 4. So, points to this movie for that.
Video: Not great, not bad. It's about equal with most of the Puppet Master DVD releases. A little bright, you can make things out, but as usual, clearly more a VHS type transfer. But not the worst I've seen.
Audio: Passable, but often too quiet and muffled, which is as much a recording issue than a DVD issue.
Sound Bite: "Yes, I will die. But not at your hands." Said repeatedly by the sorcerer. It's not silly, it's not overblown, or dramatic, but I really love it as a thematic thing, the whole 'every man dies' philosophy he has, but that he will die at a time of HIS choosing. Actually pretty good, and ties into the whole puppets and fate thing.
1 & 2 - Sutek's minions get magically executionaled a nice five and a half minutes into the movie.
3 & 4 - The mummies kill their Parisian minions off camera to avoid witnesses.
5 - The beggar dies from his illness, but lives on in the puppets.
6 through 9 - All four of Toulon's fellow Puppeteers die from the Strangers waving their hands around.
10 - The sorcerer kills himself before anyone else can do it.
11 - Front desk dude at the Swiss embassy has his brain melted by the mummies.
12 - Another hapless embassy employee dies on command.
13, 14, & 15 - The mummies all get it in the end. Maybe.
And I presume a bunch of guards at the Embassy. Who knows?
Best Corpse: The effects are weak, almost all the deaths are magically based, but thematically, I go with the Sorcerer's death. It's a good way to go out, it ties into the movie's ideas, it makes him proactive, and you give a little bit of a crap about him.
Blood Type - D-: Meh. No blood, mostly strangulations, the mummies are filled with dust so nothing there...even the Puppetry has been done better. Although that's not bad here and is the only thing that keeps this from a failing grade.
Sex Appeal: Nope nope, nothing to see here.
Movie Review: Well. It's better than the last few. But that is a freakin' low bar. The plot is okay, and if they'd done more with the characters, and made more of those 'prequel moments' like with the trunk, this would have been much better. As it is, the movie isn't BAD, but you can see so much potential, with just a few tweaks, and if it was only longer than 80 minutes to flesh things out. It really needed more meat on these bare bones. Still, it is way closer to classic Puppet Master than we have seen in a LONG time, and that is definitely to the good. Still, there's some plot holes, and questions arise as with all prequels to trying to nod too much. I presume those might have been cleared up with a second Retro PM movie, but that never came. Still, it gave me a complete story, and was put together without too much badness, so it's a nice three out of five Cyclops heads.
Entertainment Value: Now this, this is the right way to do the family friendly puppets. Well, moreso than the previous movies. It's not cutesy or silly. The puppets are ruthless, even if their targets are pointless to attack. Seriously, the biggest flaw here is that the puppets are literally no good against non-killable enemies. But at least they're doing SOMEthing. They are almost needless for the movie, except the movie is ABOUT THEM. Sadly, the bloodless nature of the movie hampers the a lot of the fun. But it's perfectly watchable, and it's got its fun moments. They're just too few and never reach the original's sense of fun. Retro PM is a welcome swing in the right direction, but the pendulum has some ways to go yet. Three out of five new puppets.