Welcome to another installment of 31 Days of Halloween! This is our chance to set the mood for the spookiest and scariest month of the year as we focus our attention on horror and Halloween fun. For the month of October we’ll be sharing various pieces of underappreciated scary books, comics, movies, and television to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.
First thing’s first: Yes, the Puppet Master franchise is still going strong, all these years later. Produced by Full Moon Features, the campy horror series follows the exploits of a group of puppets who have been brought to life by their master, the enigmatic André Toulon. Counting a reboot and spinoff films, there have been FOURTEEN Puppet Master films in total. That’s a lot of pint-sized action and violence, and somehow the series has been able to stay fresh and change things up every few years (for the most part).
And yes, I have a massive soft spot for this bonkers little franchise. There’s something admirable about the way that many of the films take the basic concept of animated dolls and drop them into increasingly ludicrous plot lines, weaving in ancient occult mysticism and wartime heroics. There’s also something truly admirable about the way that the series has been able to stretch each dollar to its absolute limit. While many of them have a certain charm to them, there are a few entries in the franchise that you can definitely skip.
With that in mind, let’s take a look back through 31 years of Puppet Master, ranking them worst to first!
14. Puppet Master: The Legacy
Puppet Master: The Legacy is the absolute bottom of the barrel, and there’s a sense that everyone involved in this borderline insulting production felt like it was the end of the road. There is approximately ten minutes of new footage in The Legacy, with the rest of the runtime being taken up by scenes from the previous films. This flick might as well have been called Puppet Master: The Clip Show. There is a kernel of an interesting idea here: that the Puppets are tired of living forever, and that they want someone to free them from the control of the latest Puppet Master. However, roughly a full hour of this movie features older footage that is supposed to imply that the two new characters are recounting events that neither of them were present for. The result is a confounding mess that has the audacity to end with a title card thanking the fans for sticking with the series. By the time the credits roll on The Legacy, most viewers will wonder why they did. Luckily, a few of the entries after this one would put in at least a bit more effort.
13. Puppet Master: Axis of Evil
When the best part of your movie is an opening that repeats the events of an earlier film from another perspective, then you might be in a bit of trouble. The franchise struck gold early in its run with a sequel that saw the titular character battling Nazis (more on that film later), and the series would subsequently revisit that same well on multiple occasions. Axis of Evil is the first installment of a sort of trilogy within the franchise that saw the Puppets battling all sorts of German mad scientists and occultists. This one suffers from some pretty cheap-looking puppetry and a dragging pace, making the whole thing a bit of a slog. Moreover, there is a lot of dialogue in the movie that attempts to come across as old-school war-time sentiment, but unfortunately veers into casual racism on more than one occasion.
12. Puppet Master X: Axis Rising
This film recasts the two leads from Axis of Evil, but unfortunately runs into many of the same problems as the preceding film. Namely, its embrace of uncomfortable stereotypes and war-time language are peak cringe, rendering a good portion of the movie hard to recommend. This movie does have a few interesting ideas, including the introduction of new evil puppets, but those are marred by the same mean-spirited and frankly offensive sense of humor that permeates the rest of the film. Also, the puppet effects are poorly done in this entry as well, with either visible strings or extreme closeups attempting to mask the lack of stop motion wizardry in the majority of the movie. It was the tiniest step in the right direction, however, the final film in the Axis trilogy would end up being stronger than this one.
11. Puppet Master Vs. Demonic Toys
Full Moon Features kind of has a thing for small inanimate objects becoming killers. Aside from the Puppet Master series, the Full Moon canon also includes such flicks as Doll Graveyard, The Gingerdead Man, and of course, Demonic Toys. As the title would imply, this movie pits Toulon’s puppets against the nefarious toys in a fight to save every kid in the world on Christmas morning. While the movie was directed by Ted Nicolau, a common Full Moon collaborator who directed all of the Subspecies films, it is not considered to be a legit Full Moon production — and it doesn’t really feel like one, either. Instead, Puppet Master Vs. Demonic Toys was released as a Sci-Fi Channel Original Movie, and Charles Band does not recognize it as an official part of either series. And honestly, the fans who skip this one aren’t missing much. The puppet effects are atrocious, with the strings being visible throughout a majority of the film. Corey Feldman steps into the lead role as the newest Puppet Master, complete with a fake wig and an inexplicable gravelly voice. Vanessa Angel flirts with a demon straight out of a Tenacious D video and the puppets get cybernetic updgrades. It all seems like it should add up to a campy good time, but the end result is a bit of a chore to get through.
10. Puppet Master: Axis Termination
Axis Termination runs into a few of the issues that the preceding Axis flicks had, but for the most part, it’s a much more successful entry in the franchise. It crosses over with a few different Full Moon movies, building out a more expansive universe for the characters to play in. Most importantly, the crowdfunded production allowed Full Moon to make this the bloodiest and most visually impressive of the series in quite a while. There are some pretty rad stop motion effects sprinkled here and there, and the action scenes toward the end have a fun Stuart Gordon-esque vibe to them. The movie suffers a bit from its somewhat episodic format (it was originally released in installments via Full Moon’s streaming channel), which occasionally makes the pacing seem a bit off. Overall, however, it mostly succeeds in feeling like a bizarre little throwback to the earlier entries in the franchise.
9. Blade: The Iron Cross
The most recent flick on this list, Blade: The Iron Cross is the first proper spin-off of the Puppet Master series, which supposedly gives the series’ most iconic puppet his own solo film. Sadly, while Blade does get in a couple of solid hits here and there and there are a few decent puppet effects, the character is mostly sidelined in favor of more WWII shenanigans involving human characters. Blade might actually have less than five minutes of active screentime in this entire movie. On the plus side, Tania Fox reprises her role from Axis Termination, and Elisa ends up being the series’ most likable protagonist in over two decades. There’s also a wacky “pulp adventure” feel to this movie, which involves an actual death ray built by the mad scientist main villain, as well as a truly ludicrous ending. Where the movie loses major points is in its efforts to put forth a sleazier vibe than most other entries, with the few female characters being stripped at every opportunity. There are also some odd story beats throughout, including a villain who face literally shows his face on-screen, only to later unmask for a dramatic “reveal.”
8. Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich
I promise I’m not one of those staunchly anti-reboot people. I think sometimes a new take on existing material can bring out the best in a story. I really wanted to like The Littlest Reich. The idea of a Puppet Master movie with a decent budget excited me. Unfortunately, this movie makes the mistake of going for shock value over genuine laughs or scares. The result is a movie that made me cringe a lot. Some of the death scenes in this flick are genuinely hilarious, eliciting giggles over just how far the special effects crew were willing to take things. Most of the time, however, the deaths (not to mention the motivations behind the killings) are utterly tasteless. This movie repositions the Puppets as Nazis themselves, empowered by André Toulon (an almost unrecognizable Udo Kier) to kill the people he deems unworthy. The puppets themselves are mostly unmemorable, sporting generic designs and no personalities. The new Blade is the only one that looks cool, but there’s no sense that any of them have a spirit of their own. The cast in this film is the biggest bright spot, featuring undeniable talents like Tom Lennon and Barbara Crampton. On the whole, however, The Littlest Reich is just a bit too nasty to fully recommend.
7. Curse of the Puppet Master
While Puppet Master 5 had some issues, it’s still a lot of fun and the effects are well-done. With the sixth entry in the franchise, however, the cracks begin to show. Or rather, I should say that the strings are starting to show. Curse of the Puppet Master is the first movie in the series to make use of a wealth of stock footage from the preceding films. Almost every scene involving the puppets, even basic reaction shots, is taken from one of the other movies. This results in some choppy editing during the film’s very small number of kills. The story isn’t all that great, either, following a developmentally disabled carpenter who unwittingly becomes a test subject for the new Puppet Master. There are a few decent effects, however, including a nightmare sequence around the midway point. Otherwise, this one is easy to skip. The movie doesn’t even have a proper ending, cutting to black right in the middle of an action sequence!
6. Retro Puppet Master
Make no mistake: Retro Puppet Master is not a good film. In fact, it’s downright painful to watch in some parts. The mummy effects are pretty awful and the return of the Sutekh storyline during a period piece well and truly wrecks any remaining sense of continuity within the series. There could be an argument made that this was meant to be a reboot of sorts, but the presence of Guy Rolfe as an elderly André Toulon (in his final appearance in the series) throws that notion right out. Almost every single supporting performance in the movie is painfully flat, aside from the aforementioned Rolfe and Jack Donner, who plays a wizard who is just tired of everyone’s crap. Still, there are some worthwhile elements at play here. The Parisian setting offers some nice production design, and the wooden “retro” puppets all look so rad that you’ll wish they popped up in another entry. Most of all, this is worth seeking out to see The Room’s Greg Sestero in the title role as 1902 André Toulon.
5. Puppet Master 5: The Final Chapter
The biggest problem with Puppet Master 5: The Final Chapter (aside from its inaccurate title) is that it feels like a retread of the fourth film. The puppet vs. totem fights are much the same, the ending is almost identical, and the first several minutes of the movie are taken up by flashbacks to the previous film. Both 4 and 5 were shot back-to-back and released a year apart from each other, and one can’t help but think the thin story in both would be better served if it were told in one longer, more compact feature. Still, there are some fun shenanigans involving nosy burglars and a scientist who gets in over his head, as well as the return of a former lead actor in the series classes this joint up a good bit. There’s also a rather hopeful tone to this entry, which helps in making it stand apart from many of the meaner, grimmer sequels in the series.
4. Puppet Master 4
This is where the series goes full-on Power Rangers, in ways that are mostly very enjoyable. Viewers are introduced to Sutekh, an evil god with the powers of resurrection. Rick Myers, the newest Puppet Master, has to guide his new charges through a war against Sutekh and his diminutive (but deadly) Totems. This one is a lot of goofy fun, particularly in the sequences that feature the lumbering Sutekh suit. The series ties into the mystical side of the Puppets’ backstory, which was eluded to in the second film in the franchise. This entry makes the odd decision to take the franchise in a more cosmic-leaning direction. It’s not a total slam dunk, but the fact that the movie just goes for it is admirable. There’s also a laser tag scene between Rick and the puppets, which you’d never know you needed until you’ve seen it.
The one that started it all. Originally shot for a possible theatrical release, producer Charles Band saw the value in investing in the nascent direct-to-video market. While it doesn’t reach the bonkers heights of the later entries, Puppetmaster is still a moody little piece of low budget horror that focuses mainly on a psychic disturbance in the Bodega Bay Inn. David Schmoeller, who also directed the cult classic Tourist Trap, delivers a surprisingly gothic flick, with lots of billowing curtains and macabre dances with the dead. The stop motion effects make for a few eerie sequences, particularly in the case of Leech Woman’s first appearance. The movie kicks off with an eerie P.O.V. chase sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the flick. Also, of course, composer Richard Band recorded the first iteration of the fantastic Puppet Master theme, which would come to be reused and reimagined throughout the run of the franchise. While not the best of the series, it’s definitely a fun standalone watch.
2. Puppet Master 2
Right from the first sequel, this series enjoyed expanding on the lore of the main characters, even if it didn’t always jibe with what came before. This one recasts Andre Toulon as a mad scientist obsessed with eternal life. Puppet Master 2 has a real mean streak to it, most notably in a scene involving Torch and a bratty kid. There are also some truly bizarre visuals in the film, with Toulon returning from the grave all wrapped up in gauze like a modern mummy. The acting is pretty decent across the board and the finale is easily the most thrilling of the franchise. This flick also features my favorite stop-motion effect in the whole series, which occurs during one of Blade’s attacks late in the film. However, it’s the appearance of the human/puppet hybrids that will stick with you long after the credits start rolling. This movie is truly something special and bizarre, but there’s one entry in the franchise that I think is better.
1. Puppet Master 3: Toulon’s Revenge
The best of the series, Toulon’s Revenge is the first of many entries in the franchise to be directed by David DeCoteau, so clearly relished the idea of making a gory period piece. Toulon’s Revenge also kind of set the template for several of the sequels and prequels that would follow. This origin story features the puppets and their master battling it out with dirty Nazis, a well that the series would return to on several occasions. The makeup effects in the film are particularly effective, particularly for a film with a lower budget. Guy Rolfe delivers a lovely and understated performance as Andre Toulon, retconned again into being a peaceful children’s show performer who is sent down a dark road of revenge. Sarah Douglas is lovely as Elsa Toulon, the love of the Puppet Master’s life and his guiding light through the darkest days of history. The supporting cast really shines in this one as well, with genre mainstays like Ian Abercrombie and Richard Lynch delivering surprisingly earnest performances in a movie that also introduces the truly ridiculous Six-Shooter puppet.
And there you have it! Obviously, your mileage may vary with these films. It is kind of hard to pinpoint what has led to the longevity of the Puppet Master franchise, but a huge amount of the credit has to go to Charles Band, the head of Full Moon Features. Over the years, Band has acted as a producer, occasional director, and full time cheer captain for this series and Full Moon’s other IP. He more or less pioneered the concept of putting a behind the scenes video on home releases through Full Moon’s “VideoZone” featurettes. Band also continued to push Puppet Master, Subspecies, Trancers, and more forward as franchises made for the fans.
There’s also the fact that the series oftentimes prioritizes campy fun over strict continuity, which tends to work in its favor. As a result, the series has shifted tones and settings multiple times over the years, which has certainly kept it fresh. If you’ve never seen one of these flicks and are curious to see how this scrappy little franchise has lasted so long, take another look at my list and throw on whichever one sounds like it tickles your fancy. After all, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from this franchise, it’s that a little bit can go a long way.
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