I’ve made it no secret in my writing about horror movies that I’m a complete, unashamed fan of the Puppet Master franchise. Maybe to an unhealthy degree. Like most fans, my nostalgia is especially strong for the early entries. After losing their distribution deal in the mid-1990s, Full Moon has never really been the same and their attempts to recapture their glory days haven’t worked as well as they wanted. But there was a time when they were putting out some of the best, most imaginative and quirky straight-to-video content on the market.
The Puppet Master series was right at the forefront of that. I know it can be a little alienating for new viewers. The plot, centering on puppets that come to life and kill to obey the whim of their master, is inherently goofy. And at times it also takes itself too seriously to be wholly embraced by the camp audience. While I think there are a few entries in the franchise that are fairly well-made, I can acknowledge that it’s not always the kind of thing a horror fan generally goes looking for.
I’m very nostalgic for the original. I’d heard so much about the movies and the puppets from friends at school and couldn’t wait to check it out. As a nine year-old, I was blown away. It’s still probably my favorite of the series for that pure, powerful impact it had on me at a young age. I love the atmosphere and the mystery of it. There’s something that’s genuinely creepy about the puppets, but they do get their own moments of humor. Even still, nothing really happens for the first forty minutes and all of the death scenes are confined to a very tight chunk toward the end.
The third is, honestly, one of if not the very best film that Full Moon ever produced. After so many years, it still astonishes me how good the third entry is. But it’s more of a drama and genuine World War II revenge feature than it is straightforward horror. It’s a fascinating story that’s truly well acted, but I could never get my friends to care about this one.
That’s why we have Puppet Master II. If you want to watch 90 minutes of wacky, killer puppet mayhem, this is the one for you. At the same time, it has all of the classic references and old-school Universal atmosphere that made the original endearing. While I have a great love for the original and think the third is overall the best, this is without a doubt the best of the franchise at delivering on all of the things horror fans want and have come to expect.
Right off the bat, we’ve got an introduction that establishes the gothic atmosphere that defines the movie and separates it from the first. The original had an overall style similar to Hitchcock’s Rope whereas the sequel pushes everything in a more James Whale direction. There are heavy visual references to both Whale’s Frankenstein and The Invisible Man. Puppet Master Andre Toulon has been resurrected, and basically takes the disguise of Whale’s Invisible Man to cover his rotting face.
There’s something really interesting going on in this movie in that it’s almost an amalgamation of all of the Universal classics rolled into one. It kicks off with a Frankenstein graveyard resurrection sequence, Toulon bears the image on the Invisible Man and the overall plot takes heavy cues from the reincarnation theme of The Mummy, a theme that had also gone on to define many versions of Dracula by the time this feature was released.
Yet it balances those old-school influences by delivering on all of the carnage that modern horror fans—well, modern by 1991 standards—had come to expect. It fixes one of the larger issues of the original and paces out the kills. There are more of them this time and they’re not confined to a single chunk of the movie. Without a doubt, these are the best death scenes of the franchise. We’ve got Tunneler taking a running start into a guy’s forehead while he’s sleeping. Blade carves up a couple after their short-but-sweet romantic interlude. Torch burns a woman and (presumably) a child alive. This is pretty much the Friday the 13th of Puppet Master sequels.
In terms of the story, these kills are justified and are ultimately made more interesting by the fact that they all serve a purpose. The puppets are low on the formula that gives them life, given that they used all they had left to reanimate their creator. The key ingredient to this formula is only found in the human brain. This provides an interesting twist on the body count because each kill has to serve the purpose of opening the skull so that the brain matter can be extracted. Still hokey, maybe, but it’s rare to see any horror really take the tactical approach to this kind of thing.
While the reincarnation plot is one we’ve seen before, it honestly works really well. In many of the productions to use this plot—especially some of the Dracula adaptations—the character trying to woo their reincarnated bride isn’t usually that great of a guy to begin with.
The franchise does eventually prove that Andre Toulon really was a good man—in this film, his actions are mostly the result of being a raving zombie driven insane by his literally rotting mind—but in this one he’s very much a villain. Yet it has a refreshing twist in that this woman is not the reincarnation of his wife. He’s just raving and projecting this onto her.
Any film series with eleven entries—I’m counting Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys even if Full Moon doesn’t acknowledge its existence—is bound to get daunting for new viewers. But if you’re having friends over and are in the mood for a fun, quirky B-Movie with great kills, set pieces and atmosphere, Puppet Master II is always a solid choice. For most horror fans, this is a smart place to start with the franchise. Even if it’s weird to see Toulon as a villain, I’ll admit that he’s played creepily.
The human characters aren’t always smart, but are mostly sympathetic. But this is a puppet show at the end of the day, and with the addition of Torch to the roster, those little guys are here to perform.