Friday, February 7, 2014

Worth Mentioning - No Mercy for the Death Corps

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody loves watching puppets battle Nazis.


The third film in the Puppet Master series is set right in the heart of Nazi Germany - the capital city of Berlin in the year 1941. Thirty-nine years have passed since the events of Retro Puppet Master (which came out eight years after this movie) and puppeteer Andre Toulon and Ilsa (here credited as Elsa), the woman he fell in love with while in Paris in 1902, have aged together as a happily married couple. It's clear that Toulon's whole world revolves around his wife.

The Toulons own a theatre and, as he has done for at least the last thirty-nine years, Toulon performs puppet shows regularly for adoring, laughing audiences, primarily made up of children. There is a message to his art, he works social commentary into his acts, including a scene where a cowering Hitler puppet is bested by America as represented by the six-armed, pistol-packing cowboy puppet Six Shooter.

This Six Shooter is designed differently than the puppet with that name in Retro Puppet Master, and in fact all of the puppets that were featured in that film are gone by the events of Toulon's Revenge; as I lamented in my write-up on that film, their story has never been completed. By '41, the Retro puppets have been replaced by puppets we know from the other films in the series - Tunneler, Pinhead, and Jester. The cowboy Six Shooter makes his debut in this film, and we also see the origin of the puppet that will become known as Leech Woman when Toulon presents her to Elsa as a gift, a puppet that he has made in her likeness.

Unfortunately for the Toulons, in their audience one night is amateur puppeteer Erich Stein, a dedicated Nazi who works as a chauffeur for Major Kraus of the Gestapo. Stein is both irritated by the subject matter of Toulon's show, and intrigued by how most of the puppets, aside from the Hitler one, seem to operate without strings. Toulon explains that the puppets are motorized, a method he has invented himself... But a snooping Stein sees that's not the case, peering through a window to snap photos of the puppets still moving on their own backstage as if alive, lining up for a "dinner" of injections of some sort of green serum, which looks much like the fluid that was extracted from the necks of Toulon's fallen friends in Retro Puppet Master and then injected into the puppets as a bridge for their lifeforce, giving the person new life within the body of the puppet.

Stein reports the Toulons to Kraus, and the decision is made that not only must the Gestapo put a stop to this anti-Hitler puppet show, but they also need to obtain the life-giving serum so it can be analyzed by a scientist who is in the employment of the government, Doctor Hess. Hess has been hired to find a way to re-animate the corpses of fallen soldiers, which would then be used as shields for living soldiers in the battlefield. So far Hess's experiments have been failures - he's only been able to bring the dead back to life for under five minutes, during which time the zombies thrash around in a berserk rage. Toulon's serum could be the key to success for the Death Corps project.

The Toulons' theatre is raided by the Gestapo. Elsa is tragically and brutally murdered while trying to keep her husband's secrets, and the building is later burned to the ground. Andre Toulon is taken into custody and driven off to the Gestapo HQ... but his guards make the mistake of loading Tunneler and Pinhead into the vehicle with him. While they're en route, the puppets spring to life and murder the Nazi captors, setting their master free.

Toulon and his puppets go into hiding and begin plotting a mercilessly violent revenge. Toulon breaks into the city morgue, extracts the lifeforce from Elsa's body and transfers it into the puppet he made for her, equipping her with a bellyful of leeches to regurgitate on her victims. Leech Woman begins.

Under Toulon's guidance, Leech Woman, Pinhead, Six Shooter, Jester, and Tunneler seek vengeance, "killing murderers in the middle of a war", racking up a bodycount that includes Nazi soldiers and Gestapo officers, working their way up the chain of evil from the lowly Stein to Major Kraus and General Mueller, the man at the head of the Death Corps project.

Along the way, we discover the previous identities of other puppets - In life, Jester had been bookkeeper and practical jokester Hans Seiderman, who was shot by the Nazis. Pinhead was a truck driver named Herman Strauss, who was caught secretly hauling food to the Jewish ghettos, for which he was executed.

Toulon's Revenge is not just the origin story of Leech Woman, but also of fan favorite puppet Blade, who isn't brought to life until the final moments of the film. The look of Toulon's newest creation is based on Major Kraus and becomes inhabited by the essence of Doctor Hess, who isn't the villain his involvement in Death Corps would lead you to expect, and is in fact killed while trying to help Toulon.

Fittingly, Blade enters the picture just in time to participate in the murder of Kraus. The man who killed Toulon's wife is dispatched in part by a puppet created in his own deathly image...

In story, direction, and production value, Puppet Master III: Toulon's Revenge may be the greatest Full Moon movie ever made. Everything came together perfectly on this film, which was made when the company was at the height of its greatness and still had a deal with Paramount, so the budgets were still low but higher than they have been since. At this point, the Full Moon brand was so popular with the video renting public that the main video store in my town even gave the Puppet Master III poster front window placement when the VHS hit shelves.

The screenplay was written by C. Courtney Joyner (Class of 1999, Trancers III, Trancers 6) and, although this film presents a continuity issue with dates that had been established before, which I'll talk more about in my next Puppet Master write-up, much like Joyner's Trancers III introduced a continuity mix-up into that series, it's an excellent revenge movie that has a genius concept and the perfect elements to be highly enjoyable. Who doesn't want to see puppets wreak bloody vengeance on Nazis?

Very prolific low budget director David DeCoteau helmed this installment in the Puppet Master franchise and even though he has more than 100 credits to his name, including future Puppet Master sequels that he usually shot under a pseudonym, I personally would name Puppet Master III as the best movie in his filmography.

Toulon's Revenge has a great cast, including Guy Rolfe in the role of Andre Toulon, a character he would reprise a couple times, but unfortunately only for cameos and wrap around segments. Legendary character actor Richard Lynch (Trancers II) was perfect casting for Major Kraus, and it was quite fortuitous that he happened to look so similar to the puppet Blade, which was not actually made in his image. Ian Abercrombie, who has an impressive abundance of credits himself, plays Doctor Hess, Sarah Douglas of Superman II is Toulon's beloved Elsa, and Walter Gotell (From Russia with Love, The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, A View to a Kill, The Living Daylights) plays General Mueller, who has a thing for prostitutes, allowing Gotell to be surrounded by scantily clad women in scenes and even have a romp with scream queen Michelle Bauer.

Originally intended to be shot in either Bucharest, Romania or Budapest, Hungary, Toulon's Revenge ended up being shot in California, with the "Berlin" exteriors captured on the Universal backlot. Being shot at home may have worked out to the film's benefit, because something often feels off about low budget movies that are shot in those European areas, like the language/dubbing issues on Retro Puppet Master.

Best of all, the puppet effects in this movie look fantastic. Not only did the puppeteers on set do great jobs, but at this point in the series the puppet sequences were also being enhanced by moments of stop-motion animation by Oscar-nominated effects artist David Allen. Allen's work added a great deal to these films and is amazing to behold.

Puppet Master III is by far the most popular entry in the series, and when you watch it, it's clear to see why. It's an awesome movie.

1 comment:

  1. It is indeed - and I think I agree with you that this is Full Moon's finest hour. I thought it was interesting that after setting up the story of the puppets going to the hospital to wreak havoc at the end of Part 2 - they just ignored that and went with this prequel. I also agree that shooting on the Universal backlot made for a better movie - as DeCoteau himself pointed out - he got to make a horror movie right in the very spot where some of the 1940's Universal Studios Monsters movies were made. I'm pleased to see someone else give this underrated series some blog post cred! Cheers!