Movie Review: “Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge”

   I am a little nervous to write about Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge. I have written about a lot of movies in the Full Moon Feature catalog (I am somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty or twenty five logged by now). Of the Puppet Master series, I have already written about the original film, of the spin-off films Blade: The Iron Cross and Puppet Master: Doktor Death. I have even written about Puppet Master II (but I can’t seem to find that review these days and I’m certainly not going to rewrite that review right this instant). All of that is well and good, but the unfortunate fact remains that I haven’t thus far particularly liked any of them (it has been a crescendo of 1.5, 1.5, and 1.5, and I can’t remember exactly what I gave Puppet Master II, but it certainly didn’t have me head over heels for it). It’s a damn shame because I genuinely have a lot of affection for Full Moon Features (particularly with Head of the Family, The Creeps, and their Empire fare like Re-Animator) and I really wish I could share some of that affection for their flagship franchise. This is why I am so nervous to write about Puppet Master III, because I remember it as my favorite installment in the Puppet Master franchise. 

   I have seen them all, once or twice, but it is only now I found myself going back, one by one, to revisit each film. Sometimes this works out. It did with Head of the Family or The Creeps, for instance, where I remembered liking the film and then, upon going back to check, still liking them after careful inspection. Sometimes though, it doesn’t work out. Sometimes I simply find myself so down in the dirt with these movies that anything that shows the slightest bit of competence will be given a faux gold star in gratitude. 

   In spite of what many people may think, Puppet Master has never been known for making generic killer Doll movies. The Puppet Master franchise is a lot of things. For starters, mostly kind of bad. They aren’t the least bit generic, however. The Puppets were created by a man named Andre Toulon who devised a serum that could animate inanimate objects. Although Puppet Master has dabbled with the ends and outs of its concept in the prior films, and even went downright weird with their Invisible Man – esque second film, this film has a stark contrast to the earlier movies. Andre Toulon isn’t portrayed in as horrific a capacity nor do the Puppets feel so cutthroat and mean-spirited. This is around the time the back of the box summaries started to refer to them as “pint-sized heroes,” and I felt like the series started to have a deeper grasp of what it was going for. Where the series started as mean and bloody, it now finds itself with the Full Moon wonderment. 

   The film is set in 1941, which creates a continuity error for the series. It was explicitly mentioned that Toulon committed suicide in 1939 in the original film. Which would mean this film had to have taken place before 1941, but the film also mentions the Eastern Front, whose conduct of operations did not take place until summer of 1941. So, let’s go ahead and check our brains at the door with the timeline, shall we?

   Puppet Master III was directed by David DeCoteau. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, I am uncertain. Other than Toulon’s Revenge, the director’s handiwork can also be seen on Retro Puppet Master, Curse of the Puppet Master, and Puppet Master: Axis of Evil (so, he is a franchise mainstay). Unfortunately, he also directed the godawful film The Killer Eye. Writers include Charles Band (whose fingers can be found on nearly every film from Full Moon Features), C. Courtney Joyner (who wrote the screenplay for that film Prison I reviewed) and David Schmoeller (who directed the original film and Tourist Trap).

    The film sees Guy Rolfe play the role of Andre Toulon, a role he would reprise three more times in the Puppet Master series and would ultimately be his final film role before his death in 2003. The portrayal by Guy Rolfe is my favorite portrayal across the entire Puppet Master franchise and a definitive performance in the Full Moon catalog. The actor is charming, offering an enchanting Geppetto-esque depiction of the character that resonated far better than the interpretation of Toulon that came before. I quite like him.

   Back to what I said about Puppet Master not content with being a generic doll slasher film, Toulon’s Revenge sees Nazis on the chase to apprehend Andre Toulon and commandeer his method of animating the puppets.

   Now, I will be honest – Full Moon Features isn’t the type of film production company I would normally want anywhere near anything to do with Nazis or the Holocaust. They aren’t nuanced enough and the only item in their toolbox is a hammer. It isn’t that offensive a depiction. It doesn’t go too deep with any of it, and it follows a simple, straightforward logic. Nazis are bad and want to do bad things. It proposes the idea that, if a person were to harness the ability to animate non-living things, the Nazis might seek to weaponize that. It isn’t an unreasonable line of reasoning, at least. 

   Richard Lynch plays the big bad Nazi hunting Andre Toulon, a simple role that the veteran actor could have played in his sleep. 

   On a technical level, Puppet Master is better than ever. I have a lot of nostalgia for Richard Band’s scores and this one is on-point, offering that distinct, whimsical sound, and the stop-motion movement has never looked better. 

   At the same time, I have no idea what the hell Puppet Master III is exactly. The original Puppet Master, when boiled down to it, is not a stretch to call a slasher film. Puppet Master 2 is pretty far off the reservation, but still has horror in its soul. I struggle to identify what Puppet Master III is. Calling it a horror film feels like a little bit of a stretch as you watch it. The Puppets aren’t trying to be scary these days, and Nazis are certainly an intimidating enough prospect to replace them, that isn’t what this film is going for. Ultimately, Puppet Master III’s genre amounts to a word salad – an alt. history period piece action adventure fantasy film. The Puppets are developed and built upon, given sympathetic backstories, Toulon is now endearing, and I am here for it. This is the version of Puppet Master I enjoy the best, for sure.

   Now, it isn’t exactly high-art and, it can at times feel like it works better as a concept than a full-blown film, but this is a decent and interesting film. Although it doesn’t have the watch ability of The Creeps or Head of the Family, I believe the ambition and execution given how ambitious it is warrants ample praise. This is quintessential Full Moon Features, back when it was weird and, maybe, more than a little misguided, still cut corners and still fumbled, but had enough charm and, ahem, magic to make it feel worthwhile.

Rating: – 3.0 out of 5.0