Retro Puppet Master
In 1892, an Egyptian sorcerer known as Afzel steals the secret of transferring life into inanimate objects from the god Sutekh. Sutekh raises a trio of mummy minions to retrieve the formula and kill the sorcerer, and thus preserve the secret. Some years later the mummies track Afzel down to Paris and nearly succeed in their task. But the sorcerer’s life is saved by a young woman named Elsa, and he ends up being taken in and healed by a young puppeteer named Andre Toulon. But Sutekh’s minions are soon back to take revenge for their near miss, and they kill all of Toulon’s puppeteer friends in the process. But even though Afzel may be no more, the mummies still ended up being too late, not knowing that the sorcerer had already passed on the secret of life to Andre before his death. Toulon uses his new knowledge to transfer the life-force of his friends into his dolls, and together they go off to save Elsa and get revenge.
And here we are with the 7th installment of the ongoing Puppet Master series by Full Moon Entertainment. Unlike Curse of the Puppet Master, Retro Puppet Master returns once again to the established series narrative involving Andre Toulon, this time going back even further into the Puppet Master’s past to show us just how Andre got his start making puppets, how he met his future wife Elsa, and how he learned the secret of how to transfer life energy into tiny wooden dolls. We’ve technically already supposedly seen how Toulon learned this little life-force swapping trick during a flashback in one of the earlier films, and of course this method is completely different and unrelated to what’s been shown before, but hey, this is Puppet Master, so when has a pesky little thing like continuity ever been a serious factor in delivering a new story? But even though this film may return to the series’ pre-established narrative in the form of an origin story, Retro Puppet Master does not have a good reputation amongst series fans. Probably because it ended up being so incredibly different.
Whereas all the previous Puppet Master movies could be described as horror films, Retro Puppet Master goes out of its way to deliver a more fantasy driven, almost family friendly film experience. Gone are the buckets of blood, any attempt at creating a tense atmosphere, scares or ruthless killer puppets. Instead the movie drops a gaggle of eccentric puppeteers on you that the film inexplicably seems to expect you to care for despite their incredibly limited screen time, and a slapdash trio of incompetent mummies who like to repeat nearly everything they say in triplicate. I think that’s supposed to count for humor in this film, but I’m not sure ‘cause they’re not at all funny. Anyway, there is still quite a bit of violence in this film, but because the enemies are mummies and because a lot of the attacks involve ‘magic’ (read: colorful, pulsating light effects done by cheap CGI) the film remains relatively bloodless, making it the first film in the series to only garner a PG-13 rating. So instead of blood and atmosphere the movie gives you yet more confusing backstory, a perpetually befuddled protagonist, and some incompetent villains. Was it worth the trade off? I honestly don’t know. Because other than the change of tone, the film actually fares surprisingly well in every other department. Or at least certainly much better than I expected.
For one, the acting is probably some of the best that the series has had in years. Would I necessarily call all of it good? No. But it’s the kind of acting that’s good enough for a light fantasy adventure flick, so even though some of it comes off as a little cheesy, it doesn’t feel too out of place. Greg Sesstero (of The Room fame) adds some much needed charm and humanity to the Puppet Master purveyor, even though his accent can be a tad distracting at times. And like Sesstero, his love interest, Brigitta Dau, who plays Elsa, is also clearly a little green around the gills. But she too makes up for her deficiencies with her lovely personality. Even veteran actor Jack Donner, as Afzel, puts in a pretty good performance as the mysterious Egyptian stranger, at least as far as Direct-to-Video B-Movie standards go. So at least all the lead roles are fairly solid, all things considered.
Where the film falters is all the average performances in all the secondary characters, and the absolutely ridiculous performances by the three mummies. Though I really hesitate to blame the mummies performances on their acting, because I’m 99.9% sure that everything they did was 100% the fault of the script and they were just doing what they were told. But it’s still pretty bad, especially when one mummy says something and the other two are forced to repeat him. This happens a lot, and it is not fun. Though, even taking the crappy mummies into account, the bulk of the acting on display is still loads better than most of the other Puppet Master films. Which, admittedly, isn’t that hard to do with this series, but regardless that still means the move walks away with a small net gain.
Then there are the puppets which are…okay, I suppose. Most of these guys are like the Beta versions of several of the already established puppets (hence the ‘Retro’ in the title, I guess), which basically means that they seem very basic, have much less detail, and most of their heads just consist of wooden skulls without eyes. So yeah, they’re pretty bland. But on the other hand they actually look like something that was carved by a young puppeteer, and because all the puppets are brand-spankin’ new they couldn’t use any footage from previous films. Though, at the same time, they also fall prey to the series new, even lower-budget constraints, which means that the puppets aren’t nearly as animated as they were in earlier films, and you can even see a string or two, or even a crewman’s hand, moving the puppet around for a split second if you pay attention. But that’s still more than what the last film delivered, so I’ll still consider it a plus.
And the visual quality of the movie even looks better than the last film. I mean, it still looks about as good as your average Made for TV movie, and the special effects are hokey as hell, but beyond a couple of questionable framing choices the movie actually looks pretty good for a period piece. In Curse of the Puppet Master there were a couple of scenes where it looked like the visual quality dropped drastically for some reason. Perhaps it was due to poor film quality or over editing, I don’t know. But the picture would suddenly get SUPER grainy before smoothing out again, and that seems to have been cleared up in this film. I’m still not saying it looks great, but it does at least look better.
Retro Puppet Master gets a lot of hate online, but I think it may shockingly be one of the better films in the series. Yeah, it feels hokey as hell, tonally it goes in a completely different direction from the rest of the series, has some absolutely laughably bad and lamentably choreography, and it lacks all the blood and gore that fans are probably used to. Oh, and the script also seems to be wildly inconsistent, both within the events of the film and within the series itself. But consistency has always been a problem with these movies, so that shouldn’t come as some huge shocker. But just about everything else about the film, from the story, to the acting, and even the direction and visuals, turned out better than whatever convoluted hoc that first film ended up turning into, and that confusing mess somehow spawned 14 sequels, so some of y’all need to quit yer bitchin’. There are way worse films in this series to complain about. Unless you’re complaining about the mummies. Those guys suck and are completely irredeemable, so bitch away. But when compared to some of the other entries in the series, it’s not that bad. Cheesy and dumb? Oh gods yes, but also not nearly as unwatchable as some would claim. But just know that if you’re really gung-ho about the earlier entries in the series you’re probably not going to like it.
Retro Puppet Master is available on a variety of streaming services.
Retro Puppet Master is also available on DVD and Bluray.