Two Outta Three Ain’t Bad: Curse of the Puppet Master (1998)

Matty reassesses David DeCoteau’s much-maligned sequel and posits a couple of reasons to be cheerful. 

Having already produced the sterling second entry and directed what’s arguably the finest instalment, Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge (1991), it’s wholly fitting that David DeCoteau’s third tangle with Full Moon’s Puppet Master saga, 1998’s sixth chapter, CURSE OF THE PUPPET MASTER, is a film that can be considered three ways. 

The first and most frequently espoused belief is that the film is a crushing disappointment. As author and Schlock Pit pal William Wilson explained in It Came From the Video Aisle!: Inside Charles Band’s Full Moon Entertainment Studio (you know me and my Schlock Pit compadre, Dave Wain, co-wrote that tome, right?): 

“Despite receiving a lukewarm reception from fans for [Puppet Master 4 (1993) and 5 (1994)], producer Charles Band still had big plans for his signature series. In the Videozone for Puppet Master 5, he announced a new trilogy called ‘Puppet Wars’, which would take viewers back to WWII [like DeCoteau’s previous Puppet Master III], with preliminary art promising a return of the Homunculus monsters from part two’s Egyptian flashback.” 

Alas, Band’s promise of epic marionette mayhem sank like the Titanic once Full Moon split with their studio sugar daddy, Paramount, and jumped into bed with The Kushner-Locke Company. The whats and whys of Full Moon and Kushner-Locke’s union are a long story, and, while not totally true, there is a certain degree of accuracy to the abridged version: that, basically, Full Moon’s Kushner-Locke era wasn’t as good as their ‘89 to ‘94 ‘golden age’ at  Paramount (a view I don’t ascribe to, for the record — but that’s another editorial for another day). The bulk of criticisms rest upon the fact that Full Moon’s Kushner-Locke pairing was a less heartily financed period, with drastically reduced budgets and schedules causing a noticeable decrease in quality when the Kushner-Locke films are stacked side-by-side with their Paramount counterparts. With that in mind, it’s tempting to rule Curse of the Puppet Master as the embodiment of such a problem. 

Shot in eight days for chump change ($200,000), Curse is an extremely cheap movie that lacks the lavishness of the five preceding Puppet Master flicks. Ostensibly a mercenary project, Curse was made as both a low-budget placeholder — an inexpensive cash-grab designed to keep Full Moon’s electrics on during a tumultuous stretch by parlaying the name-value of the lucrative Puppet Master brand — and an extended toy commercial, ol’ Charlie  wanting it done quickly to generate some hype for Full Moon’s impending toy line. Fans saw through the ruse. DeCoteau himself says as much in the film’s Blu-ray commentary, stating that many thought Curse a “cheat”. And as a proper sequel, it is. 

Compared to other Full Moon staples like the Trancers and Subspecies franchises, continuity has never been Puppet Master’s strongest suit. In Curse, though, tethering and connection is completely flung out of the window: puppets once dead are back without explanation (hello, Leech Woman!), and there isn’t a single mention of the saga’s lynchpin, the eponymous don of the dolls, Andre Toulon. A question hangs over the picture that lingers to this day: just when, exactly, is Curse of the Puppet Master set? [1] Because nothing from any prior entry seems to matter, and later Puppet Masters pay little heed to it — dud compendium/next placeholder, Puppet Master: The Legacy (2003), notwithstanding. Curse exists in a world of its own. It’s a standalone on a different timeline. 

However, Curse of the Puppet Master’s main issue is the puppets themselves. Blade and the gang are as cool as ever in terms of design, but what scant puppet action there is is rendered via cumbersome wire and rod work and, primarily, through the use of repurposed footage from the rest of the series. To quote my esteemed It Came From the Video Aisle! collaborator, William Wilson, again: 

“Curse marks the first Puppet Master in which original David Allen stop-motion effects are not featured — ‘original’ the operative word, as stock footage of Allen’s work often appears in the finished film… [A character] looks right, cut to a shot of Leech Woman from part two; [a character] looks left, cut to a shot of Jester from part three with nary a care for whether the backgrounds match.” 

But here’s the thing: as disheartening and right as the above might be, the second and third reads applicable to Curse of the Puppet Master are infinitely more agreeable than any whine. And I say that as a former Curse naysayer.  

Read number two flies in the face of read number one. It took a while for me to get it but, simply, any Puppet Master is better than no Puppet Master — well, 2018’s boringly puerile reboot, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, excluded. And in hindsight, chronologically Curse was a welcome drop of rain amidst a lengthy drought. Since eclipsed by the whopping seven year gap between The Legacy and DeCoteau’s fifth and final Puppet Master gig, 2010’s Axis of Evil (which drops to six years if you count 2004’s unofficial SyFy sidequel, Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys — I don’t), and the lustrum between Puppet Master X: Axis Rising (2012) and Puppet Master: Axis Termination (2017), at the time of Curse’s U.S. video release in May 1998, it had been over three and a half years since we last clapped eyes on Blade and co. — approximately eighteen months longer than the two years between Toulon’s Revenge and Puppet Master 4. Irrespective of its flaws as a true follow-up, Curse of the Puppet Master was at least something; an acceptable reacquainting with a diminutive gaggle of B-horror icons, and a reminder that, even if the puppets weren’t best represented, there was oil in the Puppet Master engine. [2]

And that, roundaboutly, leads us to the third and my preferred interpretation of Curse: it isn’t a Puppet Master but a David DeCoteau movie that happens to be (vaguely) rooted in the Puppet Master universe.

Curse of the Puppet Master is a screamingly DeCoteauian exercise; a heavily auteurist offering in the Skeletons (1997), Leather Jacket Love Story (1997), Absolution: The Journey (1997), and Shrieker (1998) mode that further helped refine the themes, tones, visuals, and rhythms that would go on to inform the cult maestro’s pioneering and singular Rapid Heart slate. 

The signifier is, of course, the amount of hunky young men who saunter around in tight white boxers — predominantly, a throng of backwater bullies, and the target of their abuse, Robert ‘Tank’ Winsley (Josh Green). A dim-witted but skilled woodsmith, Tank isn’t necessarily the quintessential DeCoteau hero, but he does meet enough of the helmer’s requirements. He’s a sweet-natured innocent sucked into a weirdo plot; here, the tale of a crotchety mad doctor (George Peck) who’s turning humans into puppets. Earnestly performed by Green (if a tad ‘aww shucks’-y on occasion), Tank is a pleasant and moderately relatable lad who you can simultaneously care about and, depending on your predilections, lust after, particularly as he spends a lot of scenes in various states of undress (except when he’s whittling, thankfully — craft knives, planes, and poorly guarded gonads are a bad mix). Additional bursts of uniquely DeCoteau-esque aesthetics include: the emphysema-inducing use of a smoke machine to foster a succulently drifty, ghoulish, and ethereal atmosphere; the typically robust lighting and framing of frequent cinematographer, Howard Wexler, which belie Curse of the Puppet Master’s fast and impoverished making; a brilliantly surreal dream sequence, Tank dreaming that he’s got wooden, automotive innards a la the film’s striking key art; and a glorious, gooch-piercing gore gag that rivals the phallic japery of Leeches! (2003) as far as cheeky DeCoteau double entendres go.     

But, as an ardent DeCoteau obsessive, what fascinates me is the quietly personal anchor to it. Don’t let the film being credited to his ‘Victoria Sloan’ pseudonym fool you into thinking DeCoteau was ashamed or disinterested [3]: Curse of the Puppet Master is the director creatively nude, letting his influences hang out, guilt free. It’s a strange shocker crafted by a man savvy with strange shocker history and iconography; a movie fabricated by a lover of kooky genre fare for fellow lovers of kooky genre fare. The clue is in Curse’s production. DeCoteau hated Neal Marshall Stevens’ initial iteration of Curse of the Puppet Master’s script and, a fortnight before shooting, requested it be changed. Stevens (as ‘Benjamin Carr’) obliged and tailored Curse to DeCoteau’s new brief. DeCoteau wanted a film that was part Tourist Trap (1979), part Sssssss (1973), and the latter was plundered extensively, to the point where a homage becomes a virtual remake — albeit with puppets and puppet people instead of snakes and snake folk. But this pilfering meant something: as DeCoteau details in his Curse yack track, it was a rewatch of Sssssss  — which he doesn’t refer to by title, presumably for fear of a lawsuit  — as he was prepping Curse that reminded him why he wanted to make movies to begin with. The film is a valentine to a mojo-tickling inspiration. So bugger it not synching up with the franchise: for keeping both the puppets alive and DeCoteau’s fires a-burning, I’m glad we have Curse of the Puppet Master.

I’ve certainly grown to appreciate it.  

[1] My favourite theory is that Curse takes place between the ‘30s prologue of the original Puppet Master (1989) and the rest of the film — but the puppets leaving the Bodega Bay Inn and then coming back as Paul Le Mat and co. appear is a bit of a leap to accept as gospel.
[2] Whether that’s cause for celebration is up to you. For what it’s worth, I get a tremendous kick out of every subsequent Puppet MasterRetro, The Legacy, Axis of Evil, Axis Rising, Axis Termination, spin-off Blade (2020) and, even, Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys — warts n’ all.
[3] DeCoteau’s alias’ are rarely due to quality. By and large, they were employed to prevent the market becoming saturated with DeCoteau  product. And during his ‘98 to ‘00 Full Moon tenure, DeCoteau was hiding from the DGA, hence the numerous nom de plumes.

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