Written by Jonathan Wojcik
Bogleech.com Reviews The Original "Puppet Master" Puppets
So I summarized this series very briefly in my look at "mainstream horror villains," but I said I could and I should expand on it a little, so here we are! I'll admit I don't have the time to properly re-watch these, so my own memory is spotty, but they sure did marathon them an awful lot on Sci-Fi Channel during my childhood, and I can remember leaving them on all day long at the time.
To elaborate a bit more on the storyline, the titular "Puppet Master" is Andre Toulon, a French puppeteer living in 1940's Germany who literally brings his shows to life with the use of an ancient, Egyptian spell that can bind a dead person's soul to an inanimate object. When Toulon uses his puppet shows to criticize Adolf Hitler and refuses to back down, he quickly makes an enemy of the nazis and spends much of the rest of his life on the run, protected only by some of his surprisingly deadly puppet friends.
So, let's talk even more about Blade than we already did. He's the star puppet of the franchise, and for that he works very well. The black suit, silver hair, weapon hands and gleaming white face are such a killer combination I feel like he even could have carried a film solo, and the fact that his face is only nearly a skull gives him a particularly haunting and iconic look. Interestingly, he has a pair of bullet-like spikes that can protrude from his eye sockets, but these have no demonstrated function. They do tend to pop out when he's getting violent, though, so maybe Toulon put them there as a satirical way for the murderous character to express bloodlust.
Blade's soul originally belonged to a German surgeon, Doctor Hess, who turned on the nazis only for them to hunt him down and stab him to death. Despite this, the Blade puppet was not custom designed for Hess, but originally modeled after a particularly murderous nazi to serve as a villain in Toulon's puppet shows. He's far too cool looking to want to root against, so we can be glad a villainous nazi puppet was repurposed as a good guy.
I actually forgot that this one wasn't introduced until the third film, because he really feels like another of the most iconic. Six-Shooter is pretty freaky with his sneering, cartoon cowboy look, and the pun of giving him six arms. He can climb walls just like a spider in addition to his functional tiny guns, which are somehow strong enough to kill people and never seem to run out of ammunition. He's also one of the only puppets capable of vocalizing, but only emits a bizarre and sinister laugh.
We know little of his soul's human past except that he was an excellent marksman whose "whole life revolved around guns and fighting," but the puppet itself was designed to symbolize America in an anti-Hitler performance. It was this very show that earned Toulon the ire of the nazis in the first place, and Toulon refused to comply with their demands to change the story in Hitler's favor.
Kind of Blade's go-to sidekick and the muscle of the group, Pinhead is goofy looking but quite frightening as well, especially since his hands are human-sized and sometimes portrayed by a real pair of hands in the films. His specialty is of course incredibly disproportionate strength, those hands capable of lifting, pulling, pushing and breaking much more than even any grown human. His "weakness" is that his small head can be easily pulled off, but he's perfectly fine as long as it gets popped back into place.
A sweetheart deep down, Pinhead's soul belonged to a truck driver named Herman Strauss, one of Toulon's best friends. Strauss used his truck route to smuggle food to poor Jewish families, and was executed by gas chamber with the nazis found him out. Even as a puppet, he allows the other puppets to "feed" on magical elixir first, despite the fact that he's the largest and requires slightly more.
I always found this the creepiest-looking puppet, especially when he opens those huge, inky black eyeballs, and the obvious way in which he can kill people! That little puppet body can drive his drill around with impressive force, but you don't even need much strength to ruin someone's day with a drill of basically any size. Tunneler was a German soldier who disagreed openly with Hitler, and was sent to work in a salt mine until he died of starvation. We know little else about his personality, but in puppet form he is an almost mindless killing machine under Blade's guidance.
Another that everyone seems to remember, Jester is the only puppet without any built-in weapons, but can use whatever he finds available when he has to. More often, he serves as a spy for the other puppets and can distract targets with his practical jokes and weird antics. His spinning face also makes him the most expressive puppet, even though he still can't talk.
Jester was originally a bookkeeper named Hans Seiderman, who happened to love corny jokes, pranks and magic tricks, even sometimes doing stand-up comedy. Unfortunately, he joked about the wrong things in the eyes of the you-know-whats, and was unceremoniously shot dead.
Introduced in the second film, Torch seems pretty straightforward; a scary caricature of a German soldier with a long spike on a helmet that blends into an ominous, mechanical black skull, and of course he comes with a flamethrower arm! This might actually be one of the saddest puppets according to expanded lore, however; Toulon's own young son, Erich, who ran away and defected as a Hitler Youth. When he attempted to kill his father with a flamethrower, he was instead killed by Blade, and the mourning Toulon preserved some of his child's brain matter until he could transfer his soul into a puppet. Yes, that all actually seems like a pretty terrible idea, and in fact Erich or "Torch" turns on his father yet again at one point. He does, however, consistently return to working with the other puppets, so he's kind of just their "loose cannon," respecting Blade but prone to unexpected acts of destruction and sometimes betrayal.
Obviously my favorite, duh! Sadly the only female puppet, but at least she makes up for it in freakiness, resembling a ghostly-pale, thin woman in a nightgown with soulless black eyes and a mouth that can stretch wider to regurgitate live leeches as needed. It's not certain exactly how these leeches are brought into being, and they may even simply be some sort of leech-like magical entity themselves, since just a few of them are capable of killing a grown adult. She can also produce a single, abnormally massive leech which, in its only known appearance, is spat straight down a victim's throat!
There isn't any known reason why Toulon gave this puppet leech powers, except the fact that he rushed to bring her to life and leeches happened to be available at the pharmacy he holed up in. The puppet is actually modeled after his own wife, a gift he had presented to her shortly before they began touring as puppeteers together, and she is of course animated by her soul as well. You already know who killed her and why.
I will say that, as cool as she is, one of Leech Woman's kills always struck me as just plain hilarious, since she starts caressing a blindfolded, tied-up man who somehow has no idea she's not the normal human woman he was expecting, until the leeches start coming. Oh baby, I love how you touch me with your tiny, hard porcelain hands?
Before we get to the final puppet in our review, I'll take a moment to discuss the villain of the fourth and fifth films: no loner nazis, but this goofy-ass demon guy. I personally thought this was cheesy even as a kid, even if he does delightfully look like some sort of Skeletor. He's also seen here with some of his minions down in hell, which he sends up to Earth in puppet vessels of their own!
These vessels are probably the second most interesting thing about IV and V; referred to as "totems," they have a pretty cool and memorable look to them with their spiny, ghoulish little bodies and stylishly angular, wooden mask faces! I thought they were pretty rad when I was little, at least.
The first coolest thing about IV and V, at least in my book, is the last of the main puppet team introduced by the original series, and I see a lot of people who feel it was just too silly as well as "overpowered." I thought it was just plain cool as hell as a kid, though. Its black, unfinished-looking default head can morph to look like anybody and speak with their voice, but its real talent is its ability to swap that head out completely.
We only ever get to see a couple of of Decapitron's alternate heads, but the most famous is a fascinatingly strange, retro-sci-fi robot head capable of generating enormous amounts of electricity. I always liked its excessive tubes, turrets and wires!
Only one other head is seen in the films, another classical-looking robot, and this one seems to exist just for surveillance with its powerful, long-distance x-ray vision. A Pharaoh-like head was also shown in a comic book storyline, which had the ability to erase souls from existence, but I feel like the original intention was for all of Decapitron's heads to be robotic. It's too bad we didn't get to see more of them, since I'm sure there were probably supposed to be. It's also too bad that this made its debut in the fourth and fifth films, which were seen by many as the point at which the series tanked in quality.
That's especially a shame, since this is a pretty important puppet: it's Toulon himself! Up until this point, the other puppets seemed to have lost much of their original humanity and even begun to kil indiscriminately, but when they carry out a plan left by Toulon to ressurect him as another puppet, he seems to reign them all back to the side of more or less good-esque.
It's probably been more than 25 years since I actually saw these movies, but going back over their "monsters" made me pretty nostalgic for them. I haven't seen the remaining few movies made by their original creator, and I hear pretty mixed things about them, though they finally pit our "good" (or at least antiheroic) puppets against nazis again, who have by then finally unraveled the secret of making their own haunted puppets.
Sadly, and I talked about this a bit in my previous article, 2018 saw a "reboot" of the franchise with no direct involvement by the original director that I can find, and this new film features only puppets inhabited by Nazi souls, including a (much uglier) new take on Blade, who do precisely the kinds of things you expect nazis to do - slaughter innocent people with particular sadism towards minorities.
The protagonists in this new film are the humans, to be fair, while these new nazi puppets are unambiguously villainous, but the puppets are still what everybody comes to see, right? And the mayhem the cause is the fun of these movies, obviously...so no matter how it's framed, I just, really don't like that being on the nazi side. Especially not when the original puppets were victims of nazi tyranny as kind of their main thrust, and especially not in our current social environment when we really could have used the real Blade and his real friends carving up some "master race" trash. If they're going to reboot the franchise into more excessive gorefests than ever, why even waste a single drop of splatter on anything other than nazi guts?
Surprisingly, or perhaps all too unsurprisingly, I seem to be in an extreme minority there, as most reviews of the new movie from horror fans are pure, glowing praise for its over-the-top gore and shock humor.
At the end of the day, it really feels like the horror fandom....really isn't made up of my kinda people.
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