Saturday, 5 April 2014

Puppet Master 2

Director: Dave Allen
Writer: David Pabian
Producer: David DeCoteau, John Schouweiler
Cast: Elizabeth Mclellan, Collin Bernsen, Steve Welles
Country: USA
Year of release: 1991
Reviewed from: UK VHS

Puppet Master II is notable for two reasons. Apart from a segment of the 1985 anthology The Dungeonmaster, this was the only film actually directed by special effects legend David Allen (who died in 1999). Also, this was one of the first attempts by Charles Band to extend one of his films into a franchise (Trancers II was also produced around this time but released six months later).

Despite the absence of any returning (human) cast members, this is a direct sequel to Puppet Master. Alex Whitaker, the only survivor of the original team of paranormal investigators, is now locked up in an insane asylum but his apparently lunatic ramblings have prompted the US government’s Department of Paranormal Investigations (or somesuch) to visit the deserted Bodega Bay Hotel, armed with surveillance equipment and a batty old newspaper psychic, Camille Kenney (Nita Talbot, who seems to have been in at least one episode of every drama series or sitcom produced for American TV since 1949).

The team consist of Carolyn Bramwell (Elizabeth Mclellan: Crash and Burn), her brother Patrick (Gregory Webb: Lifeform), vivacious Wanda (shapely Charlie Spradling: Mirror Mirror, Meridian, Bad Channels, Wild at Heart - who has a brief topless scene) and bearded Lance (Jeff Weston, who flashes his arse: Demonic Toys, Oblivion 2 and a 1989 version of Journey to the Centre of the Earth which was eight minutes of one film with an entire other, unrelated film tacked on the end!), the last two of whom have the hots for each other. They don’t know what sort of phenomena they might encounter but we do because we have already seen the little stars of Puppet Master digging up and reanimating the corpse of their creator, Andre Toulon (a scene which was later remade as the title sequence to the Filmonsters shorts such as Frankenstein Reborn!).

Toulon himself turns up unexpectedly at the hotel, swathed in bandages so that he looks like the Invisible Man (although Darkman would be a better comparison and is a more likely inspiration as, like Sam Raimi’s hero who made his debut the previous year, Toulon is not invisible under the bandages, just hideously scarred). Although we know that this is Toulon, the character calls himself Enrique Chanée, prompting Lance to call him ‘Chaney’.

By this time, however, the original quintet is down to three, Camille having disappeared and Patrick being dead. Camille had said she was planning to leave anyway because of the hotel’s bad vibes so the team assume she has simply gone off into town, although she has left all her belongings behind. We, of course, know that a couple of the deadly puppets killed her and dragged her away. Patrick, on the other hand, is very definitely dead by extraordinary means: Lance discovers him, screaming and bloody, as Tunneller drills into his forehead. The puppet is grabbed and smashed but too late to save Patrick.

However, this does allow Carolyn and the others to examine the doll, dissecting and even X-raying it. They find that it is mechanically detailed but has no power source or obvious means of control.

Apart from Chanée, the other visitor to the hotel is Michael Kenney (Collin ‘Brother of Corbin’ Bernsen: Frozen Assets, Future Shock), who comes searching for his mother and finds romance in the arms of the grieving Carolyn. Neither of them trust Chanée, who claims that he is the rightful owner of the hotel, and frankly they’re spot-on in their character judgement.

What Toulon’s creations are trying to do is collect human brains to extract the serum which gives life to inanimate matter. Although they have lost Tunneller - and Leech Woman is later destroyed when she attacks a local redneck couple - the puppets have a new recruit in Torch, a sort of German army android with a flame-thrower for a right hand (there are a couple of really rather good flame stunts). Sage Allen (Servants of Twilight, Armageddon) plays the redneck wife while George ‘Buck’ Flower, a regular face in John Carpenter films, is the husband. His extraordinarily cool CV also includes two Ilsa movies, The Witch Who Came from the Sea, Drive-In Massacre, The Capture of Bigfoot, Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-rama, Maniac Cop, Back to the Future Part 2, Pumpkinhead, Waxwork II, Munchie, Wishmaster, Curse of the Komodo, something called Satan’s Lust and many, many more great movies.

A simplistic story about killer puppets would be enough for many stravisnuts but here we have a flashback sequence to Cairo in 1912 when a young Toulon (played by Steve Welles, who is also under the bandages - he had small roles in The Addams Family and Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers) purchases the secret of artificial life from a mysterious merchant who shows him a little green gremlin. With Toulon is his wife Elsa, also played by Mclellan, so naturally he sees Carolyn as a reincarnation of his long lost love (shades of The Mummy, and not just because of the Egyptian setting) and instructs the puppets to spare her.

What he’s actually planning to do is transfer his soul/lifeforce/whatever into a lifesize puppet of a young man (Michael Todd: Robot Ninja, Lurking Fear), and Carolyn/Elsa’s into a similar female puppet - so that they can live together. But when the puppets realise that this is what he wants the serum for, rather than to prolong their own existence, they turn on their creator in the traditional manner. An effective epilogue sees the little fellows heading off to pastures new as a children’s entertainment, headed by the female puppet (Julianne Mazziotti).

Puppet Master II is easily as good as the original, a fine example of a sequel that really works, taking the ideas into new areas and new directions without compromising the first film. Dave Allen’s direction is smart and assured so it’s a shame that he never followed this up. Cinematographer Thomas F Denove also lit The Last Horror Film, Steve Barkett’s Aftermath, Demon Keeper and episodes of Star Trek: TNG, Deep Space Nine and Ally McBeal. He won a Technical Achievement Oscar in 1990 for inventing a digital/analog exposure meter and now teaches at UCLA.

Production designer Kathleen Coates’ other credits include Trancers II, Crash and Burn and Night Hunter while costume designer Miye Matsumoto worked on Hard Hunted, Zipperface and at least two of the four 3 Ninjas movie. David Barton, later director of Dead and Rotting, handled the special effects make-up which is excellent, including a bandageless Toulon and the creepy, wooden-faced, lifesize dolls at the end (Barton also performed similar duties on Puppet Master III). Pete von Sholly (writer of Prehysteria) provided storyboards for this film. Two editors are credited: Bert Glatstein (Castle Freak, Subspecies II and III) and Peter Teschner (Scary Movie 2, Borat).

Co-producer and second unit director King Wilder was editor on Intruder, Deadly Weapon and the gloriously silly Piranha Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death and also worked in various capacities on the American Ultraman series. Charlie Band’s brother Richard provides the score, as he would do for all the Puppet Master films up to number five, and Band’s son Alex (later lead singer with The Calling) and daughter Taryn appear briefly in the audience for Toulon’s puppet version of Faust in the Cairo flashback.

The special effects that bring the puppets to life are credited to David Allen Productions but with Allen himself behind the camera, actually animating the wee things fell to various members of his team. John Teska (Tremors, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey) was ‘puppet supervisor’; nowadays he handles digital effects on things like Star Trek: Nemesis and Hellboy. Other names among the puppet crew include Mark Rappaport (one of the few people to have worked on both this film and its predecessor), Yancy Calzader (stop-motion credits include Demonic Toys and Robot Wars, now does digital effects for pictures like Boa vs Python and Dragon Fighter), Chris Endicott (now animating characters on films such as The Polar Express and Monster House) and Randall William Cook - who took home three consecutive special effects Oscars for the Lord of the Rings films.

As in the first film, these special effects are a mixture of rod puppetry and stop-motion, sparingly and hence effectively used. There’s real character in the puppets - just things like a slight movement of Blade’s jaw, cracking an evil smile - which marks out a David Allen effect, even if Allen himself was behind the camera. The matting of the stop-motion is faultless and there are a few brief shots where you really can’t tell what technique was used, which is always a mark of quality.

But a film is more than just effects, it also needs a great script. Puppet Master II is one of only three Band films - in fact only three actual produced films - written by Dave Pabian. But as the other two are Subspecies and Dollman, that’s an impressive hit rate! Not that those are Pabian’s only writing credits; in fact he has worked in various uncredited capacities as story editor, script agent etc for big and small Hollywood studios for many years. He’s a perfect example of how one should never take a listing on the Inaccurate Movie Database at face value.

The characters in Puppet Master II are sympathetic, believable and clearly defined, the only less-than-realistic lacuna being the way that Carolyn continues her work after the death of her brother. The story makes a sort of sense, fits in with what we know of both the puppets and Toulon from the first film, and adds in new stuff like the Egyptian back story. This is a terrific movie, easily one of Charlie Band’s best (he gets executive producer credit as usual, as well as ‘story by’), right up there with Castle Freak and Trancers.

Finally, a note of sadness. Elizabeth Mclellan seems to have finished her brief acting career (which included a soap stint on Santa Barbara and an episode of the Friday the 13th TV series) after this film. What she did for the next eleven years isn’t recorded but she apparently died in 2002, aged only 38.

MJS rating: A

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