Latest posts by Nat Brehmer (see all)
- Saturday Morning Cartoons: Everything I Know About Storytelling I Learned from X-Men: The Animated Series - 17th March 2018
- TV Graveyard: Spidey The Night Stalker: Remembering the Cultish Fun of 1977’s Amazing Spider-Man - 12th March 2018
- Day of the Leech Woman: Shining a Light on Puppet Master’s Most Undervalued Character - 26th February 2018
Puppet Master broke video rental records when it was released in 1989 and quickly proved that Charles Band’s then-new Full Moon Entertainment was going to be a success. People responded to the film immediately and, in particular, to its pint-sized stars: Blade, Tunneler, Jester, Pinhead and Leech Woman. The movie changed drastically from the original concept to the finished product. To some degree, at least loose incarnations of Blade, Tunneler, Jester and Pinhead—and even characters that would be used much later like Six-Shooter and Cyclops—all appeared in those early drafts. Of the five puppets to make their debut in the original, Leech Woman seemed to be the last addition, a puppet added pretty late in the game.
Her role in the film reflects this as well, as out of the five puppets she is introduced last. It is, admittedly, a standout sequence that’s outlandishly bizarre even before Leech Woman makes her entrance. Frank Forrester is tied to a bed, his assistant/lover Clarissa has just gone to check underneath the bed only to be killed by Tunneler. Frank is blindfolded and restrained and somehow mistakes the small hands of a puppet for Clarissa’s touch.
From the first time we see her, Leech Woman is completely different from the other puppets. Each puppet in the franchise—let alone the original movie—has a defining gimmick and for the most part, all of them wear that trait on their sleeve. Leech Woman is the only character in the original who doesn’t have that kind of defining aggressive trait. When we first see her, we don’t know what she’s going to do.
And there’s a lot to be said for the element of surprise, as the last thing we’re expecting her to do is unhinge her jaw and regurgitate a full-sized leech. But it’s what she does. And she makes an impact. It’s a memorable and wholly unsettling scene. But it’s an unforgettable debut for the character.
Leech Woman’s design is more elegant than the other characters because she serves a different function. Especially in the original, she looks like a fairly normal marionette—certainly the most doll-like of the puppets. Even her black eyes and makeup are understated before she actually begins to do what she is designed to do. Her purpose is not to engage head-on, as Tunneler does very literally, but to disarm. The death she provides is a slow and painful one, which doesn’t practically suit every situation, but which is perfect for interrupting the kinky sex game in which she makes her debut.
As dynamic as her appearance may be, though, Leech Woman’s screen-time in the original Puppet Master is basically limited to two scenes. After the bedroom interlude, she appears only once more, to deliver the killing blow to the film’s true villain, Neil Gallagher, who has gained control over the puppets for his own manipulative ends to kill his former friends and colleagues. After betraying the puppets and loosening his hold on them, they gang up on him in the elevator and start literally tearing him to shreds.
At first it’s not quite clear what the puppets are doing, other than exacting a bloody vengeance. Blade’s cutting off his fingers, Tunneler’s drilling into his leg. But as the scene winds down, there turns out to be a practical purpose to the puppets’ unified mayhem: they’re getting him down on the floor, immobilizing him so that Leech Woman can come in to give the finishing touch, as Blade holds open Gallagher’s mouth so she can vomit a leech directly into it. It’s a truly disgusting kiss of death. By all accounts, viewers seemed to be in agreement that Leech Woman’s scenes were the most disgusting of the entire film.
Shortly after the release of Puppet Master and just before Full Moon got the ball rolling on the sequel, they cut a deal with a small comics company called Eternity Press to release a prequel comic book series that would answer questions from the original by also tying into the upcoming Puppet Master II. Knowing the sequel would explore more of Toulon’s relationship with his beloved Elsa, writer David DeVries concocted a story set both just before and just after Toulon’s suicide in the original film. The story would wind up serving as a major inspiration to the fan-favorite entry, Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge.
In addition to all the things this small comic tie-in would do, one reveal would wind up having a massive impact on the franchise: the first issue reveals that after Elsa Toulon is murdered by the Nazis, her soul is placed into one of Toulon’s puppets, which would of course become Leech Woman.
Not only would this become a major plot point in the third movie, but through this comic, Leech Woman is the very first puppet we see to inform us of the fact that these are human souls in wooden bodies, that they were once actually human. This is a decision that would completely change the course of the series and it starts here, with this character and the fantastic decision to put all of the emotional weight on the most disgusting character.
In the original comic miniseries, the other souls inhabiting the other puppets were basically inconsequential, just used as fuel and nothing more. But Puppet Master III took the seed of that concept and decided to apply it across the board. If Leech Woman had been Toulon’s wife, all of the other puppets could be his fallen friends and allies. After all, living in Germany at the height of World War II, it wasn’t hard for one man to find himself losing everyone he loved.
Unfortunately, after all of the extremely exciting build-up for her character in Eternity’s Puppet Master comics, Puppet Master II would do her dirty.
Sneaking into a cabin to take out the hillbilly couple who live down the road from the hotel, Leech Woman winds up being the first of the puppets to actually die in one of these movies. She’s simply picked up and thrown into the furnace, while the other puppets are forced to watch. It’s a blunt and unapologetic send-off to her character and, apparently, it was the result of a note from on high.
Given that Leech Woman was so widely considered the most grotesque part of the original Puppet Master, there appeared to be a desire to find a way to get rid of her in the sequel. Screenwriter David Pabian claims this request was given to him by Charles Band, while Band says that it was Paramount’s decision. That they didn’t care much about what they did over at Full Moon, and that their only note after the first movie’s rental success was to find a way to get rid of Leech Woman by any means necessary. It’s hard to know who to believe on this issue, though it’s entirely possible that Band could have given Pabian the note to kill her off because he had been told to do so by Paramount.
The fact that Leech Woman would reappear for every single film after the end of the Paramount era definitely seems to suggest that the studio did have some say in the decision. Either way, she’s killed early on in a movie that should be about her. But the fact that she is so unceremoniously killed actually strengthens Toulon’s madness in this sequel. The undead Andre Toulon we see in Puppet Master II is far removed from the kindly old man of the original’s prologue. Taking a more classic, Gothic approach, the sequel takes its cues from Universal’s The Mummy and Dan Curtis’s Dracula. Andre’s literally decaying brain believes a young woman at the hotel to be the reincarnation of his long-lost wife, Elsa.
The movie makes it clear that she isn’t, but the subsequent knowledge that the soul of his wife is alive in Leech Woman and that he again loses her over the course of the film only helps to punctuate his insanity.
Both Puppet Master III’s director, David DeCoteau, and writer, C. Courtney Joyner, were fans of the Leech Woman character and clearly believed she’d been done a disservice by the studio in the previous film. But by carving out the next entry as a prequel, they found the perfect, inarguable loophole in which to bring her back. This was an origin story of sorts, so of course Leech Woman would need to be a part of it. And so, even if the studio had demanded she be removed, she would be back in the very next sequel, released the very same year.
More than that, she would be back front-and-center in a film about her.
Puppet Master III does not follow the stale prequel tradition of going back to the very beginning in attempt to explain everything (the franchise would get to that later) and instead drops the viewer into a time only a few years before Toulon’s suicide. Many of the puppets are already alive and well. Toulon and his wife are happily running a very successful puppet show, but the subject matter, which pokes fun of Hitler and the Reich, causes them to gain the attention of the Nazis. Realizing what the Nazis could do if they got their hands on her husband’s formula, Elsa takes a bullet in attempt to stop them. Only the night before her death, Andre presented Elsa with a present in the form of a puppet carved in her image. And after her tragic death, this wooden body becomes her new flesh.
Puppet Master III is not Toulon’s origin story. It’s Leech Woman’s. It’s on one level literally the story of how his wife became the puppet we’re familiar with, but it’s also the story about how this tragedy pushed Toulon to fight back, to become such a thorn in the Nazis side that they would follow him to America. As both a human and puppet, Leech Woman gets much more to do in the third film than the first two. Sarah Douglas brings genuine heart and wit to Elsa Toulon. Leech Woman gets to do her thing once more, dropping leeches from literal new heights on unsuspecting victims.
It’s worth examining, too, the decision made on Toulon’s part after instilling his wife’s soul into the puppet. As pointed out, the Elsa puppet does not look like Leech Woman at first. It’s simply a puppet crafted in his wife’s image. He could very well have kept that image of her intact, but as he even points out in dialogue, he wants her to be able to avenge herself. When he feeds the puppet a leech, it undergoes a transformation very similar to a vampire in an early Hammer film. Yes, Leech Woman is certainly eerie looking, but the long hair and choice of dress are certainly depicted as more sultry than the conservatively dressed, curly haired, almost Victorian Elsa puppet.
Leech Woman’s resurrection stands out for another reason, as well. This is not a grieving Toulon, as he is literally welcoming his beloved back to life—such as it is. This is an enraged Toulon. Each of his puppets were built with the means to take revenge on their oppressors, but it’s not any kind of stretch to say that Elsa’s death would make him the most distraught. For him, her death was easily the most devastating. Why Leech Woman? Because a blade, a gun, a drill, these can all be incredibly quick. Vomiting leeches, on the other hand, as bizarre a choice as it may be, makes for an unquestionably slow death.
And that’s the point. With the other puppets, Toulon wanted his friends to make their victims pay. With Leech Woman, he wanted Elsa to make her victims suffer.
Because Puppet Master 4 & 5 return to the present day, Leech Woman does not make an appearance, but she does return for Curse of the Puppet Master (as the Paramount deal had ended by then) even if she does nothing in that sequel but stand in the background. Though the main puppets only appear in the wraparound segments of Retro Puppet Master, that movie—for all its faults and low-budget woes—does do a great deal to shed more light on her character. Brigitta Dau gives unquestionably the best performance in that prequel, playing a younger, sharp-witted, fierce Elsa who wants to break out from under her father’s thumb and seek out a little adventure. She finds more than her share of that in Andre Toulon. Though hardly the perfect depiction of a love story, there are moments for her character in that film that are genuinely sweet.
Throughout the recent Axis movies, Leech Woman’s presence in the Puppet Master franchise has been a little left-of-center. She’s been in all the most recent entries, but she’s been mostly relegated to the sidelines, given a cool death or inventive new take on her abilities here and there. This is unfortunately, for the most part, about where her character has always stood. She has never been the most beloved of the puppets by any means. But she’s the only one of them that has had to withstand being forcibly written out of the franchise just as it was getting started. She is the puppet who even wound up dictating the course of the franchise through the reveal of her character’s backstory.
And through that comic series and, especially, Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge, Leech Woman became the heart of the series. For left-of-center, she certainly seems to do her share of the heavy lifting. Leech Woman does not tend to get the credit she deserves, is mostly only complimented by people saying that she’s the one thing in the movies that truly creeped them out. But there’s more to this little puppet than that. She’s survived being burned alive, being written out of the series and sidelined in moneyless sequels, but for all her squeamish habits she is also quite literally the character that gave the franchise its soul.