I read too deeply into things, especially things that I love. That’s why I enjoy writing about movies so much in the first place. When I was in college, really starting to get a heavy education in critical thinking, looking for deeper meaning whether the author intended it or not, that also happened to be the time when I was expanding my horizons of horror. Beyond the major franchises and characters and the things I rented every weekend as a child, this was my branching off point. When I started watching horror features from Italy, Spain, Korea, from all regions and all decades. I began discovering A-List and B-List horror alike at a point when I was being taught to look for the deeper meaning in anything.
Naturally, I began applying that across the board. If Tess of the d’Urbervilles could be about the destruction of tradition and civility in the wake of industrialization, then Return of the Living Dead could be about cultural nihilism and a punk rock view of mortality in the resurgence of the Cold War. Both are equally valid. All art is open to this kind of interpretation and when I can find a kernel of that kind of meaning in something, I tend to embrace it. Especially if it’s something that’s looked down on or called stupid.
That’s why I love how deeply I’ve come to read into the Puppet Master series. It’s schlocky, campy, Full Moon fare dating back to the early heyday of the straight-to-video era. Unlike many more critically acclaimed horror movies, I did not discover this series in college. I’ve loved it since I was about eight-years-old. As a child, it was an addiction. I’m on the patch now, but every now and then, the cravings come on strong. Yes, it’s a series that’s silly and low-budget. Over time, as those budgets got smaller and smaller, things that had been minor issues in the early entries became the defining traits of the later sequels. But those early entries — goofy and cheesy and full of stop-motion as they are — are genuinely entertaining and loveable little movies.
They’re also modern Jewish folklore.
For all its camp and cheese, Puppet Master as a whole is in essence a Jewish revenge story. That’s not even subtext, that’s literally the plot. The original movie opens with a man committing suicide as two mysterious Nazis close in on him. It raises a lot of questions, which are addressed in Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge. Not only is that the most genuinely good feature Full Moon ever made, it’s a film set during World War II that explains the origins of the puppets in a way that completely changes the context of what you thought you were watching. These aren’t simply toys brought to life to kill for the creator. These were human beings. Each one of them, killed by the Nazis. Leech Woman, Torch (if you go by the comics), Tunneler and Jester were all Jewish people that were executed in some fashion or another. Pinhead, Six-Shooter and Decapitron, all Jewish allies.
People might question Blade, the bread-and-butter of the franchise, because he is a doctor working with the Nazis during the third film. He eventually sides with Toulon before being killed as a traitor. Still, because of this apparent allegiance, some people mistakenly read Blade as being a Nazi. There’s also the fact that Blade’s appearance is based on the villainous Major Krause, who is the overtly, explicitly despicable Nazi one could imagine. Some people, even after watching that movie and having Blade’s origin spelled out for them, still believe that Blade and Krause are one and the same, based on their similar styles.
That leads to some uncomfortable, modern-day Nazis making their way into the fandom (such as it is). Unfortunate as it might be, it’s true. There are, I’m ashamed to admit, the occasional self-described Nazis with Blade as their profile pictures or who use him as an online avatar and basically describe the puppet as their fursona.
I don’t feel like those people are remotely paying attention to how Dr. Hess, the man who becomes Blade, is portrayed during that film. He’s a doctor working on a secret project for the Nazis, an attempt to resurrect fallen soldiers to supply Hitler with an undying army. Hess never sides with Krause or Muller when they praise Hitler. When he has to salute, it’s with a tone of shame. He never vocalizes support of the Reich and actually voices heavy disdain for the whole system. Most importantly, he’s repeatedly told that when he finishes his work on the project, he will be killed. To me, all of that spells out that Hess is a Jewish doctor forced to work under the Nazis.
The truth is, Nazism has somehow become a topic again. It’s back. People are making their beliefs heard and are using whatever platform they can to spout whatever hateful rhetoric they can get away with. Some of them are up front and plain about it. They’ll have no problem telling you that they’re a Nazi, that theirs is a political leaning as valid as any other and you should respect their beliefs even if they think they have the right to kill you for yours.
Because of this, any franchises or ongoing stories with any kind of underlying Jewish themes or heritage need to be embraced now more than ever. There are probably more important ones out there than Puppet Master, of course. But all I’m trying to say is that this is one of those series. This is a franchise that’s an onion of Jewishness. Each layer that’s peeled back reveals something else even more interesting than the surface story, which again for effect is literally about killing Nazis.
First and foremost, we have the basic hook of toys that come to life and are ordered to kill. This is pretty standard stuff, especially for co-creator/producer Charles Band, who had already done it with Dolls. The idea of the killer toy is not new. But the theme of an inanimate object being brought to life to perform certain tasks dates back to one of the earliest stories in Hebrew folklore: the golem. There have been many different kinds of golem tales over the years, but the most famous would be The Golem of Prague. This golem was created from clay by the Rabbi Maharel to defend the Prague ghettos from antisimetic attacks. It’s not hard to draw a direct line between that story and Puppet Master III. Hell, the ongoing comic series even brings in the golem itself as a character for an issue or two.
That covers the basic premise, but what about the franchise as a whole? The puppets develop their own individual personalities over time and certainly show a free will outside of their “master.” But in entries like Puppet Master: The Legacy, they are repeatedly referred to as “human souls trapped in wooden bodies.” It might seem like a small detail, but it’s an important one to note.
In most Jewish fiction, immortality is perceived as a curse. This is especially prevalent in werewolf fiction. The Wolf Man was written by a Jewish man when World War II was at the peak of its global devastation. The film naturally takes on a heavy theme of survivor’s guilt, something that’s also echoed in An American Werewolf in London. Both deal with the same concepts. Their leads are cursed and condemned to immortality, which is written under the mindset of “How can I continue living if my brothers and sisters are dead?” American Werewolf especially mirrors this very clearly.
The puppets aren’t that different. These were all people that got killed by the Nazis. They were literally built to take revenge on their oppressors. Yes, some of them wear those uniforms or similar clothing, some of them stereotypically look like Nazis. But the reason for that goes back to why the puppet master Andre Toulon caught the eye of Nazis in the first place. He came to their attention for his shows, which were works of political satire making fun of Hitler and the Reich. He treated the Nazi occupation as a farce and because of that his theater was shut down. All Toulon did was try to be the Jon Stewart of his day, and for that they killed his wife.
Researching some of the punishment for political satire in Nazi Germany, Toulon actually got off lucky. There are some cases of people who got the guillotine for telling jokes that they hadn’t even made up, jokes that were just going around about Hitler and the Reich, that they’d told secondhand. Toulon was a satirist. When pushed to the edge, he created puppets that contained the souls of his fallen friends, but looked like the men that had killed them.
Puppets like Tunneler and Torch look like stereotypical Nazi types, but they’re designed on one level to treat those appearances as ghoulish jokes. The other, more important level is that they are designed to kill these monsters in their own image. That’s why Blade’s appearance is modeled after Krause. This was the man who tormented Hess most, so it was natural to force his killer to see a crude facsimile of his own face as he died.
Of course, Charles Band is also known for dreaming up a franchise about a killer cookie. There’s no way, intentionally or unintentionally, that he would ever conceive of a series so deeply entrenched in Jewish history.
Except for the fact that he himself is equally entrenched in said history. Keeping in mind that, at its core, the Puppet Master series is about a French puppeteer who waged a private war against the Nazis when they took everything from him, it’s probably important to point out that Charlie’s father, Albert Band—who directed many Empire and Full Moon features himself, and produced Curse of the Puppet Master—was just a boy when he and his Jewish family escaped Paris at the onset of the Nazi occupation. That’s a deep, important connection considering what this series became and the many directions it wound up taking.
I think very little of this is intentional. But it all makes sense and it’s all there. In a world where people get upset over a Nazi getting his face punched in, it’s important to embrace any franchise that’s as entrenched in Jewish history and themes as this one is.
This series is not for everyone. It’s too cheesy for some and not cheesy enough for others and I get that. But it’s dismissed way too often as being just another straight-to-video franchise with no merit. No matter how deeply anyone wants to read into these movies, that statement is just not true. They may not always be the most artfully crafted, but that doesn’t mean they’re not art. As such, they’re as open to the interpretation as anything else. Not everyone will agree with me or any part of this analysis and that’s perfectly acceptable. But that won’t change the fact that I dug, uncovered and shaped this interpretation because it was simply there to be found.