The rental numbers for Puppet Master made a sequel a no-brainer, though it is easy to forget after so many Full Moon franchises over the past few decades that Puppet Master II was not only the first sequel from the studio, but one of Charles Band’s earliest sequels in general, with only Ghoulies II preceding it. In the Video Zone for Puppet Master II, Band recognized the franchise potential, though, and likened the central puppets to comic book characters, who he hoped to spin off into many different adventures. And that truly starts right in that first sequel, following almost immediately on the heels of the original. David Schmoeller’s Puppet Master was a largely ambiguous movie that left several unanswered questions, which certainly left a great deal of room for a sequel as there was so much to explore simply in the original’s unanswered questions.
Most of those questions went all the way back to the opening scene, in which the titular puppet master Andre Toulon shot himself in the mouth so that the Nazis would not uncover his secrets for bringing his puppets to life and apparently conquering life after death. While Toulon is talked about after that, there’s not a lot of attention placed on him for a movie literally called Puppet Master, so it was smart for the second film to bring the character back in a much larger role. After all, so much of the plot of the original hinged on a character returning from death to order the puppets around, why not do the same with their creator?
With that in mind, what’s so interesting about Puppet Master II as a sequel is that it both is and isn’t a retread of the original film. On one hand, it very much is, as it takes the same basic idea of a group of people being picked off by puppets in an abandoned hotel, but really fixes some of the pacing and story structure, tweaking that original formula in smart ways by pacing out the kills and giving the starring puppets much more screen time thanks to FX wizard David Allen stepping into the director’s chair this time around.
At the same time, it’s a totally different film in terms of story and tone. The mystery element of the original is gone. We know who is controlling the puppets and why, and it’s much more about expanding on that backstory and both reveling in the menace of this character while also engineering some genuine sympathy for him as well. Puppet Master was a movie with many Italian influences that informed its tone and style. Puppet Master II, meanwhile, is very clearly inspired by the Gothic horror films of the ‘30s and ‘40s, particularly those of the Universal heyday, and those influences are much more explicit and overt.
This is largely thanks to screenwriter David Pabian, who was incredibly aware of his influences and certainly intentional in how much they informed his script. In fact, both of the features Pabian wrote for Full Moon in 1991 are heavily, heavily inspired by the gothic classics, with the other being Ted Nicolau’s Subspecies. For that movie, the inspirations are almost unavoidable as it is a vampire feature both set and filmed in Transylvania. With Puppet Master II, the gothic inspirations work a little differently, as they primarily allow the sequel to have its own flavor and distinct identity from the original film.
The gothic influences of Puppet Master II are clear right from the opening scene, too. Whereas the original’s prologue sequence was somewhat disarming, portraying the puppets as seemingly harmless and set in broad daylight, the sequel’s opening is almost the exact opposite. This time we pick up with the puppets in a cemetery in the dead of night while they are already hard at work on digging up their beloved creator. It immediately calls to mind James Whale’s Frankenstein, as we are introduced to Henry Frankenstein and his assistant Fritz while they are waiting for a funeral to end so that they can dig up a fresh body for their ongoing experiments. The cemetery setting immediately establishes a darker, moodier atmosphere and tone and makes those gothic overtones clear before the opening credits even begin to roll.
But even that opening is far from the most explicit callback to the Universal days in Puppet Master II. That honor certainly goes to the movie’s villain, the resurrected puppet master Toulon. Almost anyone who sees the movie would recognize him as being a spitting image for Claude Rains’ Invisible Man. His face is bandaged and he hides behind a cloak and goggles so that absolutely no ounce of his flesh is visible. Just like the Invisible Man, Toulon does this because he has a terrible secret that he is attempting to hide from the other guests at the hotel. In the James Whale film, the Invisible Man was attempting to hide his secret from the guests at the Inn in which he attempted to stay before being found out. The only difference here, of course, is that Toulon’s secret is that he’s been dead for fifty years and his body is a rotted skeletal mess.
While Toulon is nearly identical to the Invisible Man in appearance, however, the treatment of the character in this sequel echoes a different Universal Monster altogether. Puppet Master II sees the resurrected puppet master form an obsession for the young paranormal investigator Carolyn, who he believes to be a reincarnation of his long-lost wife, Elsa. This is a major plot point and a very intentional callback to Universal’s The Mummy, one of Pabian’s favorite films as he’s noted in interviews. In that, the doomed Imhotep came back as a walking corpse after centuries of unrest to reunite with his long-lost love. It is certainly a tragic if not one-sided story, as this sort of plot (which has since become a trope) leans toward the dangerously obsessive, as the reincarnated love often has no memory of that former life, perhaps save only in the form of vague dreams.
Many fans have noted that Puppet Master II is out of place with the rest of the series, given Toulon’s role as a villain when none of the other films treat him as such. But that’s not taking into account that this was only the first sequel and the character had only had scant few minutes of screen time in the original. Puppet Master II was truly cementing much of the backstory behind Toulon for the very first time. But even in the context of the other movies, I think Toulon’s villainous turn in Puppet Master II works very well, thanks to Pabian’s fascination for the sympathetic Universal Monsters and therefore conveying Toulon as an equally sympathetic character.
In this sequel, Toulon has been dead for fifty years, he lost his wife to the Nazis and eventually lost his life and he is still not done. He is moving around in a bandaged together rotted husk. His brain has rotted to mush and has no doubt caused him to go insane, which I think is key to the plot. This obsession to return to his former life, to hold onto what he had by projecting this reincarnation onto poor Carolyn makes a great deal of sense. And it is a projection, which I think is key. If anything it plays into just how obsessive of a trope this kind of reincarnation plot is. It began in The Mummy, where it was clearly one-sided. Then it slowly became introduced into the Dracula films, with Dan Curtis’ production being the first to explicitly portray the Count’s would-be victim as the reincarnation of his long lost wife. Puppet Master II was released only a year before the smash hit Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which portrayed a much more romantic reincarnation plot line built on a mutual love. This sequel cements those obsessive qualities by noting that there is no reincarnation happening here, Toulon just desperately wants to believe that there is.
Whereas all of these other women in those other films are plagued by dreams or distant memories, Carolyn is emphatically not. She is fully aware of who she is and even directly states that even if reincarnation were possible, that’s not what this is. She isn’t Elsa. This also leaves room for Puppet Master III’s eventual reveal that after her death, the soul of Elsa Toulon was placed into the Leech Woman puppet. Surely no one had any idea this direction would be taken when making Puppet Master II, but it nonetheless works perfectly when considering how rambling and insane Toulon is through most of the picture, that he would be projecting this belief that his wife was alive and well in Carolyn without even realizing that he’d lost her again with the destruction of Leech Woman.
That, too, is worth pointing out. It’s certainly noteworthy that with Puppet Master II having such clear gothic inclinations—and in that regard probably being the most overt horror film of the entire series—it is also the only movie in the entire franchise to actually dispatch any of the puppets, save for the unconnected reboot. After killing the heroine’s brother, Tunneler is smashed with a lamp and dissecting so that the perplexed parapsychologists can at least try to understand what this thing is and how it works. Leech Woman’s sendoff later in the movie is much more mean-spirited. While Tunneler’s death is barely shown on camera, Leech Woman is tossed in a furnace and the viewer is forced to watch her melt as the puppet writhes and whimpers in pain. Ironically, her death leads immediately into the introduction of the film’s debut puppet, Torch, who is able to dish out a swift and appropriate revenge to Martha, the hillbilly woman who had just taken Leech Woman out. Although, to be fair, the little puppet had just murdered her husband and invaded her home.
The decision to kill Leech Woman off had been a very deliberate one, having come from on high as the puppet was simply deemed too gross for the burgeoning franchise. Either way, that black-and-white approach to fighting off the puppets and even killing a few of them was not at all present in the original Puppet Master, but it absolutely speaks to the Universal Monster influences, in that those characters were almost always cleanly dispatched by the end of each movie.
Still, Puppet Master II echoes the original’s ending after Toulon transfers his soul into a full-size puppet body, revealing that the puppets who thought they have been killing to keep themselves alive have actually been collecting brain tissue to fuel these brand-new puppet bodies while they will simply just whither and die. This is a harsh betrayal in the larger context of the franchise, knowing how deep the bonds between Toulon and his puppets run from this point on, especially in the third. But even coming off the first, Toulon had been so friendly and gentle with them in that opening prologue and he spends the bulk of this second movie speaking to them as if they’re his own children, so this betrayal is even more emotionally resonant than the original’s, where the puppets’ motives for dispatching Neil Gallagher are much less explicit.
Puppet Master II is, at the end of the day, a much darker and more foreboding film than the first. I like the two almost equally and think they complement each other very well, as their differences speak to their own respective strengths. Puppet Master II marries its darker atmosphere with a sense of tragedy and romanticism that made the Universal classics so endearing. It’s not aiming to be on their level, only to embrace the things that made those features so engaging and allow itself to stand on its own as a distinct, unique entry in one of horror’s longest-running franchises, which is no small victory on its own.