I always already a horror kid by the time my parents divorced. The Universal Monsters had been my entry point thanks to the VHS re-releases of the early ‘90s, as well as the coloring books and happy meal toys that those characters had at the time. Kids horror was plentiful at the time as well, and I absorbed everything from old Scooby Doo reruns to movies like Hocus Pocus, Casper and Ernest Scared Stupid. Anything with a horror bent that was remotely digestible for a kid, I ate it up. But that was the point when I was just beginning to dip my toes into adult horror as well, having just been introduced to the likes of Friday the 13thand A Nightmare on Elm Street. But the three franchises I first discovered in the immediate wake of my parents’ separation wound up becoming three of the biggest passions of my youth. Two of those franchises were Child’s Play and Halloween. The other was Puppet Master. And in that case, it wasn’t just a passion. It was an obsession.
Child’s Play and Halloween were, to some extent, discovered on purpose. I was still young, but I was a kid who practically lived in the local video store, browsing the horror aisle for far too long before making any kind of decision. I couldn’t get enough of it. And I knew what they were. Chucky scared me so badly that I had to turn the covers over in the video store because I couldn’t look at them. My dad actually had to buy the movie for me so that I could actually watch it and overcome my fear. Halloween I began to know by reputation and was simply blown away as soon as I actually rented it. But Puppet Master was a very different story. In fact, I didn’t even discover the franchise through my love of horror. Instead, I discovered the series through my love of superheroes.
I was a huge toy kid and the X-Men were the toys of the ‘90s in addition to being one of the great loves of my young life in general. On a trip to Borders with my dad, I picked up a toy magazine simply because it had my favorite X-Men villain, Mister Sinister, on the cover. The magazine promised coverage of Toy Fair ’98. I didn’t know what that meant. I just wanted the scoop on the latest X-Men toys. But by the time I got home and started flipping through that magazine, I forgot about Marvel’s Merry Mutants completely.
There, in the middle of the issue, was a two-page spread on the upcoming 1998 release slate for Puppet Master: The Action Figure Series. And it was well and truly love at first sight. I was immediately blown away by the designs of the characters. I saw a picture of each, or at least their toy counterpart, with their name underneath to tell me exactly who each one was. And I called my friend Chris right away, who had gotten me into horror in the first place and had seen all the things I hadn’t, to come over and explain to me exactly what this was. I learned that it was not only a movie, but a series of movies in which these morbidly wonderful little characters were the stars. That was enough for the beginning of an obsession to form. I looked at those pictures for weeks before I finally got the chance to rent the original movie, imagining what it could be like in my head.
Puppet Master was probably my favorite childhood movie from the moment I first saw it. Getting to see these characters, especially Blade who I had already decided was my favorite based solely on the design, in action was almost a religious experience for me. But another funny thing happened when I rented that original film: I noticed something on the back of the box promising a “behind the scenes” featurette called “No Strings Attached.” I didn’t really have any idea what that meant, but I knew it meant more Puppet Master and checked it out for that reason alone. I’m so glad I did, too. That short segment might have been an afterthought for some, but it was seminal to me. I can probably trace my love of filmmaking back to “No Strings Attached,” because at eight years old, watching this glimpse behind the scenes of something I was already invested in, it was my very first look ever into how movies were made. Or even that they were made in general. I knew they had to be, but I had never really thought about it before that. And after watching it for the first time, I started thinking about it more and more.
My local mom ‘n pop video store, Ya Gotta Love It, had the first three Puppet Master movies and in no time I started renting them on a regular basis, usually cycling through the three of them. I wouldn’t be exaggerating at all to say there was a time when I rented Puppet Master almost every weekend. I began to collect more magazines, too (horror this time) and in almost every single one of them I would see more and more ads for the action figure series. Getting my hands on these toys became number one priority for me, but there was simply no way to execute it. This was the very early days of online shopping and not even yet 10, I didn’t exactly know what I was doing in that area. The toys promised they were sold through comic book and specialty shops, but I certainly never saw them at the one and only comic shop I had within fifty miles.
That, combined with the love of the movies themselves, absolutely cemented the obsession for me. It had so much to do with the inaccessibility, the fact that this was something I couldn’t quite get my hands on. I had a lot of toys and had just started collecting some of my favorite horror movies on video. The Puppet Master figures were a little too niche to be regularly sold in rural Maine. And while I dreamed of owning the Friday the 13thflicks, I knew that I realistically could, whereas I could not with the Puppet Master franchise. At this point in time, after the end of Full Moon’s distribution through Paramount, all of their early titles were out of print.
The fact that this was something I couldn’t quite get my hands on only enhanced my love for it. I continued to rent the movies because I couldn’t own them, finally taping Puppet Master III and 5 off the Sci-Fi Channel one rainy afternoon. I couldn’t get my hands on the toys, so I started making paper dolls, drawing the characters endlessly, and finally sculpting them out of clay in attempt to make my own action figures if I couldn’t have the ones I wanted so badly.
Soon my dad moved out of that first rental home post-divorce where I first discovered and saw Puppet Master, which had a perpetual dog poop smell for reasons that were never discovered, and into a much better one. There, when I went to stay with him on the weekends and against his mild discouragement, my love of the franchise only strengthened. My burgeoning obsession with the series happened to coincide nicely with the release of a new installment, Curse of the Puppet Master. And on a trip to the local comic shop, I finally found my first Puppet Master action figure in the wild. Unfortunately, it was The Totem, the diminutive villain of Puppet Master 5, and not any of the main puppets I wanted to own so badly.
Slowly, but surely, sightings of the toys became more and more common. I’d find Mephisto at Suncoast, and later Retro Blade and Cyclops on a trip to Portland. Those were confusing purchases. I was ecstatic to own anything Puppet Master, but I had no idea what the word “retro” meant and knew nothing of the movie which wasn’t out yet and which I wouldn’t actually see for another few years. All I knew was that this Blade was nothing like the one I knew and loved. Four figures from the same series is not a small amount to own, but they were everything except the ones I really wanted, the classic main characters from the movies I loved so much. This period without the Puppet Master figures I’d first fallen in love with in that magazine felt like it lasted a decade when, in truth, it was barely two years. Even still, two years is an eternity when you’re a child.
Then, I had the best Christmas that a young Puppet Master fan could possibly have. We had a tradition in my house of being able to open one present on Christmas Eve, which my little impatient heart loved. I remember looking over all the boxes and trying to guess what was inside each one, before my mom simply said, “Trust me, you want this one.” And she was right. Inside that box was Decapitron, a puppet I knew and recognized from the movies, but one that I had seen in stores, so I didn’t think anything was too amiss. But as it turned out, it was only a wonderful sign of things to come. That next morning, I opened up a box to find Pinhead and Leech Woman inside, then Torch and Jester, Tunneler, and finally Blade and Six-Shooter. Not only had my mom purchased all of the figures online, but a few years into their run, a few characters—Blade and Six-Shooter—had already become pretty hard to track down. It was, needless to say, one hell of a Christmas.
Finally getting my hands on the complete toy series did nothing to lighten my obsession with the franchise, if anything it kicked it open that much more. Now I had something to show to friends, a physical guide to help explain to them exactly what this series was and what these characters could do. And that was exactly what I did. As soon as I made any new friends, the first words out of my mouth were usually “Have you seen Puppet Master?” And their answer was always, “No.” I essentially became Full Moon Entertainment Child Recruitment Service, but I was very good at my job. After all, at around 10 and 11, it was the perfect age to get hooked on the not-quite-kid-not-quite-adult horror of the Puppet Master franchise. It had an easy appeal to young people, but it was also a little harder edged than Ernest Scared Stupid.
The amazing Puppet Master Christmas was nearly repeated on my fourteenth birthday. A local video store I’d only been in maybe once was closing and my mom managed to pick the entire franchise on video. Now I owned the movies as well as the toys, and the time of cycling through the first three movies every weekend was over. I could watch them any time I wanted, and I did.
I always had a goal in mind when I dreamed of owning the toys, too, and it was thanks entirely to “No Strings Attached” and the subsequent VideoZone segments that it spawned, and that was to make my own Puppet Master movies. I started filming extremely rough “films” with my action figures with some regularity. My passion for writing and making movies began, basically, with the passion to make Puppet Master movies, though thankfully it evolved beyond that. Although, sometimes barely.
Where other childhood interests faded, Puppet Master remained. I discovered the series just after my parents’ separation, which was the first major change of my young life. I finally owned the series on video just before my mother remarried, which was the second. Throughout my entire childhood, Puppet Master was a constant. Trouble at school? There was Puppet Master. Trouble with friends? Puppet Master was always there. Not sure which rented house or possibly motel my dad was going to be living in that month? Don’t sweat it, the puppets moved from place to place in their own nomadic trunk. Entering middle school and finding yourself totally unable to talk to girls? Hey, the puppets can’t talk, period.
This is a franchise I continue to love passionately, as I hope is evidenced by the book I’ve just written on the subject. This series has always been and will likely always remain one of my greatest cinematic loves. At thirty, the same age now as the series itself, I am still excited every time I put one of these movies on, or any time I so much as look at one of the figures on my shelf. It’s a series that has looked to be on death’s door several times and always managed to find a way back. But at the moment, coming off the heels of a successful comic book, a reboot last year and a spinoff this year, it looks to be as prominent (if not more so) than ever. I’ve been enamored with these little guys since I was eight years old. Like Andre Toulon himself, I’ve carried these puppets with me—consciously or subconsciously—through every adventure of my young adult-into-adult life. And if I had to guess, this is a Torch I will continue to carry for a long time to come.