Puppet Master III obviously marks a turning point for the franchise. It can be a jarring movie, it’s tonally completely different from the first two, it takes things in a very different direction and cements the direction that the franchise in general is going to go. But it’s also something that I think was developing very naturally at the time. Even in the original movie, in that opening scene the puppets are completely harmless, it’s only later when they’re uncovered by Neil Gallagher that we see them actually do evil things. But in those first two, it’s still the only time you’re seeing horror movies where the “villainous” monsters actually save the human heroes at the end. More than that, though, it’s really a testament to David Allen and what he and his team of FX artists had created and how well those puppets were brought to life. The puppets in those first two films are so well animated that they’re actually making weird acting choices. They’re never just mindless killer puppets. There are these little moments that humanize them, like Blade shrieking at the woman who sees him in the hallway, or when his eyes pop out when he sees Frank and Clarissa having sex, and—a personal favorite—when Pinhead hypes himself up by shadowboxing as he chases Dana down the hallway. And these things make the reveal that these were actually once human beings much easier to swallow.
That reveal and Puppet Master III in general also take this killer puppet franchise in a much deeper direction and turn it into the last thing anyone would assume this could become: the most inherently Jewish horror franchise ever. Possibly the only Jewish horror franchise ever, as I’ve written about before. To explain that a little bit, let’s first look at the very concept of this sub-genre of inanimate things being given life in order to fulfill certain tasks or wishes. That goes all the way back to the Jewish mythology of the Golem. In particular, the story of the Golem of Prague. This was a story about a being that was carved from clay and instilled with life in order to protect the community form anti-Semitic attacks, and I think you could draw a direct line between that and the plot of Puppet Master III.
There had also of course been Jewish horror movies before this. The Wolf Man was famously written by a Jewish man, Curt Siodmak, who had escaped to America just before writing that film, and that whole movie is about this survivor’s guilt and this notion of being marked. Then you have American Werewolf in London, with a man who is cursed to be visited by his dead friend he couldn’t save, whose death he might even be responsible for. And I think when you look at Puppet Master III and take these things into account, you get this great visual wartime metaphor of this weary old man literally carrying his dead friends on his back wherever he goes.
On a production level, it’s definitely worth noting what this meant for Full Moon as a company. We automatically think of Charlie Band as someone churning out series after series, from Puppet Master to Subspecies and Gingerdead Man, Evil Bong, Killjoy, so it’s pretty crazy to look back at when this was coming out in 1991, and think that Band had only actually done two sequels before this. Ghoulies II and Puppet Master II. This was kind of him announcing that he was in the sequel game. Literally, in fact as Puppet Master III actually ends with a title card promising Puppet Master 4 coming soon. It’s also important to point out that a Puppet Master comic book had been released in 1990. Band had likened the Full Moon characters to comic book characters from the get-go, so an actual comic book was likely, but he did them so fast after the company was just starting to find its footing. He partnered with Malibu and a small imprint called Eternity to produce comics based on movies that had just come out and most that weren’t even coming out yet, and Puppet Master was one of them.
There was only one film at this point, so writer Dave DeVries and artist Glenn Lumsden decided to go back to the opening and try to address these major unanswered questions of who this guy was and why these Nazis were after them. The first issue of their comic is actually set the year before Toulon’s suicide, where we see him running a small theater with his wife, Elsa, but the theater is shut down for making fun of the Reich, Elsa is killed. Toulon vows revenge and instills her soul into the puppet Leech Woman. Obviously, there are huge similarities there.
By all accounts, this was coincidental. Screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner had just been kind of given these specific details. Band wanted it to be a WWII prequel and have those elements, but other than that he created a very different, really engaging and strong script. Nonetheless, credit definitely goes to DeVries and Lumsden for likely giving Band the idea. There’s also a really neat connection to Puppet Master 4 in that Courtney Joyner had basically gotten his start writing an anthology horror movie starring Vincent Price called From a Whisper to a Scream, which was also the directorial debut of Jeff Burr. That means that the writer of 3 and director of 4 got their start on the same movie. David DeCoteau, meanwhile, had been a producer on Puppet Master II, pretty much just making sure that it was on-time and on-budget, and he got the job directing Puppet Master III because he was the only one willing to go to Romania to film it.
Band had essentially just discovered how cheap it was to film there, so Puppet Master III was going to be Full Moon’s first Romanian-shot movie but it didn’t work out and that honor went to Subspecies instead. DeCoteau really struck gold, especially for the look of the film, by landing the production some days on the Universal back lot, where all of the exteriors for this movie were shot. And that adds so much to Puppet Master III feeling so much bigger than it actually is, because so much of it is shot at a major studio.
There’s also a new puppet added into the mix this time, of course. Six-Shooter was actually a character first created for the Empire film Eliminators as a sort of robotic character, but he was scrapped. Then he was going to appear in the original Puppet Master, but a lot of things were cut from that original draft for many different reasons, mostly budgetary. Courtney Joyner had the idea to re-use this character as a cowboy, sort of Toulon’s version of an American, or this very European idea of what an American is. Like Torch, he gets a ton of screen time and is basically the star of the movie. There’s a great stop-motion shot of Six-Shooter scaling the wall and shaking his fist at Nazi soldiers walking below him, which was actually kind of improv. It was added as they were shooting it.
Casting wise, things were also very different from the first two Puppet Master movies. Initially, you had William Hickey who had an Academy Award nomination and Paul Le Mat who had been in American Graffiti, but that was really it in terms of actors with mainstream recognizability. That’s definitely not the case in Puppet Master III. Guy Rolfe takes over Toulon, who had been played by two actors already, and immediately becomes the person fans think of when they think of that role. He’d been acting forever, he’d been in Mr. Sardonicus, of course, but he’d more recently appeared in an earlier Charlie Band movie, Stuart Gordon’s Dolls. And in that, despite similar subject matter, he plays a totally different, fairy tale like character, whereas he actually brings a lot of weight and sympathy to Toulon. Sarah Douglas was cast against type as Elsa. She’d really been known for playing villainous characters, with her biggest role being Superman II. Here, she’s sort of the emotional core of the movie.
Richard Lynch as Major Krause is probably the most highly regarded human villain in the franchise. He was not actually the first choice for the role. They really wanted Hammer Film actor Ralph Bates, who sadly passed right as they were reaching out to him, but Band was adamant that another European would make the distributors nervous and they needed at least one American in a major role, and he’d just worked with Lynch on Trancers II, so that was that.
Maybe an even bigger emotional core than Toulon and Elsa, though, is Toulon’s relationship with Dr. Hess. That might actually be my favorite thing in the movie. Hess is considered by a lot of fans to be a Nazi doctor, but Hess is pretty regularly told that he will be killed as soon as his work on the project is over, so it’s more likely that he is probably a Jewish doctor, or a doctor just working in Germany at the time who is going to be taken out the minute he’s deemed disposable. And between these two characters, there’s such a spark. Hess even has the line “Some other time we could have worked together and done great things.” It’s about meeting someone you connect with on this profound level, late in life, too late for any good to come of it. But of course it teases, in a smart way, what Hess’s actual larger role in this story is.
So, the decision to hold off Blade is actually kind of brilliant. Because the first two had been successful and they knew what the fans wanted and Blade at this time was already starting to become Full Moon’s Mickey Mouse. He was the guy at the center of it, he was the guy on all the promotion. So this movie lets Blade unfold gradually, giving a villain who bears a striking resemblance, seeing the puppet get built, and then finally unveiling Blade at the end for Krause’s extremely complicated death scene.
Puppet Master III definitely establishes the puppets as heroes, a direction that would obviously be pushed further and further as time went on. It’s success is made most clear when you consider imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. This is a well that, for better or worse depending on point of view, Full Moon keeps going back to. They keep returning to the ‘40s to try and recapture what made this work, even though it was really lightning in a bottle. I think, at the end of the day, though, this is probably the best horror prequel. Because prequels always kind of fall into this trap of having to explain all of these things we already know.
The Elm Street prequel couldn’t work because there’s no stone left to unturn in Freddy’s backstory. Or you get things like Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning that feel the need to explain everything. And Puppet Master III really doesn’t do that. It takes one crucial aspect of the backstory—why did Toulon come to America and why were the Nazis after him—and introduces new, crucial aspects of the mythology that have been canon ever since.
And while I can certainly see that it is maybe a better Puppet Master movie than it is a horror movie, and that it’s certainly not what the audience of a movie like this expects, it is nonetheless truly a gift.