Despite the fact that Puppet Master 5 was promised to be the final chapter, Charles Band had immediate plans for the franchise, which had by that point become Full Moon’s most successful brand. Even in the behind-the-scenes VideoZone for Puppet Master 5, Band announced where fans would be seeing the puppets next: in a spinoff prequel trilogy titled Puppet Wars that was planned to pick up immediately from the ending of the already fan-favorite Puppet Master III. All three scripts were written by Jay Woelfel and Dave Parker, with the directing duties divided up between them. They were incredibly ambitious. Each film was meant to have a different setting (train, cemetery and castle) and each one would introduce a classic monster for the puppets to face off against (Mummy, Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster) with the idea of titling the trilogy Curse of the Puppet Master, Tomb of the Puppet Master and either Castle or Vault of the Puppet Master for the third.
Featuring Toulon in a returning central role, giving new upgrades to the puppets—arming Six-Shooter with stakes for vampire hunting is a personal favorite—and filling in details like the backstory of Torch, this trilogy no doubt would have been an absolute dream come true for fans. But even Puppet Master 4 and 5 had been extremely ambitious on Full Moon’s just-below-modest budgets. But that period was the most successful in Full Moon’s history. The company had proven to be a huge video store success and the distribution deal with Paramount had worked so well that it had led to a theatrical release for Richard Elfman’s Shrunken Heads. While the Puppet Wars scripts were probably always a little too ambitious for what Full Moon could realistically pull off, that early period when they were first announced would certainly have been the time to do it.
Unfortunately, that period of success did not last as Full Moon lost its major studio distribution through Paramount in 1996, which was a huge blow to the company. There were a couple of different factors that contributed to Paramount’s decision to terminate their relationship with Band and Full Moon. Part of it had to do with a random bit of bad luck when someone at Paramount checked through the titles and realized that Full Moon had a film called Ragdoll that had been listed as being in development for several years and had still not been released. In addition to that came another bit of bad luck. Full Moon’s movies had always been relatively tame, at least by modern horror standards, and Paramount by and large didn’t pay much attention to what Full Moon was doing. They happened to be visiting the offices when Castle Freak was being edited and were, according to director Stuart Gordon, absolutely horrified by what they saw.
Either way, from that point on, Full Moon’s films became entirely self-funded, including handling all of the video distribution and promotion independently, which is a huge expense. That changed everything for the studio, and certainly changed everything for the Puppet Master trilogy they were attempting to develop at the time. Amazingly, despite the massive shift as to what Full Moon was and how it operated, they never gave up on Puppet Wars completely. But they did start to look at it more realistically.
Instead of filming an entire trilogy at once, it would make sense to try and film the first as a standalone, leaving the option open to do sequels down the line. It also made the most sense to film that one as it worked the most easily with the scaled-back budget, as that first Puppet Wars script is entirely confined to a train, basically making it Puppet Master by way of Murder on the Orient Express, which is an enticing concept on its own. The Puppet Wars was dropped from the title, leaving the new title to simply be Curse of the Puppet Master, with plans to shoot the new film in Romania, where Band had his successful Castel Studios to shoot most of his movies at that point.
Still, in the new reality of Full Moon, Curse of the Puppet Master remained ambitious. A Romanian shoot bringing back Guy Rolfe as a lead, introducing new puppets and an Anubis creature, it had to keep getting scaled back and that took more and more time to do.
By 1997, Full Moon had started to release its new films under the ever-so-slightly rebranded Full Moon Pictures banner. It had, by this point, been three years without a Puppet Master movie. That sounds absurdly short, but in the context of the franchise before that, it’s truly insanely long. Before this point, the longest time without a Puppet Master entry was the year between the first and the second. Around this same time, Full Moon was also beginning a new merchandising enterprise that remains one of its most successful and fondly remembered to this day: Full Moon Toys.
Rick Phares, who had been working in the video distribution arm of Full Moon, was also a huge toy collector and alongside Band spearheaded the new toy company with the intention of making collectable action figures from Full Moon’s already vast library of titles. The starting point was, naturally, a Puppet Master action figure series. That line launched in 1997 with the release of Blade and Six-Shooter figures, which proved to be an overwhelming success. In 1998, the rest of the series rolled out with figures based on each of the classic Puppet Master characters.
This, of course, presented an interesting problem. There had not been a Puppet Master entry for four years by this point. They were still attempting to prep Curse of the Puppet Master (formerly of the Puppet Wars trilogy, for Romania) but it wasn’t happening fast enough, especially not to match up with the release of the action figure series. Phares noted this in an interview with Lee’s Action Figure News & Toy Review at the time, noting that while Curse of the Puppet Master continued to prep in Romania, they planned to shoot another Puppet Master sequel, then untitled, in Los Angeles over the course of a week, just to ensure the franchise stayed in the public consciousness while they continued to develop the prequel that everyone wanted to make.
The end result is a mad-dash of a quick movie, far quicker and more limited than any entry in the franchise before it. The prequel was, of course, never made. Instead, its Curse of the Puppet Master title was given to the much more realistic sixth movie, shot in Los Angeles to essentially promote the toy series more than anything else. David DeCoteau, who had previously helmed the celebrated Puppet Master III, returned to direct the new sequel under the pseudonym Victoria Sloan. According to DeCoteau on the commentary, he had previously been happy with every script he’d worked with for Full Moon, but the script he received for Curse initially was so bad that on top of everything else, the entire movie had to be rewritten from top to bottom over the weekend before filming began.
This if anything is the key reason for why Curse of the Puppet Master so largely resembles another film, Bernard Kowalski’s 1973 snake-man flick, Sssssss. As many fans have pointed out over time, the plots of the two features match up almost exactly to the point that many of the same things happen at nearly the exact same time in both.
Unsurprisingly, Curse of the Puppet Master can’t really rise above its circumstances. If anything, it’s defined by them. But even that makes for an interesting production and even occasionaly benefits the movie in some surprising ways. The smallness of Curse of the Puppet Master allows for a sense of confinement and claustrophobia. This isn’t the wide open world of Puppet Master III or the expanded mythology—and even other dimensions—glimpsed in Puppet Master 4 & 5. As people had criticized the last two for almost abandoning horror completely, Curse of the Puppet Master truly returns to the style and tone of the first two films.
The story is very simple. Dr. Magrew runs a roadside oddity show where he features the puppets of Andre Toulon as his star attractions. He hires a simple gas station attendant named Tank after seeing his skill at carving in hopes that Tank will be able to carve a perfect living puppet. What Tank does not know is that Magrew has been trying and failing to create a living puppet like the ones created by Toulon. Tank begins a romantic relationship with Magrew’s daughter Jane, not knowing that the puppet he is carving is also the thing he is doomed to become.
Curse of the Puppet Master actually does something really interesting with the mythology, admittedly, by exploring the idea of what happens when someone wants to recreate Toulon’s work without any frame of reference. It’s almost the inverse of what Dr. Hess was doing in Puppet Master III. In that movie, Hess was forced to work under the Nazis to crack the code on life after death, and saw Toulon’s puppets as the closest anyone had come to that. He was almost trying to reverse engineer Toulon’s formula to suit his work. But in Curse, Magrew has none of that. He has nothing to work with, presumably no diaries left in the trunk by Toulon that we can see. He has absolutely no idea what he’s doing, and it naturally yields horrific results.
The puppets don’t get a ton to do in Curse of the Puppet Master but, despite that, they do have a significant amount of screen time. This is no doubt due to the fact that the function of this sequel was, above all else, to promote the toy series. Because of that, just about every puppet is accounted for with the exception of Torch as he was—by this point—simply too expensive to include. The best thing about that is that it marks the return of Leech Woman, who had previously been killed off in Puppet Master II. Even if she doesn’t do much of anything throughout the entire runtime, it’s nice to see her again even still. In addition to that, Jester gets a new look in this entry with a slightly tweaked redesign that led to the first tie-in toy in Full Moon history as this version was included as a variant for the Jester action figure.
If you’re someone like me who would watch these puppets watch paint dry, the lack of puppet action isn’t too concerning. I love whenever these puppets get downtime and especially love that Curse gets to highlight them actually putting on a puppet show for the first and only time since Puppet Master III. And even when the kills are pretty spaced out, this sequel does deliver a franchise all-timer when Tunneler takes out the bully Joey by drilling directly between his legs. This is also as close as Jester has ever come to claiming a life as he and Blade take out one of the snooping police officers together.
Curse of the Puppet Master might just be a scaled-back toy commercial made quickly and cheaply, but even in that, it’s a welcome return to the structure of the first two films. It’s actually a nice balancing act. The puppets retain their largely good-natured qualities enhanced by the sequels, but they still kill as directed when they need to, or sometimes to protect their own. Like the first and second movie, Curse ends with the puppets ganging up to take down the new puppet master, though this lacks the excitement and craft of those features as we don’t have David Allen’s FX. And even when we do, they’re stock footage shots taken from the other movies.
Because of that drop in quality, simply on a budgetary and technical level, Curse makes the bottom of a lot of fans’ lists and that’s understandable. But despite the time and the circumstances, there are some interesting performances, ideas and the puppets themselves (though they mostly hang out for a little over 70 minutes) are always endearing to watch and this was thankfully still made during a time when the David Allen designs were largely intact. For a movie made to sell toys it’s almost wrongheaded in its attempt to go back to the tone of the original as Puppet Master 4 and 5 catered to kids perfectly. At the end of the day, though, for better and worse, Curse of the Puppet Master is purely and simply a reflection of Full Moon at the time, including its new budgetary realities and realigned priorities. Because of that, it will always be an important benchmark in the franchise’s history.