Blu-ray
For Fans Only
3 stars
Overall Grade
3 stars

(click linked text below to jump to related section of the review)

The Movie Itself
2.5 Stars
HD Video Quality
3 Stars
HD Audio Quality
2 Stars
Supplements
3.5 Stars
High-Def Extras
0 Stars
Bottom Line
For Fans Only

Puppet Master: Limited Edition Toulon Trunk Collector's Set

Street Date:
June 15th, 2010
Reviewed by:
Review Date: 1
July 23rd, 2010
Movie Release Year:
2010
Studio:
Full Moon
Length:
173 Minutes
MPAA Rating:
Unrated
Release Country
United States

Editor's Notes

Portions of this article first appeared in our reviews for the individual Blu-ray editions of 'Puppet Master' and 'Puppet Master: Axis of Evil.'

The Movie Itself: Our Reviewer's Take

If in the world of schlock horror films Roger Corman is king, then one of the knights in his court has to be writer/director/producer Charles Band. In the early seventies, Band developed his first production company and by the mid-1980s the young filmmaker had moved to Europe to form Empire Pictures -- the company responsible for producing and distributing dozens of films including cult favorites 'Re-Animator,' 'Ghoulies,' 'Trancers,' 'Troll,' and the movie that traumatized my youth by making me never look at toys the same way again, Stuart Gordon's 'Dolls.' Not the best rental for a bunch of pre-teen kids having a sleepover birthday party -- let me tell you.

At the tail end of the eighties, though, Empire had gone out of business, but the Band played on by returning to the United States to create Full Moon Pictures -- which is still active today. The Full Moon library unleashed many killer gems like 'Subspecies,' 'Demonic Toys,' 'Gingerdead Man,' and even deadly narcotic paraphernalia with 'Evil Bong' (I guess drugs really are bad, mmmkay?). But with a current eight official sequels and one unofficial one to date, it is Full Moon's debut feature that has solidified itself as their flagship franchise -- 'Puppet Master.'

'Puppet Master' (3/5) opens in 1939 at the Bodega Bay Inn in California, where a seemingly ordinary elderly man named Andre Toulon (played by the late William Hickey of 'Prizzi's Honor') is busy working on the newest addition to his beloved collection of wooden puppets. But this old puppeteer is far from ordinary. You see, Toulon is the master manipulator of a mystical secret: he has the ability to grant his little friends -- life. Of course, the Nazis desire the knowledge of this magic, and Toulon is well aware that enemy spies are hot on his trail and closing in on his doorstep. So after the old man gently hides his creations, he decides to take drastic measures to keep his secret from falling into the wrong hands.

Flash forward about fifty years, and a group of four psychics--Alex (Paul Le Mat), Dana (Irene Miracle), Frank (Matt Roe), and his lover Carlissa (Kathryn O'Reilly)--receive troubling visions they believe were sent to them from a former colleague of theirs, Neil Gallagher (Jimmie F. Skaggs). Obsessed with trying to unlock the mysteries of immortality, Gallagher's quest has led him to the Bodega Bay Inn. When the team arrives, however, they learn from Neil's wife Megan (Robin Frates) the tragic news that her husband has just recently committed suicide. The psychics are puzzled, especially since they didn't even know Neil was married, but they decide to stay and pay their respects at the funeral anyway. But when the housekeeper goes missing and psychics start dying, the remaining survivors will quickly discover that evil comes in all sizes -- and perhaps Gallagher's death wasn't a suicide after all.

Okay, I'll admit it -- 'Puppet Master' is one of my guilty pleasures. No, it isn't a great film, and calling it a good one is probably pushing it. Even though Director David Schmoeller's screenplay (adapted from a story by Charles Band and Kenneth J. Hall) is somewhat original, the script itself is weak and does drag in places -- especially during the first act. The dialogue is downright atrocious, and the acting--or should I say overacting--ranges from mediocre to laughable. Toss in the mandatory gratuitous nudity and bloody gore (of which there is plenty more of in this uncut release), and 'Puppet Master' is 100 percent pure '80s cheese.

But 'Puppet Master' has a few tricks up its sleeve that separates it from typical B-movie fare and has made it prevail as a minor cult classic for two decades. Schmoeller does a terrific job lathering on the gothic mood and Hammer-esque atmosphere, while the beautiful set pieces bring even more character and creepiness to the film. And then there's the eerie theme composed by Richard Band (yes, Charles' brother). With the essence of European circus music, this haunting tune perfectly suits the tone of the movie. It's brilliant.

We can't have 'Puppet Master' without puppets, though, and Charles Band along with sorely missed special effects designer David Allen ('Willow') have created memorably fantastic little icons. I'm sure you can guess from his name what Blade's right hand is made of, and his left is a hook. How awesome is that? Pinhead may have a tiny noggin, but his enormous hands will pummel you silly. Ms. Leech regurgitates blood-sucking worms on her victims, and having fillings at the dentist is like eating apple pie compared to a visit by the drill on top of Tunneller's head. And then there's Jester, who will just do you in a variety of clever ways. All of the puppets are brought to life via traditional puppetry, stop-motion techniques made famous by Ray Harryhausen, and a slew of other resourceful tricks. The puppets also provide the dark comedy aspects, and with each having their own personalities they tend to steal the show.

Some people have called 'Puppet Master' a 'Child's Play' copycat, but that really couldn't be further from the truth. Except for the killer toys, the films are nothing alike. In fact, 'Puppet Master' is more of a twisted version of 'Dolls' -- which came before both movies. And while Blade, Pinhead, Ms. Leech, Tunneller and the head-spinning Jester may not be anywhere near as notorious as Chucky, to me they're certainly much cooler.

Although 'Puppet Master: Axis of Evil' (2/5) is the ninth film in Charles Band's 'Puppet Master' franchise (tenth if you count the non-canon 'Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys'), it's technically a sequel to the original film. This side story goes all the way back to the beginning, spinning off the short opening prologue set during the onset of World War II in 1939.

America is rallying its troops and teenager Danny Coogan (Levi Fiehler) desperately wishes to fight for his country alongside his gung-ho older brother Don (Taylor M. Graham)--a dream that will never come to pass due to Polio crippling leg. While wallowing in his sorrows working as a carpenter's apprentice at the infamous Bodega Bay Inn, Danny decides to pay a visit to one of the inn's mysterious guests: an old puppeteer named Andre Toulon (William Hickey). Danny has seen Toulon's puppets move without assistance and is completely fascinated by the trick. But just as he arrives at the old man's room, Danny collides in the hallway with a pair of Nazi assassins fleeing the scene--Max (Tom Sandoval) and Klaus (Aaron Riber). Now that Toulon is dead, it seems his most prized possessions have chosen Danny as their new master.

As Danny tinkers with the trunk of wooden treasures and learns their secrets, his girlfriend Beth (Jenna Gallaher) befriends a co-worker named Ben--only Danny believes he is one of the suspects from the hotel. Determined to expose the truth, Danny's investigation will reveal that the Nazis have aligned with a Japanese saboteur named Ozu (Ada Chao) and are plotting to destroy the very manufacturing plant where Beth works. The only question is will this Axis of Evil succeed in their nefarious scheme, or will Danny and his little band of tiny terrors be able to stop the enemy and save Beth's life?

The 'Puppet Master' franchise certainly has had its ups and downs (taking a nosedive for the last few installments in particular), but for 'Puppet Master: Axis of Evil' it does seem like the filmmakers are making the attempt to put the series back on track. Directed by David DeCoteau (who also helmed 'Puppet Master III: Toulon's Revenge,' as well as 'Curse of the Puppet Master,' and 'Retro Puppet Master' under different aliases), the film not only brings back the original five puppets--Blade, Jester, Ms. Leech, Tunneller, and Pinhead--it includes a cameo of sorts of a fan favorite from one of the sequels/prequels, and introduces a brand new member to the family--which I won't spoil. Even though this is still a low budget film, the production values don't look quite as cheap, either. According to the supplements, most of the movie was filmed in China using numerous set pieces around one of their studios, and they've built a replica of Toulon's room and completely constructed the interior of the opera house. DeCoteau also doesn't use any stop-motion for the puppets and only falls on CGI for rod and string removal. But most importantly, this is a story driven by a human character--so the puppets themselves return to more supportive roles and get to recoup some of their mystique.

Unfortunately, though, this also happens to be the biggest problem of the film. DeCoteau spend so much time on recreating a 1939 world and puts so much focus on the story, that the movie falls short in other key areas. The kills are the perfect example of this. While they're certainly creative and more believable, there are really only seven deaths (with two of them pretty well off camera and one recycled from the first film) and none are very gory, either. In fact, after watching the movie I felt it could have easily snagged a PG-13 rating -- a major no-no for direct-to-video schlock. So while 'Puppet Master: Axis of Evil' isn't an awful film, those expecting things like gratuitous nudity and lots of blood and guts are unfortunately going to be left out in the cold.

The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats

Full Moon makes their high-definition debut with both 'Puppet Master' and 'Puppet Master: Axis of Evil' available individually on Blu-ray or together as part of this 'Puppet Master: Toulon's Trunk Limited Edition Collector's Set' that comes in a collectible box resembling Toulon's trunk (available in DVD or Blu-ray editions). The collector's sets are limited to 1800 (mine is 186 of 1800) and they are only available on Full Moon's website.


The trunk itself is made of sturdy cardboard, and isn't as fancy as the metal briefcase packaging of the 'Blade Runner: Ultimate Collector's Edition' or the faux-leather of the 'Harry Potter Giftset,' but at least it does somewhat look like the trunk and has a metal latch to keep it securely closed. Inside is even cheaper, though, as the left side compartment is made primarily of thick construction paper. That side of the box also includes a mini poster, stickers featuring some of the puppets, and a set of trading cards highlighting the covers of all of the 'Puppet Master' movies. On the right hand side is where the two BD-25 Blu-ray discs are kept that each come housed inside their own standard blue keepcase, and they are region free according to Full Moon's site. Finally, beneath both the movies is a Certificate of Authenticity signed by Charles Band.

The Video: Sizing Up the Picture

'Puppet Master' (2.5/5) - When 'Puppet Master: Axis of Evil' was planned for a Blu-ray release, Charles Band also took the opportunity to revisit the original 'Puppet Master' and create a brand new master from the 35mm negative print for these 20th Anniversary DVD and Blu-ray editions. Unlike previous home video versions that were always presented in 1.33:1 full frame, this new release is apparently the first time 'Puppet Master' can be seen in 16 x 9 widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio).

Despite the new re-mastering, however, I won't lie -- the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode on this Blu-ray is still in pretty rough shape. There's a ton of noticeable wear and tear--with many instances of dirt, scratches, splotches, and the odd stray hair infesting the transfer. The brief interludes displaying the Bodega Bay Inn set on top of the cliffs have black marks in the skyline that remain on screen for multiple frames. The palette is worn and faded, with some decent splashes of reds and greens, but even those pale in comparison to newer releases. Black levels are never particularly rich or deep, either, though to be honest I have seen worse. Fleshtones are fairly consistent, although they can occasionally appear a bit rosy. The level of depth is weak, and while fine detailing is never exceptional, more is certainly revealing on this disc--from Blade's stringy white hair to the textures of the puppet fabrics. It's also worth noting a few of the panning shots are jittery. There is evidence of DNR, yet a slight grain field remains intact and the picture is quite soft on the whole.

In the end, sure 'Puppet Master' probably could have been cleaned up more, but realistically this is a dirt cheap production from the eighties, and Full Moon isn't the kind of studio that has the bankroll lying around to invest in a top-of-the-line restoration. So in terms of Blu-ray--yeah it's terrible, but in terms of 'Puppet Master'--it's miles better than the old DVDs which should at least count for something.

'Puppet Master: Axis of Evil' (3/5) comes to Blu-ray with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 (2.35:1) encode that isn't just a significant step up from the grubby transfer of 'Puppet Master,' this one has a couple of shining moments that actually resemble a high-definition presentation!

The opening of the film recycles a few scenes from the original's prologue with William Hickey and I was surprised to see that they look much cleaner, with considerably less debris and imperfections on the print. There's still a bit of dirt, and those black specs are still visible in the skyline of the Inn's exterior shots on the cliffs, but overall it appears more time and work went into making those old scenes blend smoother with the new material.

The new content itself is surprisingly clean -- if a little on the soft side. A few darker scenes have a mild hint of grain to them, and fortunately there isn't a whole lot to complain about in terms of digital noise. It does seem DNR has been applied, though, but to my eyes it doesn't really harm the image quality. Fine detailing is adequate and flesh tones look natural, even if they don't reveal every pore and skin imperfection. The palette is washed out and black levels often aren't fully resolved, either, and this obviously leads to a flatter presentation for the majority of the film.

But every so often this transfer at least makes an attempt to give us what we expect from hi-def. Colors and black levels can occasionally be quite impressive, like when Max and Klaus are walking at night through the neon-lit back streets of ChinaTown. This particular scene and a handful of others also somehow manage to muster up an appealing sense of depth as well as decent shadow detailing.

The bottom line is that while 'Puppet Master: Axis of Evil' may not be a visual delight, it's still far better than I expected -- especially when considering its low budget limitations.

The Audio: Rating the Sound

There have been early reports that both 'Puppet Master' and 'Puppet Master: Axis of Evil' on Blu-ray actually have Dolby Digital Stereo soundtracks, as opposed to the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix stated on the packaging and advertised on Full Moon's website. I myself have confirmed this to be true with the product I personally ordered, but I've contacted the customer service at Full Moon and was informed that they are aware of the issue. Apparently there's a small batch of discs with this audio glitch. The company is going to send me replacements with the correct audio soundtracks as soon as they have more available so I will update this section when they arrive.

In the meantime, the Dolby Digital Stereo mix on 'Puppet Master' (2/5) is about average for a Dolby Digital Stereo mix. While the dialogue isn't as clean and crisp as say, Criterion stereo releases, it still comes through intelligible at least. There does appear to be a slight lip-synching issue that crops up about a half an hour in to the movie, however, though it is a relatively minor issue. The original music by Richard Band sounds okay, but again it does sound a bit restrained here, as do most of the sound effects. The waves of the ocean can be heard in the background sometimes during scenes inside the hotel. Bass is very weak as well, with barely a whimper of a rumble. Basically the bottom line is this track is far from impressive, but it's acceptable for a low-budget production.

The mix on 'Puppet Master: Axis of Evil' (2.5/5) is noticeably better than the one on the original 'Puppet Master' Blu-ray. The soundtrack is cleaner and a bit more spacious throughout the room. Dialogue is crisper as well, but there are few times where there's a slight echo to a few lines, and the lip-synching issue that I noted in my last review also seems to be present here (although I only really noticed it this time when Ozu speaks). Bass activity is stronger on this disc, but it's still pretty weak overall. The best part of the soundtrack is once again Richard Band's score, and we get a great updated version of his iconic 'Puppet Master' theme music during the opening credits to boot! In the end, it's a passable mix for this kind of low budget production, but I'm still curious to see how well the multi channel audio pans out.

The Supplements: Digging Into the Good Stuff

Besides the collectible limited edition packaging and other memorabilia, each disc also includes their own assortment of bonus features.

'Puppet Master' (1/5):

  • Special Introduction by Charles Band (SD) – Charles Band addresses the fans to talk about the new transfers for this release and provide some history on the 'Puppet Master' franchise.

  • No Strings Attached (SD, 7:19) – This is a decent retro "making of" featurette for the original 'Puppet Master.' There are short interview segments with director David Schmoeller, actor Paul Le Mat, a very young Charles Band, and others about the production with behind-the-scenes footage for some of the special effects and puppetry.

  • Promo for 'Puppet Master: Axis of Evil' (SD) – The trailer for the latest 'Puppet Master' sequel.

  • Original Trailers for the First 12 Full Moon Features (SD) – Finally, trailer hounds get their fix with previews for the first dozen Full Moon flicks: 'Puppet Master,' 'Shadowzone,' 'The Pit and the Pendulum,' 'Crash and Burn,' 'Puppet Master II,' 'Subspecies,' 'Meridian: Kiss of the Beast,' 'Puppet Master III: Toulon's Revenge,' 'Netherworld,' 'Trancers II,' 'Demonic Toys,' and 'Dollman.'

'Puppet Master: Axis of Evil' (2/5):

  • No Strings Attached (SD, 7:19) – This is the same retro "making of" featurette included on the original 'Puppet Master.' There are short interview segments with director David Schmoeller, actor Paul Le Mat, a very young Charles Band, and others about the production with behind-the-scenes footage for some of the special effects and puppetry.

  • The Making of Evil - 13 Vidcasts from China (SD, 75:18) – All 13 behind-the-scenes/production diary vidcasts that were recorded in China during the twelve days of filming and posted online are included here. Charles Band hosts the first couple and David DeCoteau takes over for the rest. While there are some interesting tidbits for fans, like a Chinese studio walk-through revealing all kinds of different sets, there's also a fair bit of nothingness going on (as well as some pretty bizarre and unfunny humor). Unfortunately, all the vidcasts are lumped together into one feature that play in order and chapter skipping is disabled, so don't check this out unless you have a little over an hour to kill.

  • Trailers (SD) – The last inclusion is a collection of trailers for all nine Full Moon-produced 'Puppet Master' films (the original film and the eight official sequels). The only trailer that's missing is the unofficial made-for-TV 'Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys' that aired on the Sci-fi Channel in 2004 starring Corey Feldman.

HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?

There aren't any high definition exclusives.

Final Thoughts

The 'Puppet Master' films are cult favorites and this trunk collector's set includes both the original 'Puppet Master' and its eighth official sequel 'Puppet Master: Axis of Evil' on Blu-ray. While the trunk itself could have been a bit nicer and included a few more collectible items, it still looks pretty good sitting on my shelf next to my Blade, Jester, and Pinhead replicas. The Blu-rays have acceptable video for B-movies (this is Full Moon after all), spotty audio due to a glitch that should hopefully improve when the defective product is replaced, and an adequate amount of supplements. The bottom line is this set is really only for the extreme 'Puppet Master' nuts who want to own the movies on Blu-ray with a little something extra.

Technical Specs

  • 2 BD-25 Blu-ray Discs
  • Limited Edition (1800)
  • Toulon Trunk Collector's Case
  • Trading Cards, Stickers, Poster, Certificate of Authenticity

Video Resolution/Codec

  • 1080p/AVC MPEG-4

Aspect Ratio(s)

  • 1.85:1 (Puppet Master)
  • 2.35:1 (Puppet Master: Axis of Evil)

Audio Formats

  • English Dolby Digital Stereo (box incorrectly states 5.1)

Subtitles/Captions

  • None

Supplements

  • No Strings Attached - Making of 'Puppet Master'
  • The Making of Evil - 13 Vidcasts from China
  • Trailers for the First 12 Full Moon Features
  • 'Puppet Master: Axis of Evil' Promo

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