• Retro Puppet Master

    Released by: Full Moon Features
    Released on: May 8, 2017
    Directed by: David DeCoteau
    Cast: Guy Rolfe, Greg Sestero, Brigitta Dau, Stephen Blackehart, Jack Donner, Robert Radoveanu, Vitalie Bantas, Sandu Teodor, George Calin, Juliano Doman, Vlad Dulea
    Year: 1999
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    The Movie:

    While on the run following the events of Puppet Master 3, aging puppet-maker Andre Toulon recounts how he came to make his living marionettes. In Cairo, Egypt in the early 1900s, a centuries-old sorcerer, Afzel, stole the secrets of life from an ancient Egyptian god named Sutekh (another name for Set, the god of violence and storms). Angered, Sutekh resurrects three former worshippers, whom he sends after Afzel. The only problem is that Afzel’s powerful magicks keep him one step ahead of Sutekh’s revenants.

    Later, in Paris, young Andre Toulon is putting on a puppet show watched by Elsa, the daughter of an oppressive and overly concerned ambassador. After leaving the show, Elsa observes as Afzel is beaten by henchman sent by the resurrected mummies. With Toulon’s help, she moves Afzel into a neighboring building; upon waking, Afzel tells Toulon that he knows the secret of life. He also warns Toulon that eldritch gods are coming, and only the secret he possesses can protect mankind. When Afzel uses his powers to bring Toulon’s puppets to life, Toulon agrees to accept the knowledge that Afzel is offering.

    After various intrigues, the three mummies move in for the kill, unaware that Afzel has shared his dark gift. Finding their victims, Toulon places their souls in his various puppets. Detecting that the secret has been passed on, the mummies then attack Toulon, but his puppets protect him. Believing his foes defeated, Toulon takes his puppets and leaves Paris. The surviving mummies, however, strike upon a way to trap Toulon, and it involves kidnapping Elsa.

    Shot on film for the direct-to-video market, Retro Puppet Master is another example of Full Moon’s, and producer Charles Band’s, interest in making smart, original horror films on a low budget. At odds with the subgenres that surrounded them at the time, the series consistently aimed for unique stories that built on previous entries, and Retro Puppet Master is no exception. A prequel to the rest of the series, its African and European settings and time frame are alone enough to set it apart. Shot on many of the same Romanian locations used for Vampire Journals (1997) and Witchhouse (1999), the film featured a look that belied its budget.

    Helping out tremendously is the direction of David DeCoteau. DeCoteau began his career at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures before graduating to Empire Pictures, where Charles Band gave him his first directing gig. By the time he oversaw Retro Puppet Master, DeCoteau had made well over 30 films, including several in the Puppet Master series, making him an old hat at the series as well as the horror genre. The director brings some real flair to some of the scenes, particularly when the resurrected mummies are making their kills. He also seems at home with the Gothic setting, giving Retro Puppet Master something of a Universal-meets-Hammer Horror feel.

    On a minor note, it should be pointed out that lead actor Greg Sestero, who played the young Andre Toulon, is the same actor who co-starred in The Room (2003) and wrote the book The Disaster Artist about his experiences on the film. That book also discusses this film and is the source for a new theatrical film starring James Franco, Seth Rogan, Sharon Stone, Zac Effron, and Melanie Griffith. Franco’s younger brother Dave is playing Sestero.


    Full Moon brings Retro Puppet Master to Blu-ray with a new transfer in 1080p high definition and an MPEG-4 AVC encode. The film is presented at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and looks very good. Clearly shot on 35mm, it features an improvement over previous DVD releases in every way. Detail is much sharper, particularly during brighter scenes. Facial stubble, skin pores, trampled snow, and building décor all stand out beautifully. Colors are solid, with reds especially appealing, while skin tones appear natural. Check out one scene in which young Andre Toulon stands in a gray and red jacket with the green and white snow behind him. Another shot includes young Toulon wearing black among a copse of trees with heavy snow on the ground; the only color is the green of the leaves that still cling to those trees. In these instances, the colors pop, and detail is superb. This is what the film looks like during the majority of its relatively brief running time. There is enough grain to give the picture a filmic look, but it rarely becomes blown out or crushes the image, though there are a few exceptions. There’s also some minor artifacting, though this is not the norm. A few stock shots, mostly of the puppets, are taken from a video source; at these times, the image becomes a little blurrier and less appealing (some of these are even sepia-toned), but this shouldn’t affect most people’s enjoyment of the film, as it appears perfect far more often than it appears imperfect. There are a number of extras, yet there don’t appear to be any serious compression issues despite the fact that everything is housed on a single BD25.

    Full Moon offers two sound options: English Dolby Digital 5.1 and English Dolby Digital 2.0. While it’s unfortunate that the studio didn’t go for something less lossy, the sound isn’t terrible. It’s mixed well enough that there isn’t much competition between dialogue and musical cues, though the surround mixes are nothing to write home about. Dialogue is front and center as it should be. Unfortunately, there are no optional English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired. On the upside, however, there is an audio commentary featuring director David DeCoteau and lead actor Greg Sestero. The men were clearly in two different locations, recording the commentary together via some sort of hookup. Sestero sounds a little tinny, but otherwise both men are easy to understand. There is no wasted space in the commentary, with DeCoteau acting as moderator. Both men relate their memories clearly, and they cover a lot of ground, discussing the actors, the locations, the crew, and so on. It’s a fun commentary, with DeCoteau and Sestero clearly enjoying themselves.

    When the disc is popped in, a promo for Full Moon’s streaming service on Amazon immediately plays, after which the menu screen pops up. After the commentary selection, the extras begin with a Videozone episode that runs 19:40. Hosted by Charles Band, it begins with a brief discussion of Retro Puppet Master before moving on to what’s coming. It then moves back to Retro Puppet Master, featuring behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with such participants as special effects artists Chris Bergschneider and Jeff Farley, as well as actors Jack Donner, Brigitta Dau, and Stephen Blackheart. It concludes with a series of promos for other Full Moon films and toys.

    Next up is a little over two hours of behind-the-scenes footage, introduced by director DeCoteau. The original found footage was around six hours long, with this representing what was deemed most interesting. Diehard fans will find a lot to digest here, from seeing actors being made up to seeing the director milling about directing. It’s certainly interesting, though at two hours, the majority of people will probably want to watch it with DeCoteau’s commentary turned on. The commentary is as interesting as that for the film and features a lot of factoids and anecdotes that should enrich the viewers’ experience with the film itself.

    Trailers include Ravenwolf Towers (1:40), Killjoy Psycho Circus (1:50), Puppet Master 2 (2:07), Puppet Master 3 (2:16), Puppet Master X (1:37), and Specters (1:30).

    The Final Word:

    Retro Puppet Master is a retro-style film, a Universal throwback with elements of Hammer Horror, done up in Full Moon’s trademark, brightly lit, and colorful style. It’s an entertaining film, and Full Moon has given it a strong visual transfer from stellar sources. The sound could be better, but the extras are killer, particularly DeCoteau and Sestero’s commentary. Fans of the film won’t be disappointed, while people new to the Puppet Master series just might find themselves won over to Full Moon’s particular brand of horror.

    Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the Silent Era and Horror Films of the 1930s are currently available, with Horror Films of the 1940s due out early next year.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!