Color, 1991, 86m
Directed by David DeCoteau
Starring Guy Rolfe, Richard Lynch, Ian Abercrombie, Kristopher Logan, Aron Eisenberg, Walter Gotell, Sarah Douglas, Michelle Bauer
Full Moon (Blu-Ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9) / DD5.1, Echo Bridge, Full Moon, New Video (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / DD2.0

Puppet Master III While most companies wait to see if the sequels to their most popular films get a warm reception before continuing the series, that certainly wasn't the case in 1991. Hot on the heels of the release of Puppet Master II to a hungry VHS crowd, Full Moon wrapped up the year by swerving the series in an entirely different direction with the ambitious Puppet Puppet Master IIIMaster III: Toulon's Revenge.

Basically an origin story set in Nazi-era Germany, it complicates the motivations of both its human and puppet characters by filling in an entire additional narrative only hinted at in the first two films. It also wisely adds plenty of cult value for fans with a cast of familiar faces: Guy Rolfe (from Stuart Gordon's Dolls and William Castle's Mr. Sardonicus) taking on the Toulon role for the first of four appearances, the magnetic Sarah Douglas (Ursa from Superman II) as his wife Elsa, Walter Gotell (from many of the Roger Moore/007 films) getting more T&A than the rest of his filmography combined, and even scream queen Michelle Bauer, reuniting here with director David DeCoteau and company head Charles Band after their days in the '80s with Empire Pictures. However, acting honors go to the late Richard Lynch (The Sword and the Sorcerer), playing the pivotal role of the villainous Major Krauss.

This time Toulon and his minions are presented as antiheroes, sort of, since they're pitted against a squad of Nazis led by the scheming Krauss, who wants to find out how the puppeteer manages to bring inanimate objects to life. Third Reich scientist Dr. Hess (Army of Darkness's Abercrombie) is trying to reanimate dead soldier to create an undead army, but when that hits a brick wall, another soldier manages to snap some photos of Toulon operating his stars without strings after a children's puppet show. When the Nazis decide to steal Toulon's secret, the raid goes badly and leaves Elsa dead. Toulon escapes with the bloody aid of his puppets (a standout scene), with whom he then conspires to avenge himself while he adds a few innovations to his own supernatural formulas.

Among fans of the series, this one is perhaps best remembered for the introduction of Six Shooter, one of the best of all the puppets. A snickering, six-armed cowboy, he's both eerie and sympathetic and one of the most inventive additions among the tinier cast members. While the first film was strictly horror fare and the second one revved it up with more surrealistic and drive-in elements, this one takes a page from the third Nightmare on Elm Street film by going for a broader canvas far removed from scares and screams. It's still definitely in the realm of fantastic cinema but pretty far from traditional horror, instead serving up a tale of magic and revenge against a 1940s backdropPuppet Master III to which the series occasionally returned in the future (most notably in another DeCoteau contribution, Puppet Master: Axis of Evil). This is also the point at which the series continuity started to get a little sketchy (for example, try reconciling this with several events in the second film), but you probably won't notice with everything else going on. All things considered, it's pretty astonishing the third film in the series could be pulled off with this much panache; even though the whole German language issue is a bit confusing thanks to an odd variety of accents (and Lynch occasionally yelling "Schnell!"), the cast is a major coup, and it's clear everyone was pulling out all the stops for a fun demonstration of puppets running around making mincemeat of Nazis. (And in a relatively realistic twist, not all of them are 100% evil.) There are even some nice plot twists along the way, especially the revelation of the missing component needed to bring the puppets to life in the first place.

Like its predecessors, this film went straight to video and became a VHS mainstay for many years. The open matte transfer wasn't much to scream about, and that's what we've been stuck with since the early '90s throughout most of its DVD editions. Timed with Puppet Master II on both Blu-Ray and DVD for relePuppet Master IIIase by Full Moon via direct distribution in 2012 (with a British version for mass distribution containing the same contents from 88 Films), it's a similar story here as the new HD transfer easily makes mincemeat of any version we've seen before. Apart from a handful of stock footage shots from obviously older 35mm sources, it's almost completely pristine and looks more like a bona fide theatrical feature than the weirdly-framed, soft, cheap-looking version we've all come to know and love. In particular the colorful backgrounds of many interiors now have a vivid, lollipop-hued intensity completely absent before, and the more lush renditions of shadows and background details give the film a sheen that could make this a fine intro for anyone curious about the series as well. Again we have two audio tracks here, the original two-channel Dolby Stereo one and a 5.1 mix that splits the channels a little more but sounds much thinner, especially when it comes to the music (which amusingly contains some brief, barely-disguised quotations from Re-Animator and Tourist Trap). Stick with the original mix for the best viewing experience if possible. Also included is an entertaining audio commentary with De Coteau and screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner (Class of 1999), who had to throw this together in record time when the second film became a home video hit and distributor Paramount wanted another one right away. They also cover working with all of the actors, toning down a few bloodier frames, that aforementioned stock footage, and shooting exteriors for two days on the Universal lot. The other extras are essentially the same as the second film's, Blu-Ray-wise, consisting of a new Charles Band intro to both films, the "Killer Montage" of puppet attacks, the 1996 toy commercial, and HD Full Moon trailers for titles like Demonic Toys 2, Evil Bong 3, The Dead Want Women, and Skull Heads.

Reviewed on September 19, 2012.