Goes to the Movies

Trash Culture Goes to the Movies – Puppet Master II (1991)

resurrectionpuppetmasterii So here’s the plot of Puppet Master II in a nutshell:  a group converges upon the Bodega Bay Inn and are picked off one by one by killer puppets at the behest of a human villain, but the puppets eventually turn on their master.  Sound familiar?  Well, okay, they do hammer in a love triangle involving reincarnation and a sort-of immortal being halfway through, but we’ll get to that. The puppets go to a cemetery, conveniently located just outside the hotel, and dig up their creator Andre Toulon (who was now killed in 1941 instead of 1939, but this isn’t a continuity error; apparently Charles Band decided that this movie must take exactly 50 years after Toulon’s death).  They pour a green liquid (not that green liquid…I think) onto the corpse, and it begins to stir. Since I already heavily spoiled this movie that’s so old it probably just graduated from college, let me just say that, yep, Andre Toulon is the villain.  Given that I know a little bit about what happens in the sequels, this might end up being a case of retconuenza. But, of course, if I shot myself in the head and was brought back to life after five decades of decay, I’d probably be a little off too.

This time around, the Bodega Bay Inn is being visited by a team of paranormal investigators sent from the government who apparently, by their own admission, operate on a shoestring budget and exist just to amuse the public. Alas, no Agent Mulder or Scully are on the team.  Instead we have Carolyn, the scientist; Lance, the tech guy; Wanda, who…uh, well, she walks around topless during a scene later; and Patrick, Carolyn’s brother, who just seems to be tagging along. Like with Dana in the last movie, the movie likes to drop hints that there’s more of a backstory between the lines. Wanda and Lance are sleeping together and doing little to disguise the fact, even though it’s very briefly suggested that Lance might be married and has a newborn child. Patrick is an ex-con who can easily pick locks, but we don’t know his crime or if because of his release he doesn’t have much of a choice but to work with his sister. I don’t mean all this as a criticism; movies that leave blanks to be filled by the audience’s imagination are usually doing a good thing, and it’s still more fleshing out than what slasher movie cattle usually get. But, just so ya’ll don’t forget this is a Full Moon production, the interior of the Inn looks nothing like it did in the last movie, with a couple of exterior shots to assure the viewer, “Hey, this is totally the same place!” settinguppuppetmasterii But that’s not the only thing out of place. See, the investigators are there to figure out why Alex Whitaker went insane after he experienced whatever caused his psychic colleagues to disappear – you know, the same Alex Whitaker who was calmly leaving for a cab at the end of the last movie. As for Megan Gallagher, her corpse was found with its brain missing and evidence that it was extracted through her nose. Poor Megan, but I really am concerned for Dana’s resurrected dog, whose ultimate fate goes unmentioned.  (Now there’s an idea for a fan fic!) The team is later joined by Camille, a genuine psychic who is nonetheless reduced to writing a transparently phony column for tabloids. Already unnerved by a run-in with a redneck couple who both serve as this movie’s Crazy Ralph, Camille gets bad vibes and vows to leave as quickly as she came – but not before she’s dispatched by Pinhead. Carolyn’s assumption that Camille just left without telling them gets rudely overturned when Patrick falls victim to Tunneler (who, oops, I called Driller last time!) in a rather gruesome sequence.

However, the team does score a small victory when they nab Tunneler and dissect him, but are shocked to find that he has no organic components whatsoever.  This leads Carolyn, who is pretty much your archetypal “Scientist who can only science because she sees the world through a sciencey lens” character, gets exasperated, exclaiming, “It has to be subject to physical laws!”  Ha, tell that to Pinhead and his physics-busting strength! Anyway, as Crazy Ralph himself found out the hard way, even rednecks who try to warn the future victims aren’t safe from the malevolent forces they ineffectively warn outsiders about. As the couple lie in bed, Leech Woman, who dispenses with her usual impractical modus operandi and goes for the beautiful simplicity of a dagger, cuts into the brain of the husband. Tragically, the wife proves much more adept at dealing with killer puppets, and Leech Woman gets burned alive. Alas, poor Leech Woman, we hardly knew ye. puppetmaster2leechwomandeath Luckily, she’s swiftly avenged in the old-school “eye for an eye” fashion by an (inexplicable) newcomer to the gang, Torch, who…you don’t really need me to explain, do you? I have to say, while the design on all the puppets is classic, Torch is probably my favorite. He’s like what would happen if you put all of World War II in a tangible form. puppetmaster2torch Back at Bodega Bay Inn, Carolyn and the rest meet a couple of unexpected guests. The first introduces himself as Erique Chaneé (Get it?  Chaney?) and dresses up like the classic Universal monster-style Invisible Man. Of course, it’s actually Andre Toulon pretending to be suffering from a crippling medical condition that isn’t undeath. Now, I know that when we saw him in the first movie he definitely didn’t have a French accent, but here he not only has a French-sounding name but gives himself an even more French-sounding alias. Yet for some reason his accent here is best described as “Transromangarian.” puppetmaster2toulon The second interloper is Camille’s son Michael, a motorcycle-riding novelist who came searching for his mother and who promptly discovers, through the autopsied Tunneler, what’s really going on. The two hit it off – and I mean really hit it off – despite…well, who knows, maybe a man and a woman dealing with a likely dead mother and a brutally murdered brother respectively would be inclined to hump away their grief?

In any case, it’s around here where Puppet Master II shifts a bit and turns into basically a love letter to the old-school monster movies of Universal Studios, especially The Mummy. Like in that movie, Toulon becomes convinced that Carolyn is the reincarnation of his dead wife Elsa, who was with him when he first discovered the secrets of bringing life to inanimate objects in Cairo in 1912. Also, just like a villain from that era, Toulon loves to monologue – at the puppets, at Carolyn, at empty air…It doesn’t help, at least for me, that between the fact that Toulon’s actor makes Toulon softspoken and the phony accent I understood maybe half of what Toulon was saying. But the gist is that Toulon has crossed oceans of time yadda yadda. But it is left ambiguous whether or not Carolyn really is the reincarnation of Elsa or if Toulon has gone insane, or at least the script just doesn’t leave any clues that reincarnation is part of the mix other than the same actress playing Carolyn portraying Elsa in a flashback. I would call the movie’s driving plot in its second half a love triangle – but Carolyn is never anything but suspicious of and disgusted with Toulon, treating him like a stalker and unsympathetic to his claimed medical condition, and Michael is conventionally handsome but more wooden than the puppets. But luckily for the audience the puppets are still out killing, with Torch taking on a little boy who…strips his action figure shirtless and begins to whip his back? puppetmaster2kidwithissues Okay, this is already my favorite Puppet Master movie, just for not only having the guts to count a kid among its victims, but to also depict said kid as a blossoming sadomasochist. We learn from one of Toulon’s barely audible yet very lengthy monologues that the puppets, particularly Jester, are running low on the liquid that gives them life. To survive another 50 years, they’ll need more of the liquid, which can only be made from a particular part of the human brain. Again, it’s going to be really interesting seeing Toulon as the hero later on in the series. Also stacking the deck against a sympathetic view of Toulon is that he’s modified the plan to include Carolyn. He schemes to use the liquid to transfer his and Carolyn’s consciousnesses into human-size puppet bodies, which really are the scariest things in this film. Yet Carolyn is not sent running when she finds them as she snoops around Toulon’s room, which allows him to capture her when he returns. puppetmaster2lifesize Oh, like the screenwriter I almost forgot about Wanda and Lance and their tragic and adulterous love affair!  They die. (But during their final sequence can you folks at home catch the scene that was in desperate need of a reshoot? I may spoil the plot, but I won’t spoil that). Rather impressively, Michael becomes the first person in the series able to take on most of the puppets (although it helps that they follow martial arts movie rules and only fight him one at a time). Still, it looks like Carolyn is about to be condemned to at least 50 years in a dead-eyed, wooden body…until Toulon makes the amazing blunder of telling the puppets that they’re going to die while he uses up the last of the liquid on Carolyn. Needless to say, the puppets rebel against their own creator, and luckily for them it doesn’t seem like Toulon managed to make his new body all that durable. After the puppets rectify their mistake in bringing their creator back to life, Jester takes a goblet of liquid and heads over to Camille’s corpse… In an epilogue, we see Carolyn and Michael are still a couple, and will hopefully not suddenly go mad and have to be institutionalized between movies.

Meanwhile the puppets are on the road and performing again with a revived Camille in the body Toulon made for “Elsa.”  They’re headed to the “Balderston Institute for Troubled Tots and Teens” where hopefully, Camille muses, if any of the audience notices anything strange in their performance nobody would believe them because of their mental illness. If nothing else, it’s a handy allegory for fans of Full Moon! (And naturally I don’t exclude myself…). puppetmaster2endSo how does the first sequel hold up to the original? I’m of two minds. Technically speaking, it is a better movie with a tighter story, apart from the abrupt introduction of Michael and the whole “lost reincarnated love” cliche. On the other hand, it’s not as delightfully chaotic as the original, with your Nazis, psychics, and killer puppets all running loose. Plus here we don’t get to see Leech Woman in action before her tragic death, although the movie does almost make up for it by giving us Sado-Boy…who also tragically perishes. Overall, I’m still optimistic!  We’ll soon see what Charles Band has in store for me next time.

Doctor Who Write-Ups

Doctor Who – The Web of Fear (1968)

weboffearAfter Salamander falls into the time vortex, the TARDIS is spinning out of control, but Jamie manages to reach the control panel and stabilize its movement. Elsewhen in 1970s (probably?) London an elderly Professor Travers, accompanied by his daughter Anne, a scientist living in the United States, confronts a collector named Julius.  Travers regrets bringing back the robot Yeti he found from Tibet and selling them to Julius, and angrily demands that Julius let him buy back the Yeti. Anne tries to reassure him, but Travers admits that while experimenting with one of the spheres that control the robots he reactivated it and now it went missing. Just as Julius throws Travers and Anne out of his house, the sphere appears and reactivates the Yeti, which promptly kills Julius. Back on the TARDIS, the Doctor sees that the TARDIS is suspended in outer space, literally caught in some kind of fungus. He manages to rig the TARDIS controls to escape, causing it to land in an unused tunnel in the London underground near a station for Charing Cross. While searching the tunnel for clues as to what trapped the TARDIS, Victoria and Jamie are captured by soldiers preparing to destroy the tunnel and brought to an underground bomb shelter where the Professor and Anne Travers and military officers are working together to stop the Yeti, which have taken over the subway tunnels. Meanwhile the Doctor comes across two Yeti who are guarding a pyramid like the ones from Tibet.

Victoria and Jamie are reunited with Professor Travers, and Jamie volunteers to accompany some soldiers into the tunnels. When it turns out that the explosives were sabotaged, the one journalist allowed by the British government to cover the story, Harold Chorley, accuses the Doctor and his companions of being the ones behind it. Anne is convinced, finding it odd that the Doctor was present both times Prof. Travers came across the Yeti. After overhearing the Travers’ conversation, Victoria decides to return to the tunnels to look for the Doctor herself. In the tunnels, several soldiers find out the hard way that the Yeti are bulletproof and armed with deadly guns, which disable the explosives by generating the same fungus-like substance that trapped the TARDIS and is spread throughout the tunnels.  In the shelter, the Travers observe that the fungus is rapidly expanding on its own across the tunnels. Jamie, who has set off on his own with a soldier named Evans, is trapped by the fungus.

Evans destroys the pyramid but it doesn’t stop the fungus. Victoria finds the Doctor with Colonel Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, who had been sent to take over the mission. The Brigi…I mean, the Colonel signs off on a plan to use explosives to seal the shelter away from the fungus, but it’s too late. The Doctor realizes that someone is working with the Great Intelligence, which is why he’s less than happy to learn that Victoria blurted out everything about the TARDIS to the erratically behaving Harold Chorley. Reunited with the Doctor, Jamie and the rest, while looking for Harold, instead find a distressed Anne, who has discovered that her father was taken by one of the Yeti. Learning about the TARDIS, the Colonel is not all that skeptical, but decides it is their last hope to escape the fungus and sends a squad to find it. Unfortunately, all of them except Evans and seemingly one other soldier are killed trying to cross through the fungus.  The rest of the soldiers fare no better: they go up to London to protect the Doctor as he retrieves electronic parts needed for a device Anne has created, but most of the soldiers are slaughtered by the Yeti, leaving the Colonel alone to escape back to the shelter for his life.

There’s no safe refuge for our heroes anymore, however, as the shelter is invaded by the Yeti who are being led by Prof. Travers, who has been possessed by the Great Intelligence. Cornering the Doctor and the others, the Great Intelligence declares that the whole scenario was a giant trap for the Doctor. In exchange for the Doctor’s companions’ lives, it wants to use a device to absorb all the Doctor’s knowledge. The Great Intelligence takes Victoria and drags her into the tunnels, with Jamie, the Colonel, and Evans following. The Doctor and Anne finish Anne’s invention, a remote control that can override the commands sent to one of the Yeti’s control spheres, but it only works in short range. Victoria and Prof. Travers, now free from the Great Intelligence’s possession, are led to a control room where there’s a larger pyramid where eventually they are joined by all the other survivors, all seized by the Yetis. The Doctor surrenders and everyone discovers that the Great Intelligence had taken over the corpses of one of the officers killed by the fungus, pretending that the man had barely survived. At seemingly the last minute, and despite the Doctor’s protests, Jamie uses Anne’s remote control to cause the “rogue” Yeti to break the pyramid and destroy the Great Intelligence’s corporeal body. An aggravated Doctor explains that he had crossed the wires in the pyramid, which would have let the Doctor absorb the Great Intelligence, meaning that the Great Intelligence has only been broken off from contact with Earth rather than destroyed.

Sign of the Times

Anne has this exchange with one officer:

“What’s a girl like you doing in a job like this?
Well, when I was a little girl I thought I’d be a scientist…so I became a scientist.
Just like that?
Just like that.”

Continuity Notes

This is the serial that introduces Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, better known as “the Brigadier” (although he’s not quite the Brigadier yet!), who despite not being an “official” companion is as much a beloved staple of the classic series as Sarah Jane Smith. Sadly, the actual episode where he first appears is missing, even after most of the serial’s episodes were discovered in 2013.  It’s still not the debut of UNIT, although honestly it might as well be.

Also, at the risk of invoking the series’ most notorious continuity snafu way too soon, I couldn’t help notice that if you look at the time frame this serial’s prequel, “The Abominable Snowmen”, was supposed to take place in and Prof. Travers’s claim that he hadn’t seen the Doctor in “over 40 years”, this serial can be said to take place in the early ’70s. Keep that in mind when we get to the confusion over when exactly the “UNIT years” take place…

Anne Travers actually raises a good point, even though the episode does begin with the Doctor being forced to appear in this particular time and place: why does the Doctor show up when there’s trouble? This does get answered much later in “The Doctor’s Wife,” where it’s pretty much spelled out that the TARDIS consciously at least some of the time takes the Doctor to where he’s needed.


A threat represented by foam and lit-up plastic sheets, a solemn fight sequence between British soldiers and shambling robot Yeti, people running around corridors…now this is “classic Who.”

It’s hard to judge this serial in retrospect, since it lays out so much of what would define the show in the Third Doctor era, and not just by bringing in the (soon to be) Brigadier. Even with the recovered episodes – or perhaps partially because of them – I do wonder if the presence of the Brigadier does give the serial more of a reputation than it otherwise would have. Don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty good, and watching Nicholas Courtney as the stoic yet not stereotypically cold military man Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart alone explains why he became a mainstay for a show that runs through countless other characters as a matter of course.  But it’s telling that in a story where robotic Yeti and a foamy fungus invade the London tubes the goofiest thing is the overacting of the actor playing Evans (and I think there’s more than a little bit of anti-Welsh stereotyping there too).  It doesn’t help that it feels like he’s practically in every scene.

But for all that this is generally the sort of thing people think about when they wax nostalgic about old-school “Doctor Who.” At the very least it can give you an education on how frightening foam can be.


Literary Corner

Trash Culture Literary Corner: Batman & Robin: Chapters 4-5

To be honest, despite her being more or less one of the top-tier members of Batman’s rogues gallery, I don’t think Poison Ivy is often written that well.  That might not be the best observation for a character who basically imperils the male heroes by trying to sleep with them (much like Marvel’s Enchantress), but that’s not to say she hasn’t been presented in an interesting way. The best comic I’ve read where she is the antagonist is Ann Nocenti’s Cast Shadows, which played down her usual role as a femme fatale archetype or an extremist environmentalist and instead presented her as a scientific genius whose traumatic past and present rage against an impersonal, heavily urbanized, and male-dominated society has turned her into a dangerous killer, much to the detriment of a world that could actually benefit from her botanical creations. Outside comics, there was the classic Batman: The Animated Series episode Home & Garden, which presented the tragic side to her own powers and hinted in a surprisingly subtle way how that could twist someone’s psyche. For the most part, even good writers tend to just have her be a red-headed succubus with a vague plant theme or an eco-terrorist whom even Earth First! would advise to dial it down a shade. It was actually kind of a relief when, after a couple of episodes playing up the latter version of her, a few episodes of B: TAS made her motives more mundanely criminal. Then there’s the interpretation in Batman & Robin, which I can sum up in a phrase:  It was pretty damn horrible. poisonivy Batman & Robin’s Poison Ivy runs with the eco-terrorist and maneater roles at the same time, but she’s also a pastiche of Golden Age Hollywood Jezebels. Because, I imagine, comic book fans would be most receptive to an elaborate number referencing Marlene Dietrich’s famous “gorilla suit” sequence in 1932’s Blonde Venus?  (Well, okay, normally I would be, but that’s beside the point…). Worse is that they case Uma Thurman, who actually could have pulled off at least a slightly more nuanced take on the character, or at least one that tapped into the animated series incarnation. But, no, instead we got another bit of miscasting that almost rivals Tommy Lee Jones’s turn as Two-Face. Honestly, one of the reasons I wanted to do this project was seeing how a writer would handle this interpretation of Poison Ivy. Would it be ambitious, like how Peter David in his novelization of Batman Forever played around with the barely hinted idea of the Riddler as having a fixation on Bruce Wayne?  Or…

She had never been the cheerleader type. She’d accepted that long ago. But out here in the rain forest, her personal appearance was going from bad to absolutely horrible. Everywhere she looked, she had some kind of blemish, some interesting variety of rash.

Okay, I’m not one of those “everything is problematic!” cultural critics and I know the movie itself makes it clear that Pamela Isley got sexified when she turned into Poison Ivy. But let’s just say the “An ugly duckling turned into a swan…a killer swan” thing isn’t really an aspect I’d emphasize, personally.

At any rate, the book is somewhat faithful to Poison Ivy’s origin in the comics, even nailing down the detail that her hometown isn’t Gotham City but Seattle. In the comics, she was a graduate student in botany working on a research project for Professor Woodrue, who was secretly an alien plant being with the codename the Floronic Man (don’t you just love comics?). She was given her toxic body and ability to communicate with plants when Woodrue experimented on her to create a human-plant hybrid. Here Woodrue is just a creepy, amoral scientist who tries to seduce Pamela – and, in another dark moment that doesn’t fit the tone of the movie (or the book adaptation, for that matter), causes her to fear that he’s about to rape her. The biggest tweak to Pamela’s origin is that now she invented the super-strength serum Venom, which she was…hoping could be used to help plants defend themselves against human encroachment? (That’s exactly what makes the narrator’s thoughts of being raped rather jarring). And instead of being a human guinea pig, Pamea Isley stumbles across Woodrue selling Venom to the highest bidder, she rejects Woodure’s advances one more time, and he shoves her into tables full of plants and chemical containers, just like Mr. Freeze’s origin which has him falling into a vat of cryogenic solution. Too bad the series didn’t continue, or else we would have had a Mad Hatter origin that culminates with Jervis Tetch falling into a vat of hats. At least Robin notices it:

“Let me get this straight. A brilliant citizen, disfigured by a horrible accident, reemerges as a psychotic super-villain bent on theft, revenge, and destruction. You see a pattern here?”