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No Strings Attached: Remembering the Puppet Master Action Figure Series

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Puppet Master: The Action Figure Series

Kids are weird. It’s impossible to tell what’s going to resonate with them, what they’re going to gravitate toward or what it will take to really ignite that spark of creativity—or even healthy obsession. Some people remember Street Sharks or Beetle Borgs as things they loved as kids in the ‘90s and other people will have no idea what the hell those things are. For me, though, my tastes always leaned toward monsters. I dreamed of one day getting the Freddy and Jason action figures that we’re almost flooded in now. The only horror toys I had were the Universal Monster Happy Meal toys from Burger King.

And I was still dipping my toes into the genre when, in third grade, I picked up an issue of Lee’s Action Figure News and Toy Review that literally changed my young life. I don’t remember any of the X-Men or Spider-Man toys I probably picked up the magazine to read about in the first place because all I could see was this two page spread depicting Puppet Master: The Action Figure Series. I didn’t know what the hell Puppet Master was. But I could see from the description that it was a movie, possibly even a whole franchise.

Luckily, I had my childhood best friend, the guy who got me into horror, standing at my side. I pressed him for information on these movies. One look at these things and I was hooked. All I was even looking at were toys based on the films, not anything from the movies themselves. But from the designs of the characters, something resonated with me instantaneously. This was a series of figures based on killer toys that come to life. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. It was Toy Story for monster kids.

Puppet Master action figures - Blade

Unfortunately, living in a small town in Maine, these toys would not prove easy to come by. As much as I tried to dive into the franchise with both feet, literally renting the first three almost every weekend on a rotating basis, I couldn’t buy any of the films because they were currently out of print. I couldn’t buy any of the toys because we didn’t have anywhere close by to really buy that kind of thing. More than anything, I think the intangibility of that fed by passion for those movies and fueled my desire to get my hands on those toys.

It was around two years before I actually did get my hands on them, waking up to discover the whole set under the Christmas tree the way a normal-ass kid might discover a Power Rangers play set. That’s the magic of being a young fan. Everything is worth the wait. The toys did not disappoint. Not only were they accurate representations of the killer puppets I’d grown to love so much, but there’s one thing that I think distinguishes them from almost all horror movie based toys that followed.

They were actually action figures.

Now, I loved the living hell out of McFarlane’s Movie Maniacs because those gave me the Freddy, Jason, Leatherface, etc. toys I had always been dying to see. But they were designed to be displayed. They didn’t actually do anything. For the most part, that’s been the case ever since. These horror figures are by and large aimed at adults. You can pose them and maybe put different things in their hands, switch out some heads—but it’s all for the sake of how you think it will look on the shelf.

Puppet Master action figures - Six Shooter

The Puppet Master figures were actually designed to be played with, and I think that was ultimately a genius move on Full Moon’s part. They saw that kids were getting into their movies and recognized them as a part of their audience. Hell, Puppet Master 4 & 5 are borderline kids movies as it is. So they made the decision to make their characters available to the younger audience in a way that they could actually enjoy and have fun with. It was maybe the smartest thing Full Moon has ever done. I’m not sure Charles Band has made a better business decision since.

They were also aimed at collectors. Variant figures had started taking off in the ‘90s in a big way. Every new wave of Spawn figures would come with some slightly repainted figure that would be limited to only a few thousand so that people would go out of their way to seek that figure out and pay twice as much for it. Because of this logic, people who have never watched a single Puppet Master movie collected the hell out of the toys because those figures were variant city. There were about five different versions of every single puppet. Some of them were mild repaints, but some of them were actually cool.

For example, they had a new sequel to coincide with the release of the toys (Curse of the Puppet Master) and it featured a new look for Jester, so they had a variant figure to show off Jester’s new design. There was also a neat Torch in a camouflage jacket. My favorite, though, would have to be a repainted version of Blade with a silver face and red clothing, as an homage to the “Masque of the Red Death” sequence in The Phantom of the Opera.

Puppet Master action figures - Tunneler and Totem

Getting into the nitty gritty, though, let’s go through each of the puppets and what they could actually do. Starting with series one, we had Blade and Six-Shooter. Blade had a button on his back that you could press to make his eyes light up red. Mind you, he never actually did this in any of the movies, but it was something that featured heavily in the posters and marketing for the films. He also had interchangeable hands, which I thought was a neat feature. You could switch the knife and hook, or replace either one with a hatchet. Six-Shooter, meanwhile, didn’t do anything. If you watch the old toy commercial, all they do is excitably announce that you can move his arms.

The second series, Tunneler and Totem, also saw the action features lean heavily to one side. Tunneler had a dial on his back that you could move to make his drill spin. Much like Six-Shooter, Totem didn’t do anything at all.

Puppet Master action figures - Pinhead and Leech Woman

By the third series, which featured Pinhead and Leech Woman, Full Moon figured out how to make both of their figures interesting. Pinhead has a button on his back that you can press to make his head shoot upward—not off, mind you, which is kind of a missed opportunity. He also came with a barbell, which is sort of hilarious. Leech Woman had a button on her back that you would press to make the leech in her mouth wiggle. It’s gross and creepy, just as it should be. She also came with the knife she carried around in Puppet Master II, as well as extra leeches. Because if you’re going out, you’re going to need spares.

The fourth and final series consisted of Jester and Torch. Jester, much like Tunneler, had a dial on his back. You would spin this to make his head spin around and change expressions, just as he does in the movies. Torch had a button on his back that you would press to make both his eyes and flamethrower arm light up red. He came with a plastic flame accessory that could be attached to the flamethrower and when you pressed that, it would glow red as well.

The series was capped off with a big, 12” Decapitron that—appropriately enough—came with three interchangeable heads. It was eventually followed by a 12” Blade and around that same time the Retro Puppet Master action figure series came out to build-up to the release of that feature. By that point, though, more retailers were actually carrying the toys than would wind up carrying the movie.

Puppet Master action figures - Torch and Jester

If these were still in regular circulation, I would encourage any horror-loving parent to buy them for their kids. Ages three and up, though, as it says on the packaging. Sadly, they’re not that easy to come by. You’ll always see a couple at a convention, but the toy series turns twenty years old this year. Other than a brief reprint “Movie Editions” line in 2001, they’ve been out of print for a long, long time.

I was a weird kid with weird interests, as I’m sure most of us were. Some if not most of my happiest childhood toy memories revolved around these little guys.

I can only hope that the new reboot, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, in addition to injecting some much-needed fresh blood into the series, can also deliver some new merchandising. Those little puppets were horror toys you could play with in a way we really still haven’t seen since. You could have them all gang up on the Totem (that loser), or have your friends pretend to be evil Nazis—hey, you did it when you played Indiana Jones—while you fake drilled the living hell out of their knees. You know, normal kid stuff. Harmless fun.

They really were harmless, too, and that’s the point. These ghastly gruesome toys did the same stuff that a Batman toy would do and there’s something about that that makes for such a safe and satisfying introduction to horror. These toys really meant a lot to me when I was younger and I think they make for a cool and innovative anecdote even now. It’s amazing that a franchise like this, which never even had a theatrical entry, got a toy series this good. It shouldn’t have happened. But, thankfully, it did.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LmHoAy1BH3c

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Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood – A 30th Anniversary Retrospective

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Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood opens with a very cool intro, albeit an unnecessary one. Fading in to a cemetery at night during a storm, we hear the voice of narrator Walt Gorney, who is familiar to fans of the franchise as the lovable Crazy Ralph in Friday the 13th (1980), and Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981). Not that we need to be told at this point, but Gorney narrates how Jason Voorhees always comes back. Intercut with the footage of the cemetery is various moments from Part 2, Friday the 13th Part III (1982), Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984), and Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986). The sequence returns frequently to the cemetery between these clips. This is until we see the headstone of Jason’s grave explode from a lightning strike, which is actually unused footage from Jason Lives, of which we are then shown a recap of its events that lead into the prologue of the story here. The narration finishes with, “People forget, he’s down there… waiting.”

After the title card and opening credits, we are introduced to our ‘New  Blood’ heroine Tina Shepard. In a flashback scene set a year after the previous installment, featuring Tina as a little girl played by Jennifer Banko (1990’s Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III), she is standing outside the door of her parents’ Camp Crystal Lake cabin as she listens to them fighting. After she sees her father hit her mother, she runs to the pier and is chased by him. She gets on a motorboat in the lake, where a sleeping Voorhees is still chained to the bottom. Angry with her father, she channels once latent telekinetic powers that cause a tremor in the lake, and the pier to shake, break apart, and collapse as he falls in to his death. The narrative then flashes forwards nine years, and is a further messing up of the series’ timeline. The first film is set in the year it was made of 1979. Parts 2, 3, and The Final Chapter are all set over a long weekend five years later, in that last entry’s year of release in 1984, which is feasible. Things became convoluted after this. Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985) is set five years after in 1989. Jason Lives is set in the following year of 1990. This is set in 2000, putting its events twelve years into the future from the year of its release in 1988, which clearly features 80’s fashions, music, and technology. The expression on Jennifer’s face says it all…

Now in a very 1980s looking 2000, a teenaged Tina is played by Lara Park Lincoln (1987’s House II: The Second Story, and the 1988 Freddy’s Nightmares TV anthology show). She portrays one of the most sympathetic final girls of the franchise, and her performance is capably serviceable to the needs of this simple slasher material. We become invested in her plight due to her trauma of causing her father’s death, having spent six years in a mental hospital, and struggling to control something she does not understand, which comes on out of her anger. Her wicked psychiatrist Dr. Crews, the secondary antagonist here, manipulates her. He has brought her back to where it all began to her parents’ Crystal Lake holiday cabin, and he exploits her emotions, trying to keep her in an agitated state to bring her telekinesis to the surface, and catching it all on videotape for his own ends to further his career. In a later revelation, it seems he also wants her to bring back Jason Voorhees, but screenwriters Manuel Fidello and Daryl Haney never bother to explain why he wants to do this. Crews is played by Terry Kiser, best known as Bernie in the cult 1989 comedy Weekend at Bernie’s, and he succeeds in getting us to loathe his character and long for his comeuppance. The scenes between Tina and Crews make for some of the most interesting and lively moments, helping to break up the monotony of the first hour or so.

When Tina is forced to confront Jason, who she accidently resurrected from his watery grave when trying to bring back her father, as his body was never recovered (again, never explained), it also forces her to confront her fears and to focus, so she can control her telekinetic powers in order to defeat the undead psycho killer. Okay, so Paramount was really reaching for ideas here, and the cheesy gimmick of “Carrie vs. Jason” as fans dub this, sounds stupid on paper… well, it is stupid. However, this makes for some nifty practical special effects, the likes of which are never usually seen in the slasher sub-genre of horror (aside from New Line’s bigger budget A Nightmare on Elm Street dreamscape additions), especially during the climax as Tina and Voorhees do battle, and the hulking hockey masked maniac now has a foe that actually has a powerful ability to defeat him. Kane Hodder, making the first of four consecutive turns as the killing machine, also pulls off some impressive stunt work here. All this makes for a great deal of dramatic energy, and an entertaining and memorable finale that ends the film on a high note.

I am not a fan of the decomposing zombie incarnation of Jason Voorhees, but Hodder really gives the role his all. With conviction, his constant heavy breathing makes sure we know that Jason is very pissed off, he is an unstoppable force of rage, and his commitment to the stunt work deserves much respect. The director and SFX artist John Carl Buechler greatly compliments the stuntman’s performance by creating one of Voorhees’ greatest ever looks. The appearance of his beat up hockey mask, the decay of his rotting flesh, his skeleton showing underneath his torn clothes, and chains hanging around his neck, make him look like a classic early horror movie monster, rather than a typical modern slasher villain. His unmasking in the climax to reveal his zombiefied visage is effectively ghastly.

Excluding the brightly lit day scenes, the proceedings are encapsulated in a somber atmosphere. This is induced by the dark lighting techniques during the night settings and a fresh take with the score provided by Fred Mollin, who replaces veteran series composer Harry Manfredini. This is a welcome change, but much of the soundtrack over the course of the film consists of recycled samples from Manfredini’s previous compositions, hence, his co-credit here. Yet Mollin’s original music leaves a lasting impression, which also provides a strong sense of unease and impending doom, and a suitably supernatural feel to the cheese-filled fun of the showdown between Tina and Jason Voorhees.

It is a shame then that all the film’s negative aspects undercut these positives. The teen characterizations of the supporting cast are bland and unsympathetic, the kills are extremely lackluster in their execution – cuts or no cuts, and it is terribly paced, and has a distinct lack of suspense and tension…

The structure of the set-up is borrowed from The Final Chapter, as a group of teenagers is situated in a cabin opposite the Shepard’s old holiday place, much like where the Jarvis family home was. The kids are holding a surprise birthday party for a friend who does not make it to blow out the candles on his cake, and his cousin Nick (Kevin Blair) is Tina’s love interest, who is actually an all-around nice guy, but has little to do. The rest of the teens are the most annoyingly obnoxious, forgettable, zero personality fuckwits to ever feature in a Friday the 13th film. The only real standout from this slasher fodder is the late Susan Jennifer Sullivan as Queen Bitch Melissa, who like Kiser does a solid intentional job of getting us to hate her, and anticipate her demise.

We have here characters so detestable that we yearn for them to be slaughtered in loving graphic detail, and in inventive ways, but we are deprived of this because the payoffs are so dull. Rooting for antagonists in horror instead of fearing them, in the hope they will kill protagonists we should fear for, as they are the ones we should be identifying with, is not real horror. This is an exploitative guilty pleasure, yet even this is robbed from us here. Save for the infamous sleeping bag kill, the set-pieces are the most uninspired of the franchise. It is made even worse by how the MPAA demanded a cut to shreds version, as this at least would have been a visceral experience with what would have been the goriest one of the lot. This is evident from this rough footage of the deleted scenes…

Jason is seen far too much, which became the norm for the series from Jason Lives onwards, and is one of the failings of these later installments as he was no longer scary as a consequence. Furthermore, Buechler’s talent is in SFX, not in directing, as he has no understanding of pacing and staging set-pieces in respect of build-up. Voorhees just suddenly appears, lumbering on to screen in full view, and kills with weapons that appear out of nowhere. There is zero suspense and tension, unlike when he was still lurking in the shadows in the first four films. Throughout the majority of the runtimes in these, we would only know he is a terrifying presence, seeing glimpses of him, and we would mostly just see his hands holding the murder weapons during the kill sequences, until his full reveal in the finale. He was still very human, a backwoods hermit deformed man-child on a psychotic murderous  rampage, who was slimmer and would run. This iteration of the character was re-introduced in the 2009 reboot, but was tweaked a little with new personality traits.

Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood is a mixed bag, as for everything good, there is something bad. It is at times engaging, but at other times tedious. It does not quite scrape the bottom of the barrel alongside the worst of the bunch – Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989), and Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993). In terms of quality control, and for cutting thick slices of cheese in parts that makes it passable entertainment, it qualifies for a place in the franchise rankings somewhere in the lower middle, or in the upper lower end. It is a hit and miss slasher sequel that is a watchable time waster, no more, no less – average genre fare.

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Clive Barker Has Such Sights to Show You: Hellraiser (1987) – 30 Years of Pleasure and Pain [Part 2 of 2]

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In a showcase of SFX ingenuity, the resurrection of Frank Cotton is a remarkably repulsive sight of body horror that would make David Cronenberg proud. The gooey spectacle of the viscera of a human body reassembling itself from beneath the floorboards is a marvel of practical effects, which is pitch-perfectly executed by Bob Keen and his crew of special effects make-up artists.

With extreme attention to detail, every part of Frank’s anatomy comes back together as the bones, organs, and bodily fluids form this monstrosity. Accompanied by Christopher Young’s circus-esque/waltz-like soundtrack, it juxtaposes this grotesque depiction with a sense of wonder, as if we are witnessing something extraordinarily beautiful blossoming. Keen’s work on Hellraiser in general has aged incredibly well, standing out as some of the greatest imagery of 80’s horror.

Related Story: Clive Barker Has Such Sights to Show You: Hellraiser (1987) – 30 Years of Pleasure and Pain [Part 1]

When Julia, who is clearly unhappy in her marriage to Larry, and longs for Frank’s touch again, leaves the dinner party they are having as she is bored, she walks upstairs and hears a strange noise coming from the room where Frank has just returned to the world of the living. It is here when Julia is confronted by monster Frank that we start to see his dark influence on her. At first, the sight of Frank’s ghastly appearance frightens Julia, but he starts to draw her sympathy when he reveals his identity and asks her to help him. Later, when lying in bed with Larry after yet another sexless night, Julia starts to think back again to her passionate time with Frank, and the promise she made that she will do anything for him. Julia agrees to help Frank restore the whole of his body, so she can have him again. She does this by bringing back men to the house while Larry is out at work, and murdering them with hammer blows to their heads, so Frank can feed on their flesh that puts more back on his bones. Terrified at first, Julia soon starts like what she does, and she must continue to kill for Frank to heal him completely before the Cenobites find out he has escaped them.

Getting back to the Sadean aspects in the film – two key characters in the work of Marquis de Sade are the sisters Justine and Juliette. They feature as the title protagonists in Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue (1791), and Juliette, or Vice Amply Rewarded (1797). Frank embodies Juliette – an amoral, self-serving, hedonist and sexual deviant, who uses others for his own ends, just as he uses Julia; while she loves him obsessively, she is nothing to him but a sexual conquest, and a pawn as he manipulates her to do his bidding. We know from Clare Higgins’ portrayal of Julia in the character’s flashbacks to her first meeting with Frank that she was once wholesome. The Julia here embodies Justine in Sade’s work, who is the complete opposite of Juliette – a virtuous woman. Although, it is Justine’s nature of moral and ethical principles that continuously lands her in trouble to punishing and humiliating extremes. Julia also married a virtuous man, Frank’s dependable nice guy brother Larry (Andrew Robinson). It is her commitment to this stability in pursuit of a virtuousness life that leads her on a path of self-destruction, when she encounters her husband’s polar opposite brother Frank, whose manipulation of her ultimately leads to her undoing when he betrays her. Julia’s name could be Clive Barker’s nod to Juliette; Frank’s influence can be seen in her change as she takes glee in her murderous quest in order to have him again. Therefore, while Julia once embodied Justine, her journey leads her to become a dark reflection of Frank’s Juliette.

The secondary antagonists are of course the Cenobites (The Order of the Gash, as they are also referred to as in The Hellbound Heart), although, that should be they are anti-antagonists. Not only did the marketing campaign have the movie going public believe they were the main villains, with Pinhead (or Hell Priest, as Barker prefers) as the main focal point, but technically, they are not really villains. Bound by the rules of hell, they are bureaucratic in their motivations – part of a religious sect that is carrying out their dutiful sacred actions.

The Cenobites, all clad in black leather bondage gear, have now, along with the Lament Configuration puzzle box, become so embedded in popular culture. The most iconic is the visage of Pinhead, so elegantly portrayed by Doug Bradley, and at this time was merely credited as ‘Lead Cenobite’, but the nickname Pinhead given to him by the cast and crew just stuck. Bradley’s captivating performance realizes this unique creation as an articulate and intelligent demonic being with a commanding presence that is coldly powerful, and delivers sublime, spine-tingling lines of dialogue. This Hell Priest has very little screen time, yet we can never forget him; an all-time great screen monster to rival the classic icons of early horror.

The story is reminiscent of a modern Gothic fairytale. Young’s wonderful fairytale-esque orchestral theme music over the title sequence establishes the mood and atmosphere. The dynamic between Larry’s daughter Kirsty (Ashley Lawrence) and Julia, is that of Snow White and her wicked stepmother. Kirsty is our young innocent heroine, mostly dressed in white, who has to prevail through her terrifying plight. Julia is… well, wicked. The fairytale theme is carried over to the 1988 companion piece Hellbound: Hellrasier II – Julia to Kirsty: “They didn’t tell you, did they? They’ve changed the rules of the fairy tale. I’m no longer just the wicked stepmother. Now I’m the evil queen. So come on! Take your best shot, Snow White.”

Kirsty is one of the quintessential female protagonists in modern horror – strong, smart, and resourceful; this is a signature trait of Clive Barker’s female characters. The young Lawrence does remarkably well in her film debut – full of confidence and energy. Higgins as Julia is one of the best female villains the genre has ever produced. Her arc from happy wholesome housewife, to unhappy unwholesome housewife, to cold evil murderer of sex seeking men, is not only an interesting character development, but also an ironic reversal of what horror was saturated with in this decade – axe-wielding male maniacs slaughtering promiscuous young women. Robinson’s film work will always be best remembered for two roles – as the deranged Scorpio Killer in Don Siegel’s classic 1971 Clint Eastwood starring action thriller Dirty Harry, and this. He actually gets to play two roles here – we love him as the good-hearted Larry, but despise him when his skin changes bodies, but the actor is clearly having a blast playing this latter part.

Hellraiser is one of the great directorial debuts of the genre. It is a wildly imaginative horror tale that pushes boundaries in the obsessive pursuit of sexual desires, with the filmmaker’s vision of this fantastical story that is both disturbing and disgusting fully realized, despite the limitations of the low budget; due to Barker’s creative mind to get the most out of such meagre resources, he was able to overcome these obstacles. It is tightly scripted, assuredly directed, all-around well-acted, features unforgettable imagery, groundbreaking practical special effects, a highly memorable score, and is encapsulated in a chilling atmosphere.

It also gave us the last great horror icon of the 1980s. Clive Barker does indeed have such sights to show you in pleasure and pain.

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A Retrospective of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns

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Danny DeVito in Batman Returns 1992

Thunder roars as sheets of rain ravage the exterior of a Gothic mansion; a woman in childbirth screams in agony from within. Soon, a second scream joins the chorus of pain; a child—but something’s wrong. A trained midwife recoils in abject terror and even the attending physician finds himself crippled with nausea. A monster is born.

This grim and grisly scenario sounds like the beginning of an R-Rated thriller, but it’s not; it’s the opening scene from Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, released in 1992 and starring Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, and Michelle Pfeiffer. Not only is Batman Returns often forgotten on lists of subversive Christmas movies, it’s altogether deceptively bleak and harrowing, nearing the borders of legitimate horror.

From a gray, utilitarian aesthetic and admissions of psychopathy to scenes of mass shootings that would have an entirely different resonance if released today, Batman Returns is more of a non-traditional horror movie than your typical Tim Burton romp or superhero flick. For starters, we’re presented with a consistently overcast, decaying Gotham City where, despite an energy surplus, day-to-day existence resembles life in a crumbling former Soviet bloc state.

Our hero Bruce Wayne/Batman (Keaton) has always been moody and brooding, but the character acknowledges his dark side, making a self-comparison to the likes of Norman Bates and Ted Bundy. While plenty of caped crusaders live dual lives, few would group themselves with notorious serial killers. It hints at something truly dangerous lurking in the tortured playboy’s psyche.

Similarly, the anti-hero Catwoman (Pfeiffer) is unlike any other manifestation of the feline night-stalker. The canonical origins of Selina Kyle describe an orphan who took to thievery in order to survive life on the mean streets of Gotham. In Batman Returns, however, Catwoman is a revenant or a zombie. After behind murdered for being too smart, Kyle is resurrected by a gang of alley cats who literally breathe life back into her. Cats have long been associated with witchcraft and were even regarded as emissaries of Satan. Batman Returns insinuates a post-death barter with Old Scratch where Kyle traded her immortal soul for a chance to return to the Land of the Living—for revenge!

The true villain of Batman, though, is a fiend of rare cruelty and depravity. The fact that DiVito is a celebrated comedian is cheap subterfuge for a truly abominable heart. After surviving an attempted infanticide (his parents dumped him off a bridge like garbage), Oswald Cobblepot reemerges from the icy sewers as Penguin: A deformed monstrosity whose rise to social prominence hides nearly Biblical wrath.

Throughout Batman Returns, Penguin performs a litany of atrocities. He nearly bites a man’s nose off for what he perceives as a condescending attitude. During his run for Mayor, he molests a young staffer and, later, decides to kill Catwoman for denying his sexual advances; “You gave me all the signals!” he bemoans before sending Kyle off to her death (luckily, she has lives to spare).

Penguin/Cobblepot is a crime boss who organizes several terrorist plots against the city of Gotham, employing a gang of circus freaks (an extra terror for those suffering coulrophobia). This culminates in an attempt to kidnap and murder every first-born child in Gotham, a scenario reminiscent of God’s final plague upon Ancient Egypt. When this plot is foiled, he attempts to launch a missile assault on Gotham, an act which (if successful) would rack up a whopping 100,000 casualties! It’s a body count that would have put Jason Voorhees and his ilk to shame.

Penguin’s physical attributes are as twisted as his evil soul; his mouth oozes slime like the decaying gob of a drug addict and his flipper hands could be an allusion to a rash of birth defects suffered by children born to mothers who took the morning sickness drug thalidomide. It only takes a hint of real-life social tragedy to give a fictional character profound (and, in this case, terrifying) resonance.

Other connections between Batman Returns and the horror genre include the participation of FX legend Stan Winston (Aliens, Pumpkinhead, and Wrong Turn among many others) and body actor Doug Jones (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water) plays the “Thin Clown”. It’s also worth noting that Christopher Walken’s corrupt character is named Max Shreck; it’s a shout-out to Max Schreck, the actor who played the Count Orlok in 1922’s Nosferatu, and this speaks to the character’s metaphorical blood-sucking.

While Christopher Nolan would steer the world of Batman into even darker territories in the 21st Century, Batman Returns is nonetheless more sinister than most manifestations of the seminal superhero. While Burton’s madcap methods of storytelling and Danny Elfman’s soaring score suggest a jaunty, adventurous experience, the film hides more terror in its subtext than most slasher flicks wear on their sleeves.

If it’s been a while, check out the trailer and synopsis for Batman Returns below. Viewed through modern lenses with an eye for horror, it’s a wellspring of intense terror and devious delights. Consider giving it a fresh watch for a subversive Christmas story like none other.

Synopsis:
The monstrous Penguin (Danny DeVito), who lives in the sewers beneath Gotham, joins up with wicked shock-headed businessman Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) to topple the Batman (Michael Keaton) once and for all. But when Shreck’s timid assistant, Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), finds out and Shreck tries to kill her, she is transformed into the sexy Catwoman. She teams up with the Penguin and Shreck to destroy Batman, but sparks fly unexpectedly when she confronts the caped crusader.

  • A Retrospective of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns
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