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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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