Book Review: COLD PRINT

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cold print
Ramsey Campbell
Tor Horror
1987

  • What grotesque abomination lurks in the abyss beneath the cold stone flooring of the church on High Street? What is the inhabitant of the lake…that putrid, pulsing monstrosity watching from the ebon depths of the stagnant water? What colossal midnight evil is unleashed from deep within the hillside by the moon lens?

Ramsey Campbell is one of the names in horror fiction that is easily one of the masters of the 20th Century boom, and should come right to mind with the likes of Stephen King, Clive Barker, Robert Bloch and Peter Straub. Sadly, not to many people I’ve talked to concerning matters of horror fiction have heard of him. Pity. This is an author that was given his own section in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre.

As for myself, I’ve read a couple of handfuls of his short stories in the past, usually in collections and anthologies, like with The Monster Book of Zombies and 999 in the Book Review sections of this blog. It was high time that I begin rectifying the lack of Campbell on this blog, and what better way than with a collection of his own short stories based on the Lovecraft mythos from back in the day, entitled Cold Print.

After an introduction where Campbell recollects discovering his first H. P. Lovecraft book at the back of a sweet shop in his youth, which sparked his own interest in writing strange fantasy fiction, as well as his early attempt at imitating Lovecraft’s style (and the resulting criticism by August Derleth), we then go into the collection of short stories that were inspired by that chance discovery. These date from the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Let’s go through them, shall we?

“The CHURCH IN HIGH STREET”
After receiving a telegram from a distraught friend, Richard Dodds visits the town of Temphill, where he discovers the terrible, horrible secret behind his friend’s disappearance…

“The ROOM IN THE CASTLE”
A researcher comes across a legend of an ancient demon-thing that resides in the hidden sub-cellar of a long-abandoned castle, and he decides to check it out himself to see if the legend is real…turns out, yeah…

“The HORROR FROM THE BRIDGE”
After a couple of generations, the son of a reclusive guy manages to finish up his late father’s hobby of trying to release the unspeakable horrific monsters that are trapped underneath the town bridge…

“The INSECTS FROM SHAGGAI”
A traveler investigates a bit of lore told to him at a hotel’s bar, about a mysterious large metal cone in the middle of the local forest, and the unfathomable horror that dwells within it…

“The RENDER OF THE VEILS”
A man follows an occultist he met in a taxi home one rainy night, and gets a crash-course in the entity known as Daoloth, the titular “render of the veils”…

“The INHABITANT OF THE LAKE”
An artist takes up residence in a secluded house by a lake that’s purportedly haunted, and is either slowly losing his mind, or there may actually be an other-worldly malicious entity that’s dwelling in the lake…

“The WILL OF STANLEY BROOKE”
Before his death, a miserly old man reworks his will to include his best friend that everyone never knew about before his death, and turns out to be a literal pale imitation of the man himself…

“The MOON-LENS”
Late one night, a medical doctor receives a visit from someone who is requesting euthanasia. He then tells him the tale of the literal life-changing trip that lead to his decision to end his life…

“BEFORE THE STORM”
A gentleman who is clearly suffering from some mind-bending feverish ailment stumbles into a tax building before literally falling apart…

“COLD PRINT”
One cold, wintry afternoon, a bibliophile on a quest to find books at out-of-the-way shops, comes across a special rare tome that the shop owner will let him have, provided he agrees to become his new priest of his mad cult…

“AMONG THE PICTURES ARE THESE:”
Here, Ramsey Campbell describes in detail a bunch of drawings he did in several notebooks back in the day that he once came across while cleaning…it’s interesting, to say the least…

“The TUGGING”
A newspaper reporter has been following reports of a small rogue planet that has entered the solar system, and suspects it might have something to do with the dreams he’s been experiencing, dreams he once had as a child…and shared with by his father…

“The FACES AT PINE DUNES”
In the wooded area near the RV park which a restless teenager calls home, something horrible, as something out of an LSD-fueled nightmare dwells; something that calls his parents out until the wee hours of the morning; something his new girlfriend wants to see…

“BLACKED OUT”
A man on holiday in a small German town discovers that the locals are a bit odd…especially that one knockout blonde that is leading him to the dilapidated church to be discovered by an ancient thing…

“The VOICE OF THE BEACH”
A writer that is dwelling at a bungalow by the beach is visited by a friend, and they both begin to succumb to the horrible, mind-bending secret of the beach itself after happening upon the journals of someone who once lived in a nearby forgotten ghost town…

Overall, I found this collection to be fairly interesting. Rather than just reuse the famous fictional deities that Lovecraft originally came up with, Campbell adeptly created some of his own original nightmare fuel, with the likes of Gla’aki (“The Inhabitant of the Lake”, the multi-volume grimoire Revelations of Glaaki, mentioned in various of the stories, much like H. P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon), Eihort (“Cold Print”, “Before The Storm”), Daoloth (“The Render of the Veils”), and the particularly nasty-looking Y’golonac (“The Faces at Pine Dunes”). My favorite tales from this collection were “The Insects from Shaggai”, “The Render of the Veils”, “The Moon-Lens” (which has a strong “Shadow Over Innsmouth” feel to it), “Before The Storm” (madness from the point of view of the one going insane intrigues me), and “The Tugging” (the concept of rogue planets also intrigues me, what can I say?). For a bunch of tales rooted firmly in the playground that Lovecraft built, this is one of the better collections. The drawback here is that, as is usual with stories that play in the mythos, some of these follow a rather predictable formula that, if you’re up on your Lovecraft, is familiar enough to follow in your sleep. But, perhaps that’s the point of these kind of stories. Anyway, for someone whose extra-Lovecraft readings have been of this and Brian Lumley, and believe me I’m looking to expand upon the bibliographies of other luminaries in the mythos, I would rank Campbell to be the better writer. That’s no slight to Lumley, either. Recommended for lovers of both Lovecraft and good spooky nightmare fuel.

Movie Review: MUTANT

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MUTANT
Film Ventures International
1984
R

“Nothing human can have this in its veins and live.”

  • When two brothers — Josh and Mike — go to a small southern town or a vacation, they find most of the residents either dead or missing. When Mike himself goes missing, Josh teams up with the local Sheriff and an attractive school teacher to find him, until Josh discovers that the whole town and most of its people have been infected by a form of toxic waste, and they have all turned into toxic vampires who prowl the streets at night for human blood.

So, here we have a movie that was directed by the same guy who directed the Shatner-riffic Kingdom Of The Spiders. Ooooh boy, with that kind of pedigree, we’re in for some fun, here.

Mutant was another one of those movies that was included on the collection of low-budget C-grade horror flicks I got from Walmart one afternoon, 50 for $20. I’m a sucker for those. Apparently, it originally started life as Pestilence, but then released to theaters in 1984 as Night Shadows, but was given the current title when it was released on video. As to why, I couldn’t tell you. More to the point of the plot? We’ll go with that.

So, we begin Mutant with a couple of brothers that are on vacation together, traveling in the American South. And because you can’t have a road trip in the American South without encountering a bunch of rowdy rednecks in a pick’em-up truck, they eventually get run off the road by the unwashed locals. They find themselves stranded in the nearby small town while their car is getting fixed. This is when they start to discover that the locals are acting a bit odd. Well, of course they are, as they’re strangers in a small Southern town. Duh. There’s that, yes, but also the locals are turning into diseased vampire zombies. Bodies start piling up, several other people start disappearing, one of the brothers dies (whom the other brother creepily refers to as “cute” to someone while trying to find him, which just raises questions that never get answered), the surviving brother meets up with a local school teacher, and they both go around investigating what’s going on to cause the townsfolk to, you know, go all Night Of The Living Dead like that. Turns out, a local company dumping toxic waste is the cause of all the locals turning an interesting shade of blue with dark circles under their eyes, like they’re all cosplaying the 1961 version of Carnival Of Souls, and sucking out everyone’s blood by way of hand vaginas, like with the 1990s animated Spider-Man version of Morbius. Only, that was done a good ten years before that show, but I refuse to believe my beloved Spider-Man cartoon was inspired by this movie. Anyway, chases ensue, things go boom, and mercifully the movie ends.

Given the pedigree, Mutants plays like one of those 1950s-style B Movies that were kind of prevalent in the 1980s. Low budget, cheep effects and middling acting are par for the course, but there’s admittedly a certain enthusiasm here that keeps this from becoming just a painful waste of time. The style starts off as a general Southern Gothic, then shifts to a standard horror movie, and finally ending as an action horror. There’s a lot of exposition in here, and the music score is surprisingly top-notch for something like this.

I would be remiss not to mention that Mutant was probably the main reason why the distributor, Film Ventures International, went under. Let’s just say that the movie theaters were as desolate as the small town depicted in this movie. The studio was floundering at that time to begin with, but Mutants was pretty much the final nail in their coffin. That, and the CEO’s pending divorce, which resulted in him grabbing $1 million from FVI and vanishing, rumored to have fled to Mexico. Really, the story behind FVI deserves its own movie in and of itself.

Overall, Mutants was one of the titles that I remember seeing at the local video store back in the 80s gathering dust on its horror shelf. And, depending on your experiences with some of the other low budget horror and sci-fi movies in Film Ventures International’s stead (which includes Pod People, Day Of The Animals and the classic Jaws rip-off Grizzly), Mutants is either a mildly enjoyable low-budget monster horror romp, or a complete waste of time. For me, this lands more in the former than the later.

Movie Review: DOGHOUSE

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doghouse
MPI Home Video
2009
NR

“When we get to the country, we are gonna piss up all the trees, to mark our territory. Then we are gonna find a pub and get so drunk we can’t remember how to speak. And we’ll communicate in grunts like neanderthals, before passing out in the woods.”

  • Six men with mid-life anxiety set out for a weekend in the country in an attempt to reconnect with their masculinity. What they find is a catastrophe so horrible and bizarre that a mid-life crisis turns out to be exactly what they need to survive it.

Hey, look! Another zombie comedy from the UK! I love those! Let’s check it out!

So, a group of guys decide to take a “guys’ weekend” to help their friend Vince deal with his depression over his recent divorce. It kinda helps that they all seem to have women problems of their own, there. So they hire a minibus to drive them out to a remote village called Moodley, where the women allegedly outnumber the men 4 to 1. Only, when they arrive there, the village seems deserted…at first. Then, after a bit of a skuffle involving a teenaged girl and a soldier, they discover that all the women have been infected with a biological agent that turns them all into cannibals that only eat men. Next thing you know, they’re all beset upon by the infected women of the village, causing them to scatter and hide out at various locations, eventually happening upon the military command center, where they discover that a local politician had been involved with the distribution of the toxin disguised as a biological washing powder. Oh, and the zombified cannibal women are evolving into “Phase 2” monsters that are faster and more intelligent. And the only weapon that was designed to stop the zombies isn’t working properly. A bloody battle to survive and the requisite existential quandary moments ensue, leading to an ending that doesn’t exactly resolve much of anything. The end.

Shaun Of The Dead, this movie isn’t. Yeah, you’d be forgiven for automatically making the comparison going into the movie, seeing as that little Edgar Wright zom-rom-com classic is now the watermark to judge all UK zombie comedies. I went in wanting to like Doghouse, as it’s a British zombie comedy, and it co-stars one of the more underrated Doctor Who companions (Noel Clarke!). And while Doghouse does have the standard requisite situational comedy and witty dialogue you come to expect from these flicks, what brings this down for me is the high levels of cynicism and blatant misogyny of the story itself. It may be tongue-in-cheek satire, but it comes off as a bit too mean spirited to be brushed off as fun.

Overall, while Doghouse has a good premise and some rather good effects going, with a script that keeps things going at a good clip, in the end, this seems to be a movie that was done by someone who maybe was turned down for a date in high school and never got over it.

Movie Review: GRABBERS

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grabbers
IFC Midnight
2012
NR

“I need a photograph with it for National Geographic. And Facebook.”

  • On Erin Island, an idyllic fishing village off the coast of Ireland, charming inebriate Ciaran O’Shea is tasked with showing straight-laced police officer Lisa Nolan her new beat. Not that there’s much to police, as most of the community’s troubles are caused by O’Shea himself. But strange doings are afoot: the crew of a fishing boat disappears, whales start appearing dead on the shore, and a local lobsterman catches a mysterious tentacled creature in his trap. Soon it becomes clear to O’Shea and Nolan that there’s something unnatural out there, and that it’s hungry. So it’s time to rally the villagers, arm the troops…and head to the pub.

Grabbers is a monster horror comedy movie that was a co-production between the UK and Ireland, and released in 2012. I wasn’t aware of this movie’s existence until a few years later, when I came across it featured on the Family Video website (I am amazed that physical brick-and-mortar video stores still exist nowadays, somehow). The description made me think I was getting into a low-budget monster flick with middling amounts of pain involved. I was partly right.

Ciarán O’Shea is a Garda (kind of like a policeman, only in the Republic of Ireland) is a bit of an alcoholic slacker on the force, when he’s assigned a new partner, named Lisa Nolan, who is not only (*gasp!*) a girl, but is also a workaholic who volunteered for temporary duty on the remote Irish island that he works at. And a teetotaler. It’s your basic odd couple pairing story device. You know right away that they’re going to be totes a couple by the end of the movie. Anyway, mutilated whale corpses start washing up on the beach, and next thing you know the townsfolk are being attacked by bloodsucking tentacled aliens of various sizes. After the town drunk survives an attack, the local marine ecologist theorizes that it was the high alcohol content in the man’s blood that proved toxic to these “Grabbers”, as they’ve been named. Because there’s a storm that will allow the critters to wander around the town freely, they hatch a plan to get everyone at the local pub under the guise of a party, to keep everyone from rioting and freaking out over what’s going on. This goes as well as you would expect. Baby Grabbers arrive at the pub, the pub is set on fire, O’Shea and Nolan lure the adult Grabber to the local construction site for a final showdown, and while they were victorious, there are a bunch of more Grabber eggs buried on the beach. The end.

Grabbers was a blast to watch. This is your basic low-budget monster flick (only made for 5 and a half million) that is surprisingly well-done, not only in the effects department, but in the overall story as well. The thing that makes it work is the fact that it doesn’t take itself completely seriously–there’s a scene where the Grabber lures the town drunk out of his house by using the body of its victims as a life-sized marionette that got a rather big belly laugh out of me–but just serious enough to make this genuinely scary at times. The characters are fun and palpable, and watching the story unfold was a blast. I know, I know, second time using that word to describe the watching experience, but it’s worth repeating in the same paragraph.

Overall, Grabbers was a surprisingly fun horror comedy. As far as I know, the only one I’ve seen to have come out of Ireland. Fans of Shaun Of The Dead and Attack The Block need to check this one out. Recommended.

Movie Review: EXTRAORDINARY TALES

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extraordinary tales
Gkids
2013
NR

“I don’t want my work to be lost forever. My work is eternal. I want that eternity. I want to be sure my words will survive me, that they will never be lost in time.”

  • Five of Edgar Allan Poe’s best-known stories are brought to vivid life in this visually stunning, heart-pounding animated anthology featuring some of the most beloved figures in horror film history.

Edgar Allan Poe. Any aspiring fan of the dark and morbid tales of yore know the name. I’m pretty certain that a collection of his short stories and poems are issued to you the moment you show any interest in the Goth subculture. I know I was. I remember the first time I encountered the stories of E. A. Poe: it was 7th grade Lit.*, and my teacher Mr. Wilberding describing the story of “The Tell-Tale Heart”. Of course, these stories are golden oldies trotted out every Halloween season; I, however, think that–like Halloween itself–these should be celebrated and read year-round.

Which brings us to the anthology movie Extraordinary Tales. This is a movie that takes five well-known Edgar Allan Poe** stories and animates them, each of them with a different animation style, and narrated by a different actor who has ties to the horror community as well. As a long-time horror enthusiast, I felt obligated to give this thing a watch.

There’s a wrap-around story involving a raven (of course) that supposedly represents the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe, having a bit of an existential discussion with a graveyard statue, worrying about whether his stories will live on long after he’s dead and gone. We then begin with “The Fall Of The House Of Usher”, which is narrated by the late, great Christopher Lee. The animation is flat, with CGI that looks like the finest a Playstation One game can provide. It’s not bad, just “eh”. The second story is “The Tell-Tale Heart”, which is narrated by none other than Bela Lugosi. How did this happen, you may ask? After all, as the song goes, Bela Lugosi’s dead. He’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead. A long time ago, I might add. Well, this sounds like an old recording he did reading the story, and the old lo-fi scratchy sound of the recording actually enhances the animation style employed on this one. “The Facts In The Case Of M. Valdemar” is a nice creepy and ghoulish tale that is narrated by Julian Sands, who was in the movies Warlock and Arachnophobia. This one’s animated style recalls the classic pulp comics, with the main character animated to look like Vincent Price. Neat. “The Pit And The Pendulum” is narrated by Guillermo del Toro, and if I have to explain who he is, you’re reading the wrong blog. The animation style is standard CGI, and to be forthright, this isn’t my favorite short story of his to begin with. I realize Edgar Allan Poe took liberties with historical accuracy with this story (who doesn’t, really), but the situations still make no sense to me no matter how many times I read this. The visuals here didn’t help things. And finally, we end with perhaps my favorite of all of Edgar Allan Poe stories, “The masque Of The Red Death”. Here, there’s no narration, but does feature the voice work of one Roger Corman as Prince Prospero, in the tale of the rich and prosperous locked inside a castle and partying while a nasty plague ravages the country. Given that I happen to be writing this at the height of the Coronavirus pandemic and all the panic that comes with it, this has the added bonus of being a bit close to home.

As adaptations go, they’re pretty standard. I should point out that the stories themselves were truncated, so you don’t really get the full stories. And neither do the adaptations have enough time to let the stories breath, like with Roger Corman’s famous adaptations from the 1960s. But, Extraordinary Tales works as a good perfunctory introduction to the works of one of the more legendary American authors of the Romantic Gothic period. And anything that works as a gateway drug to becoming a reading junkie gets my enthusiastic support.

[*kids, back then, that was short for “Liturature”, and not “exciting”, or “excellent”, although for nerds like myself, you might say Lit. class was actually “lit”]

[**you can’t just say “Poe”; you need to say his full name for full effect]

Book Review: The HOUSE NEXT DOOR

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house next door
Darcy Coats
Black Owl Books PTY LTD
2017

  • I live next to a haunted house. I began to suspect something was wrong with the gothic building when its family fled in the middle of the night, the children screaming, the mother crying. They never came back to pack up their furniture. No family stays long. Animals avoid the place. Once, I thought I saw a woman’s silhouette pacing through the upstairs room… but that seems impossible; no one was living there at the time. A new occupant, Anna, has just moved in. I paid her a visit to warn her about the building. I didn’t expect us to become friends, but we did. And now that Marwick House is waking up, she’s asked me to stay with her. I never intended to become involved with the building or its vengeful, dead inhabitant. But now I have to save Anna… before it’s too late for the both of us.

Okay, so, here’s what happened: I had the majority of this damned review all typed out and put together and saved as a draft on this here blog of mine, so I can access it on pretty much anything that I can get access to the internet on (especially when I’m editing and writing during the down-time at work, when I do a lot of my non-journal specific writing). I had a pretty good opening paragraph on how I came across this particular book during my initial book purchasing frenzy on my then newly-acquired Kindle for only $99, and gave it a shot despite having never heard of the author before. I even did the whole research thing and included stuff from her website and her publishing history.

But then, for whatever reason, WordPress decided to wipe out my entire draft of the post, leaving an empty void where once was brilliant (in my mind) brain droppings on a thing. I was livid. I was fuming. I put on The Fragile by Nine Inch Nails and screamed in the darkness. Then my boss asked me to stop freaking out my co-workers and get over myself. So I did, and this is now what you’re getting in this review of The House Next Door by Darcy Coats.

What we got with The House Next Door is a nice, darkly atmospheric Gothic ghost story, involving a haunted house with a ghost that is definitely not very happy when warm bodies try to occupy and share the place. Living next door to the house is longtime resident Jo, who has, through the years, witnessed many families movie into the house, only to move out almost immediately, sometimes without even packing their things up, and in the dead of night. She has witnessed and heard things going on at the house when it stands empty: Lights turn on and off, doors open and bang shut, birds tend to fly into the outside walls of the house and kill themselves. Standard haunted house stuff. Then, one day, a woman named Anna moves in, someone Jo feels is a bit delicate to be moving into a house with an angry spirit, and so she bakes a cake and goes over to meet the new neighbor. They bond, and it turns out that, not only does Anna know about the ghost of the house, but she doesn’t seem to mind. She has a small home business restoring old dolls and selling them. Oh, and also she’s on the run and hiding from her very violently abusive ex, so there’s that. Things start coming to a head, though, and soon Jo needs to decide whether she cares about Anna enough to get her out and to safety from everything, or to mind her own business and not get involved like with the other former residents. The ghost of the house would prefer the later.

Overall, The House Next Door was a pretty decent and straight-forward Gothic-style ghost story, something that really does pack a lot of atmosphere and tension in its short 282-page run time (give or take the usual Kindle end promotional stuff to scroll through). This is definitely has tones of Shirley Jackson and M. R. James in the mix. I’m not disappointed by checking this one out, and at the price it was about right. I’m told that The House Next Door isn’t her best novel, but from what I read, this was a pretty good introduction to Darcy Coats’ work. Recommended.

Movie Review: RETRO PUPPET MASTER

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retro puppet master
Full Moon Pictures
1999
PG-13

“Ilsa, this is Cyclops, Blade, Doctor Death, Drill Sergeant, Pinhead, and Six-Shooter.”

  • Andre Toulon’s days before he became the Puppet Master were spent running an avant-garde puppet theater in pre-World War I Paris and loving Ilsa, the beautiful daughter of the Swiss ambassador. When he witnesses the heinous murder of Afzel, an Egyptian sorcerer, who has stolen the “Secret of Life” from an ancient god, Sutekh, he is forced into a life and death struggle with the servants of Sutekh who have kidnapped Ilsa. In a final confrontation, Toulon and his Puppets must make a stand against the deathless power of an ancient god–in order to save the woman he loves.

You may think that, since I’m a well-established fan of cheesy horror movies, that I would be familiar with Full Moon Entertainment’s Puppet Master series. Set your collective faces to “stunned”, because I am not. Oh, I’ve seen the myriad of titles setting on the video shelves, and came close to checking one of them out on more than one occasion. I don’t know why I held off for so long to go down that particular franchise rabbit hole. Maybe due to my traditionalist sensibilities–Freddy, Jason and Pinhead as the unholy trinity, all others pale in comparison. That kind of thing.

We begin things in 1944 in Switzerland (according to Wikipedia, this movie takes place just after Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge, in case that matters to continuity geeks), and the titular Puppet Master, Andre’ Toulon, is on the run with his little homicidal puppet friends. He stumbles upon the wooden head of one of his old puppets at an inn close to the Swiss border, and begins to wax nostalgic to his youth, circa 1902. The rest of the movie is a flashback to that time, beginning in Cairo, Egypt, where a really, really old Egyptian sorcerer named Afzel has stolen the secret of life (42, or something like that), and after taking out a couple of mummies dispatched by the Egyptian god Sutekh (Seth to his closest buddies) to steal it back, he sets off for Paris. As you do. Meanwhile, in Paris, a young Toulon is putting on a puppet show version of Dante’s Divine Comedy at a theater. In the attendance happens to be the daughter of an ambassador, who is obviously the forced love interest in this movie. Outside of the theater, Afzel is being beaten by a couple of thugs that were hired by a couple of other mummies dispatched by Sutekh to go after the fugitive, and is rescued by both the ambassador’s daughter and Toulon. Afzel decides to give Toulon the Secret to Life, by making his puppets come to life, resulting in the creation of Pinhead. After being roughed up by the Ambassador himself, Toulon returns to the theater to find the the mummies managed to break in and kill everyone inside, so he begins to put the victims’ souls inside his puppets. After another stand-off with the henchmen, he boards a train to escape, only the henchmen kidnap the ambassador’s daughter, so he takes his living puppets and goes to mount a rescue. A battle of…something ensue, Toulon taunts the henchmen with the sacred scroll containing the secret to life (I still say it has a big 42 scrawled on it), they fend them off, and Toulon and the girl rides away in the train together. Back to 1944, and the puppets re wondering what happened to the OG puppets, and then Toulon sets up some sequel baiting. The end.

Maybe Retro Puppet Master should not have been the one to watch as a first-time sampling of the franchise, but after watching this, I really have no desire to watch any of the other movies. I realize that Full Moon movies are generally cheesy low-budget fair, but most of the time, at least they’re somewhat entertaining. This movie, it was just painful to watch. Dull, uninspired, badly acted, and clunky. I’m going to pass on this franchise for now.

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