In the rich horror history of hands-free dolls wreaking bloody mayhem, there’s no more iconic troupe of terror than the pummeling, razor-wielding, head-burrowing creations belonging to Andre Toulon. First unleashed from the mind of Charles Band, a genre impresario with a big love for all creatures small, 1989’s “Puppet Master” was an instant smash for his pioneering direct-to-video label Full Moon Entertainment. Wound up by brother Richard Band’s circus-like theme and scores, the increasingly outrageous and weapon-fitted puppets inspired numerous sequels and soundtracks as they and their inventor transformed from pure evil to Nazi-busting heroes.
But if budgetary restrictions were the biggest foe when it came to holding these puppets down, the gloves are now outrageously off like never before with “Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich.” In rebooting Band’s most famous property, writer S. Craig Zahler (best known as the eviscerating, head-smashing director of his scripts for “Bone Tomahawk” and “Bawl in Cell Block 99”) wipes out any thought of the puppets as anti-fascist avengers. Here, Andre Toulon (played with typically fiendish drollness by Udo Kier) is a good Nazi with a Trump worthy mad-on towards religious and sexual undesirables. Pumped full of lead in a prologue, his very much alive toys are unleashed upon a current-day fanboy convention of those who’ve followed his infamy. Given a game cast that includes “We’re the Millers’” Thomas Lennon, “Streets of Fire’s” Michael Pare and “Re-Animator’s” Barbara Crampton, “Wither” co-directors Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund run with the resist metaphors and political incorrectness to the extreme as the increasingly diminishing heroes fight off pint-sized, unholy embodiments of the right wing – propelled by noticeably better production value on a still small scale.
Given the involvement of the now-rebirthing Fangoria brand as a presenter, the gore is pushed to gloriously, ludicrously offensive limits. Yet there’s also something quite lyrical about a moaning, marching and melodic score that’s almost positively, classily European given the “Reich’s” mayhem. Perhaps that’s because composer Fabio Frizzi is more than used to drawing equal attention to his music even as the blood and blood brain matter pile up on the screen. Hailing from a film and music loving, Frizzi was classically trained before first becoming prolific in cop actioners and comedies. But it was by finding his visceral muse in iconic Italian goremeister Lucio Fulci that Frizzi became renowned for his gravely disturbing, yet somehow tuneful work on such cult classics as “Zombi,” “The Beyond,” “Manhattan Baby” and “The Psychic.” Frizzi, along with such fellow artists as Claudio Simonetti and the band Goblin (“Deep Red,” “Suspiria”) helped pioneer a progressive horror sound that blended rock, eerie synths hypnotic rhythm and memorably twisted themes that would play over scenes as opposed to outrightly commenting on their fear. Frizzi’s music has inspired new generations of horror-loving composers from Christopher Young (“Hellraiser”) to Joseph Bishara (“The Conjuring”), with a progressive spirit now possessing a new genre scoring rage with “It Follows” and “Stranger Things.” It’s a stylistic rebirth that’s seen Frizzi make an acclaimed international tour with his live, re-envisioned score for “The Beyond,” and now impressively take the invigorated reigns of an American fan favorite series.
Richard Band took a circus-like approach to his “Puppet Master” scores, a style picked up by many of the composers who’d follow through the unkillable series. And while Fulci is sure to salute his iconic theme over the end credits, “The Littlest Reich” stands as perhaps its most melodic effort. A deceptively sweet, waltz-like melody for Toulon drives most of the score, the theme showing up in sequences where one might expect far more aggressive handling would be the way to go. Where aggressive guitar playing, rhythmic voices and creeping synths recalls Frizzi’s classics, his “Puppet Master” is also made of more somber, haunting stuff, with its throbbing synth strings and glistening bells – yet certainly slaying for the occasion with fascist percussion and unstoppable vocal rhythm. It’s an impressively thematic, often ironically contrasting approach to the insanity onscreen that shows Frizzi’s killer instincts are as lethal as ever, just waiting to spring forth for the horror genre that he helped give new musical lifeblood to.
Tell us about your musical beginnings, and what attracted you to become a film composer, with a particular talent for eccentric subjects?
The passion for music was something innate. Everyone in the family was passionate. I remember the choirs we did together in the car, going to the beach, when I was 5 or 6 years. The work of my father is the other half. He was in love with cinema and became a young protagonist of the industry. I grew up having available discs of Italian composers like Carlo Rustichelli, Nino Rota, Armando Trovaioli and Ennio Morricone. When I started the profession, there was a great flowering of the genre. The range of possibilities was wide. And the imagination was vivid, young and instinctive.
Most Americans became aware of your music during your collaboration with Lucio Fulci on movies like “Zombi,”The Beyond” and “Cat in the Brain.” Could you tell us about what made that partnership so enduring?
Lucio is often described as a very difficult person and, especially at work, perhaps he was. But he was a man of deep feelings. I was the youngest collaborator of all his crew and I had great respect for his role (obviously) and for him as a person. The years passed, but our relationship largely remained largely the same, opening the door to a side of friendship. And then, probably, he must have liked my way of writing music for his films.
If you had a style of music for the genre, how would you describe it?
While my approach has never changed, it has grown up with me. It is a mix of many elements, of many thoughts, doubts and solutions, like it would be in the workshop of a craftsman. Music, especially that for cinema, must have a mood. I love rock, classical music, synthesizers, melody and, good musicians.
Italian horror was far nastier and unforgiving than its American cousins. How do you think your music added to that terrifying, eerie and “real” feeling? And what part do you think you played in the renaissance of progressive-rock-synth scores that was typified by artists like you and Goblin?
It was not easy at the beginning to find the right way to interpret that kind of horror musically. The key is to make the score become a protagonist of the story, one of the actors. With some directors and with Fulci in particular this happened. On the rebirth of these scores the internet was fundamental. The fans were able to exchange opinions, find soundtracks and expand their collections. We all had the opportunity to talk to and enjoy each other on this stage and give each other a big “hug.”
Though you’ve certainly scored many different types of genres, were you happy to essentially be known around the world as a “horror” composer?
I think it’s beautiful that love appears in some way. I am proud of this recognition and gives me a great pleasure that many of my fans and connoisseurs rediscover slowly, almost in disbelief, many other things I’ve written. And sometimes they those scores love very much.
What was it like for you to do live shows in America, especially when it came to performing “The Beyond” live to picture before packed audiences at London’s Barbican and Hollywood’s Egyptian theaters?
It gave me very strong emotions. The esteem and affection I found in America are things that impressed me, along with my collaborators. “The Beyond Composer’s Cut” was born from the idea of extending the original score of the film to make it enjoyable as a sort of film version in concert, a type of show that would have great emotional impact. And the peculiarity is that I came to America to experience the result. The packed Egyptian Theater was a great prize.
Did it make you especially honored to find that major American genre composers like Joseph Bishara and Christopher Young considered you a big influence on your work – not to mention Quentin Tarantino using “The Psychic” as a bit part of his “Kill Bill”” soundtrack?
Well, this is one of the aspects that excites me the most, the influences. From those in the shadows to the striking ones. I remember that several years ago I received a message from a US boy who told me that he had saved himself from a life at risk by becoming passionate about my themes and becoming a valued musician. The esteem and friendship of many protagonists of the American music and film scene honors me very much. Joseph, for example, is a very strong musician and it is fantastic to know that he counts me among his musical influences.
How did you become involved with “Puppet Master: Littlest Reich?” And do you think your history of scoring insanely gory movies had anything to do with it?
I have many friends in America, and among them some great admirers. These include Brian Hacket, a live audio engineer who works with many productions. He had seen a strong connection between my story and that production (to which he collaborated) and spoke with Dallas Sonnier, the producer. Some emails were exchanged and the game started!
Before diving in to “Reich,” did you watch any of the past films in the “Puppet Master” series? And did anything strike you about how they were scored?
I obviously knew the series, but I had only seen the first one. I liked the original 1989 movie’s theme by Richard Band. I always found it very apt. And poetic.
How did you think this “Puppet Master” was different from its predecessors while still paying homage to it?
For a long time I have been following the activity of Cinestate and the collaboration between Dallas Sonnier and Craig Zahler. Their working group produces things of great quality and above all of strong personality. I was sure that even in this case, the identity of the project would be strong.
It struck me that your score is more straightly melodic than other “Puppet Masters,” especially in how you use a waltz-like theme as opposed to going for the circus-y feel of the past scores. Do you think there’s a classical elegance to it that captures the kind of evil “refinement” that Andre Toulon had?
Actually the theme in 3/4 that I wrote and that appears in the opening credits wants to be a tribute to the historical Richard Band theme. The nickname that we have attributed to it was the “Carousel theme”, as if it were a music that remembers this “game” as one of perverse destiny, a game that we all participate in, with nobody excluded. It ‘s definitely a theme with a melody that wants to be remembered and I think that if the viewer gets attached to a musical cell and brings it home in his memory, it will also be good for the movie. Sometimes an evocative melody can be essential.
Could you tell us about your other themes?
There is the theme of Blade, the most representative puppet. The musical moment of his meeting with Edgar, the protagonist, is the first song I wrote. It is an essential but important scene, which tells a lot of the story, almost the vain attempt to establish an impossible relationship. I liked it a lot and I started from there. Another theme dedicated to the Toulon Mansion and to the description of its mysteries and protagonist, for which I used abaritone guitar. There are two themes that tell the story, one based on Mellotron, in my tradition, the other a sort of tragic military march. And finally a musical moment made of sounds, rhythms, sequencers and synthesizers that tells the moments of deaf fear.
Did you want the Nazi element of the Puppets to play into the score, as well as the Jewish factor of its heroes?
It is inevitable that the audience will look for artistic musical styles and they could not miss elements of this kind.
How much of your “Italian horror” past did you want to bring to this score, especially when it came to the use of voice and rock-like percussion?
When you are facing a new project of a genre in which you have done many things you are known and appreciated for, you can not completely forget your personality, or at least that part that probably others expect from you. It is a delicate game of equilibrium, perhaps the most difficult thing to decide. Also in this case I tried not to deny myself, without my style being too “obvious”. And the judgment on this difficult alchemy is not up to me, but to all the others.
Where the past “Puppet Master” scores played more of the physicality of its horror sequences, do you think this score is more reliant on the mood than directly playing the ultra-violent ways that the puppets have of doing away with people?
In a soundtrack of a horror film in addition to music and dialogues there are also sound effects. I remember that Lucio Fulci often preferred, in extreme situations, to remove everything and leave only a cry or an annoying effect (like a chalk on the blackboard). I like to give a musical punch in the stomach from time to time. But I also love to suggest to those watching the movie a kind of fear.
Your long time guitarist Riccardo Rocchi plays on the score in a way that ranges from classical to rock. Tell us about your collaboration, and his importance in your scores.
Good musicians are a great treasure for a composer. Riccardo, who is a close friend and also accompanies me in concerts around the world, is one of the collaborators who have played for me in this soundtrack.
Did you have a favorite puppet, or death to score?
Blade is my favorite. His killings are many, some ironic and some terrible, Each one required a lot of attention.
Do you see a new chapter of yourself as a horror composer for American pictures with “Puppet Master?” And if so, what would you like to musically explore musically for the genre? And would there be a fan favorite franchise that you’d like to take a stab at?
Surely this experience is something new and interesting for me. I believe that a composer should always be ready for new stories, new adventures. I want to take all the emotional tools that will allow me to express myself in the most authentic way. I think I’m ready for new challenges.
Do you think there’s a whole, undiscovered musical dimension for horror scores to take – much in the way that you helped to re-invent its sound?
Read a screenplay, live it deeply, let yourself go, manage emotions with your own technique. In a sense it is easy.
“Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich” begins prowling select theaters and on VOD August 17th, with a cast and filmmaker showing at Los Angele’s Egyptian Theater on Tuesday the 14th HERE. Fabio Frizzi’s score will be digitally available August 17th on Lakeshore Records.
Visit Fabio Frizzi’s Facebook page HERE
Special thanks to Michael Gingold, Riccardo Rocchi and Joseph Bishara