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Puppet Master: Axis of Evil (Blu-ray / DVD)

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Puppet Master: Axis of Evil ReviewReviewed by MattFini

Starring Levi Fiehler, Jenna Gallaher, Tom Sandoval

Directed by David DeCoteau

Distributed by Full Moon Entertainment


Dear Full Moon,

Being a 30-year-old man, I am the key demographic that grew up renting and enjoying your earliest films. As a kid it was damn near impossible to resist the premise of cool looking killer puppets – especially when said films were peppered with dollops of imaginative gore and welcome bursts of sex/nudity. Somewhere between the third and fourth films, though, you decided that the Puppet Master franchise should dial back its exploitative elements in favor of a more kid-friendly, fantastical approach. I know the plan was to get the Puppet Master series into theaters with what became the back-to-back installments of Puppet Master 4 and 5, but when that didn’t work out, we were left with a watered down batch of sequels lacking the elements that made the first three films so great.

Little did I know this would be the last time you would produce a watchable Puppet Master movie.

In addition to being a blatant rip-off of 1973’s Sssssss, Curse of the Puppet Master is a horrendous waste of time with all of the stop-motion puppet footage shamelessly recycled from the first five films,  and new puppet footage consisting entirely of clunky rod-controlled puppets shot from the waste up. Retro Puppet Master, an attempt to sell an entirely new line of action figures, utilized a whole new cast of puppets so you didn’t even have the luxury of re-using David Allen’s fantastic stop-motion work. And the less said about Puppet Master: The Legacy, the better, as it puts Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 to shame with its flashbacks-to-story ratio. You weren’t involved with Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys so I don’t have to take you to task for that.

But when I began seeing your behind-the-scenes materials for the ninth canonical entry in the Puppet Master franchise, I instantly believed you were intent on getting things back on track. The meticulous recreation of the Bodega Bay Inn (the setting of Parts 1, 2, and 4/5) was both impressive and appreciated, as was the seeming enthusiasm of everyone involved. It looked to me like Charles Band had grown tired of raking Full Moon’s flagship series through the mud and was determined to right the ship. Unfortunately, after plunking down $20 hard-earned dollars for the Blu-ray edition of Puppet Master: Axis of Evil, I can only report that what seemed like genuine effort and goodwill was nothing more than smoke and mirrors. It’s true that Axis of Evil is better than the last three entries in the series, but only because it is impossible to get any worse.

For some reason you thought the best way to reintroduce the series was by way of another WW II–era narrative. This doesn’t work for a number of reasons, chief among them being that you’re inviting a direct comparison to what is probably the most lavish and accomplished film in your library: Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge. The difference is that 19 years later you have far fewer resources at your disposal and it shows. What other reason could you have for keeping the puppets off screen for a majority of the running time?

And let’s spend some time talking about the puppets themselves. It’s been said that the reason Six Shooter and Torch have become rarities in recent entries is because they are far too costly to operate. To that I would implore you: Don’t bother making another Puppet Master unless you have the means of employing these fan favorites. It’s simply not enough to have a character pull some of Six Shooter’s arms out of a trunk and remark “I’ve got to repair that one” and never see him again. Puppet Master II remains my personal favorite in the series thanks in part to the addition of the innovative Torch puppet. It’s just a shame that I’ve been waiting 20 years to see him have another shining moment. And speaking of shining moments, how did you figure re-launching this series without giving the puppets anything to do was a good idea? I don’t need my fiancée snickering at the movie I’m watching because these puppets don’t look like they could kill a crab lice, let alone two Nazi agents and three Japanese spies.

And that’s really the most shameful thing about Puppet Master: Axis of Evil – cutting corners on the puppets themselves. All one needs to do is watch the trailers for the earliest movies to remember how much care and detail had once gone into bringing them to life. One look at the early stuff and it’s easy to remember why people fell in love with these tiny terrors in the first place. That’s why Blade continues to be a minor icon in the genre. Here he looks like a cheap 18” action figure you might find on the Spencer Gifts discount shelf. And the other puppets get it far worse: Pinhead looks like a cheap Taiwanese knockoff, while poor Tunneler looks half melted (and his military uniform is now a loose-fitting and unconvincing piece of cheap fabric). These characters are devoid of the magic they once had, making this latest entry as depressing as it is disappointing.

The sad thing is that you were tying to please the fans. The set design is admittedly very good, recreating 1939 Los Angeles Chinatown with fairly impressive scope. The problem is that director David DeCoteau gives the film such a static look that it winds up seeming more like a stage play than a movie. Sets aren’t really that convincing when there’s never more than three or four people inhabiting them. How about actually hiring some extras to populate all the exteriors so you can at least try for an organic feel? As it stands, using footage from the original Puppet Master only reminds us of how much better you used to be at making low-budget films back when you used actual locations and had some semblance of style.

I’ll give you a marks for spending LOTS of time with main character Danny Coogan so that he becomes a fully developed and likable guy. Unfortunately, there’s so little action/suspense/excitement that it negates any real reason to care about the Axis plot to destroy a California bomb manufacturing plant. This puppet master comes to realize these living marionettes can be used to assassinate his enemies far too easily, and we’re never shown how he reaches this conclusion. Worse still, the villains are absolutely horrendous. The two Nazi assassins from the original film are reprised here by actors who can hardly muster German accents (there’s a throwaway line about how good their English is, but come on), and the Japanese villainess is an embarrassment of kabuki cliches.

What I don’t understand is why you continue falling into the traps initiated by your weakest movies. For example, what happened to telling a complete story in one film? Leaving things open for another sequel is fine, but not at the expense of your current story. When your movie ends with the villain running off – having kidnapped a handful of puppets – and your hero narrows his eyes to say “I’ll give them a war next time!” (a paraphrase), then you’ve failed. This isn’t the 1930s, and these aren’t serials. And honestly, how many people truly loved the way in which The Matrix Reloaded or Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest ended? To Be Continued… doesn’t cut it. And you couldn’t even fill up 80 minutes, so don’t pretend like this concept was just bursting at the seams. It just makes your movie feel unfinished. Believe me, I’m in no rush to come back and see this storyline resolved.

I realize that I’ve leveled a lot of criticism at Puppet Master: Axis of Evil, and considering I dropped cash to get this goddamn thing on day one, I feel like I’ve earned the right to indulge my inner geek and be a pissed off fan. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer you some constructive criticism as a way of concluding this letter. So I propose, for your consideration, a fairly simple (and to my mind, obvious) set of guidelines to adhere to if you’re going to try your hand at making another one of these:

1. No more period films – especially not a sequel to this. The World War II setting worked like a charm for the third film, and you have absolutely no chance of topping it. Stop trying. Besides, using a modern day setting or an actual location might free up some money to actually spend on the puppets! What a concept that would be!

2. Make the puppets evil again! These guys have been good for so long that they’re incredibly boring and without edge. How many times can we watch them take ‘revenge’ on a ‘big bad’ villain.

3. SPEND SOME MONEY ON THE PUPPETS!!!!!!!!! It’s nice that you didn’t go the CGI route with the puppets (although that could work, if done properly), but pithy rod controls aren’t going to get the job done by themselves. You NEED to use stop-motion again to give these guys a sense of magic and wonder. Don’t have the money to do that? Do not make another Puppet Master. It’s sad but true.

4. Violence and exploitation are the order of the day – Remember where these films came from. It’s time to get back to your roots.

I’ve always felt like you missed a golden opportunity to continue the story from the end of Puppet Master II. There, the whole gang of puppets – led by a sinister and creepy-looking marionette reincarnation of Elsa – was headed to a school for troubled children to wreak all kinds of havoc. Why you opted out of making that movie in favor of having the puppets battle like-sized demons called Totems, I’ll never know…

Puppet Master: Axis of Evil was supposed to be a comeback for the series, but I suspect it will be the last straw for many fans. The smartest of us likely bailed long ago, but there’s so much potential here that I keep hoping you’ll recapture at least some of the charm that made the original films so memorable. The 13 Vidcasts offered on this disc seem to indicate a careful and passionate production, but it’s entirely absent in the finished product. That’s what stings the most.

Maybe one day you’ll get it right again. I’m rooting for you.

Sincerely,
Matt Serafini

Special Features

  • No Strings Attached making-of featurette
  • The Making of Evil – 13 Vidcasts from China
  • Trailers
    Film
    1 1/2 out of 5Special Features

    2 out of 5

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Through the Cracks – Trick or Treat (1986) Review

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Starring Marc Price, Tony Fields, Lisa Orgolini, Glen Morgan, Gene Simmons, and Ozzy Osbourne

Directed by Charles Martin Smith


I have been a horror fan for more than half of my life at this point. Meaning I have seen most of the quality horror offerings under the sun. But that said, every once in awhile a classic sneaks past so we wanted to create this “Through the Cracks” review section for such films.

Case in point, I had never seen the Halloween horror flick Trick or Treat until last night. I know, right? How the hell did that happen? But these things do happen and so for everyone that has seen the flick a million times, this will be a review of the movie from a super horror fan that – at the age of 33 – is seeing Trick or Treat for the very first time.

Now let’s get to it.

First off you have to love the movie’s plot. Mixing horror and heavy metal seems like a given, yet preciously few films Frankenstein these two great tastes together.

Like many of you out there, I am a big metal fan as well as a big horror fan. The two seem to go together like chocolate and peanut butter. Or Jason and horny campers.

I dig bands like Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and even those hair metal bands (Dokken forever!) and I’m well aware of the legends surrounding playing these records backward.

Off the top of my head, the only other flick that combines the two to this degree is the (relatively) recent horror-comedy Deathgasm. I say more horror-metal flicks! Or should we call it Metal-Horror? Yeah, that’s a much more metal title.

It only makes sense that someone, somewhere would take the idea of “What if Ozzy Osbourne really was evil and came back from the dead (you know, if he had passed away during his heyday) to torment a loner fan?” Great premise for a movie!

And Trick or Treat delivers on the promise of this premise in spades. Sammi Curr is an epic hybrid of the best of the best metal frontmen and his resurrection via speaker is one of the great horror birthing scenes I have seen in all my years.

Add to that the film feels like a lost entry in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. More specifically the film feels like it would fit snugly in between two of my favorite entries in that series, Dream Warriors and The Dream Master.

This movie is 80’s as all f*ck and I loved every minute of it.

And speaking of how this film brought other minor classics to the forefront of my brain, let’s talk about the film’s central villain, Sammi Curr. This guy looks like he could share an epic horror band with the likes of Mary Lou from Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II and the Drill Killer rocker from Slumber Party Massacre Part II.

Picture that band for a moment and tell me they aren’t currently playing the most epic set in Hell as we speak. I say let’s see an Avengers-style series of films based on these minor horror icons sharing the stage and touring the country’s high school proms!

In the end Trick or Treat has more than it’s fair share of issues. Sammi Curr doesn’t enter the film until much too late and is dispatched way too easily. Water? Really? That’s it?

That said, the film is still a blast as director Charles Martin Smith keeps the movie rocking like an 80’s music video with highlights being Sammi’s rock show massacre at the prom and his final assault on our hero teens in the family bathroom.

Rockstar lighting for days.

Even though the film has issues (zero blood, a rushed ending) none of that mattered much to this horror hound as the film was filled to the brim with striking horror/metal imagery and a killer soundtrack via Fastway and composer Christopher Young.

Plus you’ve got to love the cameos by Gene Simmons (boy, his character just dropped right out of the movie, huh?) and Ozzy Osbourne as a mad-as-hell Preacher that isn’t going to take any more of this devil music. P.S. Watch for the post-credits tag.

More than a few of my closest horror buddies have this film placed high on their annual Halloween must-watch lists. And after (finally) viewing the film for myself, I think I just may have to add the film to mine as well. Preferably on VHS.

Trick or Treat is an 80’s horror classic. If you dig films like Popcornand if you put the film off like I did, remedy that tonight and slap a copy in the old VHS/DVD player.

Just don’t play it backward… God knows what could happen.

All said and done, I enjoyed the hell out of my first viewing of Trick or Treat. But what do YOU think of the film? Make sure to hit us up and let us know below or on social media!

Now bring on Trick or Treat 2: The Prom Band from Hell, featuring Sammi Curr, Mary Lou Maloney, and Atanas Ilitch’s Driller Killer from Slumber Party Massacre Part II!

  • Trick or Treat (1986) 3.5
3.5

Summary

Charles Martin Smith’s Trick or Treat is a sure-fire Halloween treat for fans of 80’s horror flicks, as well as fans of heavy metal music.

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User Rating 3.25 (12 votes)
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AHS: Cult Review – Clowns, Cults, Politics, and Peters

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Starring Evan Peters, Sarah Paulson, Billie Lourd, Cheyenne Jackson, Frances Conroy, Mare Winningham, and Allison Pill

Created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk


** NO SPOILERS **

It’s here. We’ve reached the end. The newest season of “American Horror Story” has ended and now we are here to provide you guys with our season review of AHS: Cult.

Spoiler free.

To start things off let me say I’m not the world’s biggest fan of “American Horror Story”. It breaks down like this: I enjoyed the absolute hell out of the first season of the series (“Murder House”), couldn’t get through “Asylum” (I know, I know, I’ve tried), dug “Coven” for what it was, really enjoyed “Freak Show”, and again I couldn’t get into “Hotel” or “Roanoke”.

That’s the story of me and “American Horror Story”. Plain And simple. But what did I think of the new seventh season of the notorious horror anthology series? Let’s find out.

Back when the seventh season of AHS was first announced (then going by the title “AHS: Election”) I was immediately intrigued by the new season because I heard it would not include any supernatural elements. Like the fourth season, “Freak Show”.

Now I’m a fan of ghosts and weird creature-men with drills for d*cks, don’t get me wrong. But the series has thus far relied almost exclusively on horrors of the supernatural variety (other than “Freak Show”) so this major change of pace was again welcomed by this guy.

Instead of vampires, aliens, and witches this season relied on terrors of the mind. Psychological fears and anxieties. The horrors man does to man. Deep issues.

Oh, and clowns. Like a lot of clowns.

But just because this new season didn’t include anything supernatural, that doesn’t mean the 11-episode season wasn’t filled with twisted visuals and horrifically disturbing acts. No, sir. This season boasted some showstoppers including S&M, gimps, and a house of horrors that wouldn’t be out of place in a Rob Zombie flick. It was all good.

But let’s backtrack a bit here.

Allow me to rundown the season’s plot for those who may be unaware. “AHS: Cult” tells the tale of a world post-election night. The literal dawn of Trump’s America. In one corner we have Sarah Paulson’s soccer mom, trying to fight through life with a series of crippling phobias (including clowns, holes, blood, and being a good person).

And in the other corner, we have Evan Peter’s angry, white (blue-haired) male, looking to seize Trump’s new position of power to bring about the end of… Actually, I want this to be a spoiler-free season review, so I’m just going to say the dude’s got big plans.

Like Manson-size plans. Let’s leave it at that.

With these two characters established, the new season then proceeds to send them spiraling into a collision course of political sabotage, intrigue, and clown-based nope, nope, nope-ing that can only end with one – or both – of them dead as Dillinger.

Overall “AHS: Cult” belonged end-to-end to Mr. Evan Peters. The young actor has continued to show his striking range from season to season of Ryan Murphy’s horror show and this season was no different. Peters’ turn as not only Kai, the blue-haired leader of the titular cult, but as infamous leaders such as David Koresh, Jim Jones, and Charles Manson – to name a few – owed this season.

I can only hope he doesn’t pull a Jessica Lange and opt-out of more AHS next year.

Speaking of top performances, “AHS: Cult ” showcases some other chilling and memorable turns with Alison Pill’s strangely vulnerable, put-upon wife character being the best next to Peters in my eyes. This actress needs to be in more films/TV!

Along with Pill, actress Billie Lourd killed it time and time again. The “Scream Queens” breakout star and Carrie Fisher spawn was yet again a highlight in her second Ryan Murphy series. Bet she has the starring role in next season. Mark my words.

Add to that, the season also boasts a handful of fun cameos, including John Carroll Lynch’s return as Twisty the Clown, Emma Roberts as a bitchy reporter that will do anything to end up on top, and Lena Dunham as SCUM Manifesto writer Valerie Solanas. The cameo cast killed it and I wish they would have been present for more episodes. What are you gonna do?

On the sour side of the season, I didn’t dig Sarah Paulson’s character. At all. But I’m sure that was the point. Right? I’m still not sure. But, boy, I wouldn’t even want to be stuck in line behind her at a Starbucks for three minutes, let alone spend the better part of this season’s 11-hours with her and her whiny bullshite. Urgh.

That said, she pulled it out by the finale. That’s all I’ll say.

In the end, I enjoyed this season as much as – if not more – than any other of the series. “Murder House” will still no doubt go on as my favorite season of the series, but “AHS: Cult” will rank third after season one and “Freak Show”.

While I was on the fence about the season after three episodes, the show ended up ditching Paulson’s character (and/or shifting her arch) after a lull so the episodes picked up quickly. Whenever the season turned its focus back towards Peters (in whichever incarnation he was playing at the time) the show got better and better. Every time.

Not a bad way to spend my Tuesday night for the past 11 weeks.

Bring on season 12.

  • American Horror Story: Cult (2018)
3.5

Summary

The seventh season of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story was Evan Peters’ show all the way through. The young actor pulled out all the stops time and time again to make what may have been a lackluster supernatural-free season a winner.

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User Rating 4.1 (21 votes)
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The Axiom Review – A Stylish and Clever Slice of Independent Horror

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Starring Hattie Smith, Zac Titus, Nicole Dambro

Directed by Nicholas Woods


The Axiom is an ambitious, well directed, impressively acted and stunningly shot independent horror film that has just a few, teensy little flaws holding it back from greatness (and therefore will have to settle for just being really, really good, instead).

The first thing you realize when watching The Axiom is that this is a beautiful film. Everything is framed and shot in a lush and stylish manner, but one which is always tonally appropriate for the scene.

The second thing you’ll notice, and keep noticing as the film plays out, is that the movie really struck gold with this cast. Not only is there a total lack of the sort of stilted and unnatural acting seen in countless other microbudget horror affairs, but the performances are genuinely fantastic across the board. The main characters are believably chill and relatably normal in the early scenes, and the acting remains just as impressive once things start getting a bit more… intense. It’s not often that an independent horror film has so many good performances that it makes it hard to pick the movie’s acting VIP, but that is undeniably the case here. Taylor Flowers delivers what is probably the showiest performance (and does it very well, indeed), but the entire cast really is quite good.

The central premise of the film is both interesting and original, and touches upon the real life fact (given some recent attention in the ‘Missing 411’ books and documentary) that a lot more people sure seem to go missing out in the woods than seems reasonable, while simultaneously weaving all sorts of folklore, fairy tales and urban legends into the mix. It’s also clever in the way that it very naturally reveals aspects to the relationships between characters that serve to later – or sometimes retroactively – explain some of the more questionable decisions they make or attitudes they display. While that may sound like screenwriting 101, it’s surprising how many films fail to do this. The Axiom rewards the viewer’s attention in other ways as well, with many aspects of the movie that initially feel odd or unnatural receiving reasonable explanations (within the context of the movie) by the end. It’s not quite as challenging (or as rewarding) in this regard as, say, something like Session 9, but it does add a nice layer of complexity to the storytelling.

The film’s score, by Leo Kaliski, is also quite good. There may be a moment here or there where the music hits an overly familiar beat, but overall it not only fits the movie’s tone, but does quite a bit to help set that tone as well.

The only thing that I don’t feel the movie quite pulls off – and I’m trying to be vague here, because I feel like the less you know going into this film, the better – is some of the makeup effects work. The gore stuff is very well executed, but some of the other stuff feels like it was crafted with the intention of shooting it in a more… stylized manner. Instead, filmed as it is here, the result is sometimes less than impressive and can fail to make the impact that the movie seems to be implying that it should. And while some of what the makeup effects lack in execution is made up for with the ingenuity and creativity of their design, it’s still a bit of a shame when they don’t quite pull them off because, aside from a few niggles that I have with the writing, the effects are the only aspect of the film that occasionally fails to live up to the high level of technical proficiency that The Axiom otherwise demonstrates.

ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS:

  • Man, the acting in this movie is really good. The dialogue may stumble once or twice, but these actors always sell it anyway.
  • Give back Mia Sara’s DNA, Hattie Smith!
  • If you’re going to put your female lead in shorts this small, I hope you’re not sensitive to viewers unleashing a nonstop parade of “Has anyone seen my pants / OH GOD WHERE ARE MY PANTS!” jokes.
  • “You just pop this here ‘Blair Witch Stick Person / Anarchy sign’ sticker up on that there windshield of yours, and them park rangers? Well – heh heh – they won’t bother you none, no sir.” Hmmmmm…
  • The film really is shot amazingly well – better than a lot of mainstream releases. Cinematographer Sten Olson has a real future ahead of him.
  • As does writer / director Nicholas Woods, for that matter. Any director who can get this level of quality out of their cast and crew on their first ever film is someone to keep an eye on.
  • “I’ll make a run for it and get help,” says the female lead, and I’m like “Yeah, let her go – she has no pants to weigh her down.”
  • The gore effects in the movie are both realized and utilized very well.
  • Welcome back to horror movies, “I’ll be right back” dialogue spoken unironically by and/or to ill-fated characters.
  • The Axiom
4.0

Summary

In the end, The Axiom is a solid and entertaining flick that manages to wring a level of quality and originality out of the somewhat tired “Don’t Go in the Woods” horror subgenre not seen since 2012’s Cabin in the Woods. The cinematography and acting are hugely impressive, it features a nice, unnerving score, the premise is original and captivating, and the whole thing moves at a nice pace that helps keep the film’s flaws from dragging it down.

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User Rating 4.05 (19 votes)
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