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

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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Matt Serafini

Author (Under the Blade, Feral), slasher movie enthusiast, N7 Operative. Plays games, watches movies, reads books. Occasionally writes about them.

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  • Monster Island Resort

    The original Puppet Master has to be my favorite Full Moon production. I somewhat guiltily like a lot of the early 90s Full Moon catalog: Dollman, Robot Wars, Castle Freak, Pit and the Pendulum (speaking of nudity), Oblivion. I miss the VideoZone features that would come on after the movie on my old VHS copies.

    Unfortunately, any semblance of quality from Full Moon has long since crashed and burned. I haven’t sat through an entire Puppet Master since Curse of . . .

    Sorry to hear this one was just as terrible.

    Miguel Rodriguez
    Monster Island Resort Podcast
    http://www.monsterislandresort.org

  • Count Zartro

    Good to see I’m not the only one who still isn’t over Charlie Spradling. I was talking about her the other day to a friend who picked up Puppet Master widescreen. I mentioned the second one and how much she bent me out of shape as a kid.

    I recieved the Full Moon fan club kit, I ordered it from one of the videozones after the film, and she was modeling the T-Shirts in them.

    Yeah I was a fan.

    • Masked Slasher

      Hahahaaha, excellent. I used to love watching those videozones just for her.

      Those were the days.

  • Terminal

    I love this series, but this movie was just terrible to sit through. I think this needs some more money and a reboot.
    ———-
    “We are bad guys. That means we’ve got more to do other than bullying companies. It’s fun to lead a bad man’s life.”

  • TheDreamMaster

    I didn’t enjoy it a whole lot either:

    http://www.oh-the-horror.com/page.php?id=650

  • James Coker

    Speaking of FULL MOON my DC Bretheren, I have yet another question to ask all of you
    “what are all your guys FAVORITE Full Moon Movies”??????
    mine are

    Castle Freak
    Puppetmaster
    Puppetmaster 2
    Puppetmaster 3
    Subspecies
    Subspecies 2
    Lurking Fear
    NetherWorld
    Demonic Toys
    certain aspects of Seed People
    and the Dead Hate the Living(YES! i liked the dead hate the Living so what!)

    • AngryChairr

      Dead Hate the Living is a bit underrated. I get why people hate it, but I still think it works as an homage to Fulci films, especially the ending. The design on the two main zombies is also pretty badass.

      That said, the only Full Moon films I can really get into are the first Subspecies and the 2nd & 3rd Puppetmaster. Still need to see Castle Freak but otherwise the filmography for Full Moon is pretty weak.

      • Uncle Creepy

        I will always have a soft spot in my heart for both Castle Freak and The Dead Hate the Living. Love those movies!

        • Cinemascribe

          I loved Castle Freak. In fact, I’m a huge fan of Stuart Gordon in general. I consider him the Spielberg of low budget horror.
          _______________________________
          “I’m saying that I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man…and loved it. But now the dream is over..and the insect is awake.” – Seth Brundle

  • nonserviam03

    Oh man, this is so disappointing. Blegh I need to dig out the first 3 from my DVDs and have a marathon.

  • El Regio Dude

    Well said, Señor Fini!

    I can´t agree more with you… The “Good Puppets” really kill my interest in this franchise.

    “Santo llamando a Blue Demon…”