Puppet Master: Axis of Evil (Blu-ray / DVD)
Reviewed 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 among the key demographic that grew up renting and enjoying your earliest films. As a kid it was damn near impossible to resist a film about cool looking killer puppets – especially when said films were peppered with dollops of imaginative gore and welcome bursts of sex/nudity (I’m still not over Charlie Spradling, and I thank you every single day of my life for that gift). 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 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 in the elements that made the first three films so great.
Little did I know this was to 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 was a horrendous waste of time with all of the stop-motion puppet footage being 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 this time out. And the less said about Puppet Master: The Legacy, the better as it puts Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 to shame with its abundant flashbacks-to-story ratio. Luckily you weren’t involved with Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys so I don’t have to take you to task for that abomination.
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 (setting of Parts 1, 2, and 4/5) was both impressive and appreciated, as was the seeming enthusiasm of everyone involved. It honestly 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 might be 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, the most important being that you’re inviting a direct comparison to what is probably the most lavish and accomplished film in your entire library: Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge. The difference is that 19 years later you apparently have far less money to make it work. What other reason could you have for keeping the puppets off camera for the majority of the running time other than you simply didn’t have the money to properly utilize them?
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 not simply enough to have a character pull some of Six Shooter’s arms out of a trunk only for the titular puppet master to reply “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 (as well as the aforementioned breasts of Charlie Spradling). 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 in the series to remember how much care and detail had once gone into bringing these puppets to life and, more importantly, why people fell in love with them 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 of the real thing, while poor Tunneler looks like he has Down syndrome (even his military uniform is now a loose-fitting and unconvincing piece of cheap fabric). They’re all devoid of the magic they once had, making this latest entry just about worthless.
And the sad thing is that I think you were actually tying to make something pleasing for the fans. The set design is admittedly very good, recreating 1939 Los Angeles Chinatown in a 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. And sets aren’t really that convincing when there are never more than three or four people inhabiting them. How about actually hiring some extras to populate all those Chinatown 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 few marks for spending LOTS of time with main character Danny Coogan so that he becomes a fully developed/likable guy. Unfortunately, there’s so little action/suspense/excitement that it negates any real reason to care about an 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, but we’re never told how or why. And 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 make-up and broken English.
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 possible sequel is fine but not at the expense of your current story. When your movie ends with one of the villains running off - having kidnapped a handful of puppets - and your hero narrowing his eyes and saying, ”If so-and-so wants a war, I’ll give them one!”, then you fail. Every goddamn time. 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 here so don’t pretend like you had so much story that it wasn’t possible to cover everything. It just makes your movie feel undermined and unfinished. Believe me, I’m in no rush to come back and see this pathetic storyline resolved so congrats on planning another terrible sequel that even less people are going to see.
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 things:
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 GODDAMN MONEY ON THE PUPPETS!!!!!!!!! It’s nice that you didn’t go the CGI route with the puppets this time, 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? Then do not make another Puppet Master. It’s that simple.
4. Violence and nudity 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 with the whole gang of puppets – led by a sinister and creepy-looking life-sized marionette reincarnation of Elsa – 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. It certainly is for me. The smartest fans likely bailed on this series before they hit high school, but I was lured back once more with the hope that you might’ve recaptured some of the charm that made the original three 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.
1 1/2 out of 5
2 out of 5