Written by: August White
Directed by: David DeCoteau
Starring: Levi Fiehler, Jenna Gallaher, and Taylor M. Graham
Reviewed by: Brett G.
ďWhat are you doing sneaking around here like Bela Lugosi?Ē
After being locked away in the toy trunk for about six years, Toulonís puppets are back, courtesy of Charles Band and Full Moon Entertainment. Press materials for the new film actually claim it to be the first Puppet Master feature in ten years; they are rightfully discounting 2003ís Puppet Master: The Legacy, which was more of a clip show than an actual feature. Also being discredited is the non-Full Moon produced 2004 crossover, Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys, which is a bit more unfair, considering it was actually a better effort than Bandís company put forth with most of the franchiseís sequels. At any rate, Band has put the band back together and is unleashing them for the tenth time in Puppet Master: Axis of Evil!
When it comes to this series, you can never be to sure where you might end up, historically speaking. This one takes us back to war-torn 1939 in Bodega Bay, California, the site of the original film. In fact, it takes us right back to the original via stock footage! We see old man Toulon off himself again as Nazi spies pursue him, and this film answers what happened next: a young American man, Danny Coogan, who wants to join the war effort but canít due to a disability, hears the gunshot and attempts to help Toulon. Instead, he bumps into the Nazi spies on his way there, who give him an evil glare and take off. Danny then finds where Toulon hid the puppets and begins to uncover the secrets behind their animation. Itís quite a convenient find because those same Nazi spies are meanwhile plotting with an evil Japanese woman to bomb a nearby factory where Dannyís girlfriend works.
Axis of Evil basically suffers from the same problem as every Puppet Master film since the mid-90s: it tries too hard to build a compelling story with its characters while pushing the puppets to the background. No one will argue that characterization and plot are bad things, but when youíre dealing with the tenth entry of a direct-to-video series about killer puppets, something tells me the results might be lackluster. And they are--much of the film is built around Danny, his brother, and his girlfriend, which are likeable enough characters in theory, but they just arenít interesting. The films that worked best in this series (read: the first three, which are in fact the only ones that have worked well) were able to have a good story mixed in with the slasher elements. Here, the story dominates so much that the puppets arenít called into action until the last act.
Admittedly, that final fifteen minutes or so are alright. It really only works as a bit of a nostalgia trip because itís fun to see Blade, Tunneler, and even Leech Woman in action again while hearing Richard Band's classic theme music. Even at this point, it really isnít great because the gore isnít exactly impressive (the archive footage of Toulonís suicide is more effective than anything original to this one) , and the puppet effects somehow seem more lackluster than the 20 year old original. For an hour, they barely do anything besides hang out in Dannyís room while he pines over his girl and attempts to foil the Nazi/Japanese plot. I donít really have much of a problem with Toulonís puppets essentially being the good guys (theyíve been that way for over 15 years now), but the way theyíve been used in such a capacity since Curse of the Puppet Master has resulted in some really dry, boring films.
This one is no different in that respect; as a production, it actually does look a bit more glossy, and Full Moon apparently shoots stuff in a scope ratio now, which also lends to a somewhat classier looking film. It still isnít great, but it doesnít look super cheap either, even by Full Moon standards. On the other hand, the acting is the best that Bandís money can buy, which means it isnít very good. Thereís some dramatic scenes in there that are absolutely butchered by Levi Fiehlerís attempt to emote, and Ada Chao is hilariously bad as the typical evil Japanese villain. Lest you think it all plays so bad that itís good, think again--itís just pretty bad at its worst, and overall, itís mediocre at its best. There actually is one instance of unintentional comedy that works: Tunneler drills through the head of a poor Japanese henchman, which covers his face in blood--that is, until the next shot, when his face is clean. Oh, there's also the fact that there are numerous references to Americans fighting overseas, even though they didn't join the war effort until 1941. Not only can't the series keep its own continuity straight, but it would appear that anyone involved here couldn't bother to crack open a history book.
This is actually director DeCoteauís forth outing with the puppets, and itís unfortunate that this one and his last two outings (Curse and Retro) were saddled with absolutely abysmal scripts. DeCoteauís first foray with the puppets (Part 3) shows that he can put together a decent little low-budget slasher because that entry stands as the last one in the series thatís even approaching good. If youíre wondering where this one stands in the series, Iíd say it easily forms a three-headed Cerberus of crap with Curse and Retro. They stand in the bowels of direct-to-video hell, waiting to strike unsuspecting viewers. If youíre a fan and canít help yourself (and of course you are), Full Moon recently released the film on DVD and Blu-ray (the format just wasnít legit until Full Moon showed up!). I can speak for the DVD--it boasts an anamorphic transfer thatís clean and crisp (with some occasional video noise) and the soundtrack is very loud and clear. Special features include 13 on-location vid-casts that take you behind the scenes on this one, and they also threw in a ďmaking-ofĒ documentary for the original film, probably to remind you that there were once good Puppet Master films. My generation gets older, theyíll speak of those days the same way old folks now talk about walking 5 miles barefoot in the snow to get to school. Oh, thereís also trailers for the other 9 films in the series too. As for this oneÖwell, at least it isnít Puppet Master X. I suppose you get what you pay for, so donít pay much. Instead, curious fans should tread cautiously and only watch it out of obligation. Rent it!
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