PUPPET MASTER: AXIS OF EVIL (2010)
(Directed by David DeCoteau)
(Written by Domonic Muir)
(Starring Levi Fiehler, Jenna Gallaher and Tom Sandoval)
Plot: Danny (Levi Fiehler) brings the ‘they aren’t even really demonic anymore’ puppets home to the United States shortly after the death of Andre Toulon, during World War 2. He wishes to enlist in the military, but is held back by a nasty limp. When he stumbles upon a nefarious plot concocted by the Nazi’s and Japanese Agents, he realizes he can fight after all. He becomes the new Puppet Master and uses his deadly servants to foil their evil plans.
I’m not going to lie, I’d honestly feel more comfortable if this franchise was left in the less-than-capable hands of the Scyfy Channel than in the worse-than-less-than-capable hands of Full Moon Entertainment- now going by the name of Full Moon Features. Fans united to urinate on “Puppet Master Vs Demonic Toys“, and I guess I peed a little on it as well myself, but at least it seemed like the Syfy Channel had a vision for the demonic puppets- misguided as it was. I don’t think I’ll ever forgive Charles Band and his company for “Puppet Master: The Legacy“, although he was already beginning to alienate his target audience with the previous two sequels. Yet a handful of years later, he had secured the rights to the franchise he brutally raped (“Curse of the Puppet Master“), murdered (“Retro Puppet Master“) and whose corpse he violated (“Puppet Master: The Legacy“), so what else can he do to his favorite victim? He can…apologize? “Puppet Master: Axis of Evil” feels like the filmmakers (Band and DeCoteau) are giving a sincere apology to the fans in the form of a superior movie, while preparing a proper burial for the series as a whole…sort of. It’s still pretty bad, but it’s only bad in a typical ‘direct-to-DVD’ flick kind of way. The important thing is they tried.
I’m sure everyone was unanimously alarmed when the film opens with the prologue from the original “Puppet Master“, but then we all sighed in relief when it became apparent that the stock footage was used to set up the narrative of this story and nothing more- in contrast to “Puppet Master: The Legacy“, which used the narrative to set up the stock footage. Actually, I have to give the filmmakers props for splicing the old and new footage together almost seamlessly, even recreating the sets for certain parts- as the current protagonist was in the same location when Toulon committed suicide. It’s not flawlessly edited, but you can see the effort. I wish I could say that summed up the entirely of my feelings, but a more accurate representation would be: “It’s not very good, but you can see the effort“. I noticed moody lighting techniques and appreciated how they were used to create a sinister atmosphere, but they never mesmerized or scared me. The foggy exterior shots brought back fond memories of “Puppet Master 3“, although unfortunately I was only reminded that I’d rather be watching “Puppet Master 3” instead, although this lead to the realization that I practically did see it again while I was watching “Puppet Master: The Legacy“, which made me angry again…ugh…I can’t say that there is any real suspense, but I could tell DeCoteau was attempting- albeit failing- to build tension. I can’t say the dialogue was very good and yes, the actors and actresses often struggle with delivering such loopy lines, but at least the acting has improved. In fact, I’d even argue that “Puppet Master: The Axis of Evil” has the best overall cast in the entire franchise! Sure, no one really excels like Guy Rolfe (3,4,5,7), Gordon Currie (4,5), Irene Miracle (1), Richard Lynch (3), Steve Welles (2) or Ian Abercrombie (3) did in their respective films, but said respective films also had noticeable weak links- whereas everyone was solid here…except Ada Chao (Ozu). Dammit, movie! I’m trying to praise you and then you go and f@ck it up! Honestly, I’m willing to forgive her admittedly terrible performance because it’s pretty amusing. She delivers her lines robotically and yet her body language is amazingly hammy, so we have the perfect storm of bad acting whenever she is on-screen. I shall return to her later on, but let me end this paragraph with a reminder that the acting is much better than it has any right to be.
Blade, Jester, Pinhead, Tunneler and Leach Woman all return, although none are allowed to really stand out. Leach Woman finally gets to kill someone again, but they never explain how her leaches are so dangerous and how they get inside her in the first place. If I was a Six Shooter fan, I’d be pissed because his broken body only gets a cameo. The new puppet is Ninja, whose design is…okay. He’s better than Decapitron and Tank, but even Six Shooter- whom I do not like- has a more memorable appearance and gimmick. I think part of Ninja’s problem is that he serves no function, as his projectile is crap compared to what Six Shooter and Torch can do and they’re all already stealthy. Yet “Puppet Master: Axis of Evil” gives him the spotlight, even though he doesn’t appear until the third act. I like the idea and don’t mind the design, but Blade already fits the ‘stealthy assassin’ quota, so Ninja is unnecessary. The special effects are alright and I’m personally glad they didn’t go the CGI route- the budget would be too small to create convincing SFX. Old fashioned puppetry is used and I thought it was mostly acceptable, although was it just me or did the puppets themselves lack personalities? Even in their worst films, I usually saw them as characters, but here I saw them as props.
On a technical level, at least “Axis of Evil” can afford all the right equipment. Despite taking place in the U.S, filming actually occurred in China, which would explain the Chinese-styled locations (they do say they’re in China town). At no point did this knowledge ever take me out of the movie and I’m just grateful that there were a variety of sets. Aesthetically, this is probably the most attractive Puppet Master flick since “Puppet Master 3“, primarily because “Puppet Master 4” and “Puppet Master 5” had more notably bad special effects- even if they had more style. I do want to emphasize that this doesn’t mean “Puppet Master: Axis of Evil” is visually appealing, it’s just that the bar is so f@cking low by now, causing this to look better than it really is. The story isn’t especially impressive, although longtime fans should enjoy the continuity nods. I did like how the two Nazi’s whose arrival drove Toulon to suicide are now the main villains. But this is a bad movie, so where did they go wrong? The main issue I had with “Puppet Master: Axis of Evil” is that there isn’t a lot of action or horror until the final act. Danny (Levi Fiehler) does unleash the puppets earlier, but the scene doesn’t last long and no one dies. Instead, we must endure a boring love story and an unintentionally creepy character arc surrounding Danny. While the actor does fine in the role, I really found Danny to be an unpleasant lead. I suspect that the writer drew inspiration from “Captain America“, as Danny has the same motivates and story arc (replace physical enhancements with demonic puppets), but he’s not very likable. Something about the way he treats people rubbed me the wrong way and I couldn’t tell if they were setting up a start of darkness or if it was just bad writing. Whereas Captain America had noble reasons for wanting to fight in the war, Danny seems to just want some excitement in his mundane life. Yet it’s hard to feel bad for him when he neglects his girlfriend in order to play with his puppets…But once again, I don’t know if this was the intention or not. Did the filmmakers accidentally create a piece of shit for a hero? Or did they cleverly set up the beginnings of a potential villain? Maybe I’ll find out when I see “Puppet Master X: Axis Rising“. Danny’s douchebaggery leads into another unsettling issue…
“Puppet Master: Axis of Evil” is really, really, racist. At first, I thought the film was just being racially insensitive and didn’t mind considering the time period. I expect characters to discuss killing ‘Japs and Krauts’ since this takes place during WW2, but do we need racial slurs to appear in every other line? Do we need to have our hero express his desire to kill the ‘Japs and Krauts’ in every scene? I found this to be kind of funny considering Charles Band aborted the Nazi angle within the franchise for “Puppet Master 4” as he was afraid that the German audiences would be offended…It was bad enough how characters would spend so much time ranting about how the Germans are so evil- which gets even worse when they start using ‘German’ instead of ‘Nazi’- but even the Germans start making boasts about how despicable they are. Naturally, the Germans act like stereotypical Nazi’s and the Japanese aren’t any better. Ozu (Ada Chao) is your quintessential dragon lady archetype and her ‘All Americans think we look alike speech’ is unintentionally amusing because this Japanese character pretending to be Chinese is actually played by a Chinese actress. She gets in an argument with our alleged hero about whether Kamikaze pilots are brave, although I’m not entirely sure where this came from. Also, he says “Blade doesn’t like Germans” and Blade should’ve shot Danny a glare because BLADE IS GERMAN! The only reason I call this movie racist is because I can’t call it propaganda. If “Puppet Master: Axis of Evil” was produced during World War 2, that’s all it would be as the film loves rubbing in the sins of Japanese and German forces, but proudly boasts about how awesome America is. We don’t need FULL SCENES dedicated to selling the audience on a war that has been over for 70 years! Oh yeah, if you’re going to try to be propaganda, you might want to get your facts straight. If Toulon killed himself in 1939, the Americans would not have entered WW2 and Japanese pilots wouldn’t be encouraged to fly their planes into ships quite yet. WHOOPS! I don’t believe that the filmmakers had any malicious intentions. I’m presuming that the racism was a combination of bad writing and an overzealous, desperate attempt to convince us that this was a period piece.
So if they had toned down the racism and replaced the speeches about how awesome America is with the puppets killing people, “Puppet Master: Axis of Evil” might’ve been pretty good. They have enough money to at least create a decent looking film, hire real actors and inspire the director to actually give a shit for his project. This level of badness isn’t anymore severe than what I’m used to for direct-to-DVD sequels. But there isn’t any nudity, the gore is tame compared to the earlier flicks and there aren’t any scares. Honestly, I was kind of bored and disinterested, only sporadically being entertained by Ada Chao’s eccentric acting style. “Puppet Master: Axis of Evil” is so talky that it requires more craptastic deliveries in order to keep it entertaining, if not good dialogue and character writing for the talented actors to work with. Yet the dialogue and character writing kind of sucks and outside of Chao, everyones acting is boringly solid. But above everything, we needed more puppet action. I’m presuming that the budget was just enough for quality, but not quantity. I can’t say I’m angry though as “Puppet Master: Axis of Evil” is still more watchable than the majority of the sequels. Up next is “Puppet Master X: Axis Rising“, the last (?) entry of this franchise. Will it end with a whimper or a bang? Either way, I’m sure I’ll either be whimpering in sadness or purchasing a gun to go bang!
Violence: There are a few grisly moments.
Nudity: The Japanese threaten to rape a girl, but are stopped by a German, who promptly threatens to rape her himself. But luckily, America saves the day!
Overall: “Puppet Master: Axis of Evil” is conventionally bad outside of it being racist, but that’s a big step up from the badness that this franchise usually pushes upon us.