Title: Puppet Master: Axis of Evil
Director: David DeCoreau
Starring: Levi Fiehler, Jenna Gallaher, Taylor M. Graham
Released: Out now
During his temporary job working at the Inn, physically disabled furniture maker Danny Coogan (Levi Fiehler) dreams of joining the war effort and fighting against the Germans and Japanese, just like his soon-to-be-enlisted older brother, Don (Taylor M. Graham). Unfortunately, Danny’s disability has ruled out such dreams, leaving him disappointed and frustrated. However, the sudden and mysterious death of one of the inn’s guests, Mr. Toulon, results in Danny getting a real chance to take on the “Hitler lovin’ Nazi scum” on his home turf.
Following Toulon’s death, Danny finds a crate belonging to the old man containing a variety of puppets believed to possess the ability to move without strings. When he also discovers that two undercover Nazi assassins, Max (Tom Sandoval) and Klaus (Aaron Riber), along with beautiful Japanese saboteur Ozu (Ada Chao), are after Toulon’s secrets and plan to attack a local weapons manufacturing plant he decides to intervene. Realising Danny is on to them, the Nazis attack his family and kidnap his girlfriend, Beth (Jenna Gallaher), in order to lure him into their trap. But, with the living deadly dolls Blade, Pinhead, Jester, Tunneler, Leech Woman and Ninja alongside him, Danny is more than willing to take the fight to them.
The tenth film in a series that’s so far below the mainstream that even plenty of dedicated horror fans haven’t seen it – Axis of Evil believe it or not is eagerly awaited by its dedicated cult following, but will probably be treated with indifference by everybody else. In a series that’s already had its fair share of lows, the Puppet Master faithful are holding out for new life to be breathed into a franchise whose last woeful installment was a crossover with another franchise of killer puppets, the Demonic Toys in 2004. It’s a tough sell; some would say that the time for this brand of schlock has passed, so let’s see if it has.
The thing about Puppet Master: Axis of Evil is that with a few tweaks here and there, it could have been a perfectly acceptable piece of low budget fun. Perhaps I’ve seen so many abysmal independent films over the past year or so that when something like this comes up it’s a bit of a relief. The production values are pretty decent, as you would hope from Full Moon Features a production house that’s been making low budget fare since the eighties, and sometimes you don’t have to make too many allowances for the lack of cash to throw around. While they often don’t quite have the cinematic look of their Hollywood studio counterparts, nor do they look like the woefully inadequate in-house efforts of the SyFy channel. Axis of Evil looks just fine, and while there are a few less than brilliant performances, again they’re perfectly acceptable if you’re aware of the where Full Moon and their output sits in the pecking order of moviedom.
Another plus is its basic premise. In the opening scene of the original Puppet Master film, the creator of the puppets, Andre Toulon, hid the trunk holding his precious puppets in the wall of a hotel room as a couple of Nazi agents closed in on him. Before they stormed his room he put a gun under his chin and killed himself. Axis of Evil follows a young man who not only discovers his body, but also the trunk containing the puppets, and sets up the Nazi agents as the film's antagonists. My memory is a little muddy on the previous installments of the series, so I can’t comment on whether this clashes with previous continuity, but it seems to slot in quite nicely, enriching the mythology of the series and giving us a new puppet master.
Impressive enough so far, but despite the promising start Axis of Evil falls down when it comes to the thing that we watch a Puppet Master film for: the puppets. Simply put, their appearances are too few and far between, we sit through an hour of setup that could and should have been streamlined to half that length. When they do appear they just don’t hold up, even against the original installment that was made in 1989. Puppet Master may not be a masterpiece, but the puppets had genuine menace and were sometimes as creepy as you’d hope an animated puppet to be. They were also quite imaginatively brought to life; again nobody is talking groundbreaking special effects here, but the end product would suggest that there was a group of people, with not much money to make a film, who put their heads together and did the best they could, the result being not only acceptable but occasionally quite good. The puppeteers in Axis of Evil unfortunately subscribe to the “hold the puppets legs and hold the top half in frame” school of puppetry. Granted it’s something evident in all of the films, but it’s obvious that it’s the only trick in this film's toolbox. I can only assume that the budget hampered what they were able to achieve with the puppets, which is strange considering that they chose to set this film in 1939. Was the budget spent on the period setting rather than the puppets?
The kills are sometimes okay, but relatively tame, which is again a massive mistake. A horror film usually relies on either gore, suspense or the creepiness factor - or a little of each - but let’s face it you’re never going to get genuine suspense or scares in a Puppet Master film, so you really should be throwing enough blood around to make it a gory good time. No such luck here though.
Despite the unfortunate misstep with the most important aspect of the film, it's hard to completely write off Axis of Evil. The unnecessarily long setup will render it boring to the casual viewer, but forgiving fans of the series have seen worse, so while it won’t convert anyone who comes to the series cold, Puppet Master completists probably won’t mind slotting this one into their collection.