Starring Levi Fiehler, Jenna Gallaher, Taylor M. Graham, Tom Sandoval, Jerry Hoffman, Mike Brooks, Ada Chao, Aaron Riber, Erica Shaffer, Zhang Xiangfu, Gu Yingfeng
Puppet Cast: Blade, Pinhead, Jester, Tunneler, Leech Woman, Ninja
Directed by David DeCoteau
Expectations: I hope it’s better than Demonic Toys 2.
On the general scale:
On the B-Movie scale:
Puppet Master: Axis of Evil is a great example of the line that separates trash and art. The film contains some of the best cinematography in Full Moon’s history and it’s clear that a lot of time and effort went into making this film look as good as they could make it look. After watching the behind the scenes vidcasts though, the film was actually made incredibly quickly, so the finished product is all the more impressive. On the other side of that coin, the film features some of the worst acting the company has to offer (I expect no less from David DeCoteau… No hard feelings though) as well as one of the most boring and factually inaccurate scripts I’ve ever witnessed. Because it skirts this line so well, Puppet Master: Axis of Evil ends up being neither good nor playfully bad, instead staying relatively safe and boring.
I love the Puppet Master films despite how poor a lot of them are. I came into this film excited, as the trailer made it look like they had actually stepped up the production values for once. Oddly though, instead of beefing up the FX budget or the script, they focused most of the money on the visual aesthetic, which isn’t the reason most people watch Full Moon movies so it seems like an odd choice. Imagine if they spent that money on the puppets! Despite this renewed focus on the visuals, virtually every set looks like a poorly dressed sound stage with flimsy-walled rooms constructed for that day’s scenes. It’s never really a problem except when there’s a wide shot with yet another wall covered by a giant American flag or a pair of propaganda war posters. In a strange way, it reminded me a lot of Lars von Trier’s set-less films Dogville & Mandarlay, where backgrounds and props were only minor mental cues to your imagination and the feeling of the sound stage was ever-present. If only Puppet Master: Axis of Evil had the acting and directing of Von Trier’s films.
Alas, it does not and we are left watching some of the truly great bad acting that B-movies have to offer. My favorite was the Chinese actress playing an evil Japanese matron who had her voice overdubbed with an American actress doing a bad Chinese accent. I’ll let you ponder on that for a moment. This overdubbing isn’t nearly as flagrant and noticeable as the shit in DeCoteau’s Retro Puppet Master, but make no mistake, it’s awful in every sense of the word. It does manage to be hilariously bad at times and provide more amusement than almost any other aspect of the film. Everyone else’s acting is equally shitty, even if they aren’t being dubbed. Jenna Gallaher’s valley girl drawl did anything but suck me back to the 1930s, while Levi Fiehler’s incessant whining about being a 4F cripple was made somewhat palatable by his ridiculous delivery.
But let’s talk about World War II. So the first Puppet Master starts off in 1939. Toulon shoots himself. Puppet Master: Axis of Evil sets itself at the same time with our 4F hero Danny in the room next door when it happens. There’s a bunch of stock footage from the first film mixed in with reaction shots of Danny and I gotta say, this is one area where they did a great job. It’s pretty seamless if you’re not watching too closely, and someone not intimately familiar with the material would most likely never suspect any foul play. They also built a pretty convincing replica set of Toulon’s original hotel room! In any case, by doing this that means Puppet Master: Axis of Evil is also set in 1939, right?
A huge portion of the story revolves around Danny not being able to join up and fight “the Krauts and the Japs” overseas. In 1939. Right. It’s the ninth Puppet Master (tenth if you count the Sci-Fi produced Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys abomination), so I won’t bitch too much about historical inaccuracies but it did bother me. At this point I shouldn’t be surprised, as little things like history or timelines have never stopped Full Moon from producing the story they want to make. One run through the Puppet Master series will definitely teach you that. So it’s inaccurate, so what. I’m not trying to learn history, I’m trying to see Tunneler tunnel into some dirty motherfuckers! That happens right?
It does! It’s not nearly as gratifying as it should be because they cheaped out on the FX, but Tunneler does drill right into the top of a dude’s head. Not a Nazi unfortunately, so that will have to wait until the sequel. Don’t act surprised, you knew one was coming. Even if this one didn’t end on somewhat of a cliffhanger, you knew it was coming. It’s Full Moon and for some reason, dudes like me will continue to watch any godawful mess with the Puppet Master name attached to it. If for nothing else, they need to do a sequel to allow the new puppet Ninja to get some quality screen-time and hopefully a better design. After all this time, toiling away at Full Moon Headquarters and all we get is half a shitty looking face obscured by a black cloth? I didn’t even know he was supposed to be a ninja until someone called him Ninja. Oh, that’s what that is!
For all its faults though, Puppet Master: Axis of Evil really isn’t all that bad. It’s more mediocre than anything else, suffering from that same disease that the last few films suffered from, the whole “puppets only at the beginning and the end” virus… although realistically the puppets only come out in earnest in the last twenty minutes or so of this. Despite this and the poor script and the shitty acting, the cinematography alone was enough to keep me engaged, if only for the novel fact that this was a Full Moon movie shot in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio! WTF? I thought I’d never see the day, and it’s impressive how much it contributes to the questionable watchability of this.
If you’re a fan, check it out. It does not have the gore, the suspense or the laughs you’re looking for, but it does have… oh geez, what does it have? Lots of cannon fodder for your own personal MST3K moments, that’s what, and that’s enough to amuse me. Where Demonic Toys 2 went the safe route and feels like a bad Full Moon movie of old, Puppet Master: Axis of Evil tries its best to venture out into new territory for the studio with a look and feel all its own. It doesn’t necessarily work, because it’s still a bad Full Moon movie of old, but I like that they are at least trying to do something inventive again.
Next week, I’ll be checking out another Empire International release, John Carl Beuchler’s 1988 film Cellar Dweller with Jeffrey Combs!
What are you doing to yourself, Will? Y’know those stars don’t add up to make one really good rating.
Hahahaha! You got me there. I enjoy all these bad movies, man. They are actually very challenging to thoughtfully review. The idea of the site was to give equal footing to everything, so I try to do that. Am I doing myself and the site a disservice? Most likely, but I’m self-destructive like that.
I’m also a completist to a fault, so once I start watching something, I have to watch them all. This particular film is part of the grander, overall completionist obsession of reviewing every film in the Empire/Full Moon library. If you go to that Film Festival tab up top, you’ll see the page where I’m charting the progress. A lot of them are super fun.
Ohhh…. I see. That’s an admirable endeavor. I can get behind that. I can also understand if that weasely production company has weaseled it’s way into your heart. At least we now have ONE complete critical overview of Empire/Full Moon.
Hahahaha, yeah I haven’t done any research so I’m unaware of anyone else that’s reviewed the entirety of their catalog. It’s huge, so don’t expect it to be over anytime soon at the rate of one movie a week.
Another reason I started this site was that I was always frustrated with horror film reviews by major press, as it was clear a lot of the times they didn’t enjoy the genre. Genre movies don’t seek to hit the same dramatic beats as your traditional fare so it’s unfair to judge them against those norms. So I made it a point to remedy this with my reviews. And that’s how I end up with The King’s Speech and Demonic Toys having the same rating.