The fortunes or otherwise of producer Charles Band’s film company, Full Moon Features, have been pretty much wholly founded on the cult success of David Schmoeller’s 1989 film “Puppet Master”, and the reception of the ensuing slew of direct-to-video sequels it inevitably spawned. Band had previously overseen the small-scale distribution company Empire Pictures, but the massive and unexpected popularity of some of the low budget horror films it hosted, such as “Re-Animator”, “From Beyond” and “Ghoulies” –a success first attained theatrically and then repeated on home video -- resulted in Band setting up Full Moon Features specifically to produce similar low budget B movie fare, hoping to repeat his past successes by choosing simply to bypass the theatrical release stage of the distribution process entirely. The whole Puppet Master franchise, and the cult following it has attained over the last twenty years or more, was painstakingly built up from the (then expanding) direct to video and DVD markets. This fact has not prevented it from going on to suffer much the same fate as almost always befalls any significantly long-running series of films, though: the quality has sunk down and down with almost every subsequent release (give or take the odd one that bucks the trend) ending up with the woeful eighth entry “Puppet Master : The Legacy” -- which amounted to little more than a glorified clips episode, its story being primarily an excuse to pad out the running time with lots of clips from all the other films. By the time Band temporarily sold on the franchise to the Sci-Fi Channel (the series is a virtual round-the-clock staple of their output to this day) resulting in the non-cannon TV movie “Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys”, the game seemed to be well and truly up.
2010 saw Full Moon Features reassume control of the apparently moribund franchise for what appeared to be an attempt to ‘reboot’ (to use the modern parlance for ‘desperately flogging a dead horse one last time without any sense of self-respect or shame whatsoever’) the entire franchise: director David DeCoteau returned to helm a story set, like his fan favourite third sequel, “Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge”, during World War 2. Band is credited as producer, and the new film starts in exactly the same spot as the original 1989 film’s prologue, incorporating new footage in amongst the old fairly convincingly, before going on to tell what then happens to the living puppets immediately after the death of their creator, rather than jumping forward in time twenty years, like the first film did. Thus, we have the same starting point, but end up with a story that has a very different feel and style to that of the original “Puppet Master”.
The concept of puppets or toys that can come to life, has a rich history in horror and fantasy and continues to beguile in such popular modern-day hits as the Toy Story franchise, for instance. Part of the inspiration for Band’s original “Puppet Master” came from a low budget Empire Films-distributed 1987 offering from Stuart “Re-Animator” Gordon, called “Dolls”. The film tapped into one of the main qualities first identified and analysed by Sigmund Freud in his 1919 essay on what we find frightening and why, entitled “The Uncanny” – that being the notion of an inanimate object becoming endowed with animate qualities – and for all its silliness and shameless playing up to the expectations of the same audience who had been delighted by “Re-Animator” and its more trashy exploitation-based qualities, “Puppet Master” did at least endow its macabre toy antagonists with a creepiness and a sense of strangeness that gave the film a frisson that went beyond its gory excesses. Some of the puppet characters were just plain weird too: the queasy ‘Leech Woman’ could give dirty-minded psychoanalysts hours of interpretive fun; and ‘Pinhead’ would have been the stuff of nightmares even if he had never moved a joint! Whatever goes wrong with this tenth (or ninth if you don’t include the TV movie, although there seems no reason why you shouldn’t) re-booting entry in the franchise, it has nothing to do with the central concept on which all the movies have depended.
It has everything to do with just about everything else though!
To recap: the first film introduced us to the toymaker Andre Toulon, holed up alone in his room in the grand-looking Bodega Bay hotel, California, in 1939 (this specific dating unfortunately gets the film into a heck of a lot of hot water later, as we’ll soon see), to which a couple of Nazi war spies have tracked him down with the intention of stealing the living puppets he has created, along with the magical green-glowing elixir that facilitates their animation. To forestall the possibility of the secret falling into Hitler’s hands, Toulon kills himself before these evil emissaries can capture him and make him talk. At this point the original film cut to the then-present day, and the rediscovery of the living puppets; but “Puppet Master: Axis of Evil” stays put in 1939 and continues with the Nazi plot, making those trench coated spy characters from the original the two main bad guys. Added in with the footage from the original (which displays the wonderful puppet stop-motion techniques that are noticeably absent from the newly shot material) we now have the film’s main protagonist, a good-looking young chap called Danny Coogan (Levi Fiehler): a crippled carpenter who is being employed by his uncle Fred at the hotel for a few weeks, and who accidently stumbles upon Toulon’s corpse just as the two German agents are departing. Danny knows all about the puppets’ living qualities and takes Toulon’s case full of secrets (which the Nazis failed to locate) back home with him to Los Angeles.
Now here’s where the entire basis of the story kind of falls apart. The original film establishes Toulon’s death in 1939, but the rest of this story, which takes up the story three weeks later, proceeds from the assumption that the US is already deeply involvement in WW2 – which, of course, wasn’t the case until 1941! Here though, Danny is angry that his disability (which was caused by a childhood case of Polio) prevents him from going to war to fight the ‘Japs and the Krauts’. His brother is just about to be shipped off with the US Marine Corps to fight overseas. While Danny’s pretty girlfriend Beth (Jenna Gallaher) works in a converted plant that’s been put to work making munitions for the allied War effort.
What kind of parallel Universe is this film set in, for goodness sake?
In any case, one of the spies who hunted down Toulon soon turns up again but this time undercover in Beth’s munitions plant, using the assumed, all-American name ‘Ben’. The plant is apparently manufacturing an unspecified substance (I think it’s probably called MacGuffin!) that will give the allies’ explosives an increased destructive capacity. Suspicious of his constant flirting with Beth and convinced that Ben is one of the men he saw at the hotel when Toulon died, Danny tracks him after work, with a few of his puppet pals in tow ,to an ornate Opera House in the heart of Los Angeles’ Chinatown, that turns out to be the Nazi gang’s base of operations. They’ve teamed up with a beautiful Japanese spy called Ozu (Ada Chao) and Ben is really called Max (Tom Sandoval) and his colleague, Klause (Aaron Riber). Together they’re plotting to blow up Beth’s plant and strike a blow against the US’s war effort. Only Danny and his powerful troupe of living puppets can stop them!
Leave to one side the lazy historical inaccuracy on which the entire plot depends – because, frankly, that is the least of this film’s problems. “Puppet Master: Axis of Evil” doesn’t particularly look any cheaper than most other straight to DVD doggerel and, in a vain attempt to make it look ‘cinematic’, it’s even been matted in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Unfortunately, the mean budget shows itself up in other ways, such as the limited cast who end up looking lost in the vast widescreen wilderness of a frame that is always minus any extras or any other actors at all apart from the ten or so regular cast members. The film is shot in a fairly dull, stagey and static manner, with the camera just planted in front of one or two actors in the middle of an otherwise empty set, who then just tell us about, for instance, the party that’s going on upstairs out of sight, while some unconvincing foley effects try to establish it with some library ‘party noise’ cues on the soundtrack. The film just might have gotten away with this if the script wasn’t so leaden, the dialogue so clumsy in its clanking exposition, and the acting (and I single no one out here – because every single actor in this film, male or female, is utterly lousy!) so completely stiff and wooden. The one plus with regard to that latter point is that at least it helps to make the puppets seem slightly more lively and life-like when they’re placed opposite the actors. Which is just as well because without any of that imaginative blend of stop-motion animation and puppetry which made the original so evocative, most of the time the puppets are simply being jigged up and down in front of the camera by someone off screen.
Perhaps the worst thing, though, is the simple fact that nothing much actually happens in this film. I’ve tried to give as little away as possible in the synopsis above and I’ve not mentioned several important events that impact on Danny and his plans, but actually, it’s still a bit misleading, because not a lot else actually does occur when you get right down to it.
Consider that we’ve established that the plot is centred around the idea that a bomb is planned to go off on the premises of what is a highly important building for the war effort, no one believes the one person who knows anything about it and the plotters have found out about the hero’s intention to stop them. You’d think that all this would provide sufficient means of generating some kind of suspenseful scenario, wouldn’t you? Even if the film was badly made and they messed it up, at least this rather simplistic plot outline has some sort of potential for last-minute-against-the-clock shenanigans built into it. Doesn’t’ it? Well, no one told the script writer, evidently. The villains spend forever doing very little in their hideout and never even get to the point of planting their bomb. The showdown between the puppets and the Nazis (and the Japanese lady) is as uneventful as the rest of the film; part of the problem with it being that the puppets are now good guys rather than the evil and mischievous beings from the original. The exploitation side of things is completely missing, only to be replaced by the feel of a hammy kids’ matinée adventure movie with minimal emotional investment created even when what should be highly affecting events are occurring on the screen. And then, the real kick in the teeth if you do manage to hang in there until the end: the inevitable sequel is set-up by the simple expedient of not bothering to tie up all the plot threads, leaving Danny vowing to continue the fight with most of the puppets now in Nazi hands … at which point the credits roll! Bleughh!!!
“Puppet Master: Axis of Evil” comes to UK DVD from Revolver Entertainment via a transfer that looks a little soft and dull, although I suspect it has always looked that way. The 5.1 audio is fine though. The disc comes with a trailer that does little to sell the film, and a fascinating 7 minute featurette on the original movie, which shows just how creepy the scenario can be when a little time, money and effort is put into it. All of which are qualities that seem to be largely missing from this weak attempt at extending the franchise -- along with decent acting, thoughtful screenwriting and eventful direction. This is, unfortunately, really not worth the effort unless you are a deluded Puppet Master super-fan.