Starring Levi Fiehler, Jenna Gallaher, William Hickey, Ada Chao
Directed by David DeCoteau
It’s almost hard to believe that there have been nine films in the official Charles Band’s Puppet Master franchise (ten if you count Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys but let’s not and say we did) since the original film’s release on VHS back in 1989. And while it had been quite a few years between the original Puppet Master and Puppet Master: Axis of Evil’s release, director David DeCoteau cleverly decided to disregard the already released sequels in this case and give the franchise a new start by creating a new sequel/prequel storyline that builds on the prologue which opens the original Puppet Master.
For the uninitiated, Axis of Evil’s story opens during the onset of World War II in 1939. America is rallying its troops and teenager Danny Coogan (Fiehler) is desperate to fight for his country alongside his gung-ho older brother Don (Graham). Unfortunately for Danny, it’s a dream that will never be fulfilled due to Polio crippling his leg. While wallowing in his own pity party and working as a carpenter’s apprentice at the now infamous Bodega Bay Inn, Danny decides to pay a visit to one of the inn’s mysterious guests: an old puppeteer named Andre Toulon (Hickey).
Danny is completely fascinated by Toulon’s puppets and how the old man can manage to get them to move all on their own. But just as he arrives at Toulon’s room, Danny collides in the hallway with a pair of Nazi assassins fleeing the scene and now that Toulon is dead, it seems his most prized possessions have chosen Danny as their new master.
As Danny tinkers with the trunk of wooden treasures and learns some of Toulon’s secrets, his girlfriend Beth (Gallaher) befriends a co-worker named Ben who Danny suspects as one of the fleeing Nazis from the hotel. Determined to expose the truth, Danny’s investigation reveals that the Nazis have aligned with a Japanese saboteur named Ozu (Chao) and are plotting to destroy the very manufacturing plant where Beth works.
The only question is will this Axis of Evil succeed in their nefarious scheme or will Danny and his little band of tiny terrors be able to stop the enemy all while saving Beth’s life and her job as well?
While it’s no huge secret to fans that the Puppet Master franchise certainly has had its ups and downs over the years, Axis of Evil is definitely a valiant effort by Full Moon and the filmmakers to put the cult favorite series back on track. DeCoteau, who also helmed Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge, Curse of the Puppet Master and Retro Puppet Master under different aliases, the director is smart enough to bring back what the fans have been clamoring for all these years- the original five puppets–Blade, Jester, Ms. Leech, Tunneller, and Pinhead. Axis of Evil also includes a cameo of sorts from a fan favorite from one of the previous flicks and introduces fans to a brand new member of the Puppet Master family as well. DeCoteau is clearly aware that while fans enjoy the human performances in the series, it’s truly the puppets that keep us coming back and thankfully he works them back into supportive roles which invokes a mystique that had been lost since the original Puppet Master was released.
Even though this is still a low budget film, the production values on Axis of Evil are pretty remarkable for the money they had to work with. With most of the film shot in China using numerous set pieces around one of their studios, DeCoteau and company painstakingly built a replica of Toulon’s room and completely constructed the interior of the opera house which definitely help the overall feel to the flick. Another plus here is that DeCoteau doesn’t use any stop-motion for the puppets and only falls on CGI for rod and string removal, giving the prequel/sequel kind of a throwback feel that I rather enjoyed.
Unfortunately, DeCoteau ends up being somewhat of his own worst enemy on Axis of Evil- the director spent so much time on recreating a 1939 world and puts so much focus on the story, fans lose out on some of the other aspects that keep us coming back for more Puppet Master time and time again. The kills are a prime example of this- while they’re certainly believable, there are really only seven deaths (with two of them pretty well off camera and one recycled from the first film) and none are very creative or gory which should no doubt bum out the gore hounds out there.
The Puppet Master: Axis of Evil Blu-ray presentation is surprisingly strong (after experiencing the rather underwhelming transfer of the original Puppet Master on Blu-Ray recently, I wasn’t sure what to expect here) and the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 (2.35:1) encode looks strong, offering viewers an incredible step-up from the original flick’s Blu-Ray presentation.
Axis of Evil opens by recycling a few scenes from the original Puppet Master’s prologue with Hickey and I was surprised to see that they actually look a lot cleaner than the original’s Blu-Ray presentation even. Sure, there’s still a bit of dirt, and those black specs are still visible in the skyline of the Inn’s exterior shots on the cliffs, but overall it appears more time and work went into making those old scenes blend smoother with the new material in Axis of Evil.
The new content in Axis of Evil is also surprisingly clean even if it is a little on the soft side. A few darker scenes have a mild hint of grain to them but fortunately there isn’t a whole lot to complain about in terms of digital noise. From time to time, the film’s color palette does get washed out and black levels often aren’t fully resolved, either but every so often, this Axis of Evil transfer at least makes an attempt to give us what we expect from hi-def and it might be the best HD presentation out of Full Moon yet. The sound mix on Axis of Evil isn’t great but it’s certainly better than what’s been released previously and at least here most of the dialogue is crisp (although there are some echo issues here and there).
The special features on Axis of Evil are a bit of a mixed bag honestly. Full Moon recycled their No Strings Attached featurette that appears on the original Puppet Master Blu-Ray which is a bit of a disappointment. On the plus side we do get The Making of Evil series of 13 videocasts from the set of Axis of Evil which should appease the Puppet Master die-hards but won’t be of much interest for casual viewers (all 13 episodes are lumped together, making it impossible to skip forward through the different videocast episodes individually). Full Moon also once again included all their official Puppet Master trailers in one spot for fans but if you saw them on the original flick’s Blu-Ray. then for you this isn’t much of a supplement here. Once again we don’t get a commentary track on Axis of Evil which I’m sure the longtime fans of the Puppet Master franchise would have greatly appreciated having included here. Another missed opportunity by Full Moon.
The bottom line here is that while Puppet Master: Axis of Evil may not exactly be cinematic perfection, it’s definitely one of the strongest sequels in the franchise and fans will definitely want to make the upgrade to Blu-Ray since the presentation here is definitely stronger than any version Full Moon released previously. Axis of Eviloffers up a lot of low-budget charm (like the original Puppet Master did back in 1989) and is surprisingly strong for being the ninth film in the long-running franchise.
Movie- 3 out of 5
Special Features- 1.5 out of 5