It’s been six years since the last Puppet Master movie, the abysmal Sci-Fi (now SyFy) channel production of Puppet Master vs Demonic Toys. That film, while not considered canon by fans or Full Moon, seemed as though it may have been the end for the franchise. Charles Band, owner and creator of the Puppets had actually temporarily sold his rights of the characters to the Sci-Fi channel, which gives you a pretty good indication of where Full Moon Features was at that point. Prior to that monstrosity, Band and Full Moon had limped out Puppet Master: The Legacy, which was largely comprised of stock footage. Finally after almost nine years, Full Moon goes back to it’s roots and has produced Puppet Master: Axis of Evil.

Right from the beginning, I should point out that this is leagues above anything Full Moon has done since the early 1990’s in terms of quality filmmaking. Everything from the opening credits to the closing credits looks as crisp and professional as Full Moon has EVER looked. In theory, now that people can make movies on YouTube that are of theatre quality, Full Moon should be able to string together a professional production without looking so low budget.

The film begins by establishing our new main character, Danny Coogan, who does odds and ends carpentry at the infamous Bodega Bay Inn. He’s upset that he can’t go off to fight in World War II, because of a limp he developed due to a bout of Polo when he was young. His uncle tries to reassure him that his carpentry skills are important as well. Danny, apparently has taken a liking to a visitor at the Inn, Andre Toulon, and his uncle suggests that he try to find some work with Toulon rebuilding his puppets.

If you’ve seen the original Puppet Master film, you’ll know that Nazis come looking for Toulon, leading to him committing suicide to prevent the Germans from obtaining his secret reanimation formula. Of course, we’re treated to that stock footage, which appears to be cleaned up and surprisingly is weaved in well with new footage of the Nazis ransacking Toulon’s room (perfectly recreated) and having a run-in with Coogan, after Andre’s death. In the original 1989 film, we flash forward to the future never knowing what happened with the puppets between 1939 and 1989, but Axis of Evil is the story of what happened in this interim.

Danny discovers the puppets and soon also discovers a plot by the two Nazi soldiers, who are apparently in cahoots with a couple of Japanese spies. The evil Germans and Japanese are planning to blow up an army base and Coogan, now with the puppets, decides that since he can’t fight in the war, he’ll stop this plot at home. This leads to his family being murdered and his girlfriend kidnapped, as it’s up to Danny and the puppets to save the day. It’s puppets versus the axis of evil!

As with all low budget films, none of the actors are known. They do a pretty bang up job however, with only a couple of weak spots. While Danny, his brother, uncle and the Nazis are all well played, his girlfriend suffers a bit. This is a period piece, so her accent and expressions just seem too recent. Danny’s mother goes in the opposite direction as she seems to be channeling Donna Reed or something and it comes off as a bit hokey.

Finally, the leader of the Japanese spies, a Dragon Lady named Ozu weighs the film down a bit. Her acting is decent, but while she is speaking English, it’s clearly not her first language. In fact, she seems to have been dubbed over, but it may just be a re-recording. In the behind the scenes footage, we do see her recording lines of dialogue but none of it sounds good. Her broken speech and nefarious over the top planning make her come across more like Rita Repulsa than a legitimate threat.

Then there’s the puppets… Several puppets return and we see glimpses of others, but for a movie about killer puppets, we rarely see any of them. When we do, they are often stiff and clunky. Why the film doesn’t use a little CGI here or there to give the puppets a bit more life, I’m not sure. There is a new puppet, Ninja, who gets a fair amount of screen time and looks pretty lifelike when he does. It seems most of the work went into him, whereas Blade, Pinhead and Tunneler barely move. On the plus side, Leech Woman kills someone.

Speaking of kills… This film is severely lacking in the gore area. It’s 55 minutes in before someone gets murdered and that’s not even via a puppet. Given that the film is barely 120 minutes, that’s not a good sign for a “horror” movie. We manage to get a couple of puppet kills, but they’re all pretty pedestrian by Puppet Master standards. Just when it looks like the film is about to kick it into high gear and unleash a bloodbath, the movie abruptly ends setting up a sequel which could only be more frustrating if they slapped a big “TO BE CONTINUED” logo on it.

Full Moon has always been top notch with behind-the-scenes featurettes and were doing them long before they were commonplace. This DVD surprisingly comes with very little, though. First it has “No Strings Attached” a documentary from the FIRST Puppet Master film in 1989. It’s a neat bonus, mind you, but Full Moon fans have already seen this. It’s also a bit confusing since it really doesn’t deal with this movie.

The only other bonus is a cut down compilation of the Full Moon Vidcasts which were broadcast on the internet while the film was being made. This feature is somewhat interesting, but a lot of it is just randomly walking around the Chinese sets where this was filmed. It would have been a much better presentation had something been filmed for the DVD instead of just patching together the vidcasts for each week.

Finally there is a pretty stark contrast between the documentary on the first film and the latest effort. In the original film you can see that there is a much larger crew, everyone is taking the work very seriously and the special effects team is massive. In the current vidcasts you see that most of the crew doesn’t speak English, the special effects team is comprised of one guy and nobody seems particularly proud of their work. Charles Band shows up in both featurettes, but in 1989 he comes across as a serious producer and in 2010 he’s trying to get Chinese guys to talk about tits (no I’m not joking), which more or less shows you why this film misses a lot of it’s potential.

In summary, Puppet Master: Axis of Evil is the best Puppet Master film since 1994’s Puppet Master 5. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite live up to it’s billing as a horror film, nor does it quite reach it’s potential as a film overall. Full Moon fans come to see cool puppet action and gore, both are things this film is definitely lacking. Bonus features used to be standard on Full Moon films and often elevate stuff from places like Troma, to the point where the DVD is worth a purchase even if the movie sucks. Full Moon missed the boat here by not including more bonus behind-the-scenes stuff. It’s still leagues above most of the recent Full Moon efforts and it’s not a chore to sit through, which is definitely a positive. If you like Puppet Master, this film is a decent entry into the series but it feels like half a film and without tying up a lot of the loose ends started here it’s hard to judge completely what the vision is.

It’s great to see Full Moon crank out a film that has production values again, but the puppet effects still need work and some of the acting is lacking. Both of those things could be overlooked if the film actually delivered on it’s genre promise, but it doesn’t quite. Hardcore horror fans are likely to be disappointed, but Full Moon fans will likely enjoy the decent story after some colossal Puppet Master failures in the last decade. C+

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