Director David Decoteau’s (“Puppet Master III”, “Curse of the Puppet Master” and “Retro Puppet Master”) 2010 direct-to-DVD prequel “Puppet Master: Axis of Evil” is quite a surprise. It’s not a good movie by any means, don’t get me wrong. It’s really bad at times, but it’s also highly enjoyable as a cheap horror film and has some good fun moments, and it is a definite step up after the abysmal, cheap clip-show of a film the prior entry (“Legacy”) was.
The films starts off with an extremely well-done retcon of the original “Puppet Master” film’s prologue, almost seamlessly mixing old archival footage and new footage- Danny Coogan (Levi Fletcher), a young man whom wants to fight in World War II but can’t due to a bad limp, stumbles into the room of the puppet master Andre Toulon (William Hickey in archival footage) just moments after he killed himself. Danny had been shown Toulon’s puppets before, and is able to recover them from their hiding place in the wall, vowing to take care of them and keep them safe from the Nazis Max and Klaus who had been sent to retrieve them for Hitler. (Max and Klaus are played by Tom Sandoval and Aaron Riber) Danny returns home to Los Angeles China-Town district where his mother and older brother (about to depart for the war) live, and where his girlfriend Beth (Jenna Gallaher) works. However, Max and Klaus track down Danny’s address and begrudgingly unite with a Japanese spy and her associates to retrieve the puppets for the Axis, and to blow up the factory where Beth works, which may or may not be home to a new secret Allied weapon.
I will give credit where credit is due- there are a lot of good, fun moments in this direct-to-DVD film. Some of the ret-con work in the beginning is highly impressive (it matches perfectly except for slight differences in the lighting), the characters though underdeveloped and poorly acted are likable, and there’s even some good unintentional social commentary. (Including a good jab at American ignorance in that our Japanese villainess is able to hide out in plain sight in China-Town because Americans are too ignorant to be able to tell Chinese and Japanese apart.) It’s also just good to see the puppets in action again as a fan of earlier installments in the series.
However, when this film falls apart and times, it really falls apart. For one, it’s 81 minutes long, but nearly ten minutes of that footage includes the opening and closing credits, and a large portion of archival footage from the original film, so the film is really only about 71 minutes of new footage. And it just isn’t enough time to develop the sort-of story the director and writer are going for. You can tell that a lot of scenes must have been cut for budget and time reasons (too much is implied through dialog when it should have been shown on screen, and the film takes place in the same few locations from scene to scene), and it hurts the film. What makes this even stranger is that it’s not a fast film, per say, it’s actually a slower-moving film editing-wise, which makes it seem even shorter than it already is. It really could have benefited from another 10 minutes of footage.
Two, this is not really a well-made movie. It feels far too low-budget. The puppet effects are all very bland and basic and look arguably worse than they did in earlier films. The production design is very cheap. The acting isn’t the greatest (the actors are charming, but just can’t act). It just reeks of “low budget direct-to-DVD.”
Those complains being said, this is still a watchable film. It’s one of the weaker entries in the series (to be honest, the series has gotten a lot worse since the third film), but is still mildly entertaining. I’d give it a just under-average 4 out of 10. If you’re a fan of the earlier films, pick up the box set of all nine official entries and give this one a watch. It’s worth seeing for the fans.