Color, 2010, 83m. Directed by David DeCoteau
Starring Levi Fiehler, Jenna Gallaher, Taylor M. Graham, Tom Sandoval, Jerry Hoffman
Full Moon (Blu-ray/DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9) / DD5.1
The franchise that put Full Moon on the map as one of the best-loved horror video franchises of the early '90s, Puppet Master has certainly seen its ups and downs over the years. The first film was certainly the slickest and featured the best cast, while the second and third films in many ways improved on their source. After that, things took a severe downward spiral due to rapidly diminishing budgets and fewer resources, with a reliance of recycled footage and claustrophobic, limited sets eventually devouring the entire series.
Billed as the first "original" Puppet Master film in a decade (which basically discounts efforts like the "greatest hits" package of Puppet Master: The Legacy) is 2010's Puppet Master: Axis of Evil, which brings back David DeCoteau, the director of perhaps the best film in the series, Puppet Master III: Toulon's Revenge. Some interesting story ideas, a shooting relocation to China, and the surprising decision to frame everything in 2.35:1 scope definitely give this a different feel for previous films, and while the obvious financial limitations and some strange historical snafus (not to mention a strangely incomplete third act) keep this from threatening the ranks of the series' finest, it's certainly an improvement over at least half of the entries.
Our story kicks off in 1939 at the Bodega Bay Inn where original puppet master Toulon committed suicide as he was being hunted down by mysterious men in black. Intercutting footage from the original film with a new subplot, we meet our hero, Danny (Fiehler), a young friend of Toulon's who manages to grab the special, living puppets from their hiding place after their owner's death. An idealistic and patriotic sort who wants to fight the nasty Axis forces threatening freedom around the globe, he finally gets his chance when nearby Chinatown is infiltrated by nefarious Nazi and Japanese spies trying to take down a munitions plant. With a clutch of homicidal puppets in his possession, he sees the perfect opportunity to wipe out a few bad guys.
For a seriously belated comeback vehicle, Axis of Evil certainly could've used a bit more puppet action; the iconic Blade barely gets any screen time, while Six Shooter only makes a cameo via his disembodied arms. (Don't even ask about Torch, introduced in the second film.) The decision to make another World War II-era entry is something of a mixed blessing as it ties in interestingly with Toulon's Revenge, period-wise, but also finds itself trying to compete with that ambitious entry from the same director. That said, Fiehler does a surprisingly good job with his lead role which demands that he carry about 75% of the screen time, and the visual look of the film is often moody and striking with some nifty widescreen compositions adding some production value even when the puppets themselves are deprived of their lovable stop motion antics. The violence is thankfully more potent than the wretched PG-13 entries, though it doesn't aim for the same gore and T&A excesses of the best films. All told, it's nice to see Full Moon back in the game again, and after warming up with this one, they'll hopefully have at least one more classic entry left in a series that apparently refuses to die.
Released simultaneously on DVD and Blu-Ray, Puppet Master: Axis of Evil features a solid HD transfer that shows Full Moon putting far more effort in the visual presentation of its films than the much rougher VHS and DVD eras. The Blu-Ray actually does represent a respectable bump up in quality, and while some scenes feature pretty drab contrast levels, the colors and black levels pop exactly when they should. Extras include a vintage featurette from the making of the first film ("No Strings Attached") and, more importantly, "The Making of Evil," a stitched-together doc made from 13 webcast featurettes from the China shoot. Charles Band kicks things off talking about the production, but DeCoteau and the Chinese crew get most of the screen time as they show off the various locations and props (which look a lot glossier in the finished film). The package is rounded out with trailers for all nine Puppet Master titles (excluding the unofficial Sci-Fi Channel entry, which we'll pretend never happened).