We have hit the nadir, everyone.
The worst offense of Puppet Master: Axis of Evil isn’t really that it’s very bad, but that it’s very generically bad. Full Moon’s output the past decade or so has generally been a sour crop, but at least even Evil Bong and Gingerdead Man have that surreal, home-movie-filmed-in-your-garage quality to them that, for me at any rate, salvages a few of Full Moon’s movies in the 21st century. Plus for Evil Bong and Gingerdead Man an awesome voice for the titular bong and Gary Busey, respectively. With Axis of Evil, it’s like you’re getting your bad movie served watered down and mixed with flat soda to boot. Even the parts of it that are downright offensive—which we’ll get to, definitely—are somehow lazily, uncommittingly offensive.
Given Charles Band’s obsession with comics, I suspect this movie is the oddest Captain America adaptation ever, even more so than that Reb Brown ’70s Captain America movie where he doesn’t have a costume and only gets into a fight once. See, our new puppet master is Danny (Levi Fielher). He only wants to join his brother Don (Taylor M. Graham) who is fighting as a soldier fighting in World War II, but Danny was crippled by polio. Instead Danny switches between living with his mother Elma (Erica Shaffer) in Los Angeles and working for his uncle, who owns the Bodega Bay Inn.
Of course, instead of being exposed to a secret formula developed by a Nazi defector, Danny happens to not only befriend Andre Toulon, but witnesses him being menaced by two German agents and finds his body (using footage from Puppetmaster intercut less than seamlessly with original footage). Danny retrieves Andre Toulon’s hidden cabinet and returns to Los Angeles with it. He manages to work out how to revive the puppets—although he tells Don he doesn’t have time to fix Six-Shooter’s arms, a bit of handwaving so clumsy that his dialogue might as well have been “We just didn’t have the budget to animate Six-Shooter.”
Like most Puppet Master protagonists, Danny is surprisingly nonplussed at the prospect of living, sentient puppets, but to be fair he does have other problems. Danny gets even more self-conscious when he visits his girlfriend Beth (Jenna Gallaher), who works in a bomb factory, and is berated by her boss, Mr. Gifford (Mike Brooks), for—somehow not being able to disguise his limp long enough he can join the army and keep fighting throughout the war? I don’t know; “it was a different time” and all, but berating a disabled polio survivor for somehow not miraculously deceiving the US Army into letting him join the war effort seems politically incorrect even for the 1940s. Honestly, what really seals this as a bad horror movie is that Mr. Gifford is set up as such an asshole, but he suffers no well-deserved karmic death.
Luckily, though, Danny is going to be given a shot at serving the war effort, whether he wants to or not. He recognizes one of Beth’s co-workers as one of the two men sent to kill Andre Toulon, Max (Tom Sondoval), and that gives him enough thread to untangle a conspiracy between Max and a Japanese spy, Ozu (Ada Chao), to blow up the very same factory Beth happens to work in. When Danny’s family pays the price for his nosiness and Beth is kidnapped, it’s time to unleash Toulon’s puppets, including a new one of Danny’s own making containing the consciousness of his freshly murdered brother…
I already pointed out the Captain America parallels, but the whole affair really does feel like a filmed Golden or Silver Age Marvel superhero origin story. You could replace Mr. Gifford with “Flash” Thompson or any of the nameless bullies who always appear in Stan Lee-penned origin stories, for example. The filmmakers also aren’t shy about recreating the casual racism of both the era and the comics from it. Danny and Don drop the “Jap” and the “Kraut” words like…well, like Americans from the time would have said them.
Unfortunately, the movie goes a little too far in its quest for uncomfortable authenticity. Alright, followers of this blog—all twelve of you—know that I’m not one of those cultural commentators to casually cry racism or misogyny or homophobia. Also I’m sure what the screenwriter, perhaps at the prompting of Charles Band himself, was deliberately going for a simple World War II morality tale, in the style of the comic books of the 1940s and Stan Lee’s heyday. There’s something to be said for that approach, especially after we recently got a Captain America movie that ducked the whole issue of 1940s social attitudes, not even really trying to establish that Steve Rogers pre-superhero was a forward-thinking guy like the comics have, to the point that even the Nazis got quietly shoved under the rug.
However, I cringed—not just physically, but on the level of my very soul—when Ozu first shows up looking like a geisha (despite the fact that she’s supposed to be pretending to be a Chinese-American in Chinatown!). And then when she has two goons who dress like they just stepped out of a movie about feudal Japan. And then when she battles the ninja puppet (yes, there’s a ninja puppet now, and it looks like it was put together during the lunch period right before art class) she says a line of dialogue that implies that the ninja should be on her side, because…ninja. I think I blacked out from sheer embarrassment by that point.
Again, I’m sure (well, reasonably sure) that the screenwriter doesn’t really believe that the Japanese of the 1940s went around acting like the modern age never happened. This was, after all, how the Japanese might have been depicted in a real comic book from the time. It’s just there’s a reason you can’t do these types of portrayals anymore, at least not without an injection of irony or without giving your ethnic villains a couple of humanizing aspects. It just doesn’t help that Beth earnestly spouts lines like “You’ll never defeat freedom and democracy!”to Max. Or that the two Nazi agents hate baseball but easily fit in with Americans just by pretending to like it. Or when Danny self-righteously lectures Ozu that kamikaze pilots may have guts but they’re not actually brave (whatever that means).
There is a tiny bit of humanization when Max seems to have fallen for Beth and is genuinely concerned for her even after he’s kidnapped her, but rather than becoming even just a half-baked subplot it just switches back to Max threatening to murder her.
Of course, none of this is helped by the fact that the acting is uniformly terrible. I haven’t really talked about the acting in this series much because I thought it didn’t need to be said that it was for the most part what you would expect from an outfit like Full Moon, but some of the performances here are outshone by the dubbing in Retro Puppet Master. I will admit that we do get a more than decent performance out of Tom Sondoval as Max, despite him playing a villain who barely even has one dimension, but even he doesn’t try to bother with the hint of a German accent or an obviously affected American accent, something that gets clumsily explained away by a line about his “excellent English.” By this point in the series, it’s probably no longer worth discussing at length that the puppetry has gotten so cheap and half-assed that just using the term “special effects” is a stretch.
There are really only two nice things I can say about the movie. One, for a low-budget film the set design is genuinely good-looking with an air of authenticity, especially with Danny’s patriotically decked bedroom. Two, at least it’s not a painfully self-aware “comedy” like most of Full Moon’s recent output or, to put it another way, at least it’s not Gingerdead Man vs. Evil Bong. Otherwise I don’t even know if I can justify why this movie exists. It’s a prequel that doesn’t even fill in any gaps in the movie’s mythos. I guess it’s meant to just milk more out of the World War II setting of what’s generally agreed to be the franchise’s strongest outing, but even there it’s a hollow effort. The money poured into the historical set design would have been better spent on halfway-decent puppetry. At least the film does have the triumphant return of Leech Woman in her full disgusting glory, I guess?
While writing this I was debating with myself over whether or not this is worse than Retro Puppet Master. I have to conclude that it really is. At least Retro had an interesting idea, however lazily executed, and a point for the series. Even that much cannot be said for this outing.
But you know what’s really sad? There’s one more movie in the series, and it revisits World War II again! I suspect I might just end up copying and pasting most of what I said here.