It’s been a long, tough road, full of disappointments that would have broken a lesser person, but at last we come to the final mile, Puppet Master X: Axis Rising.
It’s entirely possible that watching all of these movies in such a short time frame—well, by the standards of my glacial posting schedule, anyway—has warped my perception of quality. I’m certainly seeing the merits of an entire franchise built around killer puppets more than I once thought I would, and I have spent many hours in vain fretting over Puppet Master continuity (or lack thereof). So when I say that Axis Rising really isn’t all that bad, my opinion might be as reliable as someone who’s been in a cult for ten years. But honestly it’s not the worst Puppet Master movie, and it’s definitely not as bad as Axis of Evil. For starters, they actually got the budget to use Six-Shooter!
Of course, it’s still plagued by all the problems that come out of recent Full Moon films. There’s the racism that would get even the most anti-tumblr blogger go, ”That’s so wrong,” and was on the same level as the buck-toothed Japanese tourist from Gingerdead Man vs. Evil Bong, but at least that was (allegedly) a comedy. Then there’s the script that seems to have been ab-libbed from a few notes scribbled down on a couple of deli receipts. Or to put it in Full Moon terms their recent output makes their own ’90s third-rate Anne Rice-y Subspecies saga look like an Akira Kurosawa film.
What plot there is directly follows up on the events of Axis of Evil (then shouldn’t that film have been Axis Rising and this one Axis of Evil? Well, yeah…). Ozu—still dressed like a geisha and not using a gun for reasons that can only be discerned from Charles Band’s fever dreams—is betrayed and killed by Moebius (!) (Scott King), a Nazi officer whose skills at infiltrating enemy territory is best illustrated by the fact that he shows up in full Nazi regalia out in the alleys of Los Angeles just to dispatch Ozu. But before Ozu dies she hands a captive Tunneler to Moebius, who then gives the captive puppet to a captive Austrian scientist, Dr. Freuhoffer (Oto Brezina), and his Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS-like aide, Uschi (Stephanie Sanditz). See, Moebius got his hands on the same secret knowledge about creating and preserving life from the Old Ones that Toulon did, because he [backstory needed], so he just happens to be having Dr. Freuhoffer develop a resurrection machine.
And as sick as I am harping on the franchise’s infamous lack of continuity there’s no reference to the events of Puppet Master III, no matter how obvious that would be. In fact, neither Dr. Freuhoffer or Moebius seem to even acknowledge that the Nazis have been after Toulon for the very same knowledge Moebius is currently using. Even though they could have made the connection with just one line.
…we’re though the looking glass here people. The looking glass of really sloppy continuity.
However Moebius got the not-so-secret secrets of Sutek, he’s oblivious to their applications to the world of puppetry, until Dr. Freuhoffer stumbles upon a way to create his own Axis-themed puppets.
Still, it is excusable given how tight this film is. The director couldn’t be expected to sacrifice the pivotal scene where Dr. Freuhoffer changes from his street clothes to a lab coat, after all.
Anyway…Danny and Beth (now played by Kip Canyon and Jean Louise O’Sullivan, respectively) are acclaimed as heroes by the military, barely managing to hide the truth about the involvement of Toulon’s puppets. Nor does any of this put a stop to Danny’s endless whining about how he can’t enlist with the army because of his bad leg. It does mean, however, that Danny and Beth are given a military escort in case they are targeted for retaliation. At the same time they are invited to meet a famous American general, who will be visiting Los Angeles instead of at the European or Pacific theaters because [half-assed explanation not found]. Unfortunately, the general’s visit comes to the attention of Moebius, who decides to test Dr. Freuhoffer’s team of puppets—Bombshell, Blitzkreig, Weremacht, and Kamikaze—by sending them to assassinate the general…
I guess I can sum up the problems with this movie by talking about the subplot, where Dr. Freuhoffer is only working with Moebius because he and Uschi (who, by the way, doesn’t deserve to even hold Dynanne Thorne’s riding crop) are holding his daughter captive and Uschi is sadistically toying with him erotically. Then Dr. Freuhoffer never mentions his daughter again and is genuinely in some kind of weird erotic yet unfulfilled dom/sub thing with Uschi, which is enough to get her killed by a jealous Moebius and turned into Bombshell by a Freuhoffer who genuinely mourns her. Then Dr. Freuhoffer seems to go along with Moebius 100 percent, especially because he has at least one perfect opportunity to kill him, even though he’s murdered the woman he apparently genuinely has fallen in love and/or has his daughter captive. Then Dr. Freuhoffer seems to turn against Moebius, but still isn’t upset when Bombshell, who really is all that’s left of Uschi, is destroyed. I’ve seen a lot of bad movies over the years, but this is the first time I’ve been almost positive that the script was being written as the movie was getting filmed.
To be fair, though, by the last act if you’re anything like me you would have given up trying to figure out what the hell Dr. Freuhoffer’s entire character arc is supposed to be. And Dr. Freuhoffer’s subplot seemingly gets almost half the screentime! You are getting more plot for your buck than you did with Axis of Evil, in that at least Axis Rising actually feels like it’s leading up to something. That something is the showdown between Toulon’s puppets and the Axis puppets. Okay, the showdown is less than epic because the puppets look cheaper than ever (especially Leech Woman, who looks like a discount doll picked up at a flea market) and they didn’t have the budget to show the puppets do…much, but honestly the very idea of Axis puppets is awesome.
Well, awesome, except for Kamikaze, who looks like…
Okay, you could make the point that, like the racist-patriotic dialogue from the last movie, it is appropriate to the context. After all, it’s a puppet designed by a Nazi sympathizer (well, depending on which point in the movie you’re watching) or even outside the Nazi connection someone who’s a European born sometime around the end of the nineteenth century. But context still doesn’t quite change the fact that Kamikaze would have looked offensively jarring in a 1972 movie, much less a 2012 one!
As for our protagonist…what is there to say? They’re both portrayed by better actors this time around, but the characters barely have any personalities to work through. There’s a few cute moments as Beth and Danny cope with being babysat by your standard issue military hardcase with a heart of gold, Sgt. Stone (portrayed to low-key perfection by character actor Brad Potts). You might think that Danny gets a real character arc, which ends with him realizing he can contribute to America’s war effort without actually being on the battlefield—what with him having killer puppets who are totally loyal to him, and all—but you’d be wrong! What passes for his character arc ends with him getting a promise from the general to allow him to finally enlist. You probably shouldn’t be getting your life lessons from the Puppet Master series anyway, much less from the tenth installment, but all the same ”People should contribute to a cause in one narrow way, regardless of their particular skills or disabilities” doesn’t strike me as a particularly solid moral.
So, you may be wondering as you read the above, how exactly is Axis Rising better than Axis of Evil? Well, you know, in militantly low-budget affairs like these a concept means everything, and having an enemy team of puppets is such a good idea it’s shocking it wasn’t done in, say, 4 and 5, which were handicapped with aggressively boring antagonists. Also the acting was slightly better, with more professional actors in the pot, and it felt like it actually had much more going on, albeit a plot where one of the villains’ motivations change with every act.
Between writing this and writing about Axis of Evil, I found out that Charles Band, like how even established indie and middle-tier directors have to do nowadays, is crowdfunding the latest installment in the Puppet Master saga. So if reading these reviews has whet your appetite for some killer puppet action, here’s my official ranking. (Keep in mind, though, that it’s all relative, so I’d definitely only recommend the top three for people who aren’t already Charles Band devotees).
- Puppet Master III
- Puppet Master II
- Curse of the Puppet Master [probably the one disagreement I’d have with most fans of the series, who’d probably put 4 & 5 on this slot if not higher, so…watch at your own risk!]
- Puppet Master 4 & 5 (they’re already the same movie)
- Puppet Master: Axis Rising
- Retro Puppet Master
- Puppet Master: Axis of Evil
- Puppet Master: Legacy [dead last because it’s not actually a movie!]
Of course, I’ll be the first in line to watch the new movie, because I’m in this for the long haul! And with a new Puppet Master coming out maybe we’ll finally get an idea of what Legacy was supposed to lead up to…
Nah, just kidding, it’s also going to be about Danny and Beth’s adventures during World War II!
Can you feel my excitement?