JANUARY 1, 2013
I was quite surprised to see Puppet Master X: Axis Rising at my Blockbuster, as I figured since their selection of new horror was so limited, it would hardly be the sort of thing that they bothered with while ignoring so many others (they didn't even get the new Resident Evil animated film!). But I found it kind of charming in a way; I'm sure a Blockbuster was the gateway to Full Moon/this series for many a lad or lass in the 90s, so it's sort of like carrying on a tradition (or renewing it, since they didn't stock the last couple entries).
My good friend Matt really hated this one, but as with Axis Of Evil and Retro, I found it to be mostly tolerable - mainly because I never loved the earlier ones much either. I can certainly see how a big fan of the first three movies would feel so angry about these later ones, but to me, someone whose appreciation of them doesn't extend beyond "Better than the ones that followed", I didn't see how this was any worse than the last few, since it suffers from all of the same problems.
Yes, despite the nice cover art and the fact that this is actually the first in the series to be directed by Charles Band himself, there isn't much about the production to set it apart from Axis of Evil, at least in the department that matters the most - the puppets. Still no stop motion of any sort, just closeup shots of the puppets (from the waist up) as they wave an arm or nod their head a bit, courtesy of rod wielding puppeteers just off camera. Sure, it's better than digital blasphemy, but when you're talking about a movie with MAYBE 7 minutes of on-screen puppet "action" (mostly, well, waving an arm or nodding their head a bit), it baffles me that Band continues to ignore the series' legacy (and, let's be honest here, only truly good thing about them) by refusing to hire some fledgling stop-motion aficionados to put together a few seconds of Blade or Jester wandering across a floor. You'd think a guy looking to put together a reel in order to secure a job at Laika would be happy to do something practically for free. Everything is shot digitally now; surely a camera, a few of the dolls, and some basic storyboards could be loaned to such a person for a week to see what they can come up with, right? It's not like it has to be Paranorman-level complicated; even in its prime the stop-motion in these movies never amounted to much more than the puppets scampering about, maybe quickly fighting one of the villain puppets.
Luckily they're a touch more active than the last one, if memory serves. The villains make four of their own puppets to fight, so there's a couple of (brief) skirmishes where Leech Woman, for example, will take on Bombshell, the most prolific new puppet, who is an Ilsa esque Nazi puppet who shoots unlimited ammo out of her giant puppet boobs. And then there's Blitzkrieg, a little tank dude who feels like an ancestor of Torch, and Kamikaze, a laughably/terribly stereotypical one who mutters indecipherable Japanese and seemingly can't do anything except blow himself/his surroundings up, which limits his use to one scene. There's also a werewolf puppet, no idea what the hell that's supposed to be about but I assume someone just watched Rob Zombie's trailer in Grindhouse and figured they'd pay tribute. Anyway, they're no better animated than the regulars, but at least it gives the hero puppets something to fight, rather than their usual sneaking around and waiting for a human to trip so Tunneler (who spends most of the movie dead) can do his signature move.
But those other 80 minutes are pretty dull. Again, it's nice that they're trying to work the puppet into a pretty typical but decent enough WWII spy story, and I like the idea of setting such fare in 1940's Los Angeles instead of the usual overseas locales, but Band and co. aren't quite pulling off LA Confidential here. The actors are pretty wooden, the sets aren't impressive, and since they obviously can't afford to dress entire city blocks in period coating, most of the movie takes place with those bad actors talking on those not great sets. The Nazi stuff is not without amusement - before she's turned into a puppet, the fake Ilsa is hilariously campy, and I like that the LA Nazi chapter doesn't seem to be doing much beyond yelling at some scientist to figure out a way to resurrect the dead. It takes place a day after the previous movie, but the failure of their big plan to blow up the weapons factory doesn't seem to be causing much of a concern.
Speaking of which, for a direct sequel, it's hilariously inept. Everyone is played by different actors, and hero Danny has apparently moved overnight - he lived in a tiny apartment in the last one but has his own house here. Ninja is MIA for some reason (though Six Shooter makes an unexplained reappearance - where you been, guy?), and Danny's gung ho attitude about taking on the Nazis has also been lessened in the past few hours, as all he seems to really care about this time is getting Tunneler back. Leave it to Band/Full Moon to opt for a direct sequel to a not very well received entry a full two years later and bungle it in every possible way, rather than just cut their losses on this storyline and try a new path.
On that note, Band also brought something back here: VideoZone! Anyone who rented/bought a Full Moon VHS back in the day probably remembers these featurettes, which would go a bit behind the scenes of the movie you just watched and previewed a few others. I always found that to be a nice little bonus (long before DVD special editions), and was charmed to see it return here, kicked off with Band himself explaining why the series ended and how this is the first in "over 20 years" (an exaggeration; I specifically remember watching one on Arcade and that didn't hit until 1994), as well as hinting at some future projects (including a new Subspecies!). Then it goes into the making of stuff, most of which is pretty bland and made worse by a really cheesy voiceover. Much of the 27 minute runtime is given to Tom Devlin, who did as much as he could (given the limited budget) to make the puppets look more like their original counterparts instead of the cheesy knockoff versions we've seen lately (the results vary; Leech Woman still looks horrible, but Pinhead looks pretty good). The disc also includes a curious montage piece that runs about two minutes and showcases just about every puppet in the series - weird thing to add since it will just remind everyone how much better they used to look AND move. Some trailers for other Full Moon flicks, including a fourth Killjoy that you bet your sweet bippy I'll be watching as soon as possible, are also included, making this a pretty nice package for a not great movie.
But seeing it at Blockbuster gives me hope - if Band's getting his product out there again (well, relatively speaking, since at least one of you is thinking "There are still Blockbusters?", but it's a step up from being featured on Echo Bridge multi-packs), maybe some dough will roll in and they can put it toward improving their most famous property. I don't think I'll ever see a fully GOOD Puppet Master movie, but if they could at least tie it up with something that its fans enjoy, I'd at least have some more respect for this company.
What say you?
P.S. As is tradition whenever I close out a series: 3, 4, 2, 1, Retro, 5, 9/10, the clip show, Curse (the circus one). Vs Demonic Toys doesn't count, but it'd be the worst anyway.