Although 'Puppet Master: Axis of Evil' is the ninth film in Charles Band's 'Puppet Master' franchise (tenth if you count the non-canon 'Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys'), it's technically a sequel to the original film. This side story goes all the way back to the beginning, spinning off the short opening prologue set during the onset of World War II in 1939.
America is rallying its troops and teenager Danny Coogan (Levi Fiehler) desperately wishes to fight for his country alongside his gung-ho older brother Don (Taylor M. Graham)--a dream that will never come to pass due to Polio crippling his leg. While wallowing in his sorrows and working as a carpenter's apprentice at the infamous Bodega Bay Inn, Danny decides to pay a visit to one of the inn's mysterious guests: an old puppeteer named Andre Toulon (William Hickey). Danny has seen Toulon's puppets move without assistance and is completely fascinated by the trick. But just as he arrives at the old man's room, Danny collides in the hallway with a pair of Nazi assassins fleeing the scene--Max (Tom Sandoval) and Klaus (Aaron Riber). Now that Toulon is dead, it seems his most prized possessions have chosen Danny as their new master.
As Danny tinkers with the trunk of wooden treasures and learns their secrets, his girlfriend Beth (Jenna Gallaher) befriends a co-worker named Ben--only Danny believes he is one of the suspects from the hotel. Determined to expose the truth, Danny's investigation will reveal that the Nazis have aligned with a Japanese saboteur named Ozu (Ada Chao) and are plotting to destroy the very manufacturing plant where Beth works. The only question is will this Axis of Evil succeed in their nefarious scheme, or will Danny and his little band of tiny terrors be able to stop the enemy and save Beth's life?
The 'Puppet Master' franchise certainly has had its ups and downs (taking a nosedive for the last few installments in particular), but for 'Puppet Master: Axis of Evil' it does seem like the filmmakers are making an attempt to put the series back on track. Directed by David DeCoteau (who also helmed 'Puppet Master III: Toulon's Revenge,' as well as 'Curse of the Puppet Master,' and 'Retro Puppet Master' under different aliases), the film not only brings back the original five puppets--Blade, Jester, Ms. Leech, Tunneller, and Pinhead--it includes a cameo of sorts of a fan favorite from one of the sequels/prequels, and introduces a brand new member to the family--which I won't spoil. Even though this is still a low budget film, the production values don't look quite as cheap, either. According to the supplements, most of the movie was filmed in China using numerous set pieces around one of their studios, and they've built a replica of Toulon's room and completely constructed the interior of the opera house. DeCoteau also doesn't use any stop-motion for the puppets and only falls on CGI for rod and string removal. But most importantly, this is a story driven by a human character--so the puppets themselves return to more supportive roles and get to recoup some of their mystique.
Unfortunately, though, this also happens to be the biggest problem of the film. DeCoteau spend so much time on recreating a 1939 world and puts so much focus on the story, that the movie falls short in other key areas. The kills are the perfect example of this. While they're certainly creative and more believable, there are really only seven deaths (with two of them pretty well off camera and one recycled from the first film) and none are very gory, either. In fact, after watching the movie I felt it could have easily snagged a PG-13 rating -- a major no-no for direct-to-video schlock. So while 'Puppet Master: Axis of Evil' isn't an awful film, those expecting things like gratuitous nudity and lots of blood and guts are unfortunately going to be left out in the cold.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Full Moon celebrates the 20th Anniversary of 'Puppet Master' by making their first foray into the high-definition market with both the original film and its 2010 sequel, 'Puppet Master: Axis of Evil.' Each release arrives separately as single editions (or as part of the 'Limited Edition Toulon's Trunk Collector's Set' only available at Full Moon Direct). In either edition, each movie is presented on a single-layered BD-25 housed inside a standard blue keepcase. According to the Full Moon website, the Blu-rays are also reported to be region free.
'Puppet Master: Axis of Evil' comes to Blu-ray with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 (2.35:1) encode that isn't just a significant step up from the grubby transfer of 'Puppet Master,' this one has a couple of shining moments that actually resemble a high-definition presentation!
The opening of the film recycles a few scenes from the original's prologue with William Hickey and I was surprised to see that they look much cleaner, with considerably less debris and imperfections on the print. There's still a bit of dirt, and those black specs are still visible in the skyline of the Inn's exterior shots on the cliffs, but overall it appears more time and work went into making those old scenes blend smoother with the new material.
The new content itself is surprisingly clean -- if a little on the soft side. A few darker scenes have a mild hint of grain to them, and fortunately there isn't a whole lot to complain about in terms of digital noise. It does seem DNR has been applied, though, but to my eyes it doesn't really harm the image quality. Fine detailing is adequate and flesh tones look natural, even if they don't reveal every pore and skin imperfection. The palette is washed out and black levels often aren't fully resolved, either, and this obviously leads to a flatter presentation for the majority of the film.
But every so often this transfer at least makes an attempt to give us what we expect from hi-def. Colors and black levels can occasionally be quite impressive, like when Max and Klaus are walking at night through the neon-lit back streets of Chinatown. This particular scene and a handful of others also somehow manage to muster up an appealing sense of depth as well as decent shadow detailing.
The bottom line is that while 'Puppet Master: Axis of Evil' may not be a visual delight, it's still far better than I expected -- especially when considering its low budget limitations.
I mentioned in my review for 'Puppet Master' that a small batch of both 'Puppet Master' and 'Puppet Master: Axis of Evil' Blu-ray discs have a known issue where the films' audio is presented in Dolby Digital Stereo (instead of the advertised Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes). Unfortunately I happened to receive these faulty discs, but Full Moon customer service is going to send me the replacements as soon as they can. Once I have them in hand I will update this section.
As for the Dolby Digital Stereo tracks, the mix here on 'Axis' is noticeably better than the one on the original 'Puppet Master' Blu-ray. The soundtrack is cleaner and a bit more spacious throughout the room. Dialogue is crisper as well, but there are few times where there's a slight echo to a few lines, and the lip-synching issue that I noted in my last review also seems to be present here (although I only really noticed it this time when Ozu speaks). Bass activity is stronger on this disc, but it's still pretty weak overall. The best part of the soundtrack is once again Richard Band's score, and we get a great updated version of his iconic 'Puppet Master' theme music during the opening credits to boot! In the end, it's a passable mix for this kind of low budget production, but I'm still curious to see how well the multi channel audio pans out.
'Puppet Master: Axis of Evil' may not be the best of the series, but it's still more watchable than a lot of direct-to-video garbage out there. The video on this Blu-ray is actually fairly decent and there's over an hour's worth of supplements (including 13 vidcasts as well as the trailers for every official 'Puppet Master' film to date). The audio, however, is tough to really comment on until Full Moon gets the issue sorted out. That being said, while the original 'Puppet Master' comes recommended for diehard schlock fans, 'Axis' is mainly best suited for fans of the entire franchise.