Writer: ‘August White’
Producer: Charles Band
Cast: Tom Sandoval, Levi Fiehler, Jenna Gallaher
Year of release: 2010
Reviewed from: UK DVD (Revolver)
They say that you can’t go home again and that is often the case with films. Once successful series which have been dormant, when revived, often turn out to be a poor reflection of their earlier brilliance. Whether they really are worse than the originals or whether these Johnny-come-lately sequels suffer mainly through a lack of nostalgia, there’s no doubt that the general trend is disappointment.
A fourth Indiana Jones film? That was worth waiting for - not. Star Wars prequels? George, you’ve lost it big time. An American Werewolf in Paris - the dampest of damp squibs. The Lost Boys: The Tribe - ouch.
This is the first Puppet Master movie for six years and, in some ways, the first real Puppet Master movie for 16 years. Let’s take a quick run-down of this perennially popular series.
The first film (which, interestingly, has the title onscreen as one word: Puppetmaster) was directed by David Schmoeller for Charlie Band’s Full Moon way back in 1989. It featured great stop-motion work by David Allen and told of a group of people in an abandoned California hotel, menaced by deadly living puppets. A prologue set in the 1930s, when the Bodega Bay Inn was a fashionable place to be seen, depicted elderly puppeteer Andre Toulon, creator of the deadly figurines, who animated them using an Ancient Egyptian scroll. Toulon was gunned down by Nazi agents but his puppets were hidden away.
Two years later the puppets (well, the most popular ones) returned in Puppet Master 2 and Allen was given the director’s chair on a feature for the only time in his tragically short life. A direct sequel to PM1, David Pabian’s script concentrated on a US government team investigating what happened at the Bodega Bay Inn and encountering a bandaged figure who claims to actually be Andre Toulon (which would make him about 130, but clearly he has not been kept alive by natural means). The secret of the puppets’ animation is revealed to be a chemical manufactured from brain tissue, a process documented in the hieroglyphics on the scroll that Toulon purchased in Egypt. Or something.
Revolt of the Zombies). They try to get their hands on his life-giving formula, killing Madame Toulon in the process, so he takes his revenge. Hence the title. This film introduced a new puppet, multi-armed cowboy Six-Shooter and explained the origin of icky femme fatale Leech Woman.
Parts 4 and 5 were shot back to back by Jeff Burr and released in 1993 and 1994, the second being a direct sequel with shared characters and a continuation of the story. These films returned the story to the present day with a new set of people discovering Toulon’s trunk full of puppets in the Bodega Bay Inn and expanded on the whole Egyptian origin idea by introducing Sutekh, Lord of the Underworld, as the main antagonist. Sutekh’s Totem monsters subsequently turned up in Totem; well, there’s something I didn’t know when I reviewed that film. The fifth picture was subtitled The Final Chapter but we all know that final is never final in these sort of franchises.
The DeCoteau-directed Curse of the Puppet Master appeared in 1998 and is the other one of these films which I have seen although I didn’t review it for some reason. It has no real connection with the earlier films, simply taking the puppets and dumping them into a story about a bloke being turned into a puppet. Or something. This was the first film without any stop-motion effects by David Allen; from hereon in the puppets would be manually operated by rods and string in real time (as were, to be fair, many of the shots in the first five films).
The following year’s Retro Puppet Master, again helmed by DeCoteau was another prequel, going right back to Andre Toulon’s youth in Egypt in 1902 (with a framing story set in 1944 immediately after the climax of PM3 which saw Toulon escape from Germany into Switzerland). That was it for a few years until 2004 which brought us two films which are only of interest to real completists. Puppet Master: The Legacy was basically a clips show, revolving around an older version of a child character from PM3. It was at least produced (and directed) by Charles Band. Whereas Puppet Master vs Demonic Toys, a SciFi Channel TV-movie, wasn’t produced by Full Moon and so is considered non-canonical to both franchises although it does have a character who is the great grand-nephew of Andre Toulon.
The first thing you notice, if you have seen PM1, is that the first ten minutes of PM:Axis is essentially the same as the prologue of that first film. Editor Danny Draven has skilfully intercut footage of the Nazi agents arriving at the Bodega Bay Inn, Blade running to Toulon’s room, Toulon hiding the puppet chest and then shooting himself - with newly shot footage of Levi Fiehler (Wolf Town) as Danny Coogan, a young man working in the hotel basement repairing furniture under the eye of his Uncle Len (Jerry Hoffman - who was in The First Nudie Musical back in 1976!).
This gives the opening a touch of class and an expensive sheen that the film could not otherwise afford: look at that location, look at those extras, look at those props and costumes, look at that 1930s car. But it also creates a problem, a huge, instant problem which then bedevils the whole film yet could so easily have been avoided. That first, establishing shot of the hotel has a caption, carried over from the 1989 film, reading ‘Bodega Bay Inn, 1939’. So this film’s action is established as taking place in 1939, yet Danny and his Uncle discuss the war and how Danny, who has been classified unfit for service because of a gammy leg, would really love to be in the army, sticking it to “the Krauts” or “the Japs”.
A full two years before America finally got round to entering the war.
Even if this was the last quarter of 1939, after Britain had declared war on Germany, that still wouldn’t cut it. Yes, a few Americans came over to the UK to sign up in the British forces but Danny’s not talking about that, he’s talking about the US Army. Which was sitting on its hands, looking the other way in 1939. Good grief, the tripartite pact that established the alliance between Germany and Japan (and Italy), which actually united the so-called ‘Axis Powers’ from which this film ultimately derives its name (via modern re-usage) didn’t happen until 1940.
Towards the end of the film, characters discuss things like Auschwitz and kamikaze attacks but Auschwitz was not public knowledge until June 1944 and the first kamikaze attack didn’t happen until October of that year.
It’s not like the film is beholden to established continuity. The sequels, as described above, show Toulon escaping from Germany, via Switzerland, in the early 1940s. So there was no reason why these events, which take place immediately after his suicide, could not be set in early 1945, thus rendering all the dialogue references relevant and realistic.
Of course, there’s the slight dichotomy that 1939, unlike 1945, was a time when it was still possible for Nazi agents to wander around the USA dressed like Herr Flick, talking in German and carrying Lugers, without unduly attracting attention. That’s kind of the point of the opening scene and the caption in the original film. But making allowances for the calm ease with which the German agents operate in the prologue is less of a demand on the audience than making allowances for a caption which explicitly contradicts not just much of the dialogue but in fact the whole story. Because this turns out to be a film about a young man, frustrated at being unable to serve his country, who finds he can do his bit by preventing Axis spies from sabotaging a munitions factory.
That opening caption is one of those head-scratching moments which spoils the cinematic ship for a hap’orth of tar. There are one or two other anachronisms, most notably and obviously a post-1960 US flag on Danny’s bedroom wall. I don’t know how familiar the target audience would be with US history during the 20th century and whether they would even notice this, nor have I any idea how easy or difficult it is to obtain a US flag with 48 stars, but it’s just annoying because it lowers the apparent quality of the film among nitpicking nerds.
Danny lives with his mother (the very hot Erica Shaffer who does lots of TV, theatre and anime voices) and his brother Don (Taylor M Graham: Blood Effects) in Chinatown for no other reason than, well, the film was shot in China. Not Hong Kong but mainland China. Specifically ACE Studios in Nanhai, Foshan, owned by Hong Kong-born Wall-Street-trader-turned-travel-entrepreneur-turned-film-executive Henry Luk.
Luk’s father Bong Luk directed many HK films from the 1950s to the 1980s including some for the Shaw Brothers. His most notable (translated) titles include Beauty’s Head is Misplaced, Swallow the Poison with a Smile, Ali Baba and the 40 Robbers, Lady Lightning Among Swordsmen, The Killing Sword, Bravest Fist and - get this - Carry On Bangkok. Now his son runs a film studio offering full production and post-production facilities to American film-makers at a rate that is clearly very competitive, even with air fares thrown in.
Luk, credited as executive producer, was able to offer Band facilities that he could never have afforded in LA including make-up, costumes, props. visual effects and four whole sound stages. They also collaborated on Killjoy 3 while Luk’s other films include Michael Morris’ backwoods psychodrama Dark Forest, Antony Szezto’s sci-fi chop-sockey Vela 734, Donald Jarman’s Black Sunday-style The Witch and The Blood Bond, an action flick directed by Michael Biehn of all people. The ACE Studios team also includes hardworking 1st AD Fred Sun and Michael Dinetz who gets an extraordinary four-part credit here starting with Make-up Department Head, then puppeteer, then ‘supplementary special make-up effects’ and finally - catering! His previous credits include The Asylum’s I am Omega and Jeff Brookshire’s Awaken the Dead.
So anyway, Danny’s brother Don will be off to Europe very soon to sock it to the Hun but Danny has been classified 4F because of his bad leg. Although evidently his disability doesn’t prevent him from lugging not only his own stuff but also a huge great puppet case all the way from the hotel to his mum’s front door. Only occasionally does Levi Fiehler remember about the bad leg and affect a limp; most of the time he seems fine.
Odder than the intermittent limping is the transformation between the prologue. Working on some chairs in the hotel basement Danny seems, to be honest, very simple, almost retarded. I don’t know why: maybe it’s a combination of the dungarees, the haircut and the slightly pathetic air he has about him. Reviewing this scene, it’s clear that my initial interpretation was wrong - but it’s our introduction to the character and that’s how he comes across. For the rest of the film he seems to be an ordinary, bright young man and the transformation between the hotel scenes and his scenes at home actually left me wondering how long had passed since the prologue but I think it’s meant to be only a few days.
So anyway, Danny is a dab-hand at carpentry and figures he can keep the puppets in good nick. In a nice nod to continuity, he finds Six-Shooter, who wasn’t in the original film, partly assembled inside one of the other compartments in the trunk. Now Danny has a girlfriend Beth (model-turned-actress Jenna Gallaher, also in DeCoteau’s Nightfall) who works in a munitions factory (represented by a nice effects shot). Her boss (Mike Brooks) doesn’t like Danny because he’s not in the forces and Danny is worried about the attention Beth is receiving from a colleague named Ben.
This ‘Ben’ turns out to be Max (Tom Sandoval, a DeCoteau regular who was also in Playing with Fire, Alien Presence and The Pit and the Pendulum), one of the German agents from the prologue, speaking perfect English with a perfect American accent. Danny recognises him and is sure the Teutonic swine is up to no good. It’s all a bit of a coincidence but on the other hand there probably weren’t too many Nazi spies operating in California during the war. (I don’t know how good the Yanks were at identifying and using German spies. Over on this side of the Atlantic the nascent MI6 knew the identity of every single Nazi spy in Britain, all of whom were being used to feed misinformation back to Berlin, either willingly as a double agent or unwittingly as a dupe. Anyway...)
Ben/Max and his largely silent colleague Klaus (Aaron Riber) are in uneasy cahoots with Japanese femme fatale Ozu (Ada Zhou Fang, listed on the IMDB and elsewhere as Ada Chao) who hides from the authorities in a Chinese opera house in the middle of Chinatown. “Where better for a Japanese person to hide than Chinatown?” she asks, neatly side-stepping the historical fact that America locked up every one of its Japanese citizens in prison camps for the duration of the war.
Maybe white Americans couldn’t tell Chinese from Japanese, but you would think that Chinese Americans would spot her and hand her in. China was on the side of the Allies in WW2 and in fact the Sino-Japanese conflict that became part of the war had started as early as 1936 when Japanese forces invaded China. So even if this is 1939, every one of those extras wandering past outside has a very good reason to call in the authorities.
Also, Ozu is in the habit of wandering around in a kimono, which would give the game away to anyone strolling in off the street or peeking through the window. (You see, there was a time when I could have made a joke out of peeking/Peking but it’s been Beijing for many years now and that doesn’t offer the same opportunities for weak wordplay.) Ozu has two black-dressed karate goons, Nozoki-ya (Gu Yingfeng) and Buta (Zhang Xiangfu).
There is of course a massive irony in the fact that all three Japanese characters, hiding out in Chinatown on the assumption that whitey can’t tell them from Chinese, are played by Chinese actors. Who look, you know, Chinese - although Ozu’s white geisha make-up disguises her features somewhat.
Ozu wants Ben/Max to put a bomb in the munitions factory which very conveniently stores the fuel in a room next to the tea-room. Danny discovers this plan when he sneaks into the opera house with Blade and Pinhead, then sets out to stop the evil Axis fiends with the help of his little wooden pals who can move on their own.
However, while Danny is secretly photographing two of the Axis agents in the opera house, the third is at his house because they have discovered that, very conveniently, the guy who took the magic puppets they were after is living just a few blocks away in the white part of Chinatown. In a surprisingly brutal (though not graphic) plot development, his mother and brother are gunned down and his girlfriend kidnapped. Although it’s not entirely clear why this happens. Frankly you have to question precisely why, instead of dragging Beth back to the opera house, the Nazi didn’t take the puppets or at least the puppet chest.
When Danny discovers his mum dead and his bro’ dying, he transfers some of Don’s life essence into a new puppet he has carved, Ninja, a black-garbed little fellow with some deadly throwing stars. You know about life essence, don’t you? It’s the glowing green liquid that we all have inside us which can be easily extracted using a large-diameter syringe. You should have covered that in anatomy class.
So Danny, who could easily have called in the police at any time, heads back to the opera house with a sack full of puppets and the mild-manned moderate mayhem begins. Leech Woman vomits one of her creations into a plate of sushi and it kills the eater from the inside, somehow. Another bad guy falls prey to Ninja’s throwing stars while Pinhead trips up a wrong’un so that Tunneller can drill into the top of his skull.
Meanwhile Max is busy doing what any self-respecting Nazi spy would have done under the situation: putting on a smartly pressed, clean dress uniform for no apparent reason. He’s not really going to be able to step outside dressed like that, is he? What, is he expecting a Fiesler Storch light aircraft to land in the street and whisk him off back to Berlin? Why would he even carry a uniform around with him? Mind you, he’s carrying a Luger and hanging around with a woman dressed like a geisha so he doesn’t have much to lose. It’s like some competition between the German and Japanese teams to see who can be the most obvious enemy agent without actually getting arrested or shot, a sort of WW2-espionage version of who-can-lean-out-of-the-window-the-farthest.
Actually, two points. One is that, if arrested in uniform, even in the middle of San Francisco, Max would count as an enemy combatant and would have rights under the Geneva Convention. But if arrested in plain clothes he can be considered a spy and the US military authorities would be able to do pretty much anything with him, up to and including execution. The other point to note is that this very obviously isn’t a Nazi uniform. For one thing, it’s brown (not just the shirt), a colour which was only worn by senior officials of the National Socialist Party. Also the cut is all wrong, the lapels are the wrong shape etc. We don’t get a close-up look at the various badges but none of them look like eagles to me.
Most obvious of all is the hat which Max briefly dons before leaving it to one side. The flat top of the cap is much, much wider than a WW2 German cap, indicating that this is very clearly either Russian or Chinese. And the peak is too narrow and high; Nazi peaks were low so that soldiers could only see clearly when standing rigidly upright. But it does at least have a swastika armband - which I at first thought had switched arms between shots until I rewound and realised he had been standing in front of a mirror.
The irony of all this is that Tunneller does actually wear a miniature version of a field grey German WW2 uniform, which we never see in close-up and which no-one ever comments on. Although Danny does at least observe the irony of creating a ninja puppet, telling his dead brother, “I hope you don’t mind being a Jap.”
So how to explain this inaccurate uniform without just scoffing at budgetary and logistical limitations? (I mean, where would you hire an authentic Nazi uniform in China? Would you be allowed to import one?) It is of course possible to read the film as all taking place in a parallel world. A world where, by 1939, the USA had already been at war with the Axis powers for several years, Auschwitz was known about, kamikaze attacks were happening, Nazi uniforms were subtly different and two other states had already joined the Union (wouldn’t have to be Alaska and Hawaii - could be Puerto Rico and the Panama Canal Zone, could be Guadalcanal and Guam).
But that’s a cop-out. You can use that deliberate misreading to cover almost any problem with any film. Well, not any problem. It doesn’t really explain where the horses came from in the Planet of the Apes remake. It doesn’t explain what killed the boat’s crew in The Lost World: Jurassic Park. It doesn’t explain the contraventions of basic physics in The League of Explain to Me Again Why I’m Watching This Shit. And it certainly doesn’t explain the complete absence of jokes from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It could explain the anachronisms in Puppet Master: Axis of Evil, but I’m not going to go down that road. I’ve got another idea which we’ll come to in a moment.
In the meantime, the film dribbles to a frankly unsatisfying halt after a bizarre speech from Max about how the Germans love to torture Allied soldiers in their POW camps. Except in rare cases, Germany abided by the Geneva Convention under the eye of Swiss ‘Protecting Power’ investigators. Japan, on the other hand, paid no heed to the Convention and did torture Allied troops so this short speech sounds very much like something written for Ozu and transferred to Max in a last-minute rewrite.
Ninja, whose eyes glow red to show he’s alive with Don’s spirit, has been killed but he struggles manfully (puppetfully?) back to life in order to stab Max with Ozu’s sword at about the same time that Ozu grabs a sack of puppets and slips away without so much as a by-your-leave or a close-up. Danny points out to Beth (and the audience) that he’s only got Blade, Ninja and Pinhead left so presumably this means that Ozu has Leech Woman, Tunneller and Jester. And at that point it all sort of ends, like somebody lost the last few pages of script. We have to assume that it’s setting everything up for an immediate sequel but they didn’t film one back-to-back with this so goodness knows when, if ever, we’ll find out what happens. The next Puppet Master film might simply reboot the story again, like this one did.
All things considered, of the four Puppet Master films I have seen, this is the third best. It’s not as good as PM1 and PM2 - of course it isn’t, they’re both great - but it’s better than the silly and ephemeral Curse. David DeCoteau, who directed this under his own name, has 28 films on his IMDB page between Retro Puppet Master and this one including Voodoo Academy, Beastly Boyz, three Poe adaptations and all six Brotherhoods. This is August White’s 11th screenplay for Charles Band in the past five years although he wrote plenty of others before 2005 under another name that the IMDB surprisingly doesn’t know about.
The cast mostly acquit themselves well. I know some critics have poured scorn on Ada Chao. Who has the. Most amazing. Pauses like Will. Iam Shatner. But she actually sounds like somebody mastering a foreign language and the only thing that really stops me believing she’s Japanese is her Chinese accent. Fiehler is strong in the lead role, Sandoval glowers well and looks good in uniform while Graham brings a remarkable depth to Don, a likeable jock with simplistic values but a good heart.
Solid cinematography is provided by Terrance Ryker (Reicher on the IMDB) who also photographed the return of those other little wooden Band-pals in Demonic Toys: Personal Demons, released the same year as this film as well as Skull Heads, Dead Man’s Hand and Evil Bong 2. His previous collaborations with Dave DeCoteau were Alien Presence, Stem Cell and Nightfall. Production designer Joe Walser designed Evil Bong 3-D: The Wrath of Bong (good grief!) after a series of minor jobs on titles ranging from The Exorcist III to George of the Jungle.
Gage Munster was the main puppet guy, named in the opening titles as ‘Ninja Puppet, special makeup and mechanical effects designed by’ with an additional ‘special effects make-up artist’ credit at the end. This film adds yet another title to a CV that includes Halloween Night, Flight of the Living Dead, Penny Dreadful, Demonic Toys: Personal Demons and The Gay Bed and Breakfast of Terror. EDee Biddlecome (Dr Chopper, Doll Graveyard, Gingerdead Man, Dead Man’s Hand) designed the costumes which were all made in-house (including the dodgy Nazi uniform); she’s credited as ‘Edee Biddlecombe’ on screen and I’ve seen her as ‘E Dee Biddlecome’ elsewhere but according to her Facebook page she uses ‘EDee’ (so you can see why people get confused).
Full Moon fanboys expecting this movie to feature stop-motion like the early ones in the series were remarkably naive, but then such is the nature of fanboys, unfettered by notions of how time-consuming or expensive (or difficult) stop-motion effects are and eager to hang on any hint or suggestion as proof that a great white hope is coming. No, these are rod puppets, just like you would expect. And not very animated ones either.
The occasional head swivels, the odd hand moves but really they’re not depicted as ‘living dolls’ the way that they should be. In fact, when Beth sees the puppets come alive and squeals “They’re moving!” you honestly have to look quite closely to see that any of them are actually moving at all - and when you do, you see that Tunneller is slightly raising his arm. Wow, it’s uncanny.
More problematic is that the puppets don’t really do very much in the story. They’re neither protagonists nor antagonists, just the tools used by Danny on his first and third (brief) visits to the opera house. The actual story, about foiling a plan by Axis agents to blow up the munitions factory where a guy’s girlfriend works, could pretty much happen without the puppets.
And this set me thinking.
Think about it: the puppets never do anything except when Danny is there with them. No-one else sees them except Beth and the enemy agents. The Nazis and Japanese - and his girlfriend - could be twisted versions of real people, which would certainly make more sense than a German officer and a Japanese geisha-girl living incognito in the middle of Chinatown. (Don’t any of the local Chinese ever take a look in that opera house?)
I honestly think the most satisfying way to view Puppet Master: Axis of Evil is as the twisted reality of a disturbed young man. Passed over by the military - he says it’s his leg but he usually forgets to limp so maybe he failed the psychiatric tests - this young man creates a fantasy world around himself. A world where Kraut and Jap spies plot their deadly work only a couple of blocks away. A world where the cute girl he has seen going to work in the munitions plant is actually his girlfriend, a damsel in distress he can rescue from evildoers. A world where he can have secret friends, where his toys come to life and help him to strike a great victory for the American war effort right here on his doorstep.
This is a young man who’s not sure exactly what German uniforms look like, a young man who’s not sure himself of the difference between Chinese and Japanese people, a young man who’s not even entirely certain how many stars there are on the US flag. A young man whose confusion extends to not knowing what year it is or how long the war has been going on. Perhaps something happened to him in 1939 and he has been reliving that year ever since.
It all fits. It all works. It all makes sense.
Mind, it’s all baloney of course.
That’s not what ‘August White’ or David DeCoteau or Charlie Band intended when they made this film. Of course it isn’t. But that’s what they have made, by accident. In creating a cheesy B-movie horror sequel, they have accidentally brought forth a powerful and moving study of the psychiatric troubles of an innocent young man whose world is shaken up at a personal level - by the death of a friend - at the same time as the whole world is shaken up by global conflict. Deep within his own mind, he pieces together stories that make sense.
That guy at the factory talking to ‘his’ girl, he looks like he could be a Nazi spy. That deserted Chinese opera house, that could be where the spies hang out. These puppets, they could be magical avatars that do his bidding. When Danny stabs someone, he imagines that it was really Blade or Tunneller.
I’m on a roll now. How about this? When the news comes through that his brother has been killed in conflict, it destroys his mother and, unable to cope with her breakdown, he instead imagines her dead on the floor while thinking that his dying brother is in his arms. In the film, Don is lying on the living room floor then in the next scene he’s laid out on Danny’s bed. In Danny’s fantasy world, he can use the secret of his living puppets to give his brother new life.
I’m telling ya, the more I think about this, the better it fits. Holy cow.
Mind, it is definitely baloney.
But what if, what if - for the next film, it wasn’t baloney. Here’s where I would like to see the Puppet Master franchise go next: a story about a psychiatrist trying to understand a retarded young man who is sure that his puppets come to life, and obviously they don’t - but maybe they do. Instead of aiming for cheap shocks - and let’s be honest, frequently missing them - why not reinvent the franchise next time as a character drama with ambiguous supernatural undertones? Why not go for atmosphere? Why not play on doubt and uncertainty?
If the Full Moon fanboys are going to get excited anyway (it’s what fanboys do) and buy the film whatever it’s like (again, it’s what they do) and then moan and whinge on the IMDB that it’s actually rubbish (they do that too, all the time)... then why not stop trying to please the fanboys and instead reinvent the property to reach and impress a new audience? It can be done. This is my dream. This is the Puppet Master script I would write. Charlie, give me a call.
MJS rating: B