Sunday, November 4, 2012

Cinemasochism: PUPPET MASTER X: AXIS RISING (2012)

As we mentioned in our David Schmoeller interview, the PUPPET MASTER series has been a godsend for producer Charles Band and his pocketbook. The original film directed by Schmoeller was one of the first four Full Moon productions in the late 1980s and it has been not-so-smooth sailing over the ensuing two decades.  In my personal opinion, the original trilogy mark the highpoint of the series as they were fun, had some great stop motion FX by David Allen and were filled with gore and T&A.  Sadly, it has been a case of diminishing returns with each successive sequel.  Jeff Burr tried his hardest with PUPPET MASTERS 4 & 5 and those were the last to feature Allen’s magic.  It got so bad after those two that we eventually got a glorified “clip show” with the PUPPET MASTER: THE LEGACY (2003), the eighth entry in the series.

PUPPET MASTER X: AXIS RISING is a part of Band’s attempt to right some wrongs in the series.  Labeled the tenth in the series, it is actually the eleventh film to feature the characters (Band doesn’t count the unrelated PUPPET MASTER VS. DEMONIC TOYS [2004], which was produced outside of Full Moon) and returns to the World War II origins of the original story. Unfortunately, Band and company just don’t appear to have the funds nowadays to properly pull something like this off.

"What do you mean Tunneler is stuck in a well?"
The film picks up right where the previous PUPPET MASTER: AXIS OF EVIL (2010) ended with poor puppet Tunneler stolen by the Japanese secret agent Ozu (Terumi Shimazu, replacing Ada Chao).  She goes to meet up with her German contact, but instead is greeted by Commandant Heinrich Moebius (Scott King), who oddly skulks around L.A. in full Nazi garb.  He promptly kills her after Tunneler burrows into the forehead of one of his men (via some crappy CGI) and takes this odd living puppet back to his lab.  Meanwhile, Danny Coogan (Kip Canyon, replacing Levi Fiehler) is recovering from the previous evening’s heroics of saving the munitions factory with his girlfriend Beth (Jean Louise O’Sullivan, replacing Jenna Gallaher).  You’ll notice a lot of replacing going on here, right? He informs his battered puppet buddies that Ninja, the previous entry’s new doll, didn’t survive the events (awwww) and then Blade shows up to tell him the whereabouts of Tunneler.  They get in gear to save him, but are interrupted when they are abducted by some mysterious men.

Back at the secret Nazi lab, Dr. Freuhoffer (Oto Brezina) is toying away at creating something called the Resurrection Device for Moebius.  He is easily distracted though because he is wondering about his kidnapped family, building little toys in his spare time, and trying to avoid staring into the ample Aryan cleavage of Uschi (Stephanie Sanditz).  Moebius returns and gives the doc his new monster marionette and demands to see the Resurrection Device at work.  They kill an Asian guy (with some of the worst CGI blood on record; see pic) and then bring him back to life.  You see, it is Moebius’ “dweam” to create living dead soldiers for Der F├╝hrer.  So apparently the crazy Commandant just watched PUPPET MASTER III.  Naturally, it doesn’t work and their test subject melts within seconds of his resurrection (again, more bad CGI).  Hey, on the bright side, they can bring a dude back to life for 30 seconds.  Freuhoffer must obviously verk out zees kinks.

Meanwhile, Danny and Beth find out their kidnappers were the U.S. Army and they wanted to tell them they would be honored by Gen. Porter (Paul Thomas Arnold) for their heroic deeds.  When did the Army become so secretive with their orders?  They couldn’t have just knocked on the door and told them? Anyway, they are assigned a guard in Sgt. Stone (Brad Potts), who doesn’t take kindly to watching a couple of kids when he could be out KOing krauts.  They head back home and Stone gets filled in on the puppet power.  Of course, he decides the best course of action is to head down to Chinatown and give the Third Reich a thrashing.  What they don’t know is Freuhoffer has been tinkering with Tunneler and extracted his glowing green life juice and injected into his own deadly puppets – Weremacht (a werewolf), Blitzkrieg (a tank), Kamikaze (a wayyyyy racist looking Japanese suicide bomber) and Bombshell (the remnants of the recently deceased Uschi that shoots bullets out of her breasts).  This all builds to a climax where we finally get some puppet-on-puppet action.

"Wat do you mean zee budget iz mizzing?"
Despite the series being around for 23 years, this is actually the first entry to be directed by Charles Band.  I’m pretty sure he did that as a cost cutting measure as this film appears to be starving for a budget.  Yes, it looks even cheaper than Dave DeCoteau’s previous China-lensed entry.  No joke - some of the sets in this one are two flats set up to make a corner and that’s it.  The big party set to honor our leads is literally a room that has 5 people in it.  I’m actually shocked that they sprung to have the fifth guy – a retro photographer – even there. This cheapness sort of encapsulates the entire project.  New PM screenwriter Shane Bitterling comes up with some good ideas and, combined with the previous entry, there is the germ of a good PUPPET MASTER film there.  Something that kind of plays like PUPPET MASTER meets CAPTAIN AMERICA.  Unfortunately, you’re not going to achieve the desired results when you are working with a budget less than it cost to build one of the cable controlled puppets from the original three entries (according to FX guy Tom Devlin in the behind-the-scenes video).  It is a shame as some of the acting is pretty darn good (relative to low budget puppet horror films set during WWII, mind you) with King and Potts delivering their roles with the appropriate relish.

Of course, the biggest place that Band lets his PUPPET MASTER minions down is in the exploitation department.  As I mentioned earlier, the first trilogy is beloved for its ability to get down and dirty with these elements. Many a viewer has longed for Band to convert the Charlie Spradling scenes from PUPPET MASTER II (1991) into 3-D, if you know what I’m saying. Band can’t be bothered here.  No greater irony can be found than in the scene where bosomy Uschi lays in lingerie and says to Moebius, “How can you ignore this?”  Et tu, Band?  The same can be said for the gore and FX.  Abysmal CGI aside, we don’t even get a good re-animated body meltdown that a scene like that would require or even a bloody puppet attack.  It is simple – fans want to see puppets tearing people up and we don’t get that.

Yes, this puppet exists.  So sorrrrrrrrry.
And then there are the puppets.  At this point we’re dealing solely with puppets being pushed by rods and it is just sad.  Probably the most complex thing you’ll see them do is raise their hand.  Band made a big deal of unveiling the new puppets and even I’ll admit the designs were intriguing.  But I forgot that 90% of their action was going to involved them just standing there.  The battles in this remind me of the home videos you see where kids have Barbie figures stand there and smack each other.  It doesn’t help that the first puppet action scene doesn’t come until an hour into the film.  The company also made a big deal about the return of fan favorite Six-Shooter and they botch that too (what are “sentences I’d be embarrassed for my mom to see that I wrote, Alex”).  If you’re going to make a big deal about his return, make sure he is integral to the final action.  Here he just kind of shows up, shoots and that is it.  Good lord, how I long for the good ol’ days.

And that is pretty much where the line needs to be drawn. Band had a good thing going when Paramount was funding the films.  The first trilogy will always be there for me and I can just pretend, like any sane STAR WARS fan, that they stopped after the first three.  It has been 20 years (!) since there was a good one of these and it is high time that I sever the master’s strings that he controlled me with for so long.  I’ll miss you Leech Woman, I'll miss you Pinhead, I’ll miss you Blade.  But most of all, I’ll miss my sanity.

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