Written by: Charles Band (story by), Roger Barron
Directed by: Charles Band
Starring: George Appleby, Tonya Kay, and Paul Logan
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
The ultimate weapons are about to fall into the wrong hands.
You almost feel compelled to give Charles Band some sort of twisted credit when it comes to Puppet Master at this point. Despite having signed off one of the most anticipated (if not unexpected) remakes in The Littlest Reich, the Full Moon chief remains committed to continuing the exploits of the original series, which is set to turn 30 years old next year. Somehow, this scrappy series—which has spent its entire life on video—endures, whereas the likes of Elm Street and Friday the 13th have stalled out. Some—like anyone who has seen just about any of this franchise’s entries for the past 20 years—would argue that maybe dead is better, and it would be hard to argue otherwise after witnessing Axis Termination, a film that sounds promising if only because its title promises an ending.
Less a valedictory conclusion and more akin to watching someone putting an old dog down, this outing caps the trilogy of films started all the way back in 2010 before sputtering out two years later. You’d hope the five-year layoff between Axis Rising and this finale would have resulted in everyone taking a knee and seriously contemplating how to craft a graceful—if not redemptive—send-off to this set of films, allowing the original continuity to go out on a high note before the reboot takes center stage. Such hope is only possible, however, if you’re not familiar with the past 15 years of Full Moon’s output though, and Axis Termination does little to disavow you of the notion that this once proud studio has fallen do irredeemable depths.
Its mistakes are immediate, as it presumes that we remember what happened to the characters at the end of the previous film—or that we care about them at all. They’re swiftly dispatched, though, by some nefarious Axis agents looking to recover Toulon’s puppets before an American agent (Paul Logan) intervenes and secures the killer dolls. He’s then assigned to part of a unique Allied taskforce of misfits that includes a scientist dwarf (George Appleby), his psychic daughter (Tania Fox), and a sex magician (Alynxia America). Their goal is to thwart their villainous Axis counterparts, a group of Nazis obsessed with the occult looking to harness Toulon’s magic for their own band of murderous puppets.
But mostly they spend a good chunk of the movie talking about all of this stuff. With such a meager budget (the film was actually crowdfunded), it’s no surprise that it’s not exactly action packed. However, the long stretches of expository nonsense grow tedious in a hurry and are made all the more frustrating by the thick, overdone German accents that render a lot of dialogue nigh unintelligible. Not that I can imagine caring what any of these characters have to say, mind you, since most of the turns range from uninspired to irritatingly campy. Only Appleby is dialed into the right wavelength for this sort of thing: he’s obviously taking it just seriously enough without coming across as ponderous, and his character would make for an interesting addition to the franchise in more capable hands. While none of the Axis trilogy has exactly felt vital in filling in the franchise gaps, the seeds of an admittedly cool little mythology are planted deep within, unable to truly flourish thanks to the meager budget and resources.
It’s not even that hard to even find the appeal in the barebones plot of this one: warring Allied and Nazi occult divisions made up of psychics, sorcerers, and supernatural seductresses appealing to Lovecraftian mysticism sounds bonkers—and that’s before you remember that the franchise’s signature puppets are also involved. Band and his Full Moon minions have never really lacked for imagination, and you wish their vision could be more clearly fulfilled than it is here, in a film so obviously hamstrung by budget restrictions that it can really only scrounge up a couple of action scenes. What’s supposed to be an epic finale is reduced to watching people stand around in a handful of locations, talking about how the fate of the war—and the world—hangs in the balance. The biggest consequence we see here, though, is the Nazi puppets causing a blackout in Los Angeles for reasons that still elude me, if I’m being honest.
Otherwise, it’s a pretty quaint affair that feels like a local community theater troupe raided the WWII era clothing closet and is playing an elaborate game of dress-up. Like the previous Axis films, it’s utterly unconvincing in its attempt to capture the period setting: while the sets are passable (largely because most of the film unfolds indoors anyway), the costuming and photography feel too put-upon to be authentic. While digital photography is a given on a production like this, this is far too slick and sanitized to capture the gritty, textured, retro vibe needed here. Band’s stylish, candy-colored flourishes are admirable enough and manage to briefly sneak in a bit of a 60s Euro-fluorescent vibe, but I really feel like I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel for compliments by noting that this film simply features lighting.
I should also note that Band and company treat the puppets (relatively) respectably in this outing. Some of the same problems from previous films plague the effects—the puppets are still too stiff and can hardly be said to be animated—but they’re at least pressed into action just often enough and spill just enough blood to please long-time fan. There’s even a gag where Blade tears right through a guy and emerges from his stomach, even if it (like everything else) doesn’t realize its full potential on such a meager budget. Most of the gore (read: blood splashing around on the puppets) is practical, save for some occasional—but no less distracting—CGI squib work. If the only thing you require from a Puppet Master movie are the dolls brutally killing people, then Termination clears that very low bar (it doesn’t hurt that they’re slaughtering Nazis too, something we should all find especially cathartic these days).
Something tells me that the upcoming reboot will do all that and more, though, so I could hardly blame anyone for not rushing out to witness this not-so-epic conclusion (hell, it’s taken me—the dude who once watched and ranked this entire franchise—8 months to get around to it). On that note, Termination isn’t the worst this series has to offer—in fact, it’s not even the worst of the Axis trilogy, as it represents a slight improvement over Rising. Not that I revisited these three, mind you; instead, I turned to Puppet Master expert and horror columnist Nat Brehmer for his take, which more or less matched my fuzzy memories of this trilogy. And even if it hadn’t matched up, I’d defer to him anyway since he’s literally writing the book on Puppet Master as we speak. (Please join me in buying it when it’s available because anyone who would subject themselves to the intricacies of the lesser Puppet Master movies must be duly rewarded.)
Though Axis Termination signals the end of this run, it likely isn’t the end of the original continuity as a whole since Band says he’ll continue producing his own movies, reboot be damned. It’s my sincere hope that The Littlest Reich not only returns this franchise to glory but also brings Band and Full Moon a bunch of cash that they can invest back into their own productions. Of course, knowing Band, he’s likely to take his dividends and stretch them across a bunch of Puppet Master, Evil Bong, and Gingerdead Man sequels that will be destined to land on one of those random horror compilation DVDs crusting at the bottom of a Wal-Mart $5 bin. Hope springs eternal—unless you’re talking about Full Moon.
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