Friday, March 14, 2014

Worth Mentioning - The Boy Who Cried Nazi

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody watches puppets go to war.


The first movie in the Puppet Master series was released in 1989, and in its opening sequence we saw the final moments in the life of puppet master Andre Toulon, the character who had the lead role in Retro Puppet Master and Puppet Master III: Toulon's Revenge, this time around played by William Hickey.

It's 1939 and, having escaped from Nazi Germany, Toulon is now staying at the cliffside Bodega Bay Inn in California with his living puppets, including one that was only ever seen moving on its own in this sequence, a shogun puppet known to fans as Shredder Khan. But the Nazi threat to Toulon, established in Toulon's Revenge, has not stayed behind in Europe. As two Gestapo officers, Max and Klaus, enter the inn and make their way to Toulon's room, the puppet master secures his puppets in their trunk and hides them away before committing suicide. By the time Max and Klaus enter Toulon's room, Andre is dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

This entry revisits that sequence, but intercut with the stock footage of Toulon's suicide is new footage introducing viewers to a young man named Danny Coogan, who had befriended Toulon while staying at the inn to help his handyman uncle restore furniture for an upcoming wedding reception that the inn will be hosting.

Danny is going to Toulon's room to visit the old man when the two Nazis come hurrying out of the room, knocking Danny down as they go. These Gestapo officers were never seen after entering Toulon's room at the beginning of the original Puppet Master, but they'll go on to play a large role in this story, filmed twenty years later.

In Toulon's room, Danny finds what the Nazis couldn't - the trunk full of puppets. When he returns to the apartment in Chinatown where he lives with his single mother and older brother (this "Chinatown" setting is a way to work around the fact that Full Moon productions were being filmed in China at this time), he takes the trunk with him.

Toulon told Danny that his puppets were alive, but he didn't reveal the secret that keeps them alive. Danny finds that himself while looking through the trunk: bottles full of glowing green serum, as well as the syringes to be used to inject the serum into the puppets.

Although Toulon just gave the puppets the injections in their chests in Toulon's Revenge, in this film the puppets have little slots in the back of their necks specifically for the needle to be inserted into. This is a design addition introduced in the 2004 crossover film Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys, the only movie in either franchise to be produced by a company other than Full Moon. Because it was made outside of his company, Full Moon head Charles Band has said that PMvsDT isn't part of the series canon... yet that element was held over from it.

Among the puppets in the trunk is Six Shooter, who's in need of repairs. Being a master at woodworks, Danny will be able to fix him up, but not in time to get him involved with this movie. The puppets Danny does bring to life with serum injections: Blade, Tunneler, Pinhead, Leech Woman, and Jester.

Danny's brother Don will soon be shipping out to fight in World War II, something Danny desperately wishes he could do as well. Much like Steve Rogers in Captain America, Danny feels it's his duty to join the military and fight against his country's enemies in the Axis, but he's incapable due to his physical condition. In Danny's case, a childhood bout with polio has left him with a disabled leg, forcing him to stay home... But as the story plays out, he'll find that he can help the war effort without even leaving Los Angeles.

Max and Klaus didn't leave California after finding Toulon's corpse and failing to find his puppets. Instead, they've hooked up with a Japanese agent named Ozu, "the dragon lady", who's working out of an opera theatre in Chinatown. With their Japanese collaborator, the Nazis plan to detonate a bomb within the bomb factory where Danny's girlfriend Beth works as a secretary, and where the military has been storing a "secret ingredient" that will exponentially increase the power of their bombs. The resulting explosion will devastate L.A. and cripple the American war effort.

By posing as a new employee, Max infiltrates Beth's place of work... where he's recognized by Danny, who follows him to Ozu's opera house. Spying and eavesdropping with the help of Toulon's puppets, Danny is able to figure out what the alliance of villains is planning. Unfortunately, no one takes his claims that there are Nazis at work in California seriously. Danny and the puppets will have to take on this threat themselves, and in doing so the puppets will be able to avenge their fallen master.

Axis of Evil follows the same formula as Retro Puppet Master and Toulon's Revenge in that it establishes its lead and characters around him, then kills off supporting characters and has the lead transfer the lifeforce of their fallen friends/family/loved ones into the body of a puppet. Toulon brought his puppets to life with the spirits of his friends and the puppet Leech Woman is inhabited by his beloved wife Elsa. Here, when Danny's brother Don is murdered by the Nazis, Danny transfers his lifeforce into a puppet that is simply called Ninja, and is in fact a little ninja with glowing red eyes.

To the dissatisfaction of many viewers, and in fact myself upon first viewing, Axis of Evil actually has very little puppet action, with most of the running time being devoted to dialogue scenes among the human characters as we get to know Danny and those around him. While it's good to flesh out characters, some issues are reiterated too many times. I don't find Axis of Evil as dull on rewatch as I did the first time I watched it, but it doesn't have the most exciting pace.

The puppets do rack up somewhat of a bodycount during their climactic raid on the opera theatre. I've always questioned how much use Leech Woman actually was in the puppet attacks - so she spits up leeches on people, big deal. It's a gross image, but the person isn't going to die from it. Well, as it turns out, Leech Woman's leeches have some kind of super power to them, because in this film she drops a leech into a Japanese guard's sushi and when he unknowingly eats it, it almost instantaneously kills him from the inside out.

It's fun to watch the puppets in action when the action finally kicks in, the film's entertainment value rises to a new height at that point... but then things come swinging back down when the film screeches to a halt not with a resolution to the storyline, but with a cliffhanger. A cliffhanger that wouldn't be picked up on until the release of Puppet Master: Axis Rising more than two years later.

Written by Critters screenwriter Domonic Muir under the name August White, a name which he used when working on a great number of Full Moon movies, Axis of Evil marks the fourth film in the series to be directed by David DeCoteau, although this is only the second time he used his real name when directing a Puppet Master installment. (The other time being Toulon's Revenge.)

That the death of Toulon occurred in 1939 was established by the original Puppet Master, but that date was disregarded when the decision was made to set Toulon's Revenge in 1941. According to that film, Toulon's escape from Nazi Germany began in '41, and in the wrap around segments of Retro Puppet Master Toulon is still on the run in Europe in 1944. Now this film returns to Toulon killing himself in California in 1939. So it goes back to retconned continuity, and then presents continuity issues with our own reality by involving the Japanese in the World War II discussions, when the U.S. wouldn't be at war with Japan for a couple more years. That doesn't stop Danny and Don from wanting to fight them, and Ozu is way ahead of things.

The movie has its issues and was a disappointment to me when I first watched it, but I've come to see its merits more clearly as time has gone on.

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