Say what you will about creator Charles Band's long running low- budget killer-doll franchise "Puppet Master." The fact is for darned-near close to thirty years now, the series has managed to continue on with relative competence, while maintaining at least a certain degree of imagination and low-brow entertainment in each new chapter. From the fun and sometimes genuinely creepy initial trilogy, through the kitschy 90's gems that were the fourth and fifth chapters, and indeed through a surprisingly fun prequel in the 'Retro' spin-off... "Puppet Master" had done pretty well for itself over the years.
Unfortunately, a troubling noticeable trend has plagued more recent entries in the saga, and it's becoming increasingly clear that at a certain point, enough is enough. Hindered by lower budgets and a general apathetic feeling of "been there, done that", the last few films have come across as a mere shadow of what the series once was, and the most recent chapter- 2017's "Axis Termination"- is perhaps the worst offender. While not objectively the worst of the series in terms of story, it's just so wholly unremarkable and thrown-together that you can't help but feel cold and disconnected from the opening sequence through the final climactic battle. And it's a sign that it sadly might be time for those delightful killer dolls to finally throw in the towel for good. At least in terms of the original series continuity.
"Axis Termination" follows an unlikely group of heroes who are brought together by the allied force during World War II. Each member gifted in some way- including some with magical and psychic abilities- the team are given the mission to work alongside the puppets of Andre Toulon in order to battle a dreaded group of Nazis whom are seeking to gain Toulon's formula for everlasting life. However, when the daughter of team leader Dr. Ivan Ivanov (George Appleby) is kidnapped, matters take a personal turn, and it becomes a mission of vengeance.
To give some minor credit where it is due, the concept is actually quite fun, and it serves as an interesting enough follow-up to the previous two movies, which were similarly placed in a World War II setting. It creates a unique atmosphere allows for some decent contrast with more modern entries in the series. The idea of a borderline superhero-inspired team of allied forces is also quite amusing, and I actually genuinely liked Appleby as the gifted Dr. Ivanov- a man suffering dwarfism who is frequently ridiculed, yet also holds more power than even he will admit to.
Unfortunately, a likable lead and a funky concept can only get you so far, especially when the movie doesn't know what to do with them. "Axis Termination" feels strained... coming across as too rushed and undeveloped, yet also somehow feeling dull and over-padded. And look, I understand that there was simply no real money to work with... but that doesn't excuse shoddy situational writing and half-baked character development. It's a poorly constructed, slap-dash effort that feels like it was put together out of obligation moreso than motivation. The story is minimal and lacks proper build-up or conclusion, there's a distinct lack of stakes and shockingly the puppets themselves- the stars of the series- feel tacked on and superfluous.
Visually the film is flimsy and has a really cheap, tacky look to it. And given the modern age of digital photography, I can't just sit back and act like that's OK anymore. Anyone with a cheap DSLR and some shop-lights can make something that looks semi- professional. So it's hard to excuse people with decades of experience giving us such visual drivel. Director Band, returning to helm the series once again, doesn't seem to care much. His choice in shots, composition and flow is suspect at best, and lacks any real thought. It's put together in the blandest of ways- every scene being composed of simple wide shots and shot-reverse-shot editing, and the few times he tries to do anything fun with the camera, it comes off as hockey and out of left field. This isn't made any better by the woeful acting, with the bulk of the cast looking very uncomfortable on-camera. It's unintentionally amusing, and some genuinely cringe-worthy line-deliveries left me chuckling when it clearly wasn't appropriate.
As it stands, "Puppet Master: Axis Termination" might not quite be the worst of the series, but it's a continuation of the general downgrade in quality that has occurred over the past few installments, and it really feels like the series is dead in the water at this point. There's no money to build creative effects or kills anymore. There's no motivation on the part of the filmmakers to try and take the series in new and interesting directions. And it all feels so by-the-books that it comes across as a wholly pointless endeavor. Thankfully, there is some hope for the franchise with a somewhat higher-budgeted reboot in the works. But as it stands, I think I'm pretty much done with the original series. "Axis Termination" musters up a very poor 2 out of 10. I wouldn't even really recommend it to fans.