Written by: S. Craig Zahler (screenplay), Charles Band & Kenneth J. Hall (characters)
Directed by: Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund
Starring: Thomas Lennon, Jenny Pellicer, and Barbara Crampton
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
World War III Begins on Your Toy Shelf
For the past year (or so), longtime Puppet Master fans have faced the rather unprecedented situation of anticipating both a sequel and a reboot to their belovedóand beleagueredófranchise. To complicate matters even further, this might be the only series where the latter actually holds more promise: to put it mildly, Puppet Master has been in awful shape for about two decades now, as Charles Band has beaten this particular horse into utter oblivion. As such, when Bone Tomahawk writer/director S. Craig Zahler announced that heíd pen a completely unconnected update, it was met with something this fan base hadnít experienced in years: relief and genuine excitement. Once it became obvious that The Littlest Reich would arrive after Axis Termination, it became something of a promise: put up with Full Moonís shit just one more time, and better days would lay ahead.
For the most part, The Littlest Reich fulfills that promise, if only be default: indeed, if I had to report that this was somehow worse than the last [checks notes] seven Puppet Master movies, Iíd have to suggest that we just give up completely on Toulonís puppets. We donít have to do that since The Littlest Reich is a worthwhile, almost daring reimagining that warps this franchise into one of the most outrageousóand outrageously meanósplatter movies in recent memory. Even if it leaves me feeling conflicted with some sizeable reservations about its status as a Puppet Master movie, itís undeniably a raucous, unhinged display of bad taste. No fucks were given in the making of this film.
We open in 1989 (pointedly the release year of the original film), where Andre Toulon (Udo Kier) is still kicking around Texas and creeping out patrons and employees at a dive bar. Upon realizing heís encountered a pair of lesbians, he canít conceal his disgust and dispatches his band of murderous puppets to slaughter the women, allowing him to harvest their lifeforce and prolong his life (apparently). Unfortunately for him, local authorities descend upon his home and gun him down, ending his very long life. Thirty years later, however, his infamy has only grown, to the point where his infamous murders have inspired a convention in their (twisted) honor. Recent divorcee (and sad sack comic book artist, letís not sell him short) Edgar (Thomas Lennon) finds himself drawn to the gathering when he discovers one of Toulonís puppets in his deceased brotherís closet. Hoping to find some closure (and perhaps score some money at the conventionís auction), he hits the road with his buddy (Nelson Franklin) and his new girlfriend (Jenny Pellicer). Everything goes to hell, though, when Edgarís puppet joins the legion of other dolls gathered under the convention hotelís roof in springing to life and slaughtering everyone it encounters.
With The Littlest Reich, itís almost like Zahler took bits and pieces of familiar Puppet Master DNA (the general premise of the first film, the iconic puppets, the Nazi iconography), scrambled it up, and shot it into a wormhole into some weird dimension where Troma actually produced this franchise instead of Full Moon. And now weíre here to bear witness to it, in all its strange, off-putting glory, as it immediately asks you to rewire your brain: where most of the previous films have cast Toulon and his puppets as the good guys who kill Nazis, this one goes in the complete opposite direction by imagining them as the Nazis. Itís a bit of an odd turn after nearly 30 years, and itís really tempting to imagine that everyone involved maybe just skimmed the franchise synopsis and got their wires crossed. That obviously isnít the case though (the end credits even features a shout-out to one of the producerís aunts for allowing him to watch the original Puppet Master after Thanksgiving dinner one year), so this is just a deliberate attempt at upending the franchise applecart after all these years.
Doing so is certainly a bold choice, and itís arguably a better one than the direction a more conventional reboot might have taken. Less arguable is that this allows Zahler and his handpicked directors (Sonny Laguna & Tommy Wiklund) to just turn Toulonís pint-sized psychos completely loose to cause an ungodly amount of mayhem. What jumps out to you here is the sheer volume of carnage on display, as Puppet Master finally just goes full splatter movie: any impression of pretense is drowned in a river of blood and gore, with several characters existing only to meet a gruesome demise. Once The Littlest Reich dispenses the obligatory backstoryóboth via its terrific opening title sequence and the charactersí tour through Toulonís mansion (hosted by Barbara Crampton!)óitís free to go completely bonkers in dispatching the cast, thereby allowing its enormously talented effects crew to take their rightful place as the true stars here.
Most of the effects are awesomely, gloriously practical in realizing Zahlerís increasingly ludicrous gags: to reveal them all would spoil most of the filmís appeal, but suffice to say that an outlandish decapitation in the prologue is the baseline here. The Littlest Reich feels like it was written with the express purpose of inspiring Joe Bob Briggsís most outrageous lineup of drive-in totals ever. While watching it, you can practically hear the legendary horror hostís signature Texas twang recounting the totals, which would include over a dozen dead bodies, miles of entrails, Baby Hitler-fu, and the most demented scene featuring a fetus this side of Las Vegas Bloodbath. The Littlest Reich gets wild, as the franchiseís iconic puppets (Blade, Pinhead, etc.) are joined by a veritable army of newcomers just chomping at the bit to plow through everyone in their path.
In addition to grossing the audience out with its visceral gore gags, The Littlest Reich also seeks to offend with its demented brand of black humor. Not much is left off the table here, as everythingóand everyoneóis made a target: this is the type of movie where a kid bites it and itís played as a joke, while characters later spit out dialogue like ďkill that fucking baby!Ē and you donít even blink at it. Thereís definitely a Troma by way of South Park vibe to the whole thing, an approach and style of humor that admittedly isnít really my thing these days. However, I do have to admire the audacity of it, I suppose, as this reboot pushes the envelope in a way it never could if it happened under the auspices of a major studio. Not only is The Littlest Reich outrageously gory and offensive (we are dealing with goddamn Nazis here), but itís also remarkably mean-spirited: to paraphrase a line of dialogue late in the film, this is a movie where fucked-up things happen to people who donít deserve it. Juvenile provocation has often guided this franchise, and this one is no different: at all times, The Littlest Reich stops just short of having its directors appear on screen and nudge you to make sure youíre aware of how insane this is.
Itíd be exhausting if the film didnít somehow feature some genuinely nice characters that manage to grow on you as the carnage unfolds. While they donít exhibit the lived-in richness that has defined Zahlerís previous efforts, most of the characters that matter (read: the ones who manage to appear in multiple scenes before dying) leave enough of an impression that youíre not left constantly waiting for the puppets to murder someone (not that the script ever has you waiting that long anyway). Lennon and Pellicer make for a sweet couple, with Franklin serving as the ball-busting third wheel: itís nothing revolutionary, but thereís the sense that these three all actually like each other, so you wonít find any unnecessary drama unfolding between them. As unpleasant as this film can sometimes be, the cast is refreshingly good-natured, filled out by the likes of Charlyne Yi, Michael Pare, and the always welcome Crampton (doing her second tour of Puppet Master duty as an entirely different character). Fair warning, though: the cruelty of these charactersí fates is inversely proportionate to how nice they are, so donít go getting too attached to them.
In most cases, a film like The Littlest Reich would be touted as a return to form for its franchise, but I donít know that itís accurate in this case since thereís never been a Puppet Master movie quite like this one. While the sturdy production values remind you of the days when Full Moon actually put some resources into this franchise, theyíre not out to recapture the gothic, atmospheric overtures of Bandís original movies, at least not for most of the runtime. In many ways, the slick photography and Fabio Frizziís throwback score somewhat belie how threadbare and lo-fi The Littlest Reich truly is. When the strains of the maestroís ďDeath WaltzĒ motif kick in to accentuate the outlandish gore, they nearly recapture the operatic, Grand Guignol artistry of the Euro-horror glory days, allowing The Littlest Reich to just outrun its jagged, disjointed pacing. If thereís one major weakness, itís the nagging sensation that the film just barrels along without much sense of escalation, almost like itís one ribald joke without a real punchline. Just when it looks like itís going to finally go somewhere (by faintly echoing the likes of One Dark Night in the process, right down to an undead corpse raising hell), it hits you with a ďto be continuedĒ tease that leaves The Littlest Reich feeling a tad incomplete.
Of course, Iíd watch the promised sequel right now if possible, which is a testament to how much fun The Littlest Reich is, especially compared to half of the Full Moon efforts. Where that series has become an obligatory slog, this entry feels like a revitalization for this brand: again, itís not really a course correction since itís not aiming to recapture whatever glory this franchise had. Instead, itís fully content to be its own, rowdy thing, nearly to the point of exhaustionósome might argue that the abrupt ending isnít a tease but rather a reprieve, and I wouldnít begrudge them of that opinion. A movie like The Littlest Reich practically announces its bawdy intentions with its title, which promises Nazi murder dolls before the movie delivers them with impish delight. Longtime fans might balk at this bold new world, but I find it difficult to imagine anything further tarnishing this franchiseís legacyóespecially when its worst entry is literally titled Puppet Master: The Legacy.
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