Way back in 1989, Charles Band, owner of Full Moon Entertainment, blessed horror fans with the first entry in a franchise that has run for decades, Puppet Master. While beloved by some fans, Puppet Master and its sequels have since been forgotten by a large section of the general public, and undeservedly so. Now, Cinestate and Fangoria have partnered with Full Moon to bring the series back to the mainstream in Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, and let me tell you, these aren’t your daddy’s puppets…
…Directed by Sonny Laguna & Tommy Wiklund (Animalistic), with a script from S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk), Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich takes place 30 years after the death of the Puppet Master himself, Andre Toulon (Udo Kier). When Edgar (Thomas Lennon) finds one of Toulon’s puppets, he decides to sell it at a convention celebrating the work of Toulon, traveling with his new girlfriend Ashley (Jenny Pellicer) and best friend Markowitz (Nelson Franklin). But when over 60 of Toulon’s puppet suddenly come alive at the hotel, the trio and others must fight for survival against a horde of the psychotic Nazi bastards.
For those that are fans of the Puppet Master series, The Littlest Reich immediately plunges you into a warm, gooey pool of nostalgia. From seeing the new designs of the puppets we love (more on that later), to a fun, comic-book style opening credit sequence, the film feels like a welcome embrace from a friend that has been gone for too long. I know, I know, Puppet Master: Axis Termination only came out a year ago, but there’s something about getting the chance to see The Littlest Reich on the big screen as a fresh take on the series that just feels like a new beginning in the best possible way. Seeing the Fangoria label pop up before the film is an added bonus that filled my eyes with some kind of nostalgic, salt substance. No, I’m not crying, YOU’RE crying!
But honestly, if you’ve been following the franchise, or are just a casual fan, could you ever have imagined that we would someday get a Puppet Master film, on the big screen, with genre vets such as Kier, Barbara Crampton, and Michael Pare, not to mention Lennon, Franklin, and Charlyne Yi, all of whom are fantastic? Kier, in his brief time as Toulon, is out of this world creepy and intimidating. His few, all too short minutes on screen are evidence of the incredible actor that he is, evil puppet-making Nazi or not. Crampton also stands out as a cop haunted by the night she brought down Toulon 30 years ago, and Lennon is his usual, hilarious self in the way he delivers ridiculous dialogue so matter of factly that you can’t help but laugh, though he also does well in portraying a sad, lonely comic book guy who may be one of the more relatable characters to grace the Puppet Master franchise. Best. Character. Ever.
That being said, these are NOT the puppets you think you know. Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich takes the franchise to a whole new level of over the top sadism. Nothing and no one can prepare you for the outrageous, offensive nature of this film. The Littlest Reich doesn’t give a fuck about your feelings or the plastic bubble you rolled in on. If anything, Laguna and Wiklund aim to crack open that bubble, rip out your guts, and tie them to the back of a high-speed roller coaster. This is a film that takes you through a wild ride of blood and gore on a whole new level for this franchise. While the films in the Puppet Master series sort of bounced around between the puppets being neither evil or good, but in sort of a middle ground, The Littlest Reich says screw that, these puppets are mother-fucking NAZIS, and holy hell, do they act like it. Don’t look for any sort of sympathy or cute GIFs from these puppets. All the puppets want to do in Littlest Reich is maim and kill and watch the whole damn world burn. Zahler’s script takes the time to establish that there is nothing “good” about Toulon, who in the original is a frail old man hiding from Nazis. Here, he’s a maniacal madman who enjoys all types of torture and depravity, to the point where Crampton’s recounting of his history is deeply unsettling. Going into this film, forget everything you think you know about Puppet Master, because Fangoria and Cinestate have brought it to a darker place than I ever would’ve imagined.
To go along with the film’s “fuck your safe space” attitude, The Littlest Reich also takes the bigger budget and uses it for what’s most important: The effects. Each of the puppets has been upgraded to appear more intimidating. They’re scarier, they look great, and the filmmakers take careful measures to include as little (if any) CGI to show them moving around. Those that were worried that modern horror techniques would turn all of their favorite puppets into tennis balls on a green screen can breathe a sigh of relief. The one negative here is that, despite the film doing a wonderful job of including various new puppets and old favorites, some of the most iconic puppets didn’t make the cut, such as Six Shooter, but that’s a small gripe, and any fan will be appreciative of how many REAL puppets are running around on screen, being all murderous and junk.
But if anyone is to be thrilled, it should be hardcore gorehounds. The blood comes by the gallon in The Littlest Reich, and there’s enough being splashed around on screen to fill an Olympic swimming pool. Arms are ripped off. Heads are crushed. Eyes are gouged out. Intestines are spilled. And there’s even a particular gruesome death involving a pregnant woman that is awful and grotesque but so damn funny, like most of the incredibly dark humor. Whether you’re alone or in a crowded theater, you’ll find yourself often looking around, wondering if you’re supposed to be laughing and enjoying the offensive blood splatter as much as you are, but the answer is always YES. Get it all out, my fellow depraved friend. And the best part about all the limb flailing, blood spilling, absolutely glorious gore? It’s all PRACTICAL FX. No CGI blood splatter here. This is a Fangoria film after all, a company that celebrates gore, and so it’s no surprise that Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich has some of the best effects you’ll see all year.
Now, with everything I’ve mentioned, between over the top violence and uncomfortable humor, plus plenty of gratuitous nudity, you’d think that Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich would be nothing but a fun callback to 80s slashers that revels in its insanity. In some ways, it does, but surprisingly, the film is actually quite tone deaf. I don’t watch a guy taking a piss, only to get decapitated and piss on his own face, and think to myself that this is a film I’m supposed to take seriously. But The Littlest Reich does something a little unexpected by treating a good portion of its kills as tragic, leading to some especially heavy gut punches later. Which isn’t to say death isn’t tragic, but this is a horror movie about killer puppets after all, so I expect anyone watching just wants to have fun. The music as well during the kill sequences is often dramatic and a little sad instead of creepy or even goofy. Imagine it like the difference between Batman & Robin and The Dark Knight. The tone shift between the original franchise and this film is THAT different. All in all it makes for a confusing experience in which I don’t know if I’m supposed to be enjoying myself or flat out sobbing.
Worst of all, even though I mentioned that the film has some of the best gore you’ll see all year, it may also have one of the most unsatisfying endings this year as well. Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is the sort of movie that just ends, leaving you to say out loud, “wait, what? Really?” It’s the sort of anti-climactic ending that feels too short, too simple, too UNEVENTFUL for a film in which murderous puppets are running amok. Now, to be fair, the filmmakers make it clear that The Littlest Reich is not the last we’ll see of this new and improved Puppet Master series, so it must be treated as more of a “part one” than a complete film, but even still, the ending leaves much to be desired for a film that is otherwise full of moments that will have horror fans cheering with delight.
Puppet Master fan or not, DO NOT miss this one if you’ve been looking for a horror film reflective of the good ole days, when practical FX was king and sweet, sweet gore flooded through the streets. Just be prepared for The Littlest Reich to knock the wind out of you and then kick you in the crotch a few times while you’re down, and then maybe pour salt in your eyes, because why the hell not. Now excuse me while I go rock in a corner and think about what I’ve just seen.
Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is now available on VOD.
By Matt Konopka