The longest running independently produced movie franchise of all time is the Puppet Master series. The first film, which began life as an Empire Picture production before the company folded, was released direct-to-video in 1989. It was a massive success for the newly formed Full Moon production house and their head honcho, Charles Band. All these years later, there are still movies being released that fall under the same original, and very convoluted, continuity established by the horror classic; with Puppet Master: Axis Termination hitting store shelves and VOD just over a year ago.
When it was announced that a different studio had purchased the rights to a reboot of the first film, I approached it with a high amount of trepidation. That is not because every original film is good; 30 years on, 11 canonical films, and one crossover with a different Full Moon franchise equate to some movies being celebrated, others not so much, and quite a few that are so bad they’re fun. I just couldn’t figure out why a reboot was necessary when the franchise is still going reasonably well within the original continuity.
So imagine my surprise when the newly released reimagining, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, turned out to be rather excellent. It follows Edgar (Thomas Lennon), a recently divorced comic book creator who is moving back in with his folks. As he unpacks and goes through his childhood belongings, he finds a creepy looking puppet in his deceased brother’s room. Edgar decides to sell the black-clad, knife-wielding puppet at an upcoming convention in nearby Postville, Texas; the convention is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Toulon murders. The massacre ended in the death of Andre Toulon (Udo Kier) after it was discovered he had a hand in the butchering of a lesbian couple.
Edgar’s significant other, Ashley (Jenny Pellicer), and comic shop owner/ best friend Markowitz (Nelson Franklin) decide to attend the convention with him. The convention starts with a tour of Toulon’s mansion, now an occult museum, by former police officer Doreski (Barbara Crampton). Later that night, Edgar discovers that the puppet he brought to sell, which looks uncannily like one of Toulon’s, is missing. He calls the police, as do several other attendees, as all their puppets have disappeared.
“…decides to sell the black-clad, knife-wielding puppet at an upcoming convention…”
A string of dead bodies with no suspects, coincide with the puppets’ disappearance. Serious-minded detective Brown (Michael Paré) thinks that the theory of these puppets coming to life and murdering is absurd until he sees it happen. Now, all mayhem breaks loose at the convention hotel as the guests, staff, and police try to fend off the pint-sized fiends and uncover both the motivations behind their killings and a way to stop them.
While the original Puppet Master is a cult classic that doesn’t mean it is without flaws. In that vein, let’s get the issues out of the way as soon as possible. It is pretty cool to see new iterations of the puppets share the same screen, but a few more new puppets would have been welcome; multiple tunnelers make for repetitive attacks. The more pressing matter is the ending, which is rushed and lackluster. There is not a ton of buildup to explain a particular entity and its connection to everyone else. More importantly, this entity is taken out far too quickly, so Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich ends more on a whimper than a bang.
Written by S. Craig Zahler, most notable for his acclaimed work on Bone Tomahawk, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is a very lean script, with every scene adding to the plot, characterization, or atmosphere. Plus, unlike some of the more recent entries in the original timeline, which have a minor amount of horror and mostly focus on action (which is not inherently an issue unto itself), this mainly harkens back to the first few entries’ definitive horror roots.
The cops gather everyone in the hotel to the lobby to let them know about the killings and the theft of the puppets. Detective Brown also announces that he and his deputies will need to interview everyone there to get to the bottom of what is happening, and then the lights go out. The power is only off for a few seconds Before the backup generators turn on. Those get shut down almost immediately. The crowd starts to panic and runs to the parking lot, wherein those responsible for the killings lie in wait.
Of course, those responsible for all the mayhem are the animated puppets of Toulon come back to life to finish their fiendish goals. Given the subtitle, The Littlest Reich, the puppets’ mission isn’t too hard to discern–kill minorities and perpetuate the Nazis’ terrible plan. While the script fails to properly dive into the ideology of Nazi puppet murder, for a horror comedy with a high body count, it is nice to know it has something on its mind.
The dark humor sprinkled throughout helps give the movie its own identity apart from any other Puppet Master movie. When first deciding if he should attend the convention, Edgar is discussing it with Markowitz and Ashley. She states that a convention “…celebrating a bunch of sick murders that happened 30 years ago… exemplify absolutely everything that’s wrong with our society” and then states that she wants to go to it. It is hilarious. The levity throughout never hinders the horror nor feels out of place.
“They approach the carnage with gleeful zest and ever so much bloodshed…”
Tommy Wiklund and Sonny Laguna co-direct and balance the comedic and horror tones very well throughout. The aforementioned power outage may sound like a cliche, but the way it is handled here, from the editing to the characters’ reactions make it rise above that. Never knowing where the tiny terrors can come from perpetuates an eerie feeling throughout, especially in that crowd scene.
Not to imply that they shy away from the blood and guts; quite the contrary. They approach the carnage with gleeful zest and ever so much bloodshed. One kill in a bathroom is disgusting and is literally bathing in blood. Their approach brings to mind the gorefests that help put Troma on the map; much more so than the gothic stylings of the classic Full Moon titles.
Of course, if the puppets are not convincing. All the witty dialogue and well-mounted horror scenes in the world would not be of any help. Happily, creature effects creator Wayne Anderson and lead puppet designer Tate Steinsiek take great pains to ensure that the puppets are as believable as the humans (which I suppose is a two-edged compliment). A few variations of the iconic Blade character crop up throughout, including one that is a cricket or some such. Superstrong Pinhead and fan favorite Torch are also on hand to bring death and despair. New puppets include a baby who crawls onto your back and controls you like a puppet and a slew of copter-bots that add a dramatic new level to the puppet attacks. The puppets move very well, with small subtle head turns or the rising of an arm adding to the horrific atmosphere at hand.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Playing a beaten down man who attempts to put himself back together, Thomas Lennon has never been better. His chemistry with both love interest Pellicer (who, while funny, is a bit underwritten) and best friend Franklin is excellent, allowing for the audience to readily buy into their friendships. Barbara Crampton, returning to the franchise after appearing in the first one, is outstanding as the officer who wishes she could forget the events of 30 years ago.
Before sitting down to watch Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, I was expecting the worst. While a few flaws are present, the directors and screenwriter deliver a high energy bloodbath with several creepy scenes, excellent puppetry work, and a cast that shines brightly. It is well worth a watch, and I greatly look forward to a sequel.
Puppet Master: The Littles Reich (2018) Directed by Sonny Laguna, Tommy Wiklund. Written by S. Craig Zahler. Starring Thomas Lennon, Udo Kier, Michael Paré, Jenny Pellicer, Nelson Franklin, Barbara Crampton, Charlyne Yi.
8 Puppet Strings (out of 10)