★★★★ out of ★★★★★
Gonzo, Gory, a little meta, a little offensive, and a big step up for the venerable franchise.
Directed by Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund.
I will admit, this surprised the hell out of me. The world premiere for Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich was at the Overlook Film Festival, but I missed it, mostly because I was at a shorts program… but given the significance of this film, I came to regret having passed on it. I am, as many of you may have recognized, not a big fan of cookie-cutter franchise films, and to me, Puppet Master has cut more cookies than almost anything this side of Elm Street. I tend to adore the little indie productions; the art-house type of films that give you some drama and great acting. That is not what the Puppet Master was known for back in the day. But, the word was coming out of Overlook that this film was a fresh and fun take on the series, and I realized that I may have missed an early bird opportunity for something special. Then, I found out The Portland Horror Film Festival was next in line for a screening of this slaughter-palooza, providing me an opportunity to see what I missed out on.
For those of you too young to remember the days of VHS, Puppet Master was the province of Full Moon Entertainment, which did straight to VHS releases (later straight to DVD) and, featured killer puppets, who eventually flipped from being villainous creatures to becoming miniature super-heroes, of sorts. The series, begun in 1989 had TWELVE sequels up to this time, including the recent 2017 offering Puppet Master Axis Termination, where the dolls combat evil Nazi puppets. What kept the franchise alive was that the dolls were actually kinda cute. And they became popular, adding new puppets with each new iteration. The Puppetmaster, Andre Toulon, who was originally cast by William Hickey and in subsequent sequels, by Guy Rolfe, was a puppet maker who could make his puppets come to life, and was hunted down by the Nazis to claim his secrets for their own nefarious ends. All of the Full Moon videos relied on miniscule budgets, discount animation effects, and filled with casts of unknowns.
Enter producer Dallas Sonnier, who through his company, Cinestate, had recently resurrected the warhorse fanzine Fangoria, (hooray!) and was looking to use Fangoria to be part of his movie production business. S. Craig Zahler, the writer/director of the acclaimed gory western-horror Bone Tomahawk, (a Cinestate production), was brought on to write and direct the film and upped the ante for the franchise. They upgraded the cast with the legendary Udo Kier to play Toulon, along with notable horror leading lady Barbara Crampton, who is having a bit of a career renaissance… (You’re Next, and We are Still Here) and still looking fabulous! Also in the cast are talented comedic actors Thomas Lennon and Nelson Franklin, with Hollywood tough guy Michael Pare, and you have something a little different in store.
For a fascinating in-depth discussion of Cinestate and Fangoria’s production role, listen in to a discussion with producer Amanda Pesmyk on the special edition of the Scariest Things Podcast HERE.
Puppetmaster The Littlest Reich flips the series on its head. Instead of being persecuted by Nazis, Andre Toulon is a Nazi sympathizer, and Kier absolutely chews up the opening frames with his depiction of the puppet maker, now a scarred psychotic. The film starts out in the late 80’s, a nice nod to the original. But, in this re-imagined version of the series, Toulon uses his puppets to enact horrors upon the people in a small town in Texas and is taken out by the local police. (Bang! Bang!) The movie then fast-forwards to the present day, where, in a very meta-referential take, comic book writer Edgar and his friend Markowitz (Franklin) and girlfriend Ashley (Jenny Pellicer) attend a convention celebrating the famed Toulon Murders. The puppet replicas have become collectibles, and actual Toulon puppets are valuable artifacts, to the point where there will be dozens of these puppets auctioned off. Naturally, these puppets all get animated in a bit of a psychic storm that is touched off by the anniversary of the infamous murders. The dolls turn on their former owners, and it is an absolute bloodbath. This becomes like geek gravy poured on top of a nerd meatloaf. It’s not in any way healthy for you, but very tasty… and oddly comforting.
Because these are now Nazi dolls, they are targeting Jews, gays, blacks, and anyone who a Nazi doll would feel compelled to destroy. Eventually, it becomes everybody… but be forewarned, this film has its offensive moments. If swastikas make you twitch, you will get seizures. There is a gratuitous Playboy model inclusion, with the startlingly pneumatic looking Kennedy Summers in a role that would have fit right in the old Full Moon days. There is a scene involving a toilet that becomes nasty on several levels (That got a huge roar from the Hollywood theater crowd. EWWWW!) Kids aren’t spared. There is a really disturbing scene involving a pregnant woman. Aaaand so on. A lot of people died. It’s an equal opportunity slaughter. On the flip side, some of the biggest cheers usually go up for Markowitz as he gets to play Jewish avenger for a chunk of this movie, and he probably gets the big star turn for this show. There was something cathartic about his heroic moves, and he gets to be the connective tissue to the audience.
Once the puppets kick into action, the plot sort-of disappears, and it descends into a siege film… with puppets. This is a very high body count movie, with lots of characters who show up just in time for the puppets to tear them to pieces. And you know what? I’m alright with that. Normally that’s a pet peeve, but in some strange way, this film manages to convince me to enjoy the mayhem that usually eludes me in a killing-by-numbers film. This isn’t a heady film, but it is clever. It has some real laugh out loud funny parts to it, and the lead actors are much more charismatic than you would normally get for a franchise that is this far into its run.
Perhaps because I actually had a chance to meet and have real conversations with Udo Kier and Tommy Lennon at the Overlook Festival, and later with Barbara Crampton at the Portland Horror Film Festival, my glowing view of this film gets colored by how wonderful and engaging these actors are. It is the risk of being a fan-first, journalist second, and getting a chance to shake hands with them and talk shop… but I think I can keep all this in perspective. These people are the working class of Hollywood… recognizable names, but still humble and approachable enough not to “big-time” the fans. I will stand by the fact that, in the end, I had a ton of fun with Puppet Master The Littlest Reich, and revel in how encouraging it is to have Cinestate and Fangoria producing films like this. This movie occupies the grimy, gory mid-ground between art house indie horror and slick studio productions… it is honestly where shops like Full Moon and Troma occupied in the VHS era of the mid ’80’s to mid ’90’s, but this Cinestate offering is a much better product. It’s better acted, it’s got better effects, and it retains the gleeful grossness of a grindhouse mentality.
Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is not rated, (It would be a HARD R) and is scheduled for a theatrical release on August 17,2018. If you are a fan of gory horror-comedy, go see this on the big screen if it opens near you.
As soon as a trailer becomes available, The Scariest Things will post it for you!