Studio: RLJE Films
Director: Sonny Laguna, Tommy Wiklund
Writer: S. Craig Zahler
Producer: Lorenzo Di Bonaventura, Mark Vahradian, Dallas Sonnier
Stars: Thomas Lennon, Jenny Pellicer, Nelson Franklin, Charlyne Yi, Michael Pare, Alex Beh, Matthias Hues, Skeeta Jenkins, Barbara Crampton, Udo Kier
On the 30th anniversary of Andre Toulon’s death, a struggling comic book artist discovers that the Nazi toymaker’s occult puppets have returned for a new killing spree.
Fantasia 2018 Film Festival Review:
Branching off along a separate line from the Full Moon films that were video store staples in the 1990s, “Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich” refreshes the longstanding series’ origin story as well as its puppet designs. One thing left largely unaltered however, is the franchise’s distinct DTV B-movie feel of copious carnage, unmotivated T&A and, for better or for worse, the look of low-grade production values.
Forced to move back home with his disapproving father and nondescript mother following a recent divorce, things might be looking up for struggling comic book creator Edgar Easton. With a new girlfriend on his arm, Edgar has an unusual idea for how to make quick cash with a curious puppet found in his long-dead little brother’s old closet.
It’s been 30 years since escaped Nazi toymaker Andre Toulon got himself gunned down by police in Postville, Texas after several gruesome murders. Collectors of Toulon’s vintage creations, countless numbers of which were made for his mail order business, are commemorating the anniversary with a convention and cash auction near the madman’s former mansion.
What no one yet knows is that putting all of those occult puppets in one place will unleash a supernatural killing spree orchestrated from beyond the grave. Edgar finds himself in the thick of things when the diminutive demons turn the host hotel into a holocaust targeting anyone with a race, religion, or sexual orientation that Toulon thumbs his Nazi nose at.
If, which is a conditional term you’ll see more than once in this assessment, you think a script from “Bone Tomahawk” (review here) filmmaker S. Craig Zahler and direction from “Wither” (review here) duo Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund might elevate “The Littlest Reich” above “Puppet Master’s” usual kitsch of crass kills and campiness, think again. Aside from a marginal uptick in overall appearance, “The Littlest Reich” could retain Charles Band’s name under both key credits and no one would necessarily know the difference. Whether that is a compliment or a criticism is up to you to decide.
One of the more inventive kills, of which there are a few, features a man decapitated at the toilet, where his still standing body urinates on his own head as it plunks into the water. An overhead camera additionally makes certain to highlight creamy brown streaks staining the bowl. In other words, someone looked at the initial setup and said, “nah, we’re not going to get the scrunched nose reaction we really want unless there’s poop on the porcelain too.” For better or for worse, to borrow that stipulation again, that’s the type of tone being dealt with here.
Nothing is taboo for “Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich.” If you think the bathroom beheading seems to be of questionable taste, wait until you witness Money Lender, a puppet intentionally designed as an insulting Jewish caricature, tear an unborn baby out of a pregnant woman’s belly. That either churns your stomach or makes you chuckle, in turn determining how much or how little enjoyment you’ll get out of the movie.
“The Littlest Reich” is surprisingly cheap looking, particularly with certain effects where phony dummies and floppy puppets are obvious, although I suppose it means to be crude in a way. Considering the variable value of the twelve “Puppet Master” movies preceding this one, this entry doesn’t have a high bar to hit anyway.
Minor editing tics still stick out as sloppy. One briefly jarring moment flips the characters in matching two shots, a basic cinematography no-no. Another scene inadvertently switches angles at a time when the soundtrack coincidentally hits sudden silence, making the sequence seem like a jump cut.
Major editing tics stick out too. After their meet-cute, Edgar’s next scene with his new girlfriend has the two of them kissing under an insinuation they’ve been dating for weeks. Outside of those three collective minutes, their relationship doesn’t receive real development until five minutes before end credits, when the midst of a massive puppet massacre seems like the best time to discuss Edgar’s ex-wife.
Essentially, narrative logic isn’t high on the movie’s “Pay Attention To” list. Neither are details, if they even exist on that list at all.
“Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich” features jokes so dry, they rarely elicit out loud laughs. One bit involves a man on the Toulon tour repeatedly raising his hand to ask questions that Barbara Crampton answers before he can speak. Not exactly clever. Other gags aren’t entirely humorless, although chuckles are only in order if surrounded by a mirthful midnight movie crowd. If you watch “The Littlest Reich” at home alone, mileage will definitely vary, unless jabs about a “hipster douchebag” still seem hilariously timely.
What about the main attractions? Well, the puppets are mostly fine. What’s disappointing though is that this story says Toulon created hundreds of them, and at least sixty are present at the hotel. However, the majority of the puppets are merely duplicates. “The Littlest Reich” could have introduced all kinds of crazy new concepts, yet there are only about ten or so different models, making them interchangeable little death machines without truly unique personalities.
I’d say that the film’s overall tone is off, except it never actually picks one and stays with it. If producers wanted a path of pure shock and awe, they could have gone full nail-biter with directors like “Inside’s” Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo at the helm. If they wanted slightly sinister yet predominantly silly, maybe someone such as John Gulager would have filled that function by calling creative shots.
But Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund toe a line neither here nor there between the two options. “The Littlest Reich” becomes a mishmash of “anything goes” insanity, black humor mistuned to the mood of the mayhem, and occasional interpersonal side stories no one appears invested in.
Having mentioned all of the above, “Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich” comes down to how its flavor of flippancy appeases your particular palate. It certainly seems like what a Full Moon feature in the 21stcentury would look like, right down to an abrupt ending and “To Be Continued” tease. Though I’m willing to chalk that last bit up as a wink to how Charles Band basically chopped complete movies in half so he could release two sequels at a time.
For better or for worse, to employ that shoulder shrug one final time, “Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich” is an odd little duck, which seems in line with its irreverent intentions. Frequent Lucio Fulci collaborator Fabio Frizzi even weirdly scores the film similarly to an Italian zombie movie, as if the flick were short on quirks to keep dumping into its potpourri of off-kilter elements.
Light on substance, yet heavy on slaughter, I can’t accurately predict whom “Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich” will offend and whom it will delight. That too is for you to decide. What I can guess for certain is that the filmmakers will be satisfied they accomplished their mission no matter your reaction.
NOTE: There is a post-credits scene.
Review Score: 55