Written by S. Craig Zahler
Directed by Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund
New and improved (but just as campy), the decades old Puppet Master franchise spins off into a brand new universe with an offbeat reboot that adds inventive kills and a little social commentary into the mix. If the original Full Moon feature was the 1989 Batman, The Littlest Reich would be more akin to the upcoming Joker spinoff. Surprisingly funny with spurts of unrelenting gore, this new entry carves out a new path for the series but lacks the VHS charm of Charles Band’s original gang of miniature killers.
Things kick off with a flashback to a late eighties dive bar where Udo Kier (as the latest incarnation of the titular character Andre Toulon) turns up his creep factor to eleven, delivering a memorable introduction that, sadly, winds up being a spotlight cameo. Puppets are activated, decapitations are carried out, and Toulon returns to the shadows along with his puppet army to lie in wait. Jumping forward to present day, we catch up with our comic book hero, Edgar (a muted Tom Lennon), as he discovers a strange, fedora-wearing doll in his dead brother’s bedroom. After a little investigation, he heads off with his best friend and new girlfriend to auction off the collector’s item at a bizarre convention highlighting Toulon’s murderous legacy. Turns out Toulon created dozens of Nazi puppets in order to carry out a marionette version of the final solution, targeting victims who’ve earned the wrath of the Third Reich.
But fear not! Barbara Crampton and Michael Paré are also on hand to make sure that not all of the hotel’s guests are doomed to die in increasingly gruesome and humiliating ways. From video cassette icon to present day horror matron, Crampton returns to the world of Puppet Master as a cop turned tour guide after appearing in the original eighties opus a dozen or so films ago. A welcome presence to deliver exposition in the second act, she gets the chance to hunt down the countless puppets wrecking havoc later on in the story. Paré as Detective Brown delivers some of the best lines in a classic cop monotone that, potentially, make him a funnier character than Lennon’s lead. With names that are actually a draw in the horror comedy world, it’s not surprising that Littlest Reich is the first in the series to actually debut in theaters.
Although they don’t necessarily fit with the more tongue-in-cheek tone of the earlier entries, the myriad of kills featured here are so gleefully perverse and over-the-top that you’ll probably forgive their toilet bowl sense of humor. It’s no wonder that Fangoria is involved here since a couple of the images would be right at home inside the magazine’s old pull out poster. Blade and his many iterations get plenty of throat-slitting screen time. Pinhead, Tunneler, Happy Amphibian (???) and others also get their close up, especially Torch in an under the bed ambush where the faces of an unlucky Jewish couple wind up resembling the burnt ends of a Texas brisket.
Unfortunately, although they’re front and center at times, Blade and his cohorts lack any real personality. Their charisma isn’t only defined by the weapons they’ve been bestowed with and they never interact with each other at all which gives way to a slasher mentality that lacks the fun that this kind of team up used to have. Their master, Toulon, was a holocaust survivor in the original Puppet Master but in Littlest Reich, his transformation into a Nazi version of Geppetto turns the puppets’ sense of mischief into bloodthirsty toy soldiers. In this new pocket universe, they’ve become pint-sized versions of Hitler Youth when I liked them better as collectible trading cards. Since this story will continue (as the end title card informs), maybe we can have a little more of the classic troublemakers we’ve grown to love over the years in the next one. Isn’t that really why this franchise has endured? Okay, that, and the fact that Charles Band will make a sequel to ANYTHING.
World War III begins on your toy shelf.