Come for the gory kills, stay for the… gory kills.
No matter what you think of the Puppet Master franchise you can’t really fault its tenacity or longevity. From the first film in 1989 to its 11th feature (Puppet Master: Axis Termination) in 2017 — 12th if you count 2004’s Puppet Master vs Demonic Toys, which you shouldn’t, as it’s not canon you heathens — the films have maintained a low budget, lo-fi charm while delivering gleefully ridiculous tales of puppets killing people. They’re not all good movies, far from it at times, but they found a puppet-sized niche and filled it handily.
The newest entry, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, trades the scrappy personality of its predecessors for a slicker, gorier, more star-filled experience, but unfortunately it’s memorable solely for the kills.
A Nazi walks into a Texas bar in 1989, and after being disgusted at a pair of lesbians he instructs his puppets to kill them both. The police track Andre Toulon (Udo Kier) back to his house where he dies in a shootout, and nearly thirty years later his atrocities have become somewhat legendary. Edgar (Thomas Lennon) is recently divorced and in need of cash, and an upcoming convention celebrating Toulon’s puppets offers him an opportunity to sell one of the dolls for quick cash. With his new girlfriend (Jenny Pellicer) and boss (Nelson Franklin) in tow, they head to an old hotel, enjoy a tour through the dead Nazi’s museum, and soon find themselves in the middle of a puppet-fueled slaughter.
Cutting to the chase here, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich succeeds in delivering homicidal puppets, incredibly gory kills, a terrific new score by Fabio Frizzi, and a likable cast which also includes Charlyne Yi, Michael Paré, and the legendary Barbara Crampton as an ex-cop spouting sass and exposition in equal measure. That’s a lot more than most horror films have going for them, and there’s a good chance it’ll be enough for some horror fans.
Those looking for more than that are shit out of luck, though, as the film is remarkably devoid of life or energy. Even its two stellar gore pieces — one featuring a poor sap taking a leak and the other involving an unlucky pregnant woman — are shot so plainly and without concern for style, staging, or execution that they thrill solely based on their audacious gore. (Good gravy do they thrill though!) Directors Sonny Laguna & Tommy Wiklund (Wither) fail to work up any momentum, and while the first thirty minutes are the roughest the drag is still evident even after the kills begin. Toss in plenty of poorly written characters, a cast apparently unsure what tone to aim for at any given moment, and an ending that fails to include an actual ending and you have a bloody disappointment.
The film’s script comes courtesy of S. Craig Zahler whose Bone Tomahawk (2015) and Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017) have found fans through similarly ferocious and exaggerated acts of gruesome violence, and it bears repeating that two of the kills here are deliriously entertaining in their gore and substance and won’t be easily forgotten. Acts of brutality aren’t his only calling card, though, and without making an inference on Zahler’s own politics it’s safe to suggest his films project a distinctly conservative — and anti-“other” — mentality. In Bone Tomahawk his heroes are white settlers fighting against Native savages. In Brawl in Cell Block 99 his white hero is possessive of his wife and portrayed as smarter, stronger, and more honorable than the primarily minority criminals around him who suffer greatly beneath his boots.
It should come as no surprise that a similar mentality arises here, but it’s made more notable in relation to the Puppet Master films that came before. Toulon’s fight — and by extension, his puppets’ fight — has frequently been against the Nazis, but here Toulon himself *is* a Nazi and his puppets are targeting gays, gypsies, Jews, and other minorities. To be clear, this alone isn’t something worthy of criticism, but the reasoning for it is far from compelling. “Lots of terrible shit happens to people who don’t deserve it,” says someone in reference to the film’s slaughter pattern (captured after the fact in comic book form) to which the writer replies “I try to mirror reality.”
There’s an argument to be made that it’s a topical commentary of sorts, as anyone who lives in the real world could attest to the heaps of terrible shit dumped on the undeserving — especially in our current climate with its ridiculously sad Nazi resurgence — but in an otherwise goofy horror movie it fails to go anywhere. It’s too silly to be horrific and too empty to be satirical. The deaths are brutal but comically so, and it’s to the point that audiences are clearly meant to be cheering the murders which means cheering on the Nazi puppets as they slaughter innocent people. There’s no greater message here either as this isn’t an indictment of the viewer along the lines of Man Bites Dog. You’re not meant to question your enjoyment, you’re just meant to enjoy it.
To be fair, many viewers will do just that as the criticisms above (particularly about Zahler’s script) won’t carry the same weight for everyone, and at the end of the day sometimes you just want dumb, gory fun as a nightcap. I get it — as someone who happily goes to bat for Beyond Re-Animator believe me, I get it — but the film’s desire to offend and shock is insultingly transparent and comes at the detriment to character, story, and purpose. The Littlest Reich is definitely dumb and gory, but it just can’t crack the fun.
The Upside: Terrific gore gags, an appealing cast, new Fabio Frizzi score, a kid bites it
The Downside: Rough script in dialogue and story, complete lack of energy from beginning to end, lazy kill justification, shock value is priority