An irrefutable component of Hollywood’s sacred dogma is that any horror film with even the vaguest name recognition must be hastily remade / rebooted into a forgettable hodgepodge of current movie trends. Certainly, there have been solid remakes, but the overwhelming majority fade from the public’s consciousness the moment they leave theaters.
This makes Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich an atypically savvy reboot: a revival of a franchise that left zero cultural impact or worthwhile entries in its wake. There’s no artistic merit in remaking already-perfect exercises in terror like Halloween or A Nightmare on Elm Street, so credit’s due to directors Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund, as well as writer S. Craig Zahler, for finally making good on the promise of mass puppet slaughter that eluded the previous 12 (!) installments.
It’s unexpected and delightful that a filmmaker of Zahler’s talents (the man responsible for modern-day exploitation masterworks Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99) would choose to rework a series that primarily exists as fodder for cheap multi-pack DVDs in the bargain bin at Walmart. Throwing some actual craftsmanship into the mix naturally earns The Littlest Reich the distinction of being the best Puppet Master flick. What’s peculiar, however, is how the script’s dialogue contains none of Zahler’s usual literary flair; instead, it’s the sadistic imagination and practical effects on display that make this worth seeking out for disciples of sleazy cinema.
Thomas Lennon (of Reno 911! fame) stars as Edgar, a misanthropic loser and comic-book writer who moves back in with his parents following a painful divorce. He’s wallowing in grief and rooting around in his deceased brother’s closet when he finds a puppet with an eerie expression and blades for hands. Shortly thereafter, he meets a cute girl at a bar and, seemingly within hours, they’re officially dating. Perhaps it’s the haphazard editing, but Edgar’s life appears to be moving in the right direction with astonishing speed.
Anywho, when Edgar learns about a nearby convention holding a puppet auction, he takes off with his new gal to sell his strange discovery and earn a quick buck. Naturally, the hotel hosting the convention becomes the venue for an epic bloodbath once all the puppets spring to life by the mystic power of their Nazi creator. That’s right: These puppets aren’t only homicidal, they’re Nazis, too. The best line of dialogue belongs to a police officer who, upon walking in on a gruesome crime scene, notes with absurd solemnity, “These are hate crimes, detective.” The various puppets populating the hotel apparently have genocidal intentions quite similar to Hitler’s, and they embark on what is truly The Littlest Reich.
While the first act is oddly assembled and less-than-engaging, the subsequent two-thirds achieve a kind of gore-drenched ecstasy, providing a stunning showcase of death scenes that are easily the most graphic of any horror this year. Even by slasher standards, the body count here is remarkably high and people are disposed of with sickening ingenuity. It’s not enough for someone to get beheaded by a flying puppet with a miniature helicopter blade (each of the tiny villains has their own gimmick). No, it has to happen while he’s urinating, so his severed head can plop into the toilet bowl and cause him to pee on it.
Once the Nazi toys begin their brutal crusade, the film takes on an amusingly slapdash structure: Character is introduced, character is killed, another character is introduced, said character is then killed in spectacular fashion. Repeat formula until a free-for-all massacre where the remaining attendees are swiftly butchered. The Littlest Reich is a movie with humble aspirations; it aims for nothing more than to shock you with progressively extreme violence and impressive effects, toward which the lion’s share of the budget and creative energy no doubt went.
Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich isn’t going to set the world on fire with its lowbrow pleasures and amateur execution. It probably won’t appeal to anyone outside the Fangoria crowd (a magazine that played a hand in this film’s distribution), but it’s a welcome genre effort bereft of self-seriousness without being too coy about things.
Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is available now to rent or purchase on digital streaming platforms.