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Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (Movie Review)

Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (Movie Review)
7 10

PLOT: Thirty years after police gunned down maniacal puppet master Andre Toulon, his living puppets turn an auction into a massacre.

REVIEW: The Full Moon PUPPET MASTER franchise has told us that the living puppets at the heart of the series were created by puppeteer Andre Toulon, a good man who used ancient Egyptian sorcery to imbue his puppets with the life force of lost loved ones. While living in Nazi Germany, Toulon even used his puppets to fight back against the Nazis who murdered his wife and tried to steal his secrets. There have been a couple times when the puppets have fallen into the hands of evil puppet masters who have ordered them to kill innocent people (and sure, in one of the films the evil puppet master was Toulon, but I'll blame that on the fact that he had just been resurrected from the grave after enduring a half century of nightmares), but for the most part they are actually heroic characters. 

Full Moon founder Charles Band intends to continue the original PUPPET MASTER series with films that will, most likely, have the puppets continuing to fight the forces of evil. At the same time, production company Cinestate has been granted the rights to craft their own PUPPET MASTER films, starting with PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH. Since we're going to be getting two PUPPET MASTER series at once, it makes sense that Cinestate has chosen to take an approach that is the exact opposite of Full Moon's. Their version of Andre Toulon, played by Udo Kier, was an evil man who actually worked with the Nazis, building an army of living puppets that took part in the Holocaust.

By the end of the '80s, Toulon was terrorizing Texas with his puppets, which he controlled through the use of some kind of machine that coursed with electricity and put out a purple glow. We don't get to learn much about how that all worked, there are just enough hints along the way to confirm that it was some kind of ancient magic - which is probably all we need to know. It's not really necessary to delve into an explanation for these things.

Toulon's days of killing and torturing people ended when he was gunned down by the police. Jump ahead thirty years and a convention is being held at the Brass Buckle hotel to commemorate the anniversary of the Toulon murders - and to bring together collectors for an auction of the dozens of Toulon puppets that have made their way around the world over the decades. One of those puppets, a version of the fan favorite puppet Blade that has a knife and hook for hands, is in the possession of recent divorcee Edgar (Thomas Lennon), who decides to go to the auction with his new girlfriend Ashley (Jenny Pellicer) and the owner of the comic book store he works at, Markowitz (Nelson Franklin). So Edgar, Ashley, and Markowitz are right in the middle of the nightmarish action when all of the puppets come to life and turn this into the Texas Puppet Massacre.

One of the major selling points of THE LITTLEST REICH is the fact that it was scripted by S. Craig Zahler, writer/director of BONE TOMAHAWK and BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99. That may stir up the thought that this could be a deeper film than the average PUPPET MASTER installment, but Zahler was not in TOMAHAWK or BRAWL mode when writing this film. There is some broad strokes character work up front, as we get some brief glimpses into Edgar's home life and watch him quickly embark on a sexually-fuelled relationship with Ashley, but that stuff feels rushed and obligatory. Somebody has to be the lead character, right? This movie is really all about reaching the point when it can descend into total mayhem, which it does about one-third of the way into its 90 minute running time.

Most fans would probably expect a PUPPET MASTER reboot/remake/re-whatever-you-want-to-call-this to return to the tone of the first couple Full Moon movies, to be a serious horror film with villainous puppets. While this film does make the puppets dangerous and evil again, serious it is not. As the casting of Thomas Lennon may have tipped off, this is the most overtly comedic PUPPET MASTER film ever, aside from the Syfy-produced crossover PUPPET MASTER VS. DEMONIC TOYS. That said, it's still a film that will offend a good number of viewers.

Most films are governed by the rules of good taste. THE LITTLEST REICH does not follow those rules. It's so irreverent and crude, at times it feels like something Troma would make. Toulon was a Nazi, so by extension his puppets are as well, and as they make their way through the Brass Buckle they target people the Nazis would. They'll kill the random person here and there, but this is primarily a movie about puppets committing hate crimes. Gay men, lesbians, Jews, African Americans, Asian Americans, Gypsies - these are the people the puppets are out to get, and they make a bloody mess of their victims in one grotesque set piece after another. THE LITTLEST REICH pulls no punches while the puppets rack up a body count, turning into a relentless onslaught of disturbing and disgusting images. Men, women, children, none are spared. By the time the film cuts away to a room occupied by a pregnant woman, viewers will be groaning out loud because they'll know the filmmakers wouldn't think twice about having something horrible happen to someone in her condition.

Re-designed versions of familiar puppets Blade, Torch, Tunneler, and Pinhead are around to get some kills, this time joined by new additions like a frog puppet, a flying robot, an infant Hitler, and a puppet called Money Lender. Some of the new puppets have some very memorable moments, but my favorites remain the ones I recognize from previous PUPPET MASTER films.

Many of the people in the Brass Buckle are introduced just to be knocked off immediately, but we do meet some notable characters along the way, like police officer characters played by Barbara Crampton (who made a cameo in the original PUPPET MASTER) and Michael Paré, a barmaid played by Charlyne Yi, and Skeeta Jenkins as a bartender who calls himself Cuddly Bear. As soon as he appeared on the screen, Cuddly Bear stepped up to become this film's entertainment MVP. I loved every moment involving the Cuddly Bear, and there's one moment where Jenkins' delivery of a word Cuddly Bear exclaims in frustration had me laughing hysterically.

Directed by Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund, filmmakers from Sweden who were handpicked for this job by Zahler, PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH is a ridiculous bloodbath that viewers will hate if they don't agree to meet the film on its own flippant terms and go along for the ride. Viewers who can accept offensive humor will probably have a lot of fun watching it, and might find it to be uncomfortably hilarious.

THE LITTLEST REICH isn't what I would have wanted this sort of PUPPET MASTER movie to be. I hoped for something darker and more serious, ideally something devoid of hate crimes. A film that would sort of be a bigger budgeted version of the first PUPPET MASTER, although with different characters. I would have also expected the puppetry to be of a higher quality; unfortunately, this isn't much of a step up from the most recent Full Moon PUPPET MASTERs in that department, despite the higher budget. This isn't what I would have asked for, but now that I've gotten it, I enjoyed it for what it is: a gleefully gory exercise in bad taste.

Extra Tidbit: RLJE Films is releasing PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH into select theatres and on VOD and Digital HD on August 17th.

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