You want to watch puppets kill people? And I mean a lot of puppets killing a lot of people. If the answer is yes, your time has finally come. Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is very much for you. Designed to shock and offend with prolonged passages of slaughter and mayhem so gore-soaked you can practically hear the midnight crowds cheering, The Littlest Reich reboots the long-running franchise with a thin but handsomely produced little splatter film that demands nothing from its audience but a strong stomach.
The Littlest Reich leaves behind the quaint, micro-micro-budget of the Full Moon Features tradition and boasts some star power, both behind and in front of the camera. Directed by Sonny laguna and Tommy Wiklund, the film features a rousing score from Lucio Fulci regular Fabio Frizzi and a cast of actors you’ll recognize. But perhaps the biggest surprise of the bunch is the involvement of Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99 filmmaker S. Craig Zahler, who wrote the script. You’ll be able to feel Zahler’s presence in the kill scenes, which maintain his flourish for extreme moments of unforgettable bloodshed, though there’s unfortunately little evidence of his knack for stoic, straightforward dialogue (admittedly, there are a few quality zingers), his deft hand at navigating challenging themes, or his talent for creating unforgettable characters.
Zahler’s distinctly cynical strain of dark humor, however, is present throughout and ultimately defines the rebooted approach to the material. Fanchise fans will note a key shift in the mythology from the outset, when a 1980s-set prequel introduces the titular puppet master himself, Andre Toulon (played by Udo Kier with a delicious menace), who is now a Nazi. So are his puppets, brought to life by the power of an ancient magic, who hunt and kill at his command. The creepy creator has a run-in with a pair of Lesbian bartenders, and sicks his little Reich on them for a brutal, bloody execution, before getting gunned down by the local police in a short, not-so-sweet opening segment that immediately sets the tone.
Flash forward to the present day, where we meet Edgar (Thomas Lennon), a comic book artist visiting his family home, where he discovers his late brother owned one of Toulon’s terrifying little dolls — an upgraded version of the fan-favorite Blade — and heads off to a Toulon convention in the hopes of selling it. With Edgar’s clever new girlfriend (Jenny Pellicer) and smart-mouthed, proudly Jewish boss Markowitz (Nelson Franklin) in tow, the trio journeys to the Toulon estate, where they get a somewhat painfully expository tour from local cop who shot Toulon dead (played by genre staple Barbara Crampton, who also cameoed in the original film). The first act isn’t the film’s finest (half) hour and the minutes tick by as one cardboard character after the next takes the stage just in time for the Grand Guignol slaughter.
Once the bloodshed begins, The Littlest Reich becomes an unstoppable freight train of outrageous violence. There are dozens of puppets on the scene for the convention, which means the moment Toulon’s spell brings them to life, there’s a literal tiny little Nazi army running around dispensing death wholesale. The characters are mercifully quick to realize the trend in the victims — Jewish, homosexual, black… yep, they’re Nazis — though those smarts do little to save lives. Toulon’s puppets are an unstoppable force of dismemberment and death, leaving behind a bloody mass of corpses and body parts after a malicious miniature slaughter. Two kills in particular — one involving a pregnant woman and one involving a poor soul who ends up peeing on his own decapitated head — are so beyond the pale, they’re bound to get a reaction out of even the most hardened horror enthusiasts. Whether that reaction is a guffaw, a grimace, or full-on gagging depends on your sensibilities.