“Well…you definitely seem like a toy that a maniac would make.”
Distributor: RLJ Entertainment, Inc.
In PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH, Edgar (Thomas Lennon), recently divorced, returns to his childhood home where he finds a nefarious looking puppet in his deceased brother’s room. He decides to sell the doll for some quick cash at a small-town convention celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the infamous Toulon Murders. All hell breaks loose when a strange force animates the puppets at the convention, setting them on a bloody killing spree that’s motivated by an evil as old as time.
At this point in time, I have no idea how many Puppet Master films there are. We’ve definitely breached ten, that much I know, but beyond that, I don’t really want to know.
There’s been some confusion about where Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich falls in the series. Is it a sequel? A reboot? One of them there sidequals for when you’re really out of ideas? Its makers have shied away from the word “reboot,” but that’s because most producers don’t like to use that term anymore, because to audiences, “reboot” has become synonymous with “unoriginality.”
Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, which is definitely a reboot, it also definitely unoriginal. Don’t get me wrong, this newest entry in the long-running franchise has a few tricks up its sleeves, along with some sleeker new designs of its most famous killer puppets, but what it amounts to is a group of disparate strangers being killed one by one in a hotel, which was the plot of the first two films. It also takes the figure of Andre Toulon (originally played by William Hickey and Guy Rolfe, here played by Udo Kier), who had originally fled Germany to the U.S. during World War II only to be caught up with and killed by Nazis, and turns him into a Nazi who is obsessed with the dark arts. In the original, Toulon’s puppets were originally docile and harmless until an evil magician (or something) took control of them and made them murderous. Here, Toulon sets them loose himself…to commit hate crimes.
As you can see, there’s been quite the rewrite of Puppet Master’s cannon.
Among the handful of unexpected new things Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is trying, chief among them is who handled the script: S. Craig Zahler, who has come into his own over the last five years as an exploitation filmmaker with so far two eccentric films under his belt: Kurt Russell’s Bone Tomahawk and Vince Vaughn’s far superior Brawl in Cell Block 99. (He’s got another in post called Dragged Across Concrete with Vaughn and Mel Gibson playing corrupt cops who descend into the criminal underworld — YES PLEASE.) One trip to either title tells you all you need to know about what a film by Zahler feels like: unusual, unhinged, incredibly violent, and with practical special effects that look purposely cheap. Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich wasn’t directed by Zahler, but it might as well have been: it features that same kind of unhinged approach to the material, an unusual story, the wildest kills in any Puppet Master movie so far, and yes, more purposely cheap looking practical effects. Somehow, thirty years later, the puppets look even cheaper and less articulated. Sure, they have more modern designs, with Blade looking the most radically different, but they move like solid blocks of cheese. Their arms go up and down like a Ken doll’s, but that’s about it. While the original movies played around with stop-motion animation (which looked okay for its time), Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich doesn’t even bother — at no time do the puppets move in such a way that it doesn’t feel like a crew member is holding their feet offscreen and making them walk in front of the camera. It’s awkward as well, but it also feels…right. I suppose the puppets of Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich shouldn’t look ultra-realistic because that takes away from what the appeal of the series has been up to this point. After all, there’s no chance in taking the Puppet Master series and turning it into something it’s not: a prestige art house picture, or sincere slow-burn “mature” film. One of the movies has a kid playing laser tag with one of the puppets who spent the last four previous films murdering human beings. Like it or not, this is Puppet Master’s legacy.
To be honest, I don’t know why Thomas Lennon was either approached for, or said yes to, this movie. Known primarily as a comedian, he’s actually sort of depressing to watch — he spends much of the film moping around following the dissolution of his marriage, and once he finally bucks up, he’s still kind of dour, reciting whatever lines he has that border on humor in a very downbeat way. Don’t misunderstand, I absolutely love the idea of Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich being told with a straight face, because it’s such an outlandish idea with even more outlandish villains, and I have no idea what kind of actor or character would have played better in that sandbox, but I do know Lennon’s involvement just feels…weird.
If you speak the language of Puppet Master, then you’ll be pleased to know that Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is the best entry since Puppet Master 3: Toulon’s Revenge. It might even be better than the original, depending on what kind of experience you’re looking for. If you know Zahler’s previous work, then you can probably guess what a Zahler Puppet Master movie would look like. That’s how you’ll know it’s for you.
If nothing else, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is exactly like the original Puppet Master series in one specific way: multiple sequels are already planned. If S. Craig Zahler remains on board, count me in.
The complete list of special features is as follows:
- The Cast of PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH
- Puppets: From Concept to Creation
- Lightning Girl Comic: From Sketch to Final
- And More!