Puppets are creepy. But they’re even worse when they’re Nazis.
Consequently, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich should be 2018’s runaway winner in the least likable villain department—and also in the most ludicrous villain department (not to mention in the most bizarre reboot department). Because as genre aficionados will undoubtedly know, Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund’s horror film, in theaters and on VOD August 17, provides a fresh start to producer/director/mastermind Charles Band’s Puppet Master franchise—which began with David Schmoeller’s 1989 original, and now includes twelve installments in total, if one is generous enough to count 2004’s (non-canonical!) TV crossover effort Puppet Master vs Demonic Toys.
Given that prodigious lineage, you’re undoubtedly wondering to yourself, “Do I have to watch the first dozen Puppet Master movies to understand The Littlest Reich?” Rest assured, fellow gorehounds, you do not. While featuring many of the famous puppets from Brand’s predecessors, Laguna and Wiklund’s film (released under the Fangoria label) rewrites the saga’s origins for an all-new stand-alone tale that anyone can comprehend from the outset. To be sure, enjoying The Littlest Reich does require that viewers have a fondness for ethnically intolerant homicidal toys. But then, who doesn’t?
Not S. Craig Zahler, the writer and director of Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99, who serves as sole screenwriter for this do-over. The finales of Zahler’s recent behind-the-camera works prove that he’s a devoted practitioner of extreme gruesomeness. And there’s plenty of nastiness on display here, thanks to dolls that have hooks and swords for hands, flamethrowers for arms, and other diminutive weapons of mass destruction. Pinhead, Blade, Torch, Amphibian and many other familiar faces make appearances throughout Zahler’s tale, slicing and dicing—and doing far, far worse things—with an extremeness that treads the line between horrifying and hilarious.
That’s also true of the narrative itself, which begins at a local dive bar in Postville, Texas, in 1989. Enter Andre Toulon, played by a bald Udo Kier in a long coat and wide-brimmed hat, and with a pencil-thin mustache on a face lined with scars. After striking out with the bartender (Victoria Hande), Toulon leaves in disgust when he’s forced to watch her and another female customer (Betsy Holt) passionately make out (“Ghastly homosexuals!”). A short time later while driving home (and discussing their joyous plans to have a baby together), the two women meet a grisly fate. The culprit, however, isn’t Toulon, who’s seen lying on a cold, dark slab, his red veins practically bulging out of his cheek. Instead, it’s a group of tiny unseen assailants doing his bidding.
A shootout with police at Toulon’s mansion ensues, at which point The Littlest Reich cuts to a credit sequence comprised of black-and-red comic book panels that recount the fiend’s backstory. After being shunned for his homicidal handiwork, the madman hooked up with the Nazis during WWII (because they’d certainly appreciate it!), and then fled Germany at the end of the war to set up shop in America. Jumping ahead to the present day, the film introduces us to recently divorced comic book author (and comic shop employee) Edgar (Thomas Lennon) discovering one of Toulon’s puppets in the bedroom closet of his deceased brother. Edgar intends to sell this relic at an upcoming auction being held as part of the 30th anniversary celebration of the Toulon murders, which have spawned a minor tourist industry. Though this is the sort of thing that marks him as a borderline-deranged individual, his new girlfriend Ashley (Jenny Pellicer) is cool with it, so away the two go, with Edgar’s boss and best friend Markowitz (Nelson Franklin) along for the ride.
Does Markowitz sound like a Jewish name to you? Does that strike you as an obvious bit of foreshadowing? The Littlest Reich doesn’t care, because The Littlest Reich is a movie about killer Nazi dolls, so of course it has to pit them against at least one Hebrew hero. Before that insanely absurd showdown can take place, however, we’re treated to a trip through the Toulon mansion during which retired cop turned tour guide Carol (B-movie legend Barbara Crampton) explains Toulon’s national socialism-loving history to visitors (and to us, even though we just learned about it during the credits). Once that’s finished, the proper mayhem quickly commences, since everyone attending the convention is staying in the same hotel and has brought at least one Toulon puppet with them. And this being a Puppet Master film, all of those puppets are psychotic.
As befitting an endeavor such as this, there are two scenes boasting gratuitous nudity (courtesy of Pellicer and 2014 Playboy Playmate of the Year Kennedy Summers). And once it gets going, the film wastes little time on rational plotting, the better to stage scenarios of bonkers inappropriateness. A Jewish husband justifies his Nazi memorabilia collection right before meeting a fiery demise. A pregnant woman is vaginally violated by a puppet that subsequently emerges out of her rotund belly with a dead fetus in its hands, the stillborn tyke’s still-connected placenta trailing behind them on the ground. And in a sequence that’s impressive in its exploitative boundary-pushing, Edgar and company combat a Teutonic man who’s being controlled, from within like a human marionette, by an evil baby-Hitler puppet known as “Junior Fuhrer”—who promptly gets thrown into the oven by Markowitz. Crassness is the name of The Littlest Reich’s extermination game, and one can routinely sense Laguna and Wiklund’s eagerness to elicit outrage through over-the-top (often Holocaust-related) schlockiness.
Being offended by The Littlest Reich, however, is merely playing into its tiny hands, and the directors’ professional, ahem, execution of their material indicates that they know full what they’re doing—and intend it all to be taken as a big, ghastly joke. In that regard, they’re largely successful. “Why would anyone create a Nazi puppet?” asks Detective Brown (Eddie and the Cruisers’ Michael Paré) in a rare moment of levelheadedness. If you’re expecting the answer to be that they’re ideal candidates for assassin-style espionage, replete with Edgar forwarding a hypothetical situation involving Anne Frank, then this new beginning to the Puppet Master legend will surely be right up your deviant alley.