'Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich': Film Review

Homicidal Nazi marionettes — what could go wrong?.
8/17/2018

'Bone Tomahawk' director S. Craig Zahler pens Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund's reboot of a long-running horror franchise.

Movie lovers whose diets don't consist 80% to 100% of horror films can be forgiven for not knowing that Puppet Master, an absurdly conceived 1989 flick about killer puppets (a knockoff, one presumes, of the previous year's killer-doll pic Child's Play), was successful enough in its straight-to-VHS release that it spawned a whopping 11 sequels, the last of which was released just last year. So they may not need to understand precisely where Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich fits into that stream of product. (It's reportedly a noncanonical reboot, if you're wondering, meaning both it and the previous series can crank out parallel streams of sequels.) For the uninitiated, in fact, just hearing the film's title may suffice to end the discussion.

Every bit as ostentatiously provocative as that title suggests, this film about living puppets that slaughter non-Aryan innocents takes enough unmistakable pleasure in those killings that many will judge it genuinely offensive. Directed by Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund, it was written by up-and-coming genre filmmaker S. Craig Zahler, whose debut, Bone Tomahawk, walked on similarly shaky ground — using bits of dialogue to assert its moral correctness while the movie's action went about satisfying the gory fantasies of any racists that might be watching. In that film, a more complicated conceit made things easier to accept; but in an America where actual white supremacists have allies in high places, seeking campy fun in the adventures of Nazi automatons is a dicey proposition.

For those willing to take that ride: A prologue shows us how the mysterious French inventor Andre Toulon (Udo Kier, looking as if he barely escaped the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark) arrived in a small Texas town in 1989 and committed some hate crimes before getting himself killed by police.

Decades later, the town is having some sort of big tourist event to commemorate those crimes. It turns out that, across America, enthusiasts have collected the grisly dolls Toulon made (not realizing that their clockwork innards make them capable of springing violently to life); this weekend, they've all come to town to auction those dolls off. They're all staying in the same big hotel, The Brass Buckle.

One such visitor is Edgar (Thomas Lennon), a comic book artist that only has one of the dolls, which he inherited from his brother, who died as a kid. (The sibling "found it ... at sleepaway camp," which should have raised some red flags.) Edgar is nursing a recent divorce, and has come to town with new girlfriend Ashley (Jenny Pellicer) and his comic store co-worker Markowitz (Nelson Franklin).

It's strange enough that a small town would embrace its hate-crime past by hosting a convention. We're further asked to believe that, instead of putting Toulon's beautiful old mansion to good use, townsfolk have for decades left it full of his decor: On a tour, we see rooms draped in Nazi flags and full of rare memorabilia. Plausibility aside, the tour is a handy way for Zahler's script to squeeze in the last of its exposition before the entrails start flying.

Soon enough, collectors' puppets start disappearing from their luggage and sneaking into the rooms of anyone who isn't a straight white gentile. A lesbian couple, a man in a yarmulke, what the film refers to as a "Gypsy" — all dead, in scenes of truly sadistic, lingering-camera gore. Let's not even describe what a puppet styled after racist caricatures of elderly Jews does to the pregnant black woman. Those with lifetime Fangoria subscriptions will likely cheer the work of VFX head Tate Steinsiek; others, maybe not.

The corpse-a-minute mayhem escalates, leading to a siege in which survivors hole up in the hotel's bar. But this sensible scenario doesn't suit the pic's character-development needs, so Zahler splits the survivors up, sometimes ridiculously: When Edgar and Ashley race off to Toulon's mansion, thinking they may be able to save lives if they destroy a mysterious mausoleum in time, the pressure is not so intense that they can't have a quiet heart-to-heart talk and do a bit of necking while Edgar drives.

The leads all take this as seriously as possible, and Lennon goes the extra mile by investing scenes with Edgar's parents with believable emotional baggage. But one wonders, in these very sensitive times, if any in the cast might prefer to see Littlest Reich sink quickly out of theaters and off streaming menus, with producers pretending that big "To Be Continued" at the end was just one more self-conscious taunt.

Production company: Cinestate
Cast: Thomas Lennon, Jenny Pellicer, Nelson Franklin, Udo Kier, Skeeta Jenkins, Michael Pare, Barbara Crampton, Charlyne Yi
Directors: Sonny Laguna, Tommy Wiklund
Screenwriter: S. Craig Zahler
Producer: Dallas Sonnier
Executive producer: Charles Band
Director of photography: Tommy Wiklund
Production designer: Brittany Ingram
Costume designer: Rachel Wilson
Editor: Alex Campos
Composers: Richard Band, Fabio Frizzi
Casting directors: Tisha Blood, Matthew West Taylor

90 minutes