It requires a strong stomach and a tolerance for deliberately offensive humour, but Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich successfully reboots the long-running franchise.
Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is designed entirely to shock and offend. There’s not much surprise, then, that this latest instalment, which reboots the long-running franchise with handsomer production and more mayhem than ever before, enlisted the help of S. Craig Zahler, the demented scribe behind Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99.
A 1980s-set prologue establishes the titular puppet master, Andre Toulon (Udo Kier), as a badly scarred Nazi commanding a coterie of possessed puppets. In the present day, years after he was gunned down by the police, his ancient magic lives on through the dormant (for now) marionettes, who have amassed for a convention where macabre collectors hope to sell them at auction.
Edgar (Thomas Lennon) is our present-day hero, a sad-sack comic book artist currently staying with his parents in the wake of a messy divorce. But Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is more interested in his proudly Jewish boss Markowitz (Nelson Franklin), a lovable if slightly seedy dork who attracts the attention of the reanimated Reich for rather obvious reasons.
Joined by Edgar’s new girlfriend (Jenny Pellicer), a local cop who leads a macabre tour of the Toulon estate (played by genre icon Barbara Crampton, who we saw recently in Dead Night), and a host of other doll enthusiasts, many of whom are black or Jewish or disabled or gay and thus ripe for extermination, Edgar and Markowitz try to stem the ensuing bloodshed as the tiny Nazi army start running riot.
The characters are cardboard cut-outs with no personalities beyond a clutch of obvious quirks, and the film’s first half is undeniably tedious, even if Zahler’s screenplay finds a zinger here and there. But once Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich starts to indulge it rapidly morphs into blood-soaked practical carnage of an immensely enjoyable variety. Even hardened genre veterans will be provoked into a reaction; my strong-stomached girlfriend literally gagged at one kill, and we both let out yelps of disbelief at another involving a pregnant woman that will undoubtedly stay with me for longer than I’d like.
The sticky practical effects are effective, and the puppets themselves – many series regulars with slight variations, given the convention setting and the Nazism theme – strike a balance between funny and genuinely horrifying. Thankfully Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is relatively short, as the bare-bones plot doesn’t allow for much more than a highlight reel of messiness rather than a proper story. Then again, I’m not sure any long-time fans of the franchise are here for pointed explorations of xenophobia, no matter how unintentionally timely the topic of Nazism might be. Anyone coming to this film without any knowledge of what it entails will be surprised – whether pleasantly or not will depend on their sensibilities. But if the point of a film like Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is to elicit a reaction of some kind – and I’m sure it is – then I can’t consider it anything other than a resounding success.