As a lifelong fan of the Puppet Master franchise (I know, I know), there was probably no movie I was looking forward to more at this year’s Cinepocalypse genre film festival than Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, technically the 12th Puppet Master movie but one of only two (alongside Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys) to take place outside of the continuity established in the original Full Moon franchise. My excitement level wasn’t hurt by the fact that the movie has a script by S. Craig Zahler (writer/director of Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99, two of my favorite movies of recent years), a score by Fabio Frizzi, and a cast that includes Barbara Crampton, Tom Lennon, Michael Paré, and Udo Kier. This promised to be the best Puppet Master yet, and my anticipation could not have been any higher.
And then I saw the movie... That’s too harsh. It’s my own fault for being really hyped up about the movie, which has sounded so fascinating on paper since it was first announced a few years ago. And it’s not as if there’s no fun to be had in The Littlest Reich, a movie that revels in gore and thumbs its hook hand at political correctness. But the movie has too many talented people involved for it to feel this sloppy — at times, it feels downright unfinished. I don’t think it’s any fault of my inflated expectations, either. I just think the movie is a mess, and that’s really too bad.
Udo Kier takes over the role of Andre Toulon, a puppet maker who, rather than fleeing the Nazis as he was in the original series, is here presented as an actual Nazi. He appears for a brief prologue set in 1989 before the story catches up to present day, where Edgar, a recently divorced comic store clerk (Tom Lennon), has just moved back home with his parents. His dead brother (a story we never really hear) is in possession of one of Toulon’s puppets (another story we never really hear), so Edgar decides to bring the doll to an auction of all of Toulon’s puppets taking place over a weekend at a hotel. Joining him are his boss (Nelson Franklin, an actor I’m always happy to see show up) and his former roommate/new girlfriend Ashley (Jenny Pellicer) — a relationship that forms and is developed entirely off screen in the span of a single cut. This being a Puppet Master movie, the puppets come to life and begin committing hate crimes, killing off the hotel guests who happen to be Jewish or gay or a part of any minority subgroup. Cops show up. More people die. The movie doesn’t end so much as stop.
There are other characters introduced throughout the movie, mostly to provide a higher body count, the standouts of which include Barbara Crampton as a cop who was present the night Toulon was shot 10 years ago (a story that goes nowhere and has no payoff), Charlene Yi, and Skeeta Jenkins as the best character in the movie, a bartender named Cuddly Bear. As is often the case with The Littlest Reich, different actors appear to be performing in different movies. Tom Lennon’s deadpan deliveries are very funny early on, but as the film gets crazier and the carnage breaks out, his deadpan just comes off as low energy — he feels completely removed from everything around him. There are so many questions raised and story threads dropped with his character that he barely registers as a protagonist. I suspect somewhere along the way, either the script got tossed aside or a lot of footage hit the cutting room floor. The film’s often incoherent editing suggests as much.
One change from the original series — besides making the puppets Nazis, specifically targeting certain groups rather than killing indiscriminately — is that there are many copies of each model. Blade, Pinhead, and Tunneler are all carried over from the Full Moon franchise, but there are dozens of each of them. When the body count is as high as it is in The Littlest Reich, it helps to not rely on just five little puppets trying to do all the damage. A few new puppets are introduced as well, none of which are memorable because the personalities of the puppets is not a priority here. The threat they pose and their sheer numbers are the priority. They might as well be Gremlins. Except, you know, Nazis.
The threat the puppets pose is another problem, because directors Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund never quite decide on a tone for the movie. The gore is extreme and there’s nothing funny about the violent hate crimes being committed, but the characters never really stop making jokes and the construction of the movie never suggests any danger — or immediacy, for that matter. There is something airless about Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich in that there is a lot happening on screen but it makes little impact because the filmmaking just doesn’t get us there as an audience. The editing is so all over the place that at times the movie cuts back to certain characters so we can see them die, almost as if the filmmakers were afraid they were going to forget to include it. And then there is ending, which like the film that came before it, suggests either a troubled production or a difficult editing process.
It brings me no pleasure to be disappointed by a brand new Puppet Master movie that has some of my favorite actors, screenwriters, and composers attached, but here we are. It’s certainly nastier and more mean-spirited than any of the original Puppet Master films, but the desire to shock does not a movie make. There may be a really good movie to be found somewhere in all of this mess. Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich isn’t it.
Movie Score: 2/5
Editor's Note: Check here to read all of our reviews from the 2018 Cinepocalypse film festival!