Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich asks the eternal question: what if literal Nazi puppets magically came to life and started hunting down Jewish people and anyone else who got in their way? Poor taste hilarity and astonishing gore ensue. That recipe is not totally my jam when it comes to horror movies, but I can easily see Littlest Reich has WTF cult classic written all over it.
But, first, how did we even get here?
The world of exploitation cinema used to go like this: think of a good title. Spend some actual money on a fetching movie poster or VHS box cover. Then, if you have the time, actually make the damn movie as quickly as possible.
Do all of that right and you just might end up with your own film franchise, cranking out at least a couple of sequels before the public catches on. If you’re really lucky, you’ll have a franchise you can continue to milk for at least a decade. A select few will even end up with a franchise they milk for the rest of their days.
Enter legendary producer Charles Band and his Puppet Master franchise, which launched as a direct-to-video affair at the tail end of the 80s horror explosion and now has more sequels than either X-Men or Star Trek. I have clearer memories of looking at the awesome Puppet Master VHS boxes at video stores (yes, I’m old) than I do of the actual movies. The last time I actually checked in on the franchise, Toulon – the titular puppet master – was being played by a pre-Room Greg Sestero in a prequel positioning the franchise’s iconic dolls as righteous anti-heroes. That was 20 years ago!
I can’t possibly keep up with the story at this point.
Fangoria – the legendary, recently relaunched horror magazine – decided enough was enough. In picking Puppet Master to be the first Fangoria Presents original movie, the magazine’s backers opted to simply reboot the whole franchise. So, you don’t need to know your Puppet Master from your Demonic Toys to follow Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich.
The logline: “All hell breaks loose when a strange force animates the puppets up for auction at a convention, setting them on a bloody killing spree that’s motivated by an evil as old as time.”
Translation: An old Nazi named Toulon (Udo Kier) used magically animated puppets to carry out murders, but ever since his death, the dolls have reverted back to being, well, dolls. People now collect them and sell them for big bucks online. There’s even an annual convention held at a small-town American home where Toulon was finally confronted after orchestrating one last murder spree.
At the latest Toulon house convention – attended by a newly divorced comic book store worker (Thomas Lennon), his boss (Nelson Franklin), and his girlfriend (Jenny Pellicer), among other assorted eccentrics – the magic mysteriously returns. The old puppets, most of which longtime franchise fans will recognize, brutally turn on their collectors, particularly those collectors who happen to be Jewish.
Speaking as someone who once attended a horror convention where just about every other person seemed to be lugging around a newly purchased Chucky doll, the sight of animated puppets massacring convention goers is something I’ve actually imagined before. It just seems like such an obvious idea for a horror movie.
However, my imagination must be severely limited because, holy shit, the things that happen in this movie. As a side character later declares, “A lot of fucked up shit happened to people who didn’t deserve it.” That “fucked up shit” involves beheadings, eye socket removals, disemboweling, caved in skulls, flayed skin, and whatever the hell is happening here:
This is easily the goriest horror movie I’ve seen in quite some time. It makes perfect sense, then, to learn Bone Tomahawk/Brawl in Cell Block 99 mastermind S. Craig Zahler is responsible for Littlest Reich’s script. His films trade in unapologetic gore and tastelessness, which Littlest Reich embraces with glee.
However, as with a Child’s Play movie, there’s the problem of convincing audiences these pint-sized killers should be feared. Littlest Reich tries to film around that problem, keeping to a minimum the scenes where actors are clearly just holding the prop doll in place and pretending it’s killing them. Instead, the doll’s stealth abilities are emphasized, allowing them to sometimes literally drop right into a scene and instantly murder someone to horrific results. Then, by exaggerating the gore to absurd levels, the film doubles down on convincing us these little bastards really could terrorize a hotel full of adults, including several armed police officers (Barbara Crampton being the most notable.)
It feels like a wild purpose statement: the new Puppet Master isn’t fucking around. It’s wildly violent, casually offensive, and deadly serious. Those expecting camp or even just tension alleviating jokes should look elsewhere. The material is so inherently absurd you can’t help but laugh at it, yet the film leaves that decision up to you.
A Jewish comic book store owner, for example, shoves a Hitler lookalike puppet into an oven and triumphantly shouts “See how you like it!” as the film’s horror score emphasizes the sinister sound of a puppet’s flesh burning. React however you see fit.
With all of that, there’s barely any time for an actual story. What they’ve come up with feels very “write what you know” or, maybe, “write the fantasy you think your target audience wants to see.” So, we end up with a plot about a semi-pro comic book artist rebounding from a failed marriage into a relationship with a hot, younger woman who just bumps into him one day. Hot, breast-baring sex ensues and later – after the dead bodies really start piling up – the new couple is drawn even closer together.
It works well enough to string together a bunch of kill scenes, but there’s very little sense of how much time is meant to have passed from the start of their relationship to their trip to the Toulon house. That becomes important once he starts throwing around “I think I’m falling in love you” revelations.
But, if you’re focusing on the human characters in a movie called Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich you’re probably watching it wrong. At one point during the third act, a character literally trips out of a window to a remarkably anticlimactic death, earning next to no reaction from her sorta friends. That feels about right for this franchise.
Mostly, you just watch to see the puppets kill. There’s plenty of that on display.
THE BOTTOM LINE
As a film made by horror fanatics and meant to be watched by fellow horror fanatics, The Littlest Reich ticks a lot of the right boxes and will certainly be enjoyed by anyone who subscribes to exploitation cinema’s “blood, boobs, and beasts” formula.
But, damn, this movie is as unapologetic as they come. Given the resurgence of neo-Nazis in recent years, there’s likely a cathartic revenge fantasy to seeing teensy tiny Nazis eventually getting their own final solution. You have to watch a lot of gore to get there, though, a tad too much for my tastes.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- Sequel Alert: Now that the franchise has been rebooted, the exploitation cinema cycle begins anew: you bet your ass they end this first installment with a set-up for what they probably hope will be the first of many sequels.
Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is currently streaming on Shudder.