If you were a regular denizen of the video store in the '90s, it was impossible to avoid the Puppet Master movies. They were films that felt just accessible enough to younger viewers without being dismissive with its horror elements. Plus, the colorful cast of murderous puppets guaranteed a visual flair to each entry. However, the actual movies rarely delivered on the crazy promise of their premise.
It's clear that Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich wants to be the transgressive and gonzo experience that every kid dreamed of when they looked at those well-worn VHS covers. And in that regard, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is a resounding success.
Seriously, this is a film that understands what audiences want out of an experience like this -- insanely bloody and over-the-top kills with a sense of humor -- and cranks up the volume to eleven. There's at least one gore gag in the film that is destined to become a classic murder moment. When it comes to providing the goopy goods, it's impossible to deny that Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich wins.
But, what's refreshing is that the movie isn't only that. The script by S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99) is yet another showcase of his ability to approach scummy material while treating it with a level of emotional maturity. Still, Zahler never sacrifices the inherently juvenile joy that the subject matter needs. It's like watching Zahler do a gracefully impeccable figure skating routine on a lake of frozen sewage.
He achieves this by crafting fully realized characters that get plenty of time to endear themselves to the audience. Though the movie does dive into knowingly offensive territory — the puppets kill people for clearly prejudicial reasons — Zahler makes sure to make all the victims more than just stereotypes. That goes a long way in keeping us invested in the movie beyond the simple pleasures of goofy murders.
There are plenty of other great touches in the film. The opening credits sequence delivers a wonderful origin story for this new take on the tale. Puppet maker Andre Toulon (Udo Kier) is a Nazi criminal on the run and he's brought his hateful beliefs to America. It'd be welcome if we got more of Toulon in the film, but his intro is good and gets things rolling. And the entire cast is filled with commendable performers. There isn't a bad apple in the bunch.
My one big complaint is in regards to the puppets themselves. Don't get me wrong, the effects and their designs are delightful. Rather, they don't feel like they are written to have any personality. They only act as vehicles for the kills. Granted, they don't need to be fully fledged characters but they seem to lack any sense of character. We don't really see the puppets interacting with each other or giving off any sense of individuality. Now, that's appropriate for the film as written — the puppets are just being manipulated by Toulon, so it makes sense that they don't act with their own impulses — but it denies the film another layer of fun. And the sub-genre of little creatures run amok movies can always use another layer of fun.
It should be noted that this is a very low budget affair and the direction by Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund reinforces that. Honestly, it's not so distracting and it actually feels like it hearkens back to the direct-to-video fare of its ancestors. But, if this film was dripping with more style and polish, it might be more outwardly approachable to certain viewers. As it stands, its technical shortcomings are only going to limit its appeal.
Still, you're probably already aware if you're in the kind of niche that Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich inhabits. It's nasty fun but knows how to balance that with good characters and solid structure. You'll know if it's up your alley by the title alone. And if you have any nostalgia for the home video horror market of yesteryear, it's necessary to give this one a look.