Synopsis: Thirty years after a series of gruesome murders perpetrated by a puppet making madman, an auction is being held near Andre Toulon’s gruesome stomping grounds for people to sell and buy his weird, Third Reich inspired puppets. Something strange happens, and the puppets come alive seeking to fulfill the Reich’s imperative to destroy the lower beings. Their targets? Jews, lesbians, gays, gypsies, and other Nazi-hated groups. What follows is carnage and mayhem as the puppets slay and the survivors dwindle. Can anyone survive long enough to get to the bottom of the mystery and put an end to a madman’s will from beyond the grave?
I was in high school when producer extraordinaire Charles Band launched his Full Moon Pictures production company with a flurry of straight to video flicks. B-grade schlock, much of it, which I still found entertaining. Titles like the vampire rich SUBSPECIES (1991) and the body snatcher-inspired SEEDPEOPLE (1992) occupied full page ads in FANGORIA magazine because Band knew his target audience pretty well. Band’s company adopted a Disney approach to sex and violence horror: That is, in order to make money make cheap-as-possible sequels to everything. Everything. In short: franchises baby! One of the titles in Band’s full moon lineup, and the one to everyone’s surprise the longest lived title with twelve or so sequels to date, was PUPPETMASTER (1989).
The key to Full Moon pictures was not quality writing or production value, it was getting product into video stores on a regular schedule. Like Troma films (or Band’s previous production company Empire), Full Moon produced more than its share of goat shit in its early years and continue to flood DVD and streaming markets with still more examples of super low budget productions to this day. Not everything we consume in 1hr30min doses has to be high art, of course. Cheap flicks can still be entertaining to watch. However, the original PUPPETMASTER movie was not all that entertaining even back then. A rewatch in the last few months showed me how much my tastes have changed in thirty years. Not a bad thing to learn. I almost dread watching part 2 since I recall enjoying that one more than the previous. Will I, won’t I? Who knows? Trista has yet to see any but the first, and I am guessing after viewing the first one she’s not all that interested in seeing more of the franchise. So be it.
However, when I had the chance to see the newest addition to the line as a double feature with Stuart Gordon’s second feature DOLLS (1987), well I could not resist. After all, PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH was written by S. Craig Zahler of BONE TOMAHAWK (2015) and BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (2017) fame. That’s an intriguing statement right there. If anyone can find an interesting approach for a line about Nazi puppets murdering people, Zahler would not be my first pick to approach, but since he took the opportunity I had to give it a chance. Then, I learned that the picture was being produced not by Full Moon pictures but by the brand new Fangoria production company. Hmm, I said to myself. Hmm.
I don’t hate Full Moon pictures by any stretch of the imagination. Many of their titles these days don’t necessarily appeal to me, and that’s fine. I am not so presumptive as to believe I must be the target audience for everything released in the genres I enjoy. Plenty of Full Moon titles are targeted for other watchers, and I can respect folks who love them. Go for it, I say. THE GINGERDEAD MAN (2005) and EVIL BONG (2006) might not be in my wheelhouse, but if they are in yours, I will defend your right to watch them. I may look askance at you for proclaiming an undying love, or if you challenge me that they are the height of horror-comedy entertainment I will bring my A-game to disagree with you, but so long as we are simply stating a preference for a certain kind of cinema and share your love for things I cannot appreciate I can at least acknowledge another viewer’s passion. We can have a beer and chat, and I can be as respectful in return to the level of respect I am given. Besides, I have my undying love for CRITTERS (1986), so who am I to cast stones about taste?
Now, all this preamble to say that PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH may well be one of the best entries in a series of which I have only seen a handful. Not so much a continuation of the story I remember, this is a parallel universe. A reinvention. It’s a gory, gruesome, funny shocker of a story that explores some really dark terrain and does so with an unflinching sense of the macabre that I loved in old TALES FROM THE CRYPT comics from the middle decades of the twentieth century as well as HBO adaptations of the same from the end of that century.
Let’s break it down a bit.
We open in the 80s (of course, since nostalgia for the 1980s is at an all-time high right now) with a sinister and heavily burned old man (the always delightful Udo Kier playing AndreToulon) coming on to a pretty bartender only to be shocked when her girlfriend French kisses her in a none too subtle attempt to tell him to go piss up a rope. He declares them to be disgusting lesbians and slinks off. They are dispatched soon after in a rather gruesome auto wreck (involving shadowy figures that are actually the same puppets we have come to know from any of the twelve episodes in the series). What follows is backstory told in lovely comic book panels during the opening credits, followed by a jump to the modern day, and an introduction to a trio of main characters—comic book creator Edgar (Thomas Lennon), fun neighbor Ashley (Jenny Pellicer), and Edgar’s rather pessimistic boss Mankowitz (Nelson Franklin).
After a rather soul-damaging divorce, Edgar returns home to live with his parents, and decides to sell off his dead brother’s Toulon doll (found while the boy was in sleep away camp shortly before he died from an unspecified tragedy) at the big auction. From there, we get a a trip to a con hotel (which sucks in the way that only convention hotels can) and find ourselves introduced to numerous con attendees. The puppets come alive, and dozens of the things start to kill off all the lower beings on the Nazi list. We see Jews burned alive by a flamethrower packing dude, we see a long-haired miscegenist invaded and then turned into a puppet as well, we see countless acts of brutality to characters who might have a chance to give us some personality before they are slain, and many who are not. The plot builds to a siege story in the con hotel and goes further still, to the source of evil: Andre Toulon’s horror house.
The cast is stocked with unknowns, classic horror actors, including Michael Pare as a hardnosed cop and the always wonderful Barbara Crampton as a trigger happy retired sheriff’s deputy who now leads the harrowing Toulon mansion tour, where much backstory is given for folks who could not follow the panels in the credits, some familiar faces, and plenty of new ones. The puppets generally look as we expect, but there are plenty of variations (which may harken to the different sequels, but I don’t know specifics), and they act in particularly awful ways.
While I was watching the horrible slaughter of the “lesser races” in the middle part of the movie, alternately uncomfortable and prone to laughing at some of the humor, I came to quickly realize how the movie was tackling a big old topic of hate crime.
Yeah, it presents characters though coding and then has its mass of goose stepping monsters dispatch them. Some of these people are given a little more screen time, but all of them are victims of horror they did not earn for any reason other than being on the receiving end of a legacy of hatred and horror kicked off by madmen seventy years before the events in the film.
There is something that works about the material here, and perhaps it is because we as a culture have never really escaped the scapegoating and pillorying of the subgroups of people we find to be reprehensible (Nazis might have been among the most efficient exterminators of races of folks in western civilization but they were not the only group to do so). Perhaps it is because, as a bisexual man, I am among the throng of targets for many of the groups that still operate in the land of the free and the brave to this day. Possibly it’s because the world feels like it is wobbling out of balance and spiraling down avenues of unmitigated hatred with each passing day. The targets of such unrelenting hatred seem to be chosen based off scant personal affectations and appearance issues. So it is with the majority of victims in the middle of the picture. Skin color, names, licentious behavior, and accents are the major keys in who the puppets chose (or are commanded) to kill.
Regular readers might find it odd that last week I railed against MARTYRS (2008) for presenting us characters who have no character except what we give them, when here I am lauding a flick for giving us characters who are little more than a collections of stereotypes. The difference lies in the execution and my responses to that execution. MARTYRS quietly demanded that I invest its shills with any remotely human qualities while it smashed its toys to pieces, while PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH presents me with stereotypes and coded individuals who manage to offer a jokey line or try to stand out through quirks (see Cuddly Bear the African-American bartender) and then adds an antagonist built on a philosophy that demands hammering anyone exhibiting such stereotypes and coding. There is method in this madness, I suppose. At least a method I can better appreciate.
I might invoke an interpretation about PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH offering a view of a legion of hate-fueled maniacs who cannot operate under their own power being motivated by a leadership with strong enough will to use the weak willed as both metaphorical to the situation in the 1930s/1940s as well as to aspects in the current day, but that might be reading a bit too much into a movie about murderous Nazi puppets. The screen story certainly plays close to that particular line, but is this intentional or just a bit coincidental? Hard to say without in depth exploration, and that’s outside the scope of this piece.
One thing is certain: the movie plays hard and the way it unfolds is akin to Lucio Fulci’s more surreal excursions into gory horror. If the Italian Maestro were around to make a PUPPET MASTER movie, it might well look and feel like this. The flick feels like an informed homage and not a ripoff. So, if the idea of mad puppets running around the hotel in THE BEYOND (1981) bring you warm fuzzies, then this movie is likely to be right up your alley.
Which is not to say the movie is perfect. At best, it is a flawed masterwork, a passion project on all levels, and sometimes that passion gets in the way of quality filmmaking.
The script turns unrelentingly bleak in its final act, which I suppose is one more example of Zahler’s artistic statements. Hell, his first two features both turn unrelentingly pessimistic in their final acts. All of his movies share a theme of decent people being asked to help someone out only to get torn apart for their troubles. BONE TOMAHAWK makes this its raison d’etre and BRAWL ON CELL BLOCK 99 turns this way fast. I expect the upcoming epic cop flick DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE (2018) will use a similar hook for its storyline or a theme for its finale.
The direction is pretty middle of the road. Not particularly noteworthy. The directors Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund have the confidence in their cast to carry the chatty scenes and this leads to comic-horror gold in some scenes and scenes that overstay their welcome in others. The acting is above average as well, with some fairly good joke moments and some great turns from newer faces as well as horror veterans Udo Kier and Barbara Crampton.
Overall, the movie is a solid piece of gruesome cinema with enough heart and humor to carry viewers through some truly uncomfortable moments. I look forward to future installments in this branch of the franchise as well as other Fangoria Productions releases.
Next week, we will take a look at one of the Alamo Cinema Massacre columns Trista and I wrote for our Cinema Knife Fight site column, taking a gander at the lewd, crude, and super rude THE GREASY STRANGLER (2016). If you have not checked out this midnight movie masterpiece, you are in for a seriously whackadoo experience that will leave you either scratching your head in wonder at what you’ve just seen or gleefully calling, “Rootie Tootie Disco Cutie!” Check it out on DVD, Blu-Ray, or streaming.