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“This incident is starting to turn into a happening.” The original 1989 film Puppet Master, produced by low budget genre cinema icon Charles Band, birthed a franchise that encompasses fourteen films (including spin-offs and reboots) and a raft of other media (comics, games, toys etc). However, trying to follow the story of the series is like walking on shifting sands. The original film is, chronologically speaking, the seventh story, while Puppet Master II is the ninth, and Puppet Master III: Toulon's Revenge is the second … baffled enough yet? How about a remake that fundamentally changes the overarching character of Andre Toulon, kills off most of the supporting cast mere moments after you've just met them, and features far too many sloppy wet kisses?...
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“Get ready for something different.” Straight off-the-bat, and appearing on-screen for basically just two scenes, Udo Kier (The Editor) plays a horribly scarred version of Andre Toulon, the titular Puppet Master whose creations – including Blade, Torch, and Pinhead – are anything but cute little toys for children's amusement. They may be small, but they sure are deadly. In the original version of the story Toulon fled the Nazi regime, but now – in what has been dubbed “an alternate universe” incarnation of the story – he's not only a raging homophobe, but a full-blown Nazi, whose teeny terrors were employed to hunt down and exterminate anyone deemed impure to Hitler's crazed vision. Opening in 1989 in Postville, Texas, Toulon seems to be using his monstrous puppets to kill the innocent and steal their life force – his first targets: a lesbian couple – all leading to a massacre and police shoot out. Suffice it to say, but this is a huge departure from the Andre Toulon we previously knew, and it proves to be one of the film's main stumbling blocks throughout.
“I get this really weird cough when I'm not invited to things.” Now into the present day, newly-divorced comic book creator Edgar (Thomas Lennon, Reno 911!) moves back home to start over. In a box of old things he finds a toy that his late brother found at Sleepaway Camp – the Postville Sleepaway Camp to be specific. Said toy is, in fact, Blade – or the new rebooted version of Blade, at least. Conveniently enough, it's the 30th Anniversary of the Toulon Murders and an auction will be taking place at his curiously preserved Swastika-draped mansion/museum. Collectors from all over have arrived to sell their Toulon puppets, but bringing them all back together again can't be a great idea, surely? Yep!
“You know, grindcore would help us avoid this topic … also toplessness.” Joined by new girlfriend Ashley (Jenny Pellicer) and comic book store boss Markowitz (Nelson Franklin, Scott Pilgrim vs The World), Edgar plans to sell Blade but soon finds himself trapped in the Brass Buckle Hotel with a load of killer puppets running around slaughtering everyone. Oh dear, oh dear! Indeed, and it's at this point that the film's weaknesses really come to the fore.
“Remain in the shadows.” Directed by Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund, and written by S. Craig Zahler, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is an unfortunately disappointing affair. Mind you, it's not as terrible as some of the later sequels in the original series (which suffered from microscopic budgets, slapdash productions, and dull stories), so it's far from the bottom of the heap at least. Considering Zahler's involvement – he who not only wrote Bone Tomahawk, but also Brawl in Cell Block 99, and Dragged Across Concrete – it's quite surprising to find that The Littlest Reich is so poorly scripted. Rarely is there ever a moment of tension, the main characters are paper thin while the supporting characters might as well be invisible (so brief is their screen time), and the central conceit that Andre Toulon is now an actual Nazi leaves the viewer reeling. The tone of the script is all over the place, too. Humorous lines are delivered like rotting fish to your doorstep, often said either without a snifter of irony or a modicum of performance that you can't tell if they're trying to make a naff movie or accidentally stumbling into it.
Turning Toulon's dinky little creations into a regiment of mini-Nazis proves to be a poor choice, too. The jolly good fun of the original series (the first few entries at least) gets tangled up in a rather awkward attempt at inserting the genuinely disturbing present day reality of hate crimes into a movie about puppets cutting people's heads off. The mismatched goofy/serious dialogue and some thunderously off-key line deliveries leave the viewer floundering as the filmmakers continually fail to navigate the bizarre waters they have decided to dive into. It simply doesn't work. There's a difference between cannon fodder characters being bumped off because it's a horror movie, and cannon fodder characters being bumped off (in a horror movie) because of their race, sexual identity, or genetic makeup. It's a fucking bummer – and that's certainly not what a Puppet Master movie is supposed to be. The looming spectre of the Nazis was all over the original series, but the filmmakers tackled it from a direction – and with a particular tone – that actually worked. Here with the reboot, Zahler and Co are clomping about with two left feet in a minefield.
“Bitch-ass puppet!” It's not all a bugger up, though. The use of practical gore effects is always a big plus for any horror fan, and numerous kills boast a good amount of splashy spectacle. One highlight is when a man is decapitated mid-urination by a flying puppet robot, only for his severed head to land in the toilet bowl while the headless body continues to relieve itself. The inclusion of horror Queen Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, Puppet Master) in the cast, and legendary Italian genre film composer Fabio Frizzi on scoring duties are also plusses, but Crampton has little to really do and the music is often undersold in the sound mix. Indeed, it has to be said, much of The Littlest Reich is sadly a misstep.
“What do you want from the cuddly bear?” While Skeeta Jenkins' bartender Cuddly Bear is a stand out supporting player, injected with some actual energy and personality into the material, the rest of the supporting cast are little more than background players. A large chunk of the second act features a procession of them being introduced only to be slain moments later. Who are these people? We've just met them and already they're dead. Why should we give a single solitary shit? These kills come so thick and fast that there's absolutely no time for suspense building or even a basic sense of story pacing. Too often the film feels like it's in a rush while spinning its wheels. The hot and heavy relationship between Edgar and Ashley arrives quite suddenly and with an icky amount of sloppy wet kissing sounds, rendering their entire on-screen romance the equivalent of the word “moist”.
The film also looks terribly cheap. It was shot on RED cameras, but this sure isn't an advertisement for the system, as The Littlest Reich looks dreadfully plain and far too bright for much of its running time with bland digital cinematography. Once the power goes out in the Hotel, the over abundance of light pulls a total one-eighty so that Cuddly Bear – an African American – almost entirely vanishes from our view save for his bright white shirt, which suddenly appears as if its floating through the massively under-lit second half of the film. The lighting is so terrible at times that even light-skinned characters almost disappear from view, while numerous gooey gore effects are similarly lost to the murk.
“Why would anyone create a Nazi puppet?” There's no two ways about it. Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is weighed down with a horribly ham-fisted attempt at a Holocaust revenge fantasy (Inglourious Basterds this most certainly is not!), a total lack of tonal control, some awful new additions to Toulon's line-up of puppets ('Junior Fuhrer' chief among them – basically a baby doll with a Hitler 'tache), an unimpressive visual presentation, an absolute dearth of suspense, a roster of completely forgettable characters, and frequent awkward silences. A few moments of gleefully gruesome gore geysers – when you can actually see them, that is – simply isn't anywhere near enough to keep this clumsy clusterfuck afloat, and yet the film doesn't quite end up being outright terrible … so that's something. So many of those involved (including Charlene Yi) are clearly capable of good work, so it's all-the-more baffling how this reboot turned out to be as much of a mess as one of it's blood gushing kills.