Straight to video horror created a series of sequels for Warwick Davis starring Leprechaun, numerous Hellraiser follow ups including one where Pinhead controls a computer game, and the complete oddity that is Black Sheep. That one is about killer sheep, no really. Video releases also allowed for the gore drenched Puppet Master series to find a niche audience and produce 10 sequels to the original 1989 entry. The films are about a collection of puppets, created by a demented genius who through an Egyptian spell come to life and wreak havoc, they also happen to be Nazis. And thanks to writer S. Craig Zahlar (Bone Tomahawk and Dragged Across Concrete), directors Sonny Langua and Tommy Wiklund (Animalistic, Wither), and revamped horror distributor Fangoria there’s a new entry- which really drives home the insanity this series has to offer.
Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is essentially a reboot, a wise choice given the lack of consistency in the original series’ storylines, and the fact that a high percentage of cinema goers won’t have heard of the franchise. We’re introduced to a new protagonist called Eddy (Thomas Lennon) a downtrodden divorcee who discovers a menacing puppet in his parent’s house that his brother James, who died mysteriously years before, found as a child. Soon after this, with his manic pixie cliché girlfriend Ashley (Jenny Pellicer – The Bridge), and sarky comic relief friend Markowitz (Nelson Franklin- Scott Pilgrim vs the World) he goes to an auction, coinciding with the anniversary of a brutal murder, to sell the sinister toy.
We’re given a dense block of background information regarding murderer Andre Toulon (Udo Kier), and the puppets he collected which have gone missing, as well as some perfunctory foreshadowing that draws the first act to a close. It feels like a lot to take in, especially when you consider the ludicrous nature of the film’s subject matter, but it soon becomes apparent that Zahler was looking to be concise with this portion of the film.
What follows in the second half of the film is an extremely violent murderous montage, that is in contest with itself to find the most depraved ways for puppets to tear apart the hotel guests. Practical effect work is used joyously in a mixture of very funny, and ostensibly disturbing kills. Contrastingly to the first portion, there is little explanation to these beyond the fact that each victim was in a group oppressed by the Nazis, made more concerning by the sometimes-celebratory framing of the execution. It’s also in this segment that the film’s visual presence becomes disapprovingly noticeable. Shots are very flat, and set design is a range of grimy hotel rooms or dimly lit parking lots, serving as nothing more than functional locations for the carnage to take place. There is some interesting lighting work later on to allude to cosmic horror, which adds a surreal element, but it’s a shame that the film didn’t embrace this side more frequently.
Once the main host of survivors have become aware of the situation, and a battle for survival ensues PM:LR is a lot of fun. It’s played completely straight with humour deriving from diffusions of tension, upon seeing the tormentors torn to chunks of plastic
s and mechanisms. The ending is anti-climactic but leaves the possibility for more PM entries, which if they build upon the incidental humour and gory terror in the final act could see the new PM series become future cult classics.
Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is a good celebration of a bygone era of straight to video horror. The plot is threadbare, and visually it is flat, but so much care has gone into crafting each instance of gory terror that it becomes compelling to keep watching just to see how it will next escalate. Hopefully the next entry will be more structured and do more with the darkly humorous aspects, but by itself The Littlest Reich is a fun reintroduction to the series.