Overlook Film Festival Review: PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH

After a dozen (more?) films, the PUPPET MASTER series finally reaches its gonzo potential.

I must admit: I have next to zero affinity for the Puppet Master films. I watched them all (some as a kid, the rest for Horror Movie A Day), and agree with most fans that the third film, Toulon's Revenge, is the best of the lot (I also kind of like the two next installments, directed by the dependable Jeff Burr), but a big part of that is due more to the other film's shortcomings - it's the best of a mostly bad bunch. However, that entry's strengths were apparently not lost on the makers of Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, as it once again dives into the Nazi aspects of the series' mythology - but with one major difference: this time the puppets themselves are the Nazis.

Yes, this is a reboot and they are free to approach the canon however they like (producer Dallas Sonnier assures us Charles Band will continue making films with his mythos, while they work on theirs separately), but it's an odd approach to turn Toulon into a villainous Nazi. Toulon (Udo Kier) is seen briefly in a prologue, responsible for some murders before he is seemingly killed by the local police, and then we flash forward 30 years where a convention (!) is being held on the anniversary of the murders/his death. This convention, which includes a tour led by the great Barbara Crampton (playing a different character than the one she played in the 1989 original), is set to feature an auction of Toulon's original puppets, so fans and collectors descend upon a hotel in order to buy/sell these seemingly harmless toys. Naturally, things get bloody when the puppets all come to life and set about decimating the cast.

And it's a good cast, led by Thomas Lennon in a rare lead role. He plays a comic book creator whose brother owned a Blade puppet, which he hopes to sell at the convention. He's joined by his new girlfriend (Jenny Pellicer) and coworker (Nelson Franklin), and they're not there long before noticing Blade has disappeared. Initially assuming a robbery has occurred, a cop played by Michael Pare is called in to investigate, only for other guests to notice their dolls are missing as well. Charlyne Yi pops up as a hotel employee, Crampton sticks around (she's a cop) for quite a bit of the movie, plus there's a brief role by Matthias Hues, the bad alien from I Come In Peace. It's a rare treat to be watching a Puppet Master film with a recognizable cast of good actors that aren't just cameo appearances, and they're all seemingly having a good time, often opting for deadpan reactions to the insanity around them - it's a legitimately funny movie.

It's also got actual production value, another scarce element of previous entries. The puppets look terrific and they don't cheat with POV shots and the like to minimize the amount of on-screen animation - we see the little bastards move, run, and stab more often than not, more than making up for their pitiful use in the last half dozen entries. The new designs for the returning puppets (Blade, Tunneler, Torch, and Pinhead) are quite good, and the new ones are welcome additions - I particularly liked the frog-like clown thing (not meant to be Jester) and the flying robot that uses its propeller to slice/cut victims as he buzzes around them. There's also a fun idea that Toulon made multiple versions of his puppets, so we see variations of them, such as a Blade without hair or missing an arm. 

In fact, I couldn't even tell you how many puppets appeared in the film - a couple dozen, I think. There are kills aplenty in this one, with most of the large cast being wiped out and almost nothing left off-screen. Many characters don't even really appear until their death scene, which gives the film a slight disconnect at times, as if the filmmakers had an alarm that went off every five minutes reminding them to cut to someone, ANYONE, and kill them off. It's not really an issue, but it does add to the film's unfortunate biggest problem: the editing is downright atrocious at times. There are multiple occasions, including the death of a major character, where it feels like they either removed or simply never filmed everything they needed for a given scene, and we just have to fill in the blanks ourselves. For example, early on, Lennon reconnects with his childhood friend (Pellicer), and there's nothing overtly romantic about the scene, making it odd when the next time we see them together they're already dating. The runtime is perfect, so I'm not advocating for a longer cut, but I can't say I'd mind if a few of those random death scenes were removed in favor of strengthening the A to B narrative scenes.

The other thing I should address is that this is not a politically correct film by any measure, recalling the glory days of Troma or South Park with its "anything goes" approach. I have zero problem with this, because I am someone who understands context and, unlike some folks nowadays, don't walk into a movie expecting it to conform to my worldview and soapboxing against it when it doesn't. Maybe those types won't even bother watching it, but we're rarely so lucky, so I hope the filmmakers are prepared for a wave of criticism from people who apparently expect more tact from their evil killer puppet movies. Me, I'm just here to laugh at the site of a guy pissing on his own head after a puppet cuts it off while he's taking a leak.

I know they plan a theatrical run of the film, and I hope it works out. But I also hope that the theaters only show it once or twice a day, to pack the theater with folks who want to see it rather than risk sparsely attended showings. This movie will work best with a big crowd of like-minded folks hooting and hollering at the gory deaths, bad taste jokes (I won't spoil the context, but the bit that includes the line "Let's see how YOU like it!" is an all-timer), and - for those who stay after the credits - the triumphant survival of a crowd-pleasing supporting player we thought was dead. If this sort of public viewing isn't possible, please invite some friends over for VOD. It's not without its issues, but it's the first time in the series I felt the concept was finally being utilized to its full potential. It might not be saying much, but it's the best Puppet Master movie, and I hope the "To be continued" at the end is a fulfilled promise.