Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich isn't a movie. It's a Gallagher-style comedic routine. Only instead of watermelons being smashed, bodies are punctured, mangled, and eviscerated, all while its creators jokingly glare at the audience, eyebrows raised and waiting for you to crack. When the movie makes its debut in theaters and on VOD this August, it should come equipped with a "splash zone", so that those who want to bathe in its geysers of blood can do so. The S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk, Brawl In Cell Block 99) penned alternative franchise timeline has a corpse (not to mention puppet) count that's near impossible to keep up with, as it doesn't so much play as a narrative. Instead, it's a "SMASH CUT TO: KILL" parade of gory set pieces, each more ludicrous than the last.
Before our screening at the Dallas International Film Fest, Dallas Sonnier – who also produced Tomahawk and Brawl – warned that the movie is going to be "the most extreme thing you'll see all year", and he wasn't lying. The Littlest Reich is out to achieve one goal: shocking its audience via an array of gross out kills and "unwoke" humor. From the 1988-set prologue, where titular Nazi doll craftsman Andre Toulon – Udo Kier, in a glorified cameo that's downright uproarious – hisses at a pair of lesbian bartenders before unleashing his miniature horde on them, we know we're in for some truly uncouth genre cinema. Fast forward thirty years, as divorced comic book artist Edgar (Thomas Lennon) and his new flame Ashley (Jenny Pellicer) attend a convention commemorating Toulon's heinous crimes (complete with a tour narrated by the one and only Barbara Crampton), and the stage is set for an exercise in side-splitting slaughter.
Before we know it, the puppets are being unleashed upon this crowd – which is populated by Edgar's sarcastic Jewish pal Markowitz (Nelson Franklin) and a burly black bartender known only as Cuddly Bear (Skeeta Jenkins) – and a multitude of hate crimes are being carried out in dreadful detail. This is when The Littlest Reich breaks down into a loosely connected extended montage of money shots, each more shocking than the last, and the movie's true MVP – SFX Coordinator Tate Steinsiek* - is revealed. Steinsiek delivers a demented throwback to the prosthetic heavy heyday of '80s gore porn. It's fitting that the first film being released under the revived Fangoria banner would feature no less than three of the best kills this writer has ever witnessed in a horror film. Steinsiek is working double-time to elevate himself to the ranks of massacre maestros such as Tom Savini, all while brand new tunes from Lucio Fulci's old pal Fabio Frizzi blare over each murder set piece.
But who we really need to talk about is Cuddly Bear. As a clueless detective (Tom Cody himself, Michael Paré) tries to keep everyone put while the bodies pile up to the ceiling of the Brass Buckle (Dallas' famed Ambassador Hotel, captured just before renovations kicked off), Cuddly Bear becomes the movie's best character, trying his hardest to kill these "bitch ass puppets", before calling home to Ms. Cuddly Bear and letting her know to still slip into that bubble bath to get herself "effervescent". If there's any justice in the world, Sonnier and Zahler are working on a Cuddly Bear spin-off right fucking now, as Jenkins could become the next Ashley Williams, battling the forces of darkness while spitting out hilarious turns of phrase. God bless you, Skeeta Jenkins. You are a gift.
There are so many goddamn puppets in The Littlest Reich. The SFX design team have crafted new iterations of your old favorites – Blade, Pinhead, and Torch all lay waste to several poor souls – while introducing new mini demons that are equally memorable (an “Amphibian” puppet flings itself at victims). They’re a veritable army of Nazi monsters, all doing their master’s supernatural bidding and making VHS nuts flash back to being wowed by the iconic practical effects that inspired them. As much as The Littlest Reich is a new spin on characters we’ve seen before, it’s a love letter to the tapes that mesmerized young horror fans who were bored on a Saturday night, and whose parents were oblivious to the weird wonders that black magnetic tape contained.
There's an element to The Littlest Reich that's not going to sit well with some, as Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund's alt. timeline reboot** sees Toulon's little bastards literally committing hate crimes. Yes, their victims are chosen because they are black, Jewish, gay, etc. It's a blatant act of provocation on the creators' part that leads to some rather uncomfortably mean spirited kills, not to mention jokes that will more than likely cause a solid amount of pearl clutching, should the picture cross over into the mainstream. However, this is what marks Sonnier and Zahler's collaborations as so special. These guys are legitimate exploitation artists, and aren't afraid to let their movies carry an air of disreputable danger. If The Littlest Reich makes you scream and laugh, it did its job. But if it offended or exasperated you, chances are Sonnier and Zahler are going to consider that a gold star, as well. This is tried and true shock cinema: wild, in your face, and meant to be experienced with the rowdiest crowd imaginable. The timid need not apply.
*Who will also be lensing the upcoming Castle Freak reboot.
**We were informed via the post-film Q&A that Charles Band is going to continue making his own Full Moon brand of Puppet Master pictures, while Sonnier and Zahler's will exist outside of that canon, and continue with the prequel Aryans Ahoy!