Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich

I haven’t watched a PUPPET MASTER picture since the early ’90s, so congratulations to this marketing that got me excited to watch the new PUPPET MASTER presented by the new Fangoria.

PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH is sort of a start-over made with the blessing but not direct participation of Charles Band. I don’t think I can technically call it a reboot, though, because it’s not supposed to end or replace the still ongoing original series. It’s an alternate universe version where the titelistical ruler of evil puppets, Andre Toulon, is a totally different character. Instead of a victim of the Nazis he’s a French-German Nazi sympathizer played by Udo Kier (BLADE, BARB WIRE) in nasty burn makeup. The screenwriter is S. Craig Zahler, and though it does not feel anything like BONE TOMAHAWK or BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 it does continue his tradition of pushing the discomfort buttons and making me wonder “Should I be concerned about these racial themes?”

The main story takes place in the present, when artist and comic book store employee Edgar (Thomas Lennon, MEMENTO, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES) has to bite the bullet and go stay with his parents while getting back on his feet after a divorce. Desperate for money, he decides to take his dead brother’s rare hand-made puppet to Dallas to try to sell at a convention for the 30th anniversary of “The Toulon Murders.” But there are a bunch of other people there with their own original Toulon puppets, which all come to life (through goofy hand puppeting, not stop motion) and gorily murder Jewish, gay and black people. Puppetry and bigotry become one.

None of it feels like real life. It feels like cheapo exploitation. Like, there’s this back story about how Edgar had a brother who died as a child. Since Lennon is 48 that would’ve probly been decades ago, but the photos and still-left-the-same bedroom make it seem recent. Also, would there really be a convention to celebrate some murders? And if so, wouldn’t there be more activities than one tour of the mansion where the guy got killed by police? And would that tour really be guided by one of the traumatized officers (Barbara Crampton, FROM BEYOND) who shot him? And shouldn’t the movie make fun of, or have an explanation for, the kind of people who would attend such an event?

But the movie does have a certain amount of heart. Lennon is a veteran comedy dude known for The State and Reno 911, as well as writing THE PACIFIER, NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM, etc., but here he’s very good in a genuine dramatic role where the only joking is joking-around-with-your-friends joking. Edgar’s fresh relationship with Ashley (Jenny Pellicer, The Bridge), a high school acquaintance who he bumps into while in town and invites to go on the trip, is very sweet. And for a horror franchise started in the ’80s the movie is shockingly sex-positive. Whenever they’re alone together they immediately start taking their clothes off, and it’s totally cute, not exploitative.

They also somewhat pull off the cliche of the obnoxious friend (Nelson Franklin, SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD, as Edgar’s boss from the comic shop) who turns out to be sweet and heroic when the shit goes down. And the idea that Edgar’s super hero comic is full of deeply personal commentary on his real life relationships is a little obvious, but feels sincere enough to work as an extra emotional layer. So there’s a little bit of that PHANTASM or SQUIRM thing of a movie that’s slightly on the silly b-movie side but you still care about the characters.

Surprising to see in the cast: Charlyne Yi (KNOCKED UP, THIS IS 40).

Cool to see in the cast: Michael Paré (STREETS OF FIRE, MAXIMUM CONVICTION, BONE TOMAHAWK, THE DEBT COLLECTOR). Playing a cop, of course.

Coolest to see in the cast: Matthias Hues (NO RETREAT NO SURRENDER 2, I COME IN PEACE, KICKBOXER 2, BLACKBELT, MISSION OF JUSTICE, TALONS OF THE EAGLE, TC 2000, GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS 2, SHOWDOWN IN MANILA) as a guest who SPOILER gets sort of possessed by Blade. Or really the puppet climbs inside him and controls him like a puppet. Or a mech. Good shit.

The Swedish directing team of Sonny Laguna & Tommy Wiklund (WITHER, ANIMALISTIC) don’t bring any particular style to it that I noticed. I think it was a poor choice not to include a little stop motion. They do have some low rent cg for the flying robot toy who, honestly, looks like a shitty toy from some other shitty movie, not an evil toy created by a master puppeteer.

The main puppets redesigned by Tate Steinsiek (PIRANHACONDA) are cool looking, though they could use some animation or more sophisticated puppetry. Blade (the guy with the skull head and black hat, not the Daywalker) and Tunneler (the guy with the drill head) are like the originals rendered in a different style, I like them. There’s also a… frog clown? I guess as kind of a Kermit joke maybe. I guess I’m okay with him, now that I look at this still.

There’s also a baby doll with a Hitler mustache. Looks crappy, but I like that they get to kill baby Hitler and not point it out.

It just occurred to me: are they really puppets? They don’t have strings. They don’t have a place to stick your hand in. Aren’t they just dolls? Isn’t he really a Doll Master? Anyway, the coolest special effect is not a puppet, but a human-sized makeup FX creature that shows up for a little bit. Good job on that one.

Unfortunately I think there’s a miscalculation that prevents THE LITTLEST REICH from being as fun as it ought to be, at least for me in solitary home Blu-Ray viewing. Because these killer puppets are Nazis (I hate killer puppet Nazis) they target minorities – Edgar even describes the puppet attacks as hate crimes. To answer my first paragraph question, no, I don’t have to be concerned about these racial themes, they’re sort of the point, and the movie is definitely on the side of the victims. Also I can get down with a particularly over-the-top gory and transgressive murder that I’m not even gonna describe, more because I will sound like a sicko than because it would be a spoiler. This movie is maybe more Troma than Full Moon. The problem is it’s knowingly too goofy to be scary to anyone, yet the targeted victimization makes me feel bad, keeps me from laughing or applauding. This is the type of movie that works if there are a bunch of asshole characters who, in movie terms, “deserve it,” but Zahler is explicitly saying that in real life bad things often happen to people who don’t deserve it at all.

I mean, I agree, but the thing is this is not real life, so read the room, PUPPET MASTER! Nobody is renting PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH to solemnly reflect at the end like BLACKkKLANSMAN. And also nobody is solemnly reflecting at the end, no matter how nicely you ask them to. Anyway, what’s next, a DOLLMAN where he fails to save refugee children locked up in a desert concentration camp by ICE? An EVIL BONG where at the end we’re reminded of the horrendous racial inequities perpetrated by the War on Drugs and that there’s nothing we can do about it? A GINGERDEAD MAN about the devastation of natural disasters in third world countries? A ROBOT JOX where the robots save the day and then you find out that they’re being built by slaves and that’s the end?

On top of that there’s a shock-the-audience-out-of-the-blue likable character death like it’s that Hong Kong movie where it seems like it’s gonna end okay and then Cynthia Rothrock dies. I know it’s intended to be upsetting, to actually get a reaction out of you in a fuckin PUPPET MASTER movie, but what I am suggesting is that maybe satisfying would be a better target for this one.

That said, it literally ends on a TO BE CONTINUED, and I will be watching the continuation. So they got me on a string.

This entry was posted on Monday, October 1st, 2018 at 11:47 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

33 Responses to “Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich”

  1. I really enjoyed this one but thought the tone was particularly odd. I thought the gore/money shot sequences (the reason one would want to watch this film) were tonally at odds with the main story of getting over a divorce. I know that’s kinda Zahler’s bag but I don’t think they were 100% successful like BONE TAMAHAWK and BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 were. Also, this one is going to be silly I admit, I wasn’t a fan of the sequel-baiting ending. Oh course this was made to start a new series but I don’t think they needed to make it so bald-faced at the very end like that though. Still that’s being negative, I really dug this one over all.

  2. I actually wonder if Zahler wrote it for an easy paycheck and kinda half-assed the whole thing or maybe if the script was rewritten, cut down and directed wrong.

  3. Everything I’ve read about this makes it sound like a complete miscalculation, but I am dying to see it. Have it coming in from Netflix now.

  4. Have not seen this one yet, but I assumed that the frog puppet was a reference to the alt-right meme/hate symbol Pepe the Frog.

  5. You hit the nail on the head. After seeing all the rave reviews out of some horror festival I was expecting to enjoy this as fun schlock but it mostly fell flat for me because of all the reasons you listed.

    There’s no atmosphere or *anything* in regards to the direction. You’d think there would be fun stuff like the sounds of little footsteps or a puppet appearing and disappearing behind someone as the camera follows them around a room – you know, fun horror movie stuff. But nope. I even revisited the original DTV movie and, yep, that had way more life in it than this did, and I’m not talking about the Elvira jokes edited in (it was the free streaming version).

    That said, I liked the cast. And it has its moments. There’s a death that did make me laugh out loud (mostly because it did catch me off guard), one of the less gory ones too. But, man, I really wanted to enjoy this and just didn’t.

  6. I enjoyed this one, but that could be because I didn’t have high expectations for the 12th sequel to a Full Moon killer doll film and because I watched it in a packed theater.

  7. Vern, any plans on reviewing the entire Puppet Master franchise for October?

  8. Why would you want to put poor Vern through that ordeal, especially after he just survived the interminable Summer of 98? I tried running this series a couple years back and most of it feels like a case for consumer fraud. It makes the Hellraiser series feel legit. There’s only one movie that even remotely pays off in any way (the third one, i think? Maybe the fourth. Whichever was the WWII one) and the rest are just little half stories that are barely feature length, go nowhere, and make no sense. That’s not even counting all the flashbacks that pad the running time. One sequel was like that episode of FAMILY TIES where they sit around and reminisce over the photo album. Just complete con jobs all the way around.

    I just can’t get behind Full Moon. They give low-budget trash a bad name.

  9. As much as I loved Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99, between this and a police brutality movie starring Mel Gibson (not to mention the problematic stuff in his first two movies I overlooked because the movies were so rad) Craig Zahler’s starting to give me an “uh-oh” feeling. There was that WSJ interview with his producer who explicitly said he was making movies for the “ignored Trump voter” (which, gimme a fuckin break on that one), and just this piling up of themes which you can handwave away on an individual movie level, but when you look at it as a body of work, it’s harder to ignore or charitably explain. I’m hoping he’s just playing the provocateur, but I’m starting to worry he’s like one interview away from saying some really problematic stuff.

    As for The Littlest Reich, it was ok. I don’t get the motivation for changing the backstory (see above) and Thomas Lennon was just a bizarre casting choice. I mean, I get that if you can get Tom Lennon as the lead for your little low budget horror movie, you go for it, but the character he was playing was clearly meant to be at least 20 years younger than Lennon. I was hoping for a cool meta rebirth of a well-known, if not particularly well-liked franchise, but this was only the slightest step up from a regular Puppet Master movie. (I assume. The last one I saw was the one with Greg Sistero.)

  10. Oh geez. I hadn’t read that Wall Street Journal article.

  11. I rewatched all of them last year. 2 is kinda okay. 3 is enjoyable. If 4 & 5 were one movie they’d have something. After that all of them near-unwatchable.

  12. I’ve been worried about Craig S. Zahler lately too. From what I’ve seen in interviews, he isn’t particularly right wing, but he is one of those annoying centrists who might as well be a Trump supporter because their whole “Both sides are annoying and we should keep politics out of the arts” shtick is actually really fucking stupid because literally all it does is enable them. Reading about Dragged Across Concrete lately just makes it all the more iffy.

  13. Zahler’s books are also worrying in that he just seems to mention race more than any other author I’ve read. It’s like, chill out dude, I haven’t forgotten that the character’s black or Asian or (in the case of one book in particular) half Swedish half Indian. You don’t have to point it out every few pages. With that, and his exhausting romanticism of the police, I’ve been bracing for him to say or do something for a while now which is too bad because his first two movies and Wraiths of a Broken Land are all fantastic.

  14. That Wall Street Journal interview with producer Dallas Sonnier is pretty depressing and I even made the mistake of looking at the comments section. In more positive news, S. Craig Zahler’s heavy metal band “Realmbuilder” is quite good.

  15. Extra depressing because I really like what his company is doing – for example, I’d been begging for years for somebody with money to take over and revive Fangoria – and it’s so cool to me that his background is in Stone Cold Steve Austin vehicles.

    The part that really gets me is talking about these as “populist.” To enjoy BONE TOMAHAWK you have to be okay with extreme gore but also with it mainly being an old school western and not an overall horror movie. BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 has the violence too but is a very long and artfully slow burn. As pieces of entertainment, they are very niche. So to say that they are “populist” makes it sound like we’re supposed to be taking messages out of them that I sure fuckin hope we’re not supposed to be taking out of them.

    Like, if he thinks THE LITTLEST REICH will specifically appeal to “the forgotten Trump voter,” what could that possibly mean other than “they would enjoy the parts where minorities are horribly murdered by puppets”?

    (I will spare you a 27 page rant about the notion that anybody has ever fuckin forgot the Trump voter.)

    I hope I’m reading too much into his comments, but they really, really bum me out. And if I were him and I was shown that “4 out of 5 swastikas” review from the white supremacist I would sure want a more forceful response in the article than “The reactions that come from them, we can’t control.”

  16. After reading the synopsis of DRAGGED OVER CONCRETE (is it okay to wear a crazy beard AND a police uniform or did they force Mel Gibson to shave for that role?) next to next with that WSJ-Interview you mentioned, i am starting to get this particular bad feeling when it comes to the Zahler persona.
    With that in mind i will wait for CONCRETE which i think will give me the answers i need.
    If he really has some messed up message on his mind i don´t think he will hold back and deliver just more of the same low-tone exploitation movie ( and i lreally loved both of them – BONE and BRAWL) starring Mel Gibson. There will be some future press conference where they open their mouth. Let´s see what comes out.

  17. Perfect timing as always, I recently decided to explore more of Zahler’s work, so thanks everybody for alerting me to the fact that he has a higher than average chance of being a shitbird. But since he is a talented shitbird, I’m gonna go ahead and recommend ASYLUM BLACKOUT, a well-made horror movies based on a script he wrote. Pretty self-explanatory setup: power goes out in an asylum for the criminally insane and the inmates get out, terrorizing the kitchen staff, who are also in a probably terrible band together (you never hear them play one note of music despite having a couple of opportunities, which seemed to me an expression of Zahler’s frustrations after a lifetime of dealing with flaky-ass musicians). It’s more mainstream than Zahler’s directorial works but still has that deliberate pace that builds to a pulpy, violent freakout. Good atmosphere, decent cast, some solid violence. Doesn’t quite stick the landing but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Hopefully I did not accidentally support a nazi.

  18. Can I suggest the radical notion that maybe it’s okay sometimes if artists you like have opinions that you don’t like?

    I don’t know why we expect them to be good people. As long as the art itself isn’t toxic and offensive to you, and the artist isn’t out there commiting crimes that you’re personally funding by supporting them, then I’m gonna go ahead and say it’s fine if you enjoy their work.

    If we’re at the point where we write-off anyone who doesn’t actively support our own political opinions, then how the hell are we ever going to function as a society?

  19. I second ASYLUM BLACKOUT. I was in the mood for Insane Asylum-based horror and came across it in my search. Didn’t even know it was a Zahler project when I watched it. It was one of the better ones I watched when in that mood last year too because to find out most Insane Asylum-based horror is not good.

    Dan: Well I, for one, only watch good art by good people!!

  20. Dan: Well, I guess knowing (or suspecting) that an artist’s art is coming from a vile place can change your perception of it. Personally, I don’t need Zahler to be a great guy because his work is pretty nonjudgmental about its morally corrupt world and characters. But as someone else said, what seems intriguingly ambiguous in a single piece can start to seem like a statement of foul purpose over the course of a body of work. I’m all for experiencing conflicting opinions but there’s a point where you can realize you’re being sold a bill of goods. That hasn’t happened with Zahler yet and I hope he’s just a button-pusher who isn’t hateful in his heart but still doesn’t relate to our liberal bullshit. Because honestly, liberal bullshit doesn’t have much place in pulp.

  21. I just read that WSJ article, and it is the producer at Cinestate that is being interviewed, a Mr. Sonnier. S. Craig Zahler is only mentioned twice, but never quoted as saying anything remotely racist.

  22. @Mr. Majestyk: Fun Fact but ASYLUM BLACKOUT was released in germany under the low profile title THE INCIDENT.
    Can´t help but smile thinking about that guy while living in those dark ages of the Spoileralert who came up with the idea to put the major event of that movie in it´s title so everybody knows what to expect. I think CJ Holden will back me on that but usually here in germany it´s mostly the other way around. Sometimes there are moves which are retitled (NOT translated) by their german distributors to make them sound more vicious or easy to understand what they are about
    “Cradle 2 The Grave” for example was called “Born 2 Die” over here. Tom Hardy doing the “Locke” (which is actually the german word for curly hair) transformed into “No Turning Back” for it´s cinema release. TAKEN turns into 96 HOURS…i could go on and on.
    I find it hard to believe that there is actually a heavy sounding original title like ASYLUM BLACKOUT which gets to be toned down into THE INCIDENT. Maybe now they are into the exact opposite.

    “Hey man, did you hear about that blackout at the asylum last week? In the news they said it was just a little incident, but believe it or not. My little sister was dating that guy who does the dishes in there so he told me what really happened. After that he died.”

  23. Dan: I get what you’re saying. Further isolating ourselves into political bubbles isn’t going to help anyone. But on the other hand, my to-watch queue contains at least 700 titles at this point, so if I can not give money (directly or indirectly) to someone whose politics are questionable at best by prioritizing something else to watch, I’m going to do that.

    That’s easy for me to say, because I don’t think I’ve seen anything by Zahler yet. If it turned out one my favorite living filmmakers began voicing extremely disagreeable political opinions, it would be harder for me to stand up for my principles.

  24. Apparently, THE INCIDENT was the original title. Which could literally be the title of every single movie ever made. It’s not possible to create a more generic title.

    They should have combined them. INCIDENT AT BLACKOUT ASYLUM has a nice ring to it.

  25. Majestyk: Liberal bullshit + pulp = INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS?

    (Actually that’s more “radical bullshit + pulp,” which I definitely want to see more of.)

  26. Dan, I generally agree with what you’re saying. I mean, I know you’re not supposed to forgive Mel Gibson, but I went out of my way to see and promote BLOOD FATHER when nobody else was. I still adore Clint Eastwood as his politics get worse and many of my fellow liberals seem to shun him. I paid to see the new DEATH WISH. I have complicated and contradictory feelings about these things.

    But there’s a difference between “different politics than mine” and “promotes white supremacy.” That Wall Street Journal article gives the impression they may be playfully courting the Nazi demographic, and if I start to believe that that is the case then yes, I will have to draw a line. I skimmed The Daily Beast’s very spoiler-filled review of DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE that made it out to be shockingly racist. I don’t want it to be true, and I tell myself Michael Jai White woulnd’t sign up for and promote a movie that glorifies that point of view. Even Gibson and Vaughn, if you want to believe they are like that in their hearts, they wouldn’t just put it out there like that, would they? And I heard David Bordwell loved the movie and compared it to my favorite writer Charles Willeford, a master of stories told from the point of view of bad people.

    But when I think of what the anti-hero characters apparently say to justify their racism and police brutality in conjunction with what the producer says about who the movies are supposed to appeal to, I have a feeling of oh shit, did I accidentally sign up for a Klan rally?

    And as someone who has put myself in a position where I’m trying to point people to movies they might not see otherwise, it weighs heavy on me if I feel I might be sending financial support to something I find morally abhorrent. So as badly as I want to see and write about the movie where Mike Tyson apparently K.O.s Seagal I don’t feel comfortable promoting it. Maybe if things end well I’ll be able to go back and enjoy it in the future.

  27. Oh, and coincidentally I rented ASYLUM BLACKOUT this morning. A genuine video store browsing choice where I noticed Zahler’s name on the box, having forgotten he had another movie I hadn’t seen, and decided to give it a shot.

  28. Seagal has about seven lines in the whole movie, Vern. I’d put his screen time at maybe three minutes, total. Not sure if that tips the scales for you but you wouldn’t be supporting a Steve Seagal (as he’s credited) vehicle.

    You should at least watch it even if you don’t feel comfortable giving it exposure. That fight is really something to see.

  29. That ‘uh-oh’ feeling that you all are starting to have from Zahler is how I’ve been feeling since jump street. I was really hoping that I was wrong, but it sure doesn’t sound like it.

  30. New note to add to the “things that make you say hmmmm” file: Zahler has a column in the new Fangoria and he off-handedly refers to GET OUT (along with DON’T BREATHE) as “manure” without explanation. Haven’t finished the whole column but I think that’s the reason they include an “opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author” editor’s note.

    Over on Birth.Movies.Death though Brian Collins appears to have loved DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE (I won’t read the review yet).

  31. Like many in this thread, I loved the first two Zahler flicks. Something I really enjoyed about both is how civilization is a hard won thing, but also a delicate veneer over savage fvkkn violence that’s possibly just human nature. So it is the whole ‘man as beast’ thing, which, yeah, is probably pretty right wing. In BONE TOMAHAWK loads of it is externalised on the ‘Troglodytes’ – and yeah, fuck me does that set alarm bells ringing, and is definitely kinda racist in a colonialist HEART OF DARKNESS way.

    But in BRAWL, all that stuff is internalised in Vince Vaughn’s character. Like, he is in command of that tension within himself (the busting up the car thing), but then the prisons are an institutionalised outlet for it that both gives it an acceptable place to exist in society (in the guards and wardens like Don Johnson) and channels it downwards and out of society in offenders, which is why you get Vaughn’s whole narrative playing out as an actua-descent into hell. So when he punches that mirror in the first cell, it doesn’t break and it’s the only time his threat is almost contained. So basically, there’s no place for Vaughn’s white power character in that outside world.

    What I’m driving at is I think this is a nihilistic af worldview – but are non-white characters in Zahler flicks gonna have the same inner conflict as Vaughn’s character? Because to me, that’s where you’d be able to identify any white power/racist worldview. The couple of garage workers at the beginning of BRAWL don’t really get anything to do, but I’ve not really worked out the implications of them clearly being able to function in that society and hold down their jobs vs. being beneath civilisation like the Troglodytes are in TOMAHAWK.

    Saw PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH and was disappointed at how lightweight it was. Like it was always gonna be, but I was kinda hyped for something more fun and schlocky, the whole tone was kinda flat to me, and the button pushing was just all very FRIDAY XIII sequel. Except nihilitic rather than fundamentalist Christian in its morality. Oh – was Markowitz an author-insert character? In that he’s Jewish (yeah, Zahler’s Jewish by the way, not that this forgives all sins, but is interesting), likes comics, is a total mëtälhead, isn’t PC, is a pasty bearded dude.

    GET OUT is definitely a didactic movie with a message to impart. I dug the heck out of it, but equally it’s exactly the kind of thing Zahler’s opposing, regardless of its subject matter or qualities. I haven’t read the new Fangoria yet, but agree that’s a ‘things that make you say hmmmm’ thing for sure. That’s a statement I’d really prefer him to have elaborated on. I don’t wanna have been suckered into a Klan rally either, but still (for now) think there’s loads more interesting stuff going on under the hood of these Zahler movies.

  32. I haven not read any Charles Willeford books but he sounds right up my street and would welcome recommendations.

  33. Raven – my favorite is probly Cockfighter. The movie is good but the book is amazing because it’s from his point of view and it’s so detailed about this sleazy world of cockfighting and acts like it’s a proud sport. I also love The Burnt Orange Heresy (in the pov of a despicable art critic up to no good) and The Woman Chaser (a guy embezzling from his used car lot to make a nihilistic indie film), and the Hoke Moseley novels are all very good.

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