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PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH – ****

Directed by Sonny Laguna & Tommy Wiklund. Starring Thomas Lennon, Jenny Pellicer, Nelson Franklin, Barbara Crampton, Udo Kier, Alex Beh, Skeeta Jenkins. Horror/Comedy, UK/USA, 90 mins, cert 18.

Released in the UK on DVD and Zavvi Exclusive Blu-ray by Fangoria on 8th July 2019.

 

In a year that has seen some of the second-tier horror franchises from the '80s and '90s come back swinging into the limelight with new sequels and remakes that are arguably better than anything released after the originals - LEPRECHAUN, CHILD'S PLAY and CRITTERS have all received new instalments (we won't count HELLRAISER or CHILDREN OF THE CORN as they never really stopped churning those out, so there's a lesson in itself) - and PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH is the thirteenth movie in the killer puppet franchise since the original PUPPET MASTER was released in 1989.

 

However, this is not a sequel or a remake but rather an alternative to the original series - which is still continuing alongside this new timeline – and as such directors Sonny Laguna & Tommy Wiklund (WITHER) and writer S. Craig Zahler (BONE TOMAHAWK/DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE) had a bit more freedom to do what they wanted without having to stick rigidly to Charles Band’s original formula, and that is exactly the direction this franchise needed to take because across the previous twelve movies - none of which could be considered essential genre classics – the quality has dipped from the highs of the barking-mad-but-fun Nazisploitation of PUPPET MASTER III to the tedious-to-the-point-of-stopping-altogether dreck of RETRO PUPPET MASTER, and it is worth noting that Zahler has made the puppets evil again, which they haven’t been for quite some time.

 

So we have a new backstory concerning puppet creator Andre Toulon (Udo Kier – MARK OF THE DEVIL/BLADE), who in this movie is not the bumbling old toy maker of old but a Nazi who wanders into a Texan bar in 1989 and gets offended by two lesbians kissing. Already setting a tone the film then gives us the first puppet kills and it is safe to say that we are not in Full Moon Features territory anymore as heads are garrotted off and blood is sprayed everywhere as the killer puppets – some of whom are slight tweaks on the familiar characters from the original movies – carry out Toulon’s telepathic bidding.

 

But you can’t go around killing lesbians in Texas without the cops getting wind of it and so Toulon is put to rest by a police bullet. Fast forward to present day and down-on-his-luck Edgar Easton (Thomas Lennon – I LOVE YOU. MAN) is having to move back home with his parents after splitting from his wife. His bullish father isn’t too happy about the arrangement but he does let Edgar have free rein to sort through his older brother’s things to raise some cash, upon which he finds one of Toulon’s puppets and as luck would have it there is a convention coming up where the majority of Toulon’s puppets are up for auction. So Edgar, new girlfriend Ashley (Jenny Pellicer – COCAINE GODMOTHER) and best friend Markowitz (Nelson Franklin – SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD) head off to the auction where all of Toulon’s surviving creations are gathered in one place, but the old puppet master isn’t quite done with them just yet.

 

The thing about PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH – apart from the gore and the kills but we’ll get there – is that it wastes no time in delivering what the series should really have done from the start. The pacing of this movie is bang on, the script not getting bogged down and any character building is done through the sharp and witty writing of S. Craig Zahler, who may not be far enough into his career to be considered an auteur but has certainly proved he has a unique voice when it comes to delivering the goods. It also helps that a lot of the cast are comedic actors and can give the dialogue the necessary nuance to make it work when it could quite easily have gone the other way had the chemistry not been right, especially with the three main characters of Edgar, Ashley and Markowitz. The support of genre royalty Udo Kier and Barbara Crampton – who plays a cop-turned-security-officer – also adds the necessary weight and conviction.

But this movie is about the puppets and what they do, and had it been made in the early 1980s during the video nasty era there is a good chance we’d have been watching this – at best - in a heavily cut version. Nazi connotations aside – and given that one of the main characters is named Markowitz they do make the most of the obvious Nazi beliefs, which sets up some hilarious gags – we get a guy pissing on his decapitated head, heads being smashed in, a puppet ripping open a man’s rib cage and using him as a human puppet, Achilles tendons being sliced, intestines being pulled out, a baby being ripped out of its mother’s stomach (from the inside, for added gruesomeness), eyes being gouged out and a gassing in an oven (it is funnier than it sounds), and the effects are tremendous, all in close-up and barely letting up once the carnage starts. The puppet animation is also top notch, making Charles Band’s recent PUPPET MASTER movies look incredibly naff and outdated, and as a treat there are some puppet concept artworks in the special feature that show quite a lot of thought went into their designs. Speaking of special features, there are also a couple of ‘Behind the Scenes’ fluff piece featurettes that don’t really reveal anything unexpected but it is quite fun to see the delight on the filmmaker’s faces when they talk about the PUPPET MASTER movies, and if you buy the Zavvi exclusive Blu-ray you also get some art cards thrown in as a bonus.

 

There are those that will criticise PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH for the maniacal, almost childish, glee with which it plays out and, to be fair, you can’t argue with that assumption because it is dumb but in the greatest way possible. In the same way a killer doll, a murderous leprechaun or angry space aliens have provided equally dumb-but-satisfying entertainment recently, PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH knows exactly what it is doing, who it is pitching itself to and clearly not giving a hoot as to whom it may offend, and it is this attitude that makes PUPPER MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH far and away the best PUPPET MASTER movie so far and also one of the most gloriously entertaining splatstick movies since the horror heyday of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson.

 

Chris Ward.

 

 

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