Udo Kier walks into a Texas saloon in 1989. Oh, the possibilities. And the opening scene of Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, a reboot of the low-budget horror series that was the cornerstone of veteran producer Charles Band’s B-movie studio and distribution house Full Moon Productions, doesn’t skimp on giving this cult-movie icon some thick ham to slice.
Kier plays André Toulon, who the Puppet Master faithful know is the “Heil Hitler!”-ing creator of the sentient, murderous marionettes (with names like Blade, Pinhead, Torch, and Tunneler) that wreak havoc throughout the previous 12 films. This is probably the evilest incarnation of the toymaker, his flesh scarred from burns, his Euro-villain accent at its most cartoonish, and his libido—if we’re to take the way he comes onto a female bartender (“Eeez companionship somezing zat you offer?”)—at an aggressive peak. The server gets back at the vile Toulon by swapping spit with her girlfriend. “Ghastlee homozexuals!” Toulon hisses. It’s clear the dead meat’s been marked. Sure enough, in the next scene, as the two ladies talk tenderly on the ride home about having a baby, a killer puppet uses some piano wire as a jugular-slicing noose while another forces the car to a screeching halt. Heads, truly, roll.
You can sense the wicked, somewhat trollish touch of screenwriter S. Craig Zahler in every one of the scene’s particulars. He’s the filmmaker behind the distinctively grisly, thematically shifty features Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99, and he has an ingenious ability to pen vivid characters with minimum fuss before disposing of them like a slaughterhouse butcher tossing scraps into a waste bin. Where exactly do Zahler’s sympathies lie in The Littlest Reich‘s first scene? Is it with the two murdered girls whose desire for a family has a genuine aura of compassion and seriousness about it? Or is it with Toulon, who sees around him an endless supply of degenerates that must be put in their place, six feet under, if not much further?
As far as his art goes, you can’t quite pin Zahler down, and that’s what gives his directorial efforts their outlandish potency. But Zahler didn’t direct this film, and it shows. Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund, the team behind two little-seen Swedish thrillers, Wither and Animalistic, are at the reins here, and their touch is the furthest thing from distinctive, something that quickly becomes evident after the story moves forward to the present day.
Recently divorced, fortysomething comic-book artist Edgar (Thomas Lennon) is our ostensible protagonist. But he’s mainly a catalyst to get the film to a hotel where Toulon’s playthings are being auctioned off for a pretty penny. Of course, these little monsters are going to come to life, and of course a massacre will follow. This wouldn’t be a film about “Nazi puppets!,” as several characters helpfully holler, without some genocidal bloodletting.
Yet the buildup is more memorable than the follow-through. As Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99 showed, Zahler likes taking his time, and even at a mere 84 minutes, a good portion of The Littlest Reich is concerned with either the mounting threat of violence or the recollection of it. In the best scene, a cop played by exploitation-movie staple Barbara Crampton leads the hotel guests on a tour of Toulon’s mansion, which has been turned into a Holocaust museum-like reminder of his many atrocities. Her description of a room in which Toulon and his miniature army tortured several women is more graphic and haunting than any of the gruesome kills that come after.
That’s not to say all the death and destruction isn’t superficially memorable, more that it’s treated by Laguna and Wikland as disposable, Roman colosseum-like spectacle. One character, while urinating, gets decapitated by a sort of copter puppet, the man’s severed head falling directly into his stream of piss. Elsewhere, a malicious marionette named Baby Führer breaks open its victims’ backs and, as Bela Lugosi might say, “pulls da strings!” Later, Edgar’s proudly Jewish friend, Markowitz (Nelson Franklin), throws the adorable ceramic tyke into a kitchen oven. “See how you like it!” he roars. Then there’s special guest star Charlyne Yi, who seems like she’d rather still be shrieking bloody murder on the floor of the Roadhouse in Twin Peaks. For her troubles, she takes a cranium-caving header into a dumpster.
It all feels cheap and looks cheap, a far cry from what Zahler can do when overseeing a film’s words as well as its images. Here he’s merely a franchise hired gun, and his eccentricities get lost in the corporate-property shuffle. What talent Laguna and Wiklund have is of a purely amateurish variety. You can almost see the directors’ fingers moving the puppets through scenes like well-worn action figures, as if they were ‘80s kids filming their every Dadaist thought on a camcorder after renting the first Puppet Master at the local Blockbuster. (That isn’t as endearing as it sounds.)
The Littlest Reich is meant to be gawked at during a packed midnight screening, recalled hyperactively in the lobby—a thousand Puppet Master nerds spouting variations on “Can you believe that shit?!?”—then quickly forgotten until the next go-round. (And, oh yes, the finale implies, there will be a sequel.) Such shoddy, shallow thrills are probably enough for some. Everyone else will feel, appropriately, like pawns.