Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is, technically speaking, the thirteenth Puppet Master, following less than a year after the latest Full Moon sequel, but it is entirely its own movie and it could not make that more clear. Not a soft sequel, nor a remake of the original, Littlest Reich instead strives to be a reimagining of the entire concept. Here, not only are the puppets themselves given updated designs courtesy of the film’s true MVP Tate Steinsiek, but the entire concept of a wartime refugee striking back against the Nazis through his puppets is reimagined as a disgustingly cruel Nazi toymaker carving marionettes to carry out his evil will. When the film was in development it was being promoted as an “alternate universe” to the still continuing Full Moon universe and there’s a lot of truth to that.
It’s still about puppets picking people off in a creepy hotel, it’s still quirky and instilled with the spirit and hunger of gritty independent horror. For the most part, you do get everything you go into a Puppet Master movie for, but you get it in a completely different way, at every possible turn. This is a night/day comparison, this is the mirror universe, it is in some respects almost an anti-Puppet Master movie. Where the original was surreal and serious, this leans into irreverence, farce and fun despite its stark subject matter.
While its up to the viewer to determine which of those two they like better, I have to admit that the Littlest Reich’s approach to the story is far more befitting the theatrical experience. This is a movie to watch with as large a group as possible, if anything else just to be sure that you’re all actually seeing the same thing.
At the very least, it’s abundantly not pro-Nazi as some naturally worried about considering that the puppets themselves had really been the protagonists of most of the Full Moon series. But the approach to the puppets in Littlest Reich is completely different and stands entirely on its own. Gone are the individual character quirks that defined the puppets before, especially in the early film. With this movie containing upwards of forty puppets and duplicates of some long time favorites, there’s no room for individual character traits. And, honestly, to humanize them in this context would probably have been a mistake.
Instead, the experience of watching the puppets changes completely as the movie makes great strides to focus less on the puppets and more on the master. Watching Blade kill someone versus watching Torch kill someone feels very much like seeing if Jason was going to take someone out with a machete or a sleeping bag. They’re murder weapons, here to further the agenda of Udo Kier’s weird and sleazy Toulon. As sick as it is, he has a mission and the puppets are simply the tools he uses to carry it out.
Because of this, there’s a lot more focus put into the human characters than most previous films in the series. It’s a smart move, too, as there really isn’t a weak link among the principle cast. Udo Kier is exactly the kind of eccentric and unpredictable personality that was needed to bring this version of Toulon to life. Thomas Lennon is an instantly likable and relatable lead. Barbara Crampton, who made a brief appearance in the original, brings a sense of authority and dry wit to her puppet-slaying tour guide. But even among a truly impressive cast, Skeeta Jenkins steals every single scene he’s in as Cuddly Bear.
The true stars of Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, however, are the effects. Not just the puppets, either, but almost more so the dizzying amounts of gleefully physically impossible gore. Many of the original Puppet Master features were aimed toward a younger crowd and that couldn’t be further from the case here. This takes the gore to previously unimagined heights not only for this franchise, but most recent horror movies in general. This exists to push the envelope, to make people laugh and scream to hide the sounds of their stomach churning. At that it succeeds, though that’s clearly not a brand of horror for everyone. Once the action heats up, the experience becomes almost like watching a puppet show presentation of Faces of Death.
And while it’s not always my cup of tea, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich does nail the approach it set out to achieve. For some people, this is going to be their favorite horror movie of the year. Forget everything you’ve seen. This is not a Puppet Master film as you know it. If anything, it almost feels like Tom Six’s Gremlins. Yet there is a respect paid to the original in its constant reminders of what a different entity it actually is, to the point that Crampton’s character corrects people every time they pronounce “Toulon” the way it was pronounced in the other movies. Because this isn’t the story of a kindly old toymaker’s tragedy. There’s no tragedy at all here, just farce.
The truth is, you’ll probably know going into Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich whether it’s your thing or not. It’s a gruesome and tasteless movie and it exists purely to turn that tastelessness into pure spectacle. There’s a certain appeal to that, even if you’re not a fan of boundary-less shock horror. For those fans who can’t get enough of that, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich will have them grinning ear to ear. The film will be in select theaters and on demand beginning August 17th.
WICKED RATING: 7/10