A reboot of the now almost three decade-old Puppet Master franchise – a series which totals a mammoth 12 films at last count – The Littlest Reich will undoubtedly pique the interest of those outside of the original fanbase due to the pedigree of writing talent attached. It’s from the mind of one S. Craig Zahler, responsible for the double whammy of Brawl in Cell Block 99 and Bone Tomahawk (both if which he helmed and wrote). Zahler’s particular brand of witty wordplay, jet black humour and wincingly OTT gore is evident throughout The Littlest Reich. The film has been shepherded to the screen by the production arm of the recently resurrected Fangora brand, and like Blumhouse, there’s been real care here to ensure that horror aficionados haven’t been short-changed by an empty cash-grab exercise.
The great Udo Kier appears in the film’s 80s-set prologue as disfigured Nazi and puppet manipulator Andre Toulon who is brought down by a hail of bullets after a run-in with the law. Cut to present day where a miserable divorcee named Edgar (Thomas Lennon) is in the midst of moving back in with his parents, both of whom still look upon their son’s career as a comic book creator with deep disdain. What starts as a fun commentary about adults trapped in adolescence – conjuring up a verbose Clerks-type affair – takes a turn for the wurst when Edgar, along with his new girlfriend Ashley (Jenny Pellicer) and obnoxious comic book shop boss Markowitz (Nelson Franklin) visit the infamous site of the Nazi’s demise. Hoping to sell a weird marionette which belonged to his later brother at a neighbouring convention, all bets are off when Edgar and the band of tourists have to fight off an army of sentient blood-thirsty puppets.
Swedish directing duo Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund clearly have a deep reverence for those low-budget delights which filled the shelves of video shops across the land decades back, and The Littlest Reich has nary a digital shot in sight, relying instead on in-camera viscera and clever editing to bring life to the puppetry work. But the film never once feels like a fawning homage to that era. Aside from the obvious modern day trappings, you could be mistaken in thinking the film has been plucked straight out of the late eighties/early nineties. Tonally too, it makes for an endearingly odd viewing experience. All the characters have a weirdly detached and hilariously dour attitude to the craziness and death happening around them, undoubtedly a fun by-product of casting alternative comedians like Lennon, Franklin and Charlyne Yi. A car park slaughter midpoint in reuses the film’s opening score – via famed Italian horror composer Fabio Frizzi – which is a gentle, waltz-like number and in complete contrast to the carnage onscreen. Some of those odd creative choices may be a result of the filmmakers making their English language debut here, but they’re certainly a welcome component and only help reinforce the film’s deliciously off-kilter appeal.
Roping in 80s genre favourites Barbara Crampton and Michael Pare – who are both good fun here as the beleaguered members of the local law enforcement – is a shrewd move by the filmmakers, but it’s the puppets themselves and their bigoted, murderous MO which steals the show. Mostly modelled on the original characters, they are fantastically evil creations and the demise of one particularly puppet – which is modelled on a certain genocidal German demagogue – results in the film’s darkest belly laugh. While the original series of films is still intended to run concurrently with this new interpretation – Puppet Master: Axis Termination was only made last year – The Littlest Reich’s open-ended resolution means the rebooted timeline will inevitably continue. On the strength of this first outing, that’s only a good thing.