From its direct-to-video inception in 1989, there have been 11 films in Full Moon Features’ Puppet Master franchise (the last, Puppet Master: Axis Termination, made in 2017, some 13 years after Puppet Master 5: The Final Chapter), as well as a non-canon crossover with Demonic Toys in 2004. Which is to say that it is hard to keep reanimated mannequins down. This latest, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, may preserve the franchise’s occasional focus on Nazis, its frequent hotel setting, and the recurrence of familiar puppet types and their original creator André Toulon (here played by Udo Kier with spectacular burn-scar makeup) – but it is nonetheless a reboot rather than a sequel, reinventing the franchise by inverting all its elements.
In a nod to its inspiration, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich begins in 1989, in Postville, Texas, as a number of violent and grisly murders lead police to raid the Toulon estate. “Get ready for something different”, says young cop Carol Doreski (Grace Montie) as she runs in, gun drawn – and her words are an apt introduction to a film that plays with the franchise’s recognisable tropes only to defamiliarise them. For now Toulon is a vicious Nazi rather than a fighter of Nazis, and the weaponised puppets are unambiguously vessels for evil, galvanised remotely into action by Toulon’s entombed and electrified corpse, so that the puppet master is all at once Frankenstein and monster, reviving his own Reich in America.
Cut to the present day, and Edgar (Thomas Lennon), a recent divorcé and comic book clerk, heads to Postville with his new girlfriend Ashley (Jenny Pellicer) and boss Markowitz (Nelson Franklin) for the 30th Anniversary of the Toulon Murders, hoping to sell his late brother’s Toulon puppet at the auction taking place there. At the Brass Buckle Hotel they join other guests, all with their own Toulon dolls. Soon the retired Carol (now played by the great Barbara Crampton) is taking the convention attendees on a tour of the mansion where she and her partner shot Toulon dead all those decades ago, and showing them the Nazi memorabilia, esoteric book collection and hidden torture rooms still in place there. All this is played largely as comedy, thanks to the geeky interplay between Edgar, Ashley and Markowitz – but then, without warning, the puppets start turning on the hotel guests with extreme prejudice and endless gore.
At first the identities of the victims – Jews, homosexuals, a gypsy – suggest that these murders are typical Nazi ‘hate crimes’, but soon everyone else too (including a young child and a pregnant woman) becomes a target, and the hate that this sleeper army of puppets enacts proves as indiscriminate as it is limitless. So while directors Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund (Wither, Animalistic), working from a script by S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk, Brawl In Cell Block 99), are bringing all the demonic doll thrills viewers could want in fully grotesque fashion, they are also reinvesting the Puppet Master mythos with an allegory of Trump’s America, where ‘alt-right’ Nazism has been enabled, and dormant fear, hatred and intolerance of any kind of difference have been reawoken and encouraged to spread.
This franchise has spawned several comic-book versions, and in a reflex of that, Edgar is himself “a comic book guy”. Of his own writing he says, “I try to mirror reality in my work.” For all its icky absurdity, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is certainly trying to do the same, and to show the world’s need once more for the kind of heroes who stand up to bigotry and tyranny in any form.
Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich was seen and reviewed at Fantasia 2018.