The reboot of the Puppet Master series is the biggest and goriest installment yet. But the changes to the story and characters aren’t an improvement.
Puppet Master is one of the longest-running horror franchises, but you rarely hear it mentioned with the same reverent tones as Halloween, Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s the story of a puppeteer named Andre Toulon who, in World War II, brought his creations to life to murder Nazis. Years later, his puppets did the bidding of whoever owned them, and were – depending on the movie – either ruthlessly evil or violent antiheroes.
Over the course of 12 or 13 straight-to-video movies (whether Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys counts or not is a matter of some debate), the puppets have slaughtered lots of people and became minor genre icons. But even the earlier, better Puppet Master films weren’t particularly great and a reboot was not only inevitable, but also a welcome opportunity to give what could have been a great series the opportunity to finally achieve that greatness.
That reboot is Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, and greatness remains elusive.
Directed by Sonny Liguna and Tommy Wiklund (Animalistic) and written by S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk), the new film features sharper dialogue, superior acting, and more gruesome gore than we’re used to in this franchise. But although the production value is superior, the changes the filmmakers have made to the story might be frustrating for pre-existing fans. They may even be dealbreakers.
Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is the story of Edgar (Thomas Lennon), a comic book artist who finds a mysterious puppet in his dead brother’s closet. The doll looks suspiciously like Blade, one of Andre Toulon’s most notorious creations, and after a little research Edgar is convinced that it’s real, and really valuable. So Edgar, his girlfriend Ashley (Jenny Pellicer) and his boss Markowitz (Nelson Franklin) travel to a nearby convention which commemorates the death of a homicidal Nazi named Andre Toulon (more on that later), so they can sell the trinket on the collector’s market.
Edgar isn’t the only one trying to make a quick buck. Toulon’s puppets were scattered to the wind after his death, and now a lot of collectors are bringing them home. The puppets eventually come to life and brutally murder everyone at the hotel where the owners are staying. Spectacular – or at least gruesome – violence ensues.
The set-up is clever, the acting is solid. The gore is stomach-churning, which in a movie like this is usually a selling point. Most of the classic puppets make an appearance (whither goest Jester and Leech Woman, nobody knows), and a whole bunch of new puppets arrive with instruments of death and dismemberment. There’s a helicopter puppet who decapitates people with its propeller in mid-flight, and in a creepy way that’s practically adorable.
On the surface it appears as though Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is the best film in the series. It might even seem as though recharacterizing the puppets as homicidal monsters instead of deadly antiheroes with questionable loyalties would serve to streamline the concept. But there’s something unseemly and grotesque about transforming Nazi-hunting golems into sadistic Nazis, which reads more like a betrayal of the franchise than a satisfying new interpretation. Imagine a Batman reboot where Bruce Wayne is a serial killer who murders loving parents in order to orphan their children. It’s a pretty big shift.
At one point in Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, a Jewish character explains why he owns Nazi memorabilia. He argues that by reducing the evil bastards who murdered his ancestors into chintzy collector’s items he gains power over them. Ironically, that’s what the original Puppet Master series did. The franchise’s signature puppet, Blade, was even specifically modeled after a homicidal Nazi in order to steal and subvert his villainous persona. Torch, renamed “The Kaiser” in The Littlest Reich, was also modeled after evil fascists. Puppet Master, at its heart, regardless of low budgets and subpar filmmaking, used the genre to craft an ironically empowering narrative.
So transforming the puppets into everything they were created to destroy can’t help but feel extremely gross. Especially since we watch them murder minorities, non-Christians and homosexuals in graphic detail. It gives all the supernatural power – the power over golems, no less – to the Nazi villains, which may make the puppets seem more threatening, but it also shifts the focus of the series in a less entertaining, uglier direction. Watching Nazis kill people isn’t “fun,” but Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich treats it that way. And that’s either so disturbing that it ruins film’s silly tone, or it’s an ill-conceived, ramshackle foundation for an otherwise well-crafted horror film.