Monday 29 April 2019


Returning with some new blood in the creative team, the latest instalment of the long-running Puppet Master franchise is now in cinemas. But is it any good?

I'll be honest, as big a fan of genre films as I am, the Puppet Master franchise is one that has largely passed me by, only being familiar with the original and a bit of the sequel that starred The Room's Greg Sestero, if only out of morbid curiosity. But I think that's okay, considering this sequel (by my count, the 13th entry into the franchise, including the crossovers with the Demonic Toys series) acts as a soft reboot of the franchise, the rights shifting from Full Moon's Charles Band to the publishers of Fangoria magazine a couple of years ago.

This latest entry into the series starts in Postville, Texas, 1989, introducing us to puppet master Andre Toulon (now played by Udo Kier) and his dastardly sadistic ways, before flashing forward to the present day, as Thomas Lennon's Edgar moves back in with his parents following his divorce. Whilst going through some old belongings he happens across one of Toulon's dolls (sorry, puppets) that was owned by his deceased brother, and decides to sell it at an upcoming puppet convention being held at the hotel where Toulon's murders started 30 years ago. But is it a good idea to bring all of Toulon's creations back to the scene of one of his most infamous crimes? No, it isn't.

The release of Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich has clearly been timed to match up with Dragged Across Concrete, the latest cinematic offering from director S. Craig Zahler,  credited here as screenwriter. Zahler, a master craftsman of gore-filled films with thinly veiled social commentary such as Brawl in Cell Block 99 and Bone Tomahawk, has previously been criticised for his films' supposed right-wing leanings and problematic depictions of race and race relations, including the casting of Mel Gibson in his latest film. Well, it's safe to say this film isn't going to do much to persuade audiences otherwise, troublesome in its depiction of anyone not a straight white male. The film's most prominent black character is called Cuddly Bear and Charlene Yi's Nerissa is a timid, nerdy asian girl stereotype, although the film almost goes out of its way to create a hero out of Markowitz, Nelson Franklin's Jewish comic book store owner. In Zahler's defence, he's the film's screenwriter (directing duties falling to Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund) but numerous changes were apparently made to his original draft. The film leans so heavily into over the top exploitation you can see the intended tone with tongue wedged firmly in cheek, so even with the film's issues of representation it's entirely possible that Zahler saw this as a way to let the film comment on its own franchise as well as his filmography.

Lending credence to the idea that this is one big joke is that at least three of the core cast members have a background in comedy (Thomas Lennon, Nelson Franklin and Charlene Yi), and, well, it's a film about killer puppets. Lots of them. Adding to this film's genre appeal is the (re)appearance of scream queen favourite Barbara Crampton as a police officer/tour guide for the hotel. To be honest, her role in the film never makes complete sense, but it's a nice nod to her role in the original film and her function as exposition machine to those new to the franchise is vital, even if she displays some of that odd Zahler wit by shouting down a German woman who disputes her swastika knowledge.

When the scheisse hits the fan and the puppets inevitably re-animate and start killing all of the guests in the hotel, it's up to Edgar, his girlfriend Ashley (Jenny Pellicer) and Markowitz to pull everyone together, using the auction guide as an instruction manuel on how to defeat each puppet. It's at this point in the film that Lennon's character starts to lose ground to the far more charismatic and thematically potent Markowitz, with Nelson Franklin's character stepping forward to honour his jewish heritage and get some revenge on past atrocities, including some gallows humour involving an oven and a puppet designed to look like baby Hitler.

To give the film its due, despite the potentially problematic themes at its core it's done with a wry smirk, and the puppets deliver some disgustingly graphic kills, including the jaw-dropping sight of a headless corpse peeing on its own detached head. That's where the film is at its most entertaining, even if the puppet characters are thinly drawn clones with tiny variations, much like Critters, Ghoulies, Gremlins, etc. The human characters don't inspire much sympathy to make you not want to see them get killed, except for Nelson Franklin's Markowitz who pretty much steals the entire film from under the rest of the cast.

Flawed, occasionally problematic and it's got no idea how to satisfyingly end its ludicrous story apart from killing or gravely wounding most of its characters (holding some back for the inevitable sequel), but as a throwback to corny 1980s horrors Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is a welcome reboot.


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