Full Moon has been cranking out low-budget horror (and sci-fi, and softcore, and sci-fi softcore, and etc. etc.) for 30 years now, and one of their most enduringly popular properties is the PUPPET MASTER franchise. Launched with its first entry in 1989, the series has been going pretty consistently for the entire time Full Moon has been around–the most recent film in the official Full Moon canon, PUPPET MASTER: AXIS TERMINATION, was just released in 2017. It came as a huge surprise when the announcement of PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH hit last year. The idea that Full Moon was loaning out their most recognizable property for a totally unrelated feature was crazy enough, but the announcements of those involved made it seem even more inexplicable: the film was to be written by S. Craig Zahler (BONE TOMAHAWK, BRAWL ON CELL BLOCK 99), star Thomas Lennon (THE STATE, RENO 911), and would be directed by Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund (WITHER). What on Earth was this going to be?
Texas, 1989: Andre Toulon (Udo Kier) is gunned down by police when a string of unexplained murders are traced back to him. Thirty years later, a convention is held in the same town on the anniversary of the “Toulon Murders,” complete with an auction of Toulon memorabilia. Recently divorced comic book artist Edgar (Thomas Lennon) is moving in with his parents to get back on his feet and finds a Toulon puppet in the room of his brother who died as a child. When Edgar sees how much the puppets sell for at auction, he decides to head to the convention to make a little money. Along for the ride are his new girlfriend Ashley (Jenny Pellicer) and Markowitz (Nelson Franklin), Comic Shop Guy and the closest thing Edgar has to a friend. Before settling in for the weekend they take a tour of the Toulon mansion led by Carol Doreski (Barbara Crampton), one of the responding officers on the scene the night Toulon was killed. Back at the hotel, the gathered puppets begin murdering their owners and after a few bodies are discovered the police are called in. Detective Brown (Michael Paré) puts the hotel on lockdown, but when panic sets in a number of guests are slaughtered while they attempt to flee and the rest are trapped in the hotel with an army of bloodthirsty Nazi puppets.
Anyone accustomed to seeing Toulon’s puppets fighting Nazis in the AXIS trilogy is probably going to find it a little weird to see them on the other side of history here, but that’s hardly the only discomfort THE LITTLEST REICH inspires. Zahler leans into the Nazi angle, making most of the owners of the puppets the same people targeted by the Third Reich. There’s a brief conversation about why some Jewish people collect Nazi memorabilia, but nothing much is really done with the concept. Instead, it’s used as a dodge to avoid having to set up too many actual characters. When the massacre at the hotel starts, the overwhelming majority of casualties are just canon fodder with no discernible personalities. When the police and Edgar start talking about the victims, Edgar points out that the deaths are hate crimes targeting Jews, lesbians, and Gypsies. If the puppets had a mission, though, it’s quickly forgotten once the hotel is locked down and they start mowing down everyone indiscriminately.
Perhaps the biggest problem with THE LITTLEST REICH is that co-directors Laguna and Wiklund fail to establish a coherent tone. The murders are outrageously gruesome, over the top in a way that would befit an overt horror comedy, but that tone doesn’t gel with the much more subdued comic sensibilities of the rest of the movie. It’s baffling that Thomas Lennon is so underutilized here, playing a mostly straightforwardly dramatic role with only a handful of jokes that feel like they were probably improvised. It makes sense that Udo Kier feels like he’s in a totally different movie from everyone else when his part is confined to a self-contained prelude; it doesn’t make sense that most of the rest of the cast feels like they’re all in different movies, too. That schizophrenic quality extends to every aspect of the film, which can’t seem to make up its mind about whether it’s a no-holds-barred satire or a serious horror movie. The result is a clumsy train wreck where most everyone in front of the camera frequently looks like they’d rather be somewhere else.
There are notable exceptions, of course. Crampton is excellent playing against type as a world-weary badass and reluctant tour guide, and Paré is clearly having a great time as a cop with too much authority and not enough brains. The puppets themselves are pretty cool and the practical effects are spectacular, although again the nearly cartoonish level of gore feels wrong for the film’s confused tone–at least it’ll make for a killer “supercut” once this thing hits home video. It’s tough to tell what exactly went wrong with THE LITTLEST REICH, which proves in individual moments that it had tons of potential to be something either much more fun or considerably darker than the Full Moon films from which it takes inspiration if it had really committed to one approach. But too much of it feels perfunctory. The pacing lags, the jokes rarely land outside the splatstick sight gags (although Franklin gets in a few good lines), and the frustrating non-ending inspires less excitement for a potential sequel than annoyance that all this effort went to an incomplete story. Going in, one would probably assume that this would be better than at least 8 or 9 of the Full Moon PUPPET MASTER movies. Against all odds, that’s not the case.
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