'Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich's Barbara Crampton on Balancing Horror, Comedy and Nazis

Since her return to horror in 2011's You're Next, Barbara Crampton has been a genre force, not only appearing in horror movies like Dead Night and The Lords of Salem, but also producing her own with Beyond the Gates. Crampton made her mark early as part of a loose troupe of actors (she was often paired with veteran character actor Jeffrey Combs, who later became a frequent Star Trek guest star) appearing in the movies of director Stuart Gordon, including horror classics Re-Animator, From Beyond and the straight-to-video sleaze masterpiece Castle Freak.

Her role in Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (now in theaters and on VOD) is fitting for a signature horror figure. Crampton plays Officer Carol Doreski, one of the few people who know the full scale of the atrocities committed by The Littlest Reich villain, André Toulon.

We first meet her at the site of his murders, as she guides the characters through his background, up to the present day, just before the carnage begins again, thanks to a convention of puppet collectors unaware their clockwork toys are about to come to bloodthirsty life.

"It doesn't hold back. It's bloody and bawdy and it's rude. And we lean into the bad taste for satisfying and shocking effect," Crampton said of The Littlest Reich (our review is here). "Some people might be turned off by the subject matter."

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Barbara Crampton ("Re-Animator," "From Beyond") as Officer Carol Doreski in "Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich." Cinestate

That's putting it mildly. Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is a movie for the hardened horror watcher. Not the kind who relish jump scares, but instead a more specialized crowd: the gorehound. Everyone else should be warned, The Littlest Reich is gnarly gruesome and finds its thrills in mutilating the human body in creative ways, all thanks to the murderous little puppets running around and committing hate crimes in the name of a dead Nazi. Sure, it's all a little silly—no one's going to confuse puppets knocking a guy's head into a toilet bowl with real-life violence—but there's a surprising immediacy to The Littlest Reich. Or, as Crampton describes it, "Really it's no less horrible than the daily headlines."

There's an obvious bright line to be drawn from The Littlest Reich to the resurgence of right-wing violence in the United States, most clearly embodied in the 2017 Unite the Right rally, at which white supremacists murdered activist Heather Heyer.

But what's more ominous than the rise of a extremist far right—a variable trendline that has seen other high points in recent decades—is its mainstreaming within the Republican Party. Loud racists and fascists are dangerous when they're marching in the streets, but more so in positions of power. Beyond politicians like Donald Trump, Steve King, Corey Stewart and their party enablers, white supremacists and neo-Nazis have infiltrated police forces, the military and other key institutions of American civic life. The Nazis never went away, but as in The Littlest Reich, they're now back in force.

As a horror-comedy, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich doesn't treat its Nazi dolls as weighty symbols of a fascist philosophy. Instead, the puppets are diminutive bundles of unreasoning hate, gleefully decapitating, stabbing and, in what's likely to be 2018's most gruesome horror moment, terminating a pregnancy with extreme prejudice. As is true of many of the more extreme gore movies—Dead Alive, Tokyo Gore Police, Zombie, Street Trash, Demons—death in The Littlest Reich is not about a realistic portrayal of violence, but instead the playful transgression of the human body, as it's literally torn and stretched beyond recognition. Oddly enough, hyperbolic gore can be inherently comedic.

The Littlest Reich leans into this quality by counterbalancing its brutality with comedy actors, including Thomas Lennon (Santa Clarita Diet, Reno 911!), Charlyne Yi (Knocked Up) and Nelson Franklin (Veep). But rather than delivering jokes (though they do that too), the characters act as the straight man, providing the nonplussed reaction to murderous Nazi puppets necessary for a darkly comedic payoff.

"We were trying to do both: make it over-the-top and really gory, but also they hired three top comedians to be in this film, so they wanted to soften some of the Nazi stuff with the comedy," Crampton said, describing the tonal balance achieved by directors Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund (Wither). "We took our cue from Thomas Lennon. He can be acutely funny in a lot of roles he's played, but he didn't approach this character in a big comedic way. He was very dry and serious. There's a certain realism we had to invest in the movie."

Crampton's Officer Doreski fulfills a different role in the narrative, what she described as the movie's "Greek chorus," her character providing the context for the puppet murder spree and their seldom seen puppet master, played by genre legend Udo Kier (Blade, Melancholia).

"It's definitely a movie that will make you think. Behind the tale that it's telling is something more meaningful, something representative of what's going on in today's world," Crampton says. "The filmmakers were not making a political statement, but some comparisons to what has transpired in history and modern events in our culture right now can't be ignored."

The result is a gorefest with an earnest view of the world's evils, rather than the dismissive misanthropy often found in the genre.

"I want to tell stories that have meaning and talk about the human condition and illuminate who we are as people," Crampton said. "All great horror is representative of the deepest truths about ourselves and that's true of this movie in particular. We're dealing with Nazi puppets, with the worst possible element."