'Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich' Exhibits Surprising Moral Clarity for a Nazi Puppet Slasher

Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is a decapitated head lobbed right at the American public—a hunk of '80s-style gore sludge and horror provocation unlike anything typically seen in theaters. While not quite as lingering as Lucio Fulci's infamous spider attack in The Beyond (though the movie does feature a soundtrack by frequent Fulci collaborator Fabio Frizzi), Puppet Master has us stare at bodily mutilation for what amounts to an eternity by the quick-cutting standards of this century. There's an exploitation verve in The Littlest Reich that's hard to find in any form today, outside of self-conscious pastiche. Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is not just a clockwork puppet slasher, but a gleeful gore movie situated somewhere between Peter Jackson's Dead Alive and Troma.

Slashers have always been built on cultural resentments. Their appeal is rooted in our desire to see characters punished, usually for exactly what we dislike about them (or, more appropriately, what predominantly white and male screenwriters and directors imagine to be what we dislike about them). The jock gets his for being cocky and the nerd his for being a know-it-all. This can make slashers a petri dish for prejudices, particularly in the genre's notorious preference for virginal women; any other type is marched to the reaper. Rather than self-consciously subverting these familiar tropes, like a Scream or Cabin in the Woods, The Littlest Reich instead tries something radical: creating likeable characters.

Jenny Pellicer as Ashley in "Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich." Cinestate

One of the best choices this new Puppet Master makes is in casting comedy people in some of the lead roles, including Thomas Lennon (Santa Clarita Diet, Reno 911!) as Edgar and Nelson Franklin (Veep) as his comic book shop boss/pal Markowitz, then subduing them. Together, along with Edgar's girlfriend Ashley (Jenny Pellicer), the lead trio bring well-tuned comedic timing, without tipping over into comedic characters. For a horror-comedy, The Littlest Reich never veers into trivializing its threats or allowing the characters the satisfaction of hyperawareness. Lennon's Edgar is not a serious man, but his emotional reactions are tuned to the situation, rather than the audience. Markowitz transforms from horny goofball, complete with some cringe comedy shared with Charlyne Yi, to a man deeply disturbed by the mass death surrounding them.

They're joined by genre legends like Barbara Crampton (You're Next, From Beyond), Udo Kier (Flesh for Frankenstein, Blade) and Michael Paré (Streets of Fire, The Vatican Tapes), each delivering the kind of pitch-perfect horror performance big enough to fill in thinly-drawn characters without overflowing into ham. Crampton, veteran of several movies produced by Puppet Master creator Charles Band (including a small role in the original), acts as a bridge of sorts between the complex continuity of the eleven-part Puppet Master series and the pared down rebooted world of The Littlest Reich. She literally tours the characters through the murderous life of puppet creator André Toulon, who's been reconfigured as a Nazi killed by police in the 1980s.

The expansive ensemble provides plenty of flesh to slash, torch, buzzsaw, stab and dissolve with acid. Parts of The Littlest Reich are practically brutal kill compilations, as murderous puppets attack hotel guests in town for a murder puppet convention. Believing their dolls to be little more than inanimate serial killer souvenirs, they gather for an auction at the one place where Toulon's occult energy still fuels his creations.

This seems like an opportunity for The Littlest Reich to lampoon collector and fandom cultures, but screenwriter S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99) doesn't take the bait. Instead, the separate hotel rooms at the convention become an excuse to set up miniature murder vignettes. Zahler proves expert at building likable characters in just a line or two—troubled lovers, gallery owners sweet enough to call their mothers, a very unfortunate pregnant woman—then eviscerating them.

Blade is back in "Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich." Cinestate

That's not to oversell the point. Characters are still infinitely more expendable than charming (except Skeeta Jenkins as Cuddly Bear). But there's a difference in the Puppet Master approach to slaughter. Rather than a perspective of cosmic judgment, Puppet Master embraces the moral horror of hate crimes, denouncing the prejudices of its tiny Nazi killers. It's not exactly subtle. Moskowitz, who becomes the avatar of Jewish wrath, mutters lines like "I can think of six million reasons why." But The Littlest Reich dares to take its very silly premise with surprising seriousness.

This is, of course, still a movie that takes joy in showing us the turd floating in a toilet, just before the bowl becomes the final resting place of a man's decapitated head, his body still standing, peeing on its own face. Its pleasures are found in watching Blade, Torch, Mechaniker and a frog-clown puppet named "Happy Amphibian" gut and decapitate in the most creative ways possible.

For some, this will look like The Littlest Reich trying to have it both ways. And indeed, the opening scene, with Toulon killing a lesbian couple, exemplifies the uncomfortable collision of real-world hate crime violence and the transgressive thrill offered by horror movie meat grinding. But while Littlest Reich is "politically incorrect" in the broadest, dumbest sense of that increasingly useless label, it never revels in comeuppance. Instead, The Littlest Reich takes its cue, tastelessly but accurately, from the moral clarity of genocide. It respects its characters lives even as it disrespects their corpses. No matter their attitudes or crimes, the besieged in the hotel are victims of a terrible evil rather than characters condemned by an audience baying for blood.