Thursday, August 23, 2018

FrightFest ’18: Puppet Master—The Littlest Reich

They are vicious, homicidal National Socialist puppets, but at least they are not as annoying as the moralizing sock-puppets from Avenue Q. The killer puppets of Charles Band’s bread and butter franchise haven’t gone anywhere. In fact, they are now terrorizing full-size people in two separate cinematic worlds: Band’s continuing Puppet Master universe and the new licensed reboot (highly likely to generate sequels of its own). Everyone starts with a clean slate, but the little monsters and their nasty creator are just as evil as they ever were, maybe even more so, in Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund’s Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (trailer here), which screens during this year’s FrightFest in the UK.

In 1989, there was a notorious incident at the mansion of former Hitler confidant Andre Toulon, a master of mad science and the occult. Since then, his hand-crafted mail order puppets have become morbid collector’s items. Indie comic book artist Edgar Easton is considering auctioning off the puppet that once belonged to his brother—his late brother, who died under mysterious circumstances.

He had been deeply depressed by his recent divorce, especially since he was forced to move back in with his parents. However, his sudden romance with Ashley Summers, the little sister of a former classmate has drastically improved his outlook. She is such a good sport, she is oddly game to accompany him to the convention marking the 30th anniversary of the Toulon Murders. Rather awkwardly, Easton’s obnoxious comic shop boss Markowitz invites himself along too, but he will be surprisingly handy to have around when things get crazy. In retrospect, it was probably a bad idea to collect so many Toulon puppets in one place.

At times, Littlest Reich is deliriously gory, seriously challenging the gleeful levels of mayhem in Band’s own films. Yet, S. Craig (Brawl in Cellblock 99) Zahler’s screenplay is surprisingly strong when it comes to characterization. Easton, Summers, and Markowitz are all quite sharp and funny. We actually root for them to live. Thomas Lennon and Jenny Pellicer have terrific bantering chemistry as Easton and Summers, while Nelson Franklin scores big laughs as Markowitz, before commandingly assuming the film’s heroic mantle.

Barbara Crampton also shows her under-appreciated comedic chops as Officer Carol Doreski, one of the original responding cops, who now gives lurid tours at the old Toulon house. Of course, Udo Kier does his thing as Toulon. Matthias Hues adds further cult weirdness playing a himbo hook-up, whose body is commandeered by the Toulon puppets.

As you probably figured out, Littlest Reich is not the subtlest film to come along. For instance, it literally ends with “To Be Continued” blazoned across the screen in big block letters (but there is also a short but amusing stinger at the very end). After the first rebooting, we’re already eager for more Puppet Mastery from Laguna, Wiklund, and Zahler. It is a fun film to watch on your own, but it should be an absolute blast at a festival setting. Highly recommended for fans of horror-comedies, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich screens twice tomorrow (8/24) as part of this year’s FrightFest UK—and finishes its New York run tonight (8/23) at the Village East.