One expects a bit of tastelessness in even the most restrained horror movies nowadays, but this reboot of the long-running “Puppet Master” series, which stretches back to 1989, lays it on thick, in terms of both style and substance. “The Littlest Reich” aims for instant cult status—and a secure berth on the midnight-movie circuit—by combining a really nasty premise with blood-and-guts effects that are both disgustingly over-the-top and so cheesy that they’re an immediate joke.
The movie, directed prosaically by Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund from a screenplay by S. Craig Zahler (whose “Bone Tomahawk, which he both wrote and helmed, was far more imaginative), begins with a prologue set in a small Texas town in 1989. It recasts André Toulon (here Udo Kier, with a terribly scarred face), the creator of the menacingly mobile, weapon-loaded marionettes, as a Nazi who fashioned the little un-darlings as a pint-sized means of exterminating Hitler’s undesirables. But his decision to send them out to kill a couple of lesbians who have rejected his advances bring down the attention of the local cops, who kill him in an arrest attempt at his mansion. His remains are buried in a curious mausoleum in the backyard, his puppets are dispersed, and the town fathers for some reason turn the house into a museum.
Cut ahead to the present, when the town is holding a convention where owners of the puppets, which have now become collectors’ items, will buy, sell and trade their stock. Comic-book store clerk Edgar (Thomas Lennon), who has “inherited” one from his dead brother (who, his mother tells him, found it at a “sleepaway camp”), decides to attend. He asks his girlfriend Ashley (Jenny Pellicer) and his caustic co-worker Markowitz (Nelson Franklin) if they’d care to tag along.
Once they’re at the convention, however, things go awry as the puppets are reanimated and begin slaughtering people. The initial targets are the obvious ones: Jews, “Gypsies,” blacks, gays; but gradually they branch out to become pretty indiscriminate. The response of the blockhead detective (Michael Paré) who’s called in to investigate is to assemble the conventioneers in the lobby of the hotel where’s they’re all staying for questioning, which quickly turns out to be a bad idea. In the end it’s Edgar who deduces that the source of the demonic critters’ power must come from the Toulon homestead, and particularly the mausoleum with the curious metal adornments on the roof that resemble lightning rods. He and Ashley speed out there to see if they can end the carnage.
After a forty-minute set-up, most of the movie, consists of showing the string of sadistic killings perpetrated by the puppets, who exult especially in gutting folks from outside and in; one fellow is dispatched at a desk, with his innards toppling to the floor in a bloody mess, and another is attacked while relieving himself, while a pregnant woman—along with her unborn child—is dealt with gruesomely in bed. Fans might respond gleefully to the gore, but the visual effects supervised by Tate Steinsiek are so rudimentary that they’re more likely to make you giggle at their crudity than shudder at their repulsiveness. Even the puppets’ movements are hilariously low-tech. And while most movies of this type feature dialogue that tries for comedy, even of a juvenile sort, most of the lines here are pretty flat to begin with, or at least fall that way.
Lennon, Pellicer and Franklin give the material far more commitment than it deserves, but most of the supporting cast brings a degree of self-consciousness to their roles that’s counter-productive. Winking at the audience may provide momentary amusement, but over the long haul it gets tiresome.
“The Littlest Reich” hardly damages the “Puppet Master” franchise, which was ostentatiously junky from the very start; but it certainly doesn’t improve on it. It wants to be gross-out fun, but manages only to be rather slow and dull.