Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich

 

Nailed It! is a Netflix show about amateur bakers, who’ve been given the unenviable task of recreating baked goods, as created by professional bakers. They’re given a short time frame, the recipe and a host of ingredients to choose from and they must make a replica of whatever insanely designed item given to them. Of course, they fail. And we laugh alongside them as they do it. We’ve all been there. The internet is littered with Pinterest fails.

Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is a Pinterest fail.

Facts Are Facts

Writers S. Craig Zahler
Directors: Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund
Gayly: Retro practical effects, great, if misplace, score
Dreadful: Inconsistent tone and just sort of boring
Pairs With: The inevitable sequel
Available: VOD

I have nothing to base this iteration of the long-running Puppet Master series. Even though I'm of the appropriate age for this series, the Puppet Master series is one I've never experienced. I was surprised recently to learn that there are actually now twelve films in this series, which makes it one of the longest running horror franchises.

A prologue starts in 1989 and showcases Udo Kier's fabulously campy turn as Toulon, the puppet master. He enters a bar, hilariously orders a club soda and has the bartender slice a lemon he brought with him.  Turns out the bartender is a lesbian, Toulon isn't happy and he leaves. Death happens and we're brought to present day, where recently divorced comic-writer Edgar has moved back in with his parents. In his now deceased little brother's room, he finds a box with a creepy puppet in it. Yep, you guessed it, it's one of Toulon's puppets. And, as it turns out, there's a Toulon convention about to happen and an auction where people are selling off Toulon's puppets.

Things happen and Edgar, his boss Markowitz and Edgar's new boo Ashley head to the convention to sell Edgar's dead brother's puppet. Of course, with everyone else bringing their own puppets to sell, shit happens, the dolls come to life and start offing people. Well, start offing people that Nazis would want to off.

Many reviewers have commented that the tone wildly changes throughout the movie and, while that's true, I don't think it entirely captures what happens here. Firstly, you have Thomas Lennon, a master of improv humor, playing the straight man. Sure, it's always nice to see a comedic actor tackle a dramatic role, but c'mon. You also have the bad guys as Nazis, who are wont to kill Jewish people, anyone not white and homosexuals. Yes, others die, but as Edgar even says in the film, the targets are the "undesirables." 

Weirdly, the movie is played completely straight for most of the runtime. It feels very dramatic, but never overly so, to the point of satire or parody. Yes, some of the kills have a comedic thrill to them; I'm thinking in particular of a beheading that is staged pretty well. But those are offset by a lot of just purely sad deaths, which kind of outweigh the funny.  A couple moments do happen that bring some kind of madcap zeal to the movie. One, in particular, and yes this is a spoiler I guess, is that one of the dolls is quite literally a baby Hitler. Who gets shot, as in the question of "If you could go back in time, would you kill Baby Hitler?" So, the heroes literally kill Baby Hitler. One or two other moments have a similar type of humor quotient, but mostly they're just practical effect extravaganzas. With lots of red corn syrup.

Attempting to bring new life into this long-toothed saga is a script, surprisingly by S. Craig Zahler. Zahler wrote two fantastic exploitation flicks of the last few years, The Brawl in Cellblock 99 and Bone Tomahawk. Both of those married well-written dialogue with fantastic performances and a dark exploitative feel that harkened back to the grindhouse days of the 70s, with better effects, budget and acting. Those movies had moments of dark humor, interspersed through a very dramatic and serious story. I think that was the intent here, as well. Unfortunately, it isn’t executed as well.

Compounding this confusion is a very remarkable score...but one that feels like it belongs in a different movie. It’s a pretty stunning score, brought to life by Richard Band and Fabio Frizzi. Richard Band has been involved in a ton of genre movies, like The Re-Animator and From Beyond and The House on Sorority Row, to name a few. Meanwhile, Frizzi has composed for many Italian horror films, including Fulci’s  Zombie, The Beyond and City of the Living Dead. Unfortunately, as good as the score is, it feels a bit misplaced. It adds to some of the tonal problems I have with the movie. The sometimes tongue-in-cheek humor of the film is often undercut by the surprisingly serious and moody score.

After I finished watching it, I looked up the director and wasn't surprised to see that it was Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund, the co-directors of Wither, the Swedish homage to The Evil Dead. My problem with that film was that the timing just felt a little off. It had all of the ingredients that made The Evil Dead such a comedic/horror masterpiece, but none of the execution. It's like the chefs of Nailed It! who end up accidentally using salt, instead of sugar. On paper, this looks like a win. You have a script by S. Craig Zahler, who's written some fantastic movies over the last few years. You have Thomas Lennon and Barbara Crampton. You have a fantastic score by the incomparable Fabio Frizzi and Richard Band. And actual practical effects. And yet, here we are.

Nailed it.

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