Does this really make thirteen Puppet Master films?
Postville, Texas circa 1989. The Easy Comfort Lounge gets another visit from an old recluse in a tailored suit (Udo Kier) creeping on the waitresses; when they reveal to him their attraction to one another and spurn him, accidents happen. Local cop Doreski (Barbara Crampton) makes a connection between the crime scene and the local recluse, catching him at his home and gunning him down. Thirty years later, struggling comics artist Edgar (Thomas Lennon) is in full-on recently divorced midlife-crisis mode moving back in with his parents. With little choice in having to stay in the bedroom enshrined to his brother who died as a child, Edgar finds a grotesque antique handmade puppet and decides to sell it at a local convention auction — one commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Toulon (pronounced “too-loan”) murders featuring over 100 killer puppets made by Andre himself. What could possibly go wrong?
If Udo Kier doing his Lacey-est Raiders of the Lost Ark Toht impression as master-of-puppets Andre Toulon isn’t enough to get you into this genre horror slasher, you’re probably not a fan to begin with. That’s okay: the ads for this entry claim nothing less than “one of the most violent films ever made” with scenes of puppet violence and graphic on-screen sadism, so it’s clear who the target audience is with a producer like Fangoria. With killer puppets being murderous a given, can this latest installment reinvigorate the franchise and live up to the promised hype in a ninety-minute kill-fest?
From comic-book inspired opening credits to a pure-eighties intro segueing into the classic Puppet Master theme, directors Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund appear to have their fingers on the current pulse of the slasher fan. While the film touts low-budget values and is imbued with campy self-awareness, the new cast is as endearing as the puppets are relentless, a production laden with practical effects and few wasted moments. Everything feels intentional: too much sex-on-the-brain, comically gratuitous boobs, and traditionally exploitive kills. Cops who reload! People closing doors! Characters catching clues! While filmmakers could be accused of making deliberate statements with their targeted victims, the film plays like a classic set-em-up, knock-em-down overkill horror as fans like it.
That said, a few facts seems to get glossed over along the way — insert “hmm” here. The “historical and informational” convention hints at far more deaths than two girls on a Texas highway; a backstory tour of the Nazi-embracing Toulon mansion and its construction suggests an occult connection but never fills in the blanks; too many characters for this kind of movie hang lanterns on plot revelations almost as fast as viewers. Jenny Pellicer’s sudden love interest Ashley and Nelson Franklin’s wisecraking Markowitz are standouts along with “Cuddler Bear” Skeeta Jenkins — you’ll see. While the film transitions are often jarring, it succeeds in contributing to the unease, pulling viewers in along with the victims trying to guess where the next attack will come from. When the end comes, it feels too soon — and damn it if we don’t want more.
As a modern take on the cult classic, the feel of the film is akin to Adam Green’s Hatchet franchise in the best way. While not an original monster like Victor Crowley, this entry is makes no secret it’s intended as a first installment should enough money be made and it isn’t the last we’ll see of the survivors, possibly the victims, and certainly not of puppets Blade, Pinhead, or Torch. Rewarding to those in the know, it definitely seems like the film two maniacs would make.
Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is happily not rated but will accept mad nerd-cred comics props for featuring Goon.
Three skull recommendation out of four