Puppet Master maestro Charles Band on The Littlest Reich and 28 years of tiny terrors
A gleefully gory and intentionally galling middle-finger of a midnight movie, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich reimagines the cult killer-doll franchise with dramatically increased bloodlust and a Troma provocateur’s mean-spirited edge. It’s so exaggeratedly offensive that it feels like flat-out dangerous filmmaking in 2018.
Executive-produced by prolific B-movie maestro Charles Band and directed by Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund (not to mention penned by Bone Tomahawk writer-director S. Craig Zahler), The Littlest Reich (currently in theaters and available on VOD) finds the puppets returning with a vengeance: among them crafty ringleader Blade, pyromaniacal Torch (renamed “The Kaiser” for this latest outing), and hard-charging Tunneler. But for the first time, we see the series’ protagonist, puppet master André Toulon, as an evil Nazi, as opposed to his usual role of fighting against the Third Reich.
As such, when The Littlest Reich’s lethal toys spring to life at a convention honoring their creator, the folks earmarked for execution include a yarmulke-wearing curio collector, a young gay man, and in one of the movie’s most unapologetically indefensible scenes, a pregnant black woman.
Such politically incorrect carnage is a far cry from Band’s previous Puppet Master films, all gruesomely goofy direct-to-video joints that occupied a genre sweet spot between camp and creep. As the largest-scale Puppet Master movie to date and the first to premiere in theaters, The Littlest Reich, and its sadistic, button-pushing sensibilities certainly raise some questions.
So EW turned to Band for answers, sitting down with the 66-year-old schlockmeister at his Full Moon Features offices to discuss Puppet Master’s new blood. “It’s not a movie that I would have made,” he acknowledges. And that was precisely the point.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve been the architect of the Puppet Master franchise for almost 30 years, and relatively hands-on with every installment, even directing the last two. For The Littlest Reich, though, you licensed rights to Cinestate and its co-founder Dallas Sonnier, with the idea that they’d provide a new take on the property. What’s that been like for you?
CHARLES BAND: You know, it’s cool that we’ve been able to license the rights to make a different version of Puppet Master, someone else’s vision of what that movie, what that whole story could wind up being. It’s almost like a bizarro world where you’ve got what we’ve been doing since 1990 — so 28 years of making now 11 Puppet Masters — and now we have Cinestate, with their Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, which is just a whole different departure. The puppets look a little different. They’re a little meaner and more twisted, and I think it’s even more of an exploitation movie than movies I’ve made. It’s that gonzo.
I have to ask about the content of the new movie. It flips your puppets from being essentially Holocaust survivors to being Nazis carrying out hate crimes.
Terrible, terrible. [Laughs]
It’s a pretty big shift! How do you feel about Cinestate’s new vision?
I’ve made almost 300 movies,and a lot of them involve puppets and dolls; even though there’ve been some really evil puppets and dolls, I think at their core my movies are a little less mean-spirited. I usually turn the puppets good, so in our Puppet Master franchise, they are kind of the good guys. Not at all the case in this Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich.
You’ve got to go back to what exploitation movies were 40-50 years ago. I mean, it’s hard today. There’s so much out there. We’re so jaded. I mean, television news, when something bad happens, it’s worse than most horror movies I’ve ever made: decapitations and terrorism. And, you know, what do you do to an audience that has seen it all, to get them talking? What [Cinestate] has done is gone full-on exploitation. They’ve got something going there, where there is going to be controversy. There are going to be people pissed off. I’ve read some of the reviews, and some people dig it, and some people think it’s terrible.
I mean, listen, Nazi puppets… Nazis were bad. [Laughs] Maybe ultimately I’m the one who made a mistake by making [the puppets] kind of good in my series, where they’re killing Nazis. A Nazi puppet, by virtue of what it is, is a bad, bigoted, nasty puppet. So I think the two series can live side-by-side.
So you see The Littlest Reich as being more of a spin-off, or a side series, instead of you passing the mantle?
Oh, for sure. Whether it continues is up to Cinestate, what they do, but I was very careful with Dallas — who’s a great guy and owns Cinestate — in making sure that’s a separate Puppet Master franchise. That’s why the puppets look different. In a more traditional deal with a studio, you kind of sign your rights away. I will continue to make my Puppet Master movies with the puppets as we know them and new puppets. And he, if he chooses to, will continue to make those Puppet Master movies. He wants to do another Full Moon reboot, so it looks like we’ll be doing Castlefreak, which is right up their alley. Even under our production, it was one of the darker ones for us, and they want to go further.
You’re talking about it as essentially a darker, alt-universe Puppet Master rather than a reboot.
I wouldn’t have done it otherwise. The offers I had over the past four to five years on Puppet Master — and one was significant — were, “We’ll give you this money and take over the franchise. We’re going to use essentially your designs, to make a bigger-budgeted Puppet Master, and you’re essentially out of the Puppet Master business.” And I said, “I can’t do that. I won’t.” Money is good, and life is sometimes not easy for independent filmmakers. But you can’t take a 28-year-old franchise and just give it away. That’s why the deal with Dallas made sense.
With The Littlest Reich coming out, do you feel pressure to capitalize on the publicity and make another one of your Puppet Master movies, to reassert your vision side-by-side with theirs?
I mean, I’ve made a lot. And I made one that was literally released last year [Puppet Master: Axis Termination], which I’m very proud of, this beautiful continuation of a trilogy we were doing. I’ll make another soon, but not right now.
It makes sense to give yourself a breather and see how The Littlest Reich does.
Well, that’s independent. It doesn’t really matter. I have a feeling it’s going to do well enough, because it’s just controversial and nasty enough, and people love gore. I’m also not personally a big gore fan. I’ve never made a torture-horror movie. Those aren’t my thing. I’ve never really made a slasher movie. Never made an erotic thriller. The idea of a monster chopping up a girl is kind of explicitly, well, you know. And then people have sex? That was a terrible genre, in my opinion. So we’ll see how their thing does, but it’s separate from what my next Puppet Master will be. It’s two different worlds.
My feeling is, no matter how the audience reacts, for people who are young enough or not familiar, they may look or be interested to see this one. They’ll be like, “Oh, this is cool,” or, “This kind of sucks,” but hopefully they’ll then check some of the other Puppet Master movies out.
Puppet Master has always been this iconic direct-to-video franchise, but obviously video stores have gone the way of the dinosaur over the past decade. How has Full Moon adapted to that?
People grew up with that franchise. We were lucky that we were one of the most successful independents [back in the ’90s]. We tried to put out a movie every month, so people would say, “Oh, there’s a new Full Moon movie.” You know, Puppet Master movies and before that Subspecies, Demonic Toys, Ghoulies, Re-Animator, From Beyond, an endless amount of low-budget fantasy fare. And that’s what we’re still doing. And the universe is expanding. The local video store is gone. So we put a lot of effort into our Full Moon channel we’ve had on Amazon for two years, and it’s doing really well. It’s about finding those people again, saying, “Hey, you can’t go to your local video, because it’s a laundromat today or whatever, but for $6.99 a month, you can watch everything Full Moon’s ever made.” It’s our new video-store. It’s like my life’s work for $6.99. [Laughs]
You were a pioneering low-budget filmmaker even back in the ’80s and ’90s, and horror has seen huge success with micro-budgeted movies recently. What led you to focus on low-cost fare?
First and foremost, this is my business. This is not just me raising money from friends. If it works, great; if not, everyone loses money. If you’re going to survive in the business, yes, there are always limitations. People have said to me over the years, “If you had a big budget, this would have been a huge movie, because the premise was cool.” But you do the best you can. You try to stretch the dollars and try to put more value on the screen. And that’s a genre and a loose budget range I’m comfortable with. I have some friends who worked for me years ago, and now they’re superstars in their mainstream world. They make lots of money, but they also sit around sometimes for two years to wait for the next gig. So here, at least, even though we have tiny budgets compared to major studios, something makes sense, we dream it up, and 60 days later we’re in preproduction.
Did the original Puppet Master go theatrical?
It did not. People think it did. The real hat trick, back in the great days of direct-to-DVD, was to create a campaign and a title that felt like you missed it theatrically. So when you’d go to your video store, you’d be like, “Oh yeah, I must have missed that.” And that’s hard to do. It’s the title, the poster, the vibe. If you could bottle that and do that every time, you would. But we did quite a few of those. It’s a bit of a magic trick.
There’s some question as to whether you’re the most prolific horror filmmaker of all time. Care to weigh in?
Roger Corman is a friend; he was definitely a prolific filmmaker in his time, but he made all genres, and a lot of his movies he acquired. The ones he directed were really good. But I guess I am leaps and bounds the most prolific horror filmmaker. It’s a little under 300 that I’ve produced. I directed 50 or 60 movies, but with a few exceptions even out of those 300, they’re all my concepts, my story ideas, my titles, my art concepts. They’ve come from the shop, for better or for worse. I should go to Guinness.
Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich