It’s good to know that even in the era of “elevated horror”, there are still filmmakers out there making unremittingly nasty little pictures; the kind of sleazy, deliciously overbaked fright fests you might have found hidden in the darkened corner of your local Blockbuster back in the day.
Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is such a picture. A glorious resurrection of Charles Band’s Puppet Master franchise, the film revels in nasty details and stunning VFX tricks, as a small band of heroes must face off against a pantheon of flame-throwing, slicing and dicing marionettes animated by the vengeful spirit of a disfigured Nazi.
Penned by one of the most exciting filmmakers to emerge in the last ten years, S. Craig Zahler, and produced by Dallas Sonnier, the man flying the flag for unconventional indie filmmaking, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is an unmissable barrage of excess; a melange of blood, and piss, and flesh that never takes itself too seriously.
We talked to Sonnier about Band, Zahler, and the state of modern horror.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The BRAG: How did you first meet S. Craig Zahler?
Dallas Sonnier: Zahler burst onto the scene with the sale of his spec script The Brigands Of Rattleborge to Warner Bros. While this script is currently a priority for Amazon to produce and finance next year, at the time of sale in 2006, the script was voted number one on Franklin Leonard’s Black List.
Watch the trailer for Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich here:
Naturally, every literary manager in Hollywood – including me – started the process of trying to sign Zahler. A couple of years later, Zahler informed his agent that he was open to taking on a manager, and each of us was given about 20 minutes on the phone to make their case.
I treated this phone call as if I was already Zahler’s manager, and did not waste my precious opportunity telling him who else I represented or any of my accomplishments. I flew to New York City days later and won the signing derby. Zahler took a huge risk signing with a young guy who had his own tiny management company, but I think he recognized that I was going to hustle to no end to get his scripts sold and eventually his movies made.
Were you a fan of the Puppet Master series before you got involved with The Littlest Reich?
Sonnier: Absolutely. My Aunt Missy let me rent the original Puppet Master from a Shreveport Albertson’s with a small video rental area near the front entrance in 1989 during a family visit for Thanksgiving. I was so brand-loyal to Full Moon as a kid that I would rent their movies from Blockbuster and Movie Gallery without even reading the box.
How did you and Zahler become involved with The Littlest Reich?
Sonnier: My wife was a publicist in Hollywood before we moved to Texas, and she focused on representing independent movies. Somehow she got an email from Charles Band himself asking if she was opening to being his publicist. She had no clue who he was, but when she showed me the email, I nearly fainted and told she had to sign Band.
Zahler kept telling me about these Swedish directors who were making these low-budget, high-quality, super-intense horror movies in their hometown.
A few weeks later, I got my chance to meet Band, and I pitched him on the idea of rebooting the franchise in a way that allowed Full Moon to continue making movies in their original canon. Band agreed, and when I told Zahler that I had acquired the remake rights, he agreed to create an all-new mythology for “our” new Puppet Master universe. We found an investor to pay Zahler to write the script and away we went.
When did Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund get involved?
Sonnier: Zahler kept telling me about these Swedish directors who were making these low-budget, high-quality, super-intense horror movies in their hometown. Every time I suggest any director candidate for Puppet Master, Zahler would always say, ‘No, go call the Swedes.’ Finally, I called the Swedes, and months later, they were in Dallas, TX for the start of prep.
What was it like working alongside Charles Band?
Sonnier: Band has become one of my close friends through this process. I have so much respect for anyone that can survive in this complicated, soul-destroying world of indie movies. I took great care with Puppet Master, the crown jewel of his empire, because I wanted him to be proud, and I know he’s impressed – and he got paid!
Watch the trailer for the first Puppet Master here:
Band and I already have our next project together, as we are rebooting the Full Moon title Castle Freak. But now I’m also rebooting Stuart Gordon, another person I am close to and respect enormously, so the pressure is ON!
The Littlest Reich walks an excellent line between honouring the series and its fans, and breaking new ground. Was that the plan from the outset?
Sonnier: Absolutely. We have some of the original-canon puppets, albeit with new designs, and some new puppet creations. 10+ sequels in the original franchise where the puppets are “anti-heros” makes it hard sometimes to remember that the puppets were actually villains in the first and second original movies. But we took it a giant step farther and made them nasty little fucks.
The film also has a brilliant, blackly comic streak. Was it hard to keep that streak without ever tipping into pastiche?
Sonnier: The entire cast agreed to play their roles totally straight-faced and deadpan. Combine this element with a group of genre-obsessed filmmakers, producers, SFX makeup artists and other crew, and you have a movie that understands itself and its audience.
Watch the trailer for Puppet Master 2 here:
It’s such a joy to see Barbara Crampton onscreen. At what point did she become involved in the production?
Sonnier: During our casting process, I thought it was be great to feature a member of the original Puppet Master cast in our new movie. Barbara’s role in the first movie was brief, and we were offering her a lead role, so we all just loved this idea. Barbara has sense become a friend, just another example of how my own life has been so positively affected by making this movie.
How long did Littlest Reich shoot for? Was it a stressful shoot?
Sonnier: We shot for around 20 days, plus a few “skeleton crew” days where we just shot the puppets and their movements. The shoot was stressful because we were on a tight budget and schedule (which indie movie isn’t?!), but everyone worked hard to make something special.
Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich plays the Sydney Underground Film Festival.