Thomas Lennon came of age during the golden age of schlocky horror films, and his work as a comedy writer, even if it's mostly absent gratuitous gore and murderous marionettes, reflects some of the genre's off-kilter, balls-to-the-wall sensibility. So when Lennon — who co-founded the seminal comedy group The State, created the show Reno 911, and has written blockbusters like the Night at the Museum and Baywatch — got the script for a reboot of the seminal straight-to-video horror series Puppet Master, there was something eerily familiar about the material.
"When I got sent the script for The Littlest Reich I was like, oh, this is a thing that I have a vague recollection of?" Lennon admitted in a recent conversation with SYFY WIRE. "And I thought it was maybe the Trilogy of Terror? And that's something different, but it was in that wonderful genre of little things killing full-size people, which is a genre that I do love."
His interest piqued by his innate fondness for tiny serial killers, he wound up signing on to the project, a modern reboot of a franchise that had 12 prior chapters, including one just last year. Swedish directorial duo Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund take over for franchise creator Charles Brand, but keep true to the roots of the franchise. Lennon plays Edgar, a down-on-his-luck divorcee and comic book artist — they really know their audience — who finds a puppet in a pile of his brother's old stuff. It's creepy as hell, so he decides to sell it at the anniversary celebration the famous mass slaughter that takes place in the first Puppet Master movie, which was released way back in 1989.
As expected, Edgar's puppet is actually possessed by a Nazi devil and all hell breaks loose when Edgar, his new girlfriend Ashley (Jenny Pellicer) and boss/friend Markowitz (Nelson Franklin) visit the hotel site of the original movie. It gets real gory, real quick, but Lennon was rather chipper when he spoke to SYFY WIRE in the aftermath of the event.
So after you discovered you hadn't seen any Puppet Master movies, what persuaded you to do this?
It was hard to not notice the script. It's not the kind of thing you forget when it's just like, "and then this person gets ripped apart and then these people are having sex and this guy's Achilles gets sawed off," it's like a letter from the Zodiac Killer.
I went back and watched the original, which is just my favorite kind of movie, just a bunch of people in a hotel and then the little guys are coming after them and killing them. They all walked down the hall. The great joy is that you just barely don't see somebody's hands most of the time.
So you were just smashing a puppet someone was holding off camera.
The fun of it is that most of the time, if Blade or Happy Amphibian are fighting me, I'm doing the handling of them. Which is great because then it's like that fun fantasy of childhood where you're like, "oh no, he's trying to kill me" and you wrestle yourself. So in those scenes, it's fun because I get to play Blade and I get to play Happy Amphibian, as they're battling me. Because very seldomly, if they're close enough to be attacking me, usually there can't be someone else in the shot.
This is one of those movies — and this was the fun of Reno 911 — where everyday you leave and you're just covered in stings and bruises and scrapes, and you just feel like, well, I know I gave my all today because every single part of my body hurts at least a little bit.
As a pretty prolific screenwriter, did you have much involvement in the story or editing the script?
We shot the script really almost word for word. There's not a ton of Improv and goofing around just because [screenwriter] Craig Zahler's a major writer. The one big moment of improv I think in the whole movie is when I'm fighting Blade and I yell to Jenny and she throws me the gun and I don't shoot it, but I started bashing his head like a hammer. I just thought I thought it'd be a much more practical way to get rid of something in my hands than to shoot at it or something.
It's rare to have an actual robot puppet to beat up now.
That was the fun of this one. I've been on some shows lately, even on Lethal Weapon sometimes it'll be like, OK, turn and look because that building behind you is going to blow up. I'm like, how is that going to happen? And they say oh, just in post. And I'm like oh, OK. But there was no "that's gonna happen in post on Puppet Master,” which was really great. It either happens right now or we don't do it.
Did you get to poke around the studio where they made all the murderous puppets?
Tate Steinsiek did all the practical effects and monsters and monster makeup, including the insane burnt head on Udo at the beginning of the film. We filmed at this creepy, creepy old hotel in Dallas called The Ambassador. And on the second floor of the hotel, Tate had this huge suite, that would have been four old rooms back in the day, that was just this incredible workshop where they had six or eight Blades in various phases.
There's one that can kind of walk and there's the one that's really great at stabbing you in the hand. It was tremendously fun and I actually got to take my son down into that workshop and it was just like the craziest thing. It's just like monsters and people and eyeballs.
Seeing it all come together, does any of it make you flinch?
I'm pretty tough, but boy, there's a couple moments that I still look away at. The pregnant lady sequence is pretty rough. And the guy's Achilles Tendon, I can't watch someone's Achilles get cut, it makes me bonkers.
You wrote the movie Hell Baby, so you have some experience with the genre. Do you think there's hidden social merit in all the gore, beyond it being a great time?
You know, it may not be for everybody. My favorite sequence in anything we've done is a scene in Hell Baby when it's Keegan-Michael Key and Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer and Ben [Garant] and I all playing hot potato with the devil baby. And it was fun because you get to see how everybody would deal with the devil baby. Some people punch it, some people bite it. I don't know if it has any, uh, social merit, but I do think there is something very fun about occasionally seeing or getting a shock laugh, just something that you laugh at because you're so incredibly shocked. The first time I saw Dead Alive, certainly, I was like, oh my God, who is this person? What's happening?
Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is currently in theaters and hits Blu-ray/DVD on September 25.