I am shocked by this movie. Shocked, I tell you. Bewildered. Astonished. Flabbergasted. Not because Attack of the Puppet People is a great film. Oh, no. My surprise comes from the fact that despite this being a film from Samuel Z. Arkoff’s gristmill, American International Pictures, and despite it being produced and directed by shitty movie auteur Bert I. Gordon, this film does not suck. It’s low-rent, to be sure, and there are more than a few amateurish moments scattered throughout, but this flick is at least as good as contemporary television sci-fi.
Released in 1958, Attack of the Puppet People is sandwiched between The Amazing Colossal Man and War of the Colossal Beast in Gordon’s filmography. I reviewed both of those films for last year’s Horrorshow, along with many other Gordon flicks, and this is, without a doubt, the best movie I have seen from Bert I. Gordon. He showed a much defter touch in storytelling and pacing than had been hinted at in his other works. His other films are master classes in dead spots and shameless padding. His effects work, which he did in his garage, was subpar to the point of charming laughability. His effects in this film are still cheap, sure, but they look far better than what he was normally capable of, and in many places are actually believable.
This is the one time, in all his career, that Gordon showed significant growth as a filmmaker, as if he was on the verge of figuring it all out and taking a leap in quality. That was not to be so. The important thing is, this is a really good movie…for a Bert I. Gordon flick.
Attack of the Puppet People follows June Kenney as Sally Reynolds, a young woman who answers an ad for a secretarial position for dollmaker Mr. Franz (John Hoyt).
Franz is a former marionettist who used to perform in Europe, but has now settled down on the west coast. Besides making the typical children’s dolls, Franz has a small special collection of realistic dolls that he keeps in glass tubes. Look closely at these dolls and one can see Gordon took quite a shortcut with them. Rather than dolls, they are full-body cutout photographs of people. Gordon always made sure that when cast members were holding the tubes, the photos were facing the camera to minimize their lack of three-dimensionality. That’s about the worst offense Gordon commits in this film.
Franz is very protective of these dolls, and it begins to make Sally suspicious. She’s also being wooed by a salesman who comes to the office from St. Louis, named Bob Westley (John Agar). Their romance progresses to engagement, and like all good women in the 1950s, Sally intends to leave her job now that she’s getting hitched. But, when she tells Franz, he tells her that Bob has gone back to St. Louis, leaving Sally high and dry. By this point in the film, we viewers know that isn’t true, because Bob isn’t the first associate of Franz to up and disappear from the film.
Sally presses Franz on Bob’s leaving to the point that Franz reveals his secret about the special dolls. They are not dolls at all, but the missing people, miniaturized. And now Sally and Bob are among them. Gordon telegraphs this outcome so much that it comes as no surprise, but he still managed to maintain some tension and mystery in the first act. Keeping an audience engaged even when they know what’s coming is, dare I say it, skilled filmmaking. And it gets better.
Franz likes his doll people to have a good time, so he wakes up more for an impromptu little people party, which he towers over.
Gordon, thank goodness, decided to avoid compositing his cast as miniatures into regular shots. He used the technique in only a few frames here and there, and here he showed his normal level of skill. For the most part, the cast, when they are playing miniature people, are acting on giant-sized sets, similar to The Incredible Shrinking Man from a year earlier. There are giant doors, giant tables, giant telephones, giant matchboxes, giant tin cans, and other such stuff, that Bob, Sally, and company have to navigate in Franz’s workshop.
Meanwhile, Franz is a total nut. He kidnapped and shrank these people because he wanted to be closer to them. He wants a domineering, autocratic form of friendship, where his dolls do everything he demands of them, in exchange for a lifetime of leisure, free of the worries of modern society. He refuses to acknowledge that maybe people wouldn’t like to be shrunk down and stored in suspended animation in glass tubes. Franz insists that living in his workshop is a form of freedom, when it’s anything but.
The final act of the film follows the doll people as they try and escape their confinement and use Franz’s equipment to return them to normal size. Viewers should have some idea how this turns out, but Gordon still did a much better job with denouement than he did with Franz’s kidnappings.
There was room for improvement in this film. For one, in the first act, when all these people are disappearing around Franz, even though the audience knows what’s up, Gordon doesn’t show any of them in peril. They are just removed from the film, and their photo doll appears on the shelf in Franz’s office. More could have been done.
Gordon was helped quite a bit by the cast. His films didn’t normally attract much in the way of talent, but Hoyt and Agar both had long careers in Hollywood. Hoyt gave the best performance in the film (the man had talent enough to appear in Spartacus a couple years later, after all), and there wasn’t a stinker amongst any of the performances.
Attack of the Puppet People has all the look and feel of a really good episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. The plot is typical of an episode from those shows, and Gordon’s strained finances mirrored the economical productions of television. The film does seem like a departure from the giant monster flicks that Gordon is known for, but from the perspective of the doll characters, this is a giant monster flick. The subject matter is not so strange for Gordon, then. But, with this film, he showed a grasp of storytelling that he never had before, and never would again. Much of that could be due to George Worthing Yates’s screenplay. He has a lot of b-movies in his oeuvre, but he also penned Them!, so he was no slouch in the sci-fi writing department.
No matter what, Gordon and company turned out a b-movie that is surprisingly easy to get lost in.