There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.
Sometimes, nice guys do finish last…
Attack of the Puppet People (1958)
(Dist.: American International Pictures; Dir.: Bert I. Gordon)
Some folks can’t stop doing their thing. John Ford just couldn’t stop making Westerns, and Alfred Hitchcock could never stop putting people in danger.
And then you had Bert Gordon, who has problems with scale.
Gordon’s best known by the concentration his output has on larger fauna. With films like King Dinosaur, The Amazing Colossal Man, Beginning of the End, and Empire of the Ants, you tend to pick up a rep. He’s also known by another “big” accomplishment: having the most titles from a director (eight) on Mystery Science Theater 3000.
And to a great extent, we get a good sense of Gordon’s outré with his film Attack of the Puppet People.
The main focus of the film is on Mr. Franz (John Hoyt), a gosh-awful nice guy who could make Jimmy Stewart seem uncouth by comparison. Never raises his voice, never gets angry, wouldn’t hurt a fly; all of this probably due to his wife leaving him suddenly for an acrobat years ago.
Which is why he shrinks folks he’s fond of to the size of an older G.I. Joe doll action figure, which he stores in plain sight for everyone to see. Which, this being that kind of movie, no one really notices because, hey, shrunken people aren’t real, right?
So, why does he choose the folks he does? The first time we’re made aware of his crimes is after his first secretary, Janet Hall (Jean Moorhead), respectfully keeps an invading Brownie troop horde (which includes among them Susan Gordon, Bert’s daughter) from disturbing the collection of dolls/victims. She appears later — after we’re told that she left her position when Sally Reynolds (June Kenney) applies for the vacancy — as one of the dolls in a tube in that display case.
I use the term “doll” here loosely, as when we see the victims it’s clearly a photograph of the actor that’s cut along the subject’s edges before ending up in the tube; no mention by the actors of the victim being flattened as well after undergoing the process, but that’s just details, so anyways…
Soon enough, Sally suffers the fate of lots of female leads in genre productions in the 1950s: slowly uncovering a menace the audience could see an hour earlier, trying not to be smarter than the limited material allows her, and of course, falling for Bob Westley (John Agar), a brash salesman who wants to marry Sally and move on with his life beyond just selling dolls.
So of course Mr. Franz shrinks the both of them down, explaining how he would miss them both terribly, while throwing in a few lines about how contented everyone would be as little people being cared for by a bigger entity because maybe it’s something about paternalistic social structures, but who knows considering how soft the conviction behind these lines are given by Mr. Franz.
And that’s the main problem with the film, other than its slight script and lack of engagement with it from the film’s cast. (Not to mention the cheese factor of watching Sally and Bob make out during their courting at the drive-in where Gordon’s earlier Amazing Colossal Man is playing on the screen.) Hoyt’s Mr. Franz is just too nice of a guy, too gentle for someone involved with miniaturizing people to keep around him as playthings. Imagine if they made a made a suspense thriller with Fred Rogers as the heavy; yeah, there’d be too many beautiful days in that neighborhood to ever feel threatened.
Maybe the gentle giant routine was a conscious decision, as Hoyt realized that you didn’t need a shrink ray to be able to walk through the holes in this script, and he knew he couldn’t sell it. Remember Janet, the first secretary? After we see her in her display case, she just disappears, while Franz takes out four people we didn’t see when they were larger to play with alongside Sally and Bob.
One of them, Laurie (Marlene Willis), was made a doll so that she could sing on cue the banal song from the film “You’re My Living Doll.” Why anyone would want to hear that piece a second time is beyond comprehension. And when Sally and Bob make a break for it, Laurie and the rest of the forgettable figurines just… disappear, no wiser or bigger. Maybe Franz stomped on them off screen, but considering how much of a mush pile he is, damned unlikely.
The big problems with the film are almost telegraphed in the title, “Attack of the Puppet People.” Reading that title straight, it seems like it’s the shrunken folk who are the aggressors; they’re the victims, but Mr. Franz is so damned low key, their efforts to rebel make them look like he’s the victim. There’s probably never been a more passive-aggressive title given to a genre film, ever. But the way this film plays out, well, dammit, someone has to do the work around here to plod this forward.
The whole thing becomes a mess that just goes nowhere. One could imagine that maybe, possibly, that all the camera angles in the film where they shot down on top of the actors was cribbed by Irwin Allen when it came time to shoot Land of the Giants, because compared to the similarly themed Doctor Cyclops and The Incredible Shrinking Man, there’s just no other justification for this film otherwise.
And that’s no small accomplishment.
NEXT TIME: Good roles for women in Hollywood have historically been bad, but with the Universal monster films, at times they really sucked…