All hail Bert I. Gordon, who singlehandedly carved out his own niche in ‘fifties monster folklore, and even won a battle or two against those sharpies at A.I.P.. His puppet people were originally just ‘Fantastic,’ but they had to be made into a menace with the “A” word usually reserved for icky poo Giant Leeches, Crab Monsters and 50-Foot Women.
Attack of the Puppet People
1958 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 79 min. / The Fantastic Puppet People, Six Inches Tall, I Was a Teenage Doll, War of the Puppet People / Street Date November 14, 2017 / 27.99
Starring: John Agar, John Hoyt, June Kenney, Susan Gordon, Michael Mark, Kack Kosslyn, Marlene Willis, Ken Miller, Laurie Mitchell, Scott Peters, June Jocelyn, Hank Patterson.
Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo
Special Effects: Bert I. Gordon, Flora M. Gordon
Original Music: Albert Glasser
Written by George Worthing Yates
Story, Produced & Directed by Bert I. Gordon
It’s easy to poke fun at Bert I. Gordon’s modest but overachieving monster pictures of the 1950s. My favorite is still his The Cyclops, with its cast of name actors doing their best to prop up a minimalist production. Gordon’s Beginning of the End works up at least one exciting grasshopper vs. Army battle scene, and The Amazing Colossal Man has its own sense of kooky grandeur.
Gordon’s pictures can be called auteur efforts, in a backhanded way. Never allowed into mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, he was a one-man band who had to work from scratch. He uses the same actors in character parts. A knack for clever special effects was his specialty, which allowed him to put together his first show for Robert Lippert. The Cyclops apparently stayed on the shelf for a year or so, but Gordon recovered and made several pictures with American-International on a semi-equal basis. A.I.P. kept up a decent partnership with Roger Corman, but acquired many of their releases at bargain prices, from independent producers whose bank loans were coming due.
Made almost in tandem with its eventual double-bill mate War of the Colossal Beast, 1958’s Attack of the Puppet People sees Gordon trying to get a handle on a more intimate sci-fi fantasy. It relies as much on story and performances as it does on special effects. Gordon has always been deficient as a filmmaker but he makes the grade as a producer: Puppet People was ‘as good as it had to be’ to earn a nationwide monster movie release in the busy year of 1958.
Screenwriter George Worthing Yates had solid credits on thrillers before he became a monster specialist. His screenplay can’t do much with ‘BIG’ordon’s shaky story premise. Lonely marionette master Mr. Franz (John Hoyt) has lost his wife and become a modest doll maker and repairman. He is also a brilliant scientist, and has constructed a ‘matter projector,’ which he uses to keep various people from leaving him. He shrinks them to doll-dimensions and stores them in suspended animation in tubes displayed right in his office. He’s done this to a mailman who wanted to retire but also a receptionist or two (including Jean Moorhead and Laurie Mitchell), a teenaged couple (Ken Miller & Marlene Willis), and a U.S. Marine (Scott Peters). The latest additions to his collection of ‘friends’ are yet another receptionist Sally Reynolds (June Kenney) and her fiancé, out-of-town salesman Bob Westley (John Agar). Mr. Franz suffers frequent interruptions, by his puppeteering colleague Emil (Michael Mark of The Wasp Woman) and a inquisitive Brownie Scout (Susan Gordon), who discovers his miniaturized cat. Allowed out of their plastic tubes only when Franz wants to ‘play,’ the group of young people doesn’t know how to escape. When a cop (Jack Kosslyn) gets too close, Franz regrets that he’ll have to kill all of his ‘little friends.’ But first he plans a midnight party in Emil’s puppet theater, where he makes his miniature prisoners play opposite a marionette.
Attack of the Puppet People is a bizarre opportunity mostly missed, not because it’s silly but because it’s too tame — it doesn’t take any of its interesting ideas far enough. Bert Gordon goes to a lot of expense in this one, building numerous giant props and pieces of furniture, but the adventures of his puppet people never come near the strange extravagance of earlier ‘tiny people’ fantasies: The Devil-Doll, or the plodding but visually impressive Dr. Cyclops. Shot for shot, the best previous use of giant sets to make people look small is probably a Laurel & Hardy short subject. Brats, but the one masterpiece in the subgenre, Richard Matheson’s The Incredible Shrinking Man.
Tom Weaver thinks that that previous film most like Attack is The Bride of Frankenstein, where Dr. Pretorious also stores his homunculi in tube-like jars, bringing them out ‘to play’ only occasionally. The idea of having ‘special friends to play with’ is of course what toy dolls are all about. The doll people in some of these movies are connected by the puppet master’s power trip — they’re dehumanized as experiments, or as programmable killers. One of many undeveloped ideas in Attack is Mr. Franz’s social maladjustment. Little girls are expected to set their dolls aside as they learn to interact with real-life friends in a civil manner. We all get along with some people and not others, but there a million different ways that people exploit each other. Some parents treat their children as possessions or accessories, and plenty of adults exert forms of control over people in their lives. Mr. Franz is a passive-aggressive maniac.
The control idea brings up the idea of sex – playing with dolls means that you can also make them ‘do things’ at will. The Devil-Doll has a strange half-expressed erotic aspect. I haven’t seen the later ‘puppet people’ movies that use miniaturized people as a sexy tease (Amour de poche [Girl in His Pocket,] 1957) or a political statement (La poupée; [The Doll], 1962). Despite the P.C. challenge involved, I’m surprised nobody has tried to make a film of the soft-core Playboy Femlin character.
I relate Puppet People more strongly to The Devil-Doll, because of Mr. Franz’s motivation, ‘a passive-aggressive revenge due to abandonment issues.’ His madness began when his wife left him, back in his stage performing days. She left him for another performer, which is exactly the plot of one of Tod Browning’s morbid thrillers with Lon Chaney. Browning Chaney villains often took revenge in bizarre, grotesque ways. Mr. Franz’s extravagant reaction is to ‘puppetize’ people so they can’t leave him. Here’s where Attack’s fantasy fails to connect the dots. The Devil-Doll expends a lot of energy establishing its pseudo-scientific miniaturization gimmick. Mr. Franz unaccountably possesses a piece of equipment he couldn’t possibly have built. It might as well have been mailed from Altair- 4 or Metaluna. By marketing his invention Mr. Franz could easily arrange never to be lonely again. Remember James Donald’s under-funded, unappreciated archeology lab in Quatermass and the Pit? But sitting over on a shelf, he’s got a friggin’ electronic device that projects images directly from human brains! Tom Weaver is right – Bert Gordon’s premise really belongs in a less realistic fantasy context.
Even if we accept the idea of a cute little old puppet-maker creating a sci-fi shrink-ola projector, Bert Gordon doesn’t build on his premise. In mystery thriller terms the cops should be zeroing in on Franz much earlier, as the old doll maker is the last contact for far too many missing persons. Franz’s mania has no sexual, playing-with-dolls angle. Shrinking women is not a substitute for possessing them. As pointed out by Tom Weaver, Gordon even forgets to emphasize the Femlin-like erotic detail of Sally wrapping herself in Franz’s monogrammed handkerchief. The shrunken people are given no new perspective on existence, as in Richard Matheson’s The Incredible Shrinking Man. The film also misses a bet by not capitalizing on the legitimate art of puppeteering. The dolls in Franz’s shop are cheap items from a dime store, and no matter what Emil says about Franz’s amazing talent, the marionette work we see looks amateurish.
No, producer-director Gordon has bitten off such a large chunk of special effects that important pieces of his story go missing. We never really see the matter projector in action. The puppet people attack promised on the exciting poster takes too long to get going, and when it does nothing of consequence happens. The fates of some puppet people (the unseen mailman, receptionist Janet) are never divulged, and Bob and Sally’s big ‘breakout’ leaves the fate of their fellow doll people up in the air.
The special effects needed for Attack of the Puppet People are more ambitious than The Incredible Shrinking Man, which was mostly limited to one basement. Gordon pulls off maybe thirty composite shots but the movie really needs twice as many. He has two matte angles on the workbench where the doll people are required to stay stock still. The rather good miniature props were reportedly fabricated by monster specialist Paul Blaisdell. The miniature people don’t interact much with them, so there’s not a lot of action there. The ten or so shots of Sally and Bob in the street are restricted in the extreme, and the theater escape of the other puppet folk simply isn’t depicted. One rear-projected view of a street shows an elevated train platform, indicating that the background plate, a still photo, was reused from Beginning of the End.
Yes, one can say that Gordon’s effects are impressive for the cost outlay, but that makes them imaginative and resourceful, not necessarily Good or Effective. His four or five blue-backing optical matte shots, to insert a kitten and a rat into scenes, are terrible. The rat that chases our couple down the sidewalk is as big as a Great Dane. Everything else is a rear-projection or a shaky split screen. The rigid effect setups require that the Puppet Folk mostly stand in one place (mustn’t break a matte line) while reading the weak dialogue. Eye-lines rarely match up. Franz’s hand pokes Bob from screen left, but Sally insists on looking screen right. Even the dog seems to be snarling at something off-screen, not the little people just below him. Marlene sings a song, for teen appeal, which might have worked if the mix were such that we believed she was really singing. Likewise Laurie Mitchell takes a bubble bath in a coffee can, to provide a shot to goose up the trailer.
People complain that the puppet people in their plastic tubes are obviously just photo cutouts, but I like the effect. That it works at all is a small miracle, and it often looks great – collector dolls are sometimes packaged similarly. The illusion would be 100% better if he’d done back and side view cutouts too, but not going that extra distance is what reminds us whose movie we’re looking at. Interestingly, the ‘people in tubes’ resonate with visuals in Forbidden Planet and This Island Earth, where space travelers are re-combobulated in tube-like thingamabobs. One spaceman even jokes that he ‘feels like a new toothbrush.’
John Hoyt’s performance is what keeps Puppet People in motion – his Mr. Franz is consistent and nicely shaded. He surely didn’t need acting direction, and he likely rallied the other actors as well. The various policemen, deliverymen, secretaries and whatnot seem to be on the same wavelength, so maybe Hoyt was an inspiration.
John Hoyt performs well, but even he can’t can’t fix the limp finish — I confess that I keep seeing the picture because I can never remember how it ends. Bert Gordon doesn’t put a satisfactory ‘Amen’ to any of the plot threads, and his direction doesn’t leave us with anything particularly memorable. Our heroes seem perturbed, not traumatized, the other puppet folk are simply AWOL, and the experience doesn’t produce any kind of revelation for Mr. Franz either. That’s very poor drama.
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray of Attack of the Puppet People is a good widescreen encoding of this curious favorite from the trailing edge of the ’50s sci-fi craze. Gordon’s films were always diminished on TV because the lack of matting left us contemplating the empty spaces above and below the 1:85 cutoff line. That frequently revealed yet more flaws in the effects, as when grasshoppers walked off buildings into the sky in TV prints of Beginning of the End. What drama there is here is more focused in widescreen, and we can appreciate more than just John Hoyt: June Kenney seems perkier, and Laurie Mitchell and Ken Miller try hard to animate their characters while mostly standing in place.
The sound seems a tad distorted on the gloppy rock tune “You’re My Living Doll” but overall Bert Gordon’s show looks and sounds fine.
Scream Factory has tapped Tom Weaver for the commentary, and Tom has wisely devoted most of his airtime to give us the benefit of his researches, interviews and amusingly contrary opinions. He quotes his old interviews with several of the performers, with Larry Blamire voicing the old bites from Ken Miller. Weaver tells us more about Bert Gordon’s career than we learned from Gordon’s own autobio. Guest commentator Dr. Kiss has more fun than usual describing the film’s distribution rollout. Best of all, Weaver compares the finished film to a shooting script in fine detail. As we might have suspected, no great insights or ambitious themes are revealed, just additional effects material not filmed for practical reasons. The best missing bit may explain the fate of the unlucky mailman – who didn’t survive an ‘unfocused’ matter projector experiment.
Tom also has a fascinating sidebar story to tell — and then debunk — about Attack of the Puppet People’s ongoing relation to the Watergate scandal.
A final happy surprise is Kino’s ad art and still montage. Although it grossly overstates the film’s impact, the original poster art for Attack is a beauty. Rather than sticking to what could be unearthed in MGM’s files, the montage goes actor by actor, showing us stills from other pictures as well. For the lesser-known names, this is a boost — we think, yeah, I remember him/her in that scene. Once again, enthusiastic extras transform a so-so ’50s sci-fi picture into a fun disc experience.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Attack of the Puppet People Blu-ray
Movie: Fair ++
Supplements: Tom Weaver commentary, photo montage
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 16, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson