Directed by Bert I. Gordon
Written by George Worthing Yates and Bert I. Gordon
A somber note: as I very much dislike the phenomenon of people suddenly remembering that an artist exists only after they die, I feel it worthwhile to state that picking back up with this filmmaker at this precise moment is in fact a coincidence; of course, one must acknowledge that one actively courts such a coincidence, whenever their subject is 100 years old. I always prefer to remember people while they're alive, however, and so I am happy that I was indeed able to discuss a filmmaker I'd long neglected, with Beginning of the End and The Amazing Colossal Man, when he still was. But if you haven't heard, after a full century on this planet and more than half a century of making movies, Bert I. Gordon passed away on March 8th, 2023. R.I.P., Mr. B.I.G.
In his more optimistically self-reflective, not to say self-promoting, moments, Bert I. Gordon liked to call his science fiction movies "fairy tales for adults." There is, of course, plenty of real substance to that claim, and it helped that Gordon was working in 50s sci-fi cinema, which, though of greatest significance to kids and teens, could scarcely avoid stumbling ass-backwards into resonance with adult concerns even when they did it on accident, and which were, owing to industrial realities that demanded fast, direct storytelling, pretty invariably pitched as modern-dress fables. Something like The Amazing Colossal Man, a film I feel fairly safe in assuming is Gordon's best, even manages to transcend being just "a fairy tale," embodying surprisingly-robust and formally-pleasing character drama and social commentary side-by-side with the "that dude's big!" spectacle and the era's typical anti-atom allegory. So no, he wasn't being too self-aggrandizing there.
Given Gordon's size-o-phile predilections as a director, writer, and special effects man, however, his immediate follow-up to The Amazing Colossal Man, Attack of the Puppet People, must seem like only an inversion of his ongoing deal: having deployed his homebrewed effects with the assistance of then-wife Flora (she gets her first effects screen credit here) in service of making things big, Puppet People looks like merely an obvious variation on a staling theme—"hey, I got it! let's make 'em small." And that likely does sum up the inspiration. But of all Gordon's sci-fi "fairy tales," Puppet People is the one that best-earns that description in a stricter sense, insofar as the term "fairy tale" has been watered-down in non-technical circles to mean just about anything so long as it has something supernatural in it or even just a sense of whimsy, but Puppet People feels like a fairy tale proper, not quite intended to be taken as "true" even within the confines of its own narrative, and only "about" elemental and inchoate feelings and dangers. Puppet People isn't even really "a fable," like those atomic cautionary tales are, and it's only science fiction because it has a shrink ray, which is just generic set-dressing here (the shrink ray isn't even powered by a radioactive element; it seems to just plug into the wall). There's a persistent sense that maybe the movie would be more comfortable just being out-and-out fantasy and using magic, though its weak insistence that its villain uses "science," despite its science being in no sense actually scientific and its villain in no sense appearing to actually be a scientist, is probably important enough that I wouldn't seriously consider changing it; along with its contemporary setting, it's what makes it a modern "fairy tale."
The urban legend looseness of the storytelling is probably never more pronounced than in the way it kicks off (well, obviously, it "kicks off" like all movies from the 1950s do, with a credits sequence, though in a novelty for Gordon this one actually does something, presenting a staggered fade-in of its pint-sized cast in their doll-sized containers, coming under one of Albert Glasser's customarily bombastic sci-fi movie scores). Anyway, the first real scene of the film is more of a preface, or even an epigraph, and while it seems to be an in medias res type of gambit, it can't be squared chronologically with any of the events presented later. It exists to get across, within an air of sinister mystery, the idea of the film, in one single sequence and practically in one single shot, as the secretary in a small hole-in-the-wall doll-making outfit in An American City hosts a Brownie troop, come to look at the company's wares. They ooh and ah over the shelves full of normal little girl dolls; but a couple of the Brownies gravitate toward a locked display cabinet in which the company's owner, Mr. Franz (presently unseen, but soon enough John Hoyt), keeps some downright unnervingly realistic dolls, whom we are apt to recognize as the cast who already appeared in the credits. The secretary chastises the girls, explaining that Mr. Franz doesn't want anyone else fiddling with these dolls, whereupon Glasser's doomy score pipes back up. It's portentous; perhaps it's even an alternate and decidedly unhappier ending to our story. In either case, with a push-in, Gordon emphasizes one of the perversities of his scenario before we even know exactly what that scenario is—we know going in that these dolls are shrunken people, trapped and comatose inside their plastic cylinders, but this tells us, without giving up that mystery entirely, that one of the littler ways Mr. Franz gets his kicks is displaying them for the whole world to see, for little children to see, right in his front office.
That's a long time analyzing a two minute scene, but I think it's an interesting one (even though it may only be here because Gordon belatedly realized that Attack of the Puppet People, which is already very light on "attacks," doesn't even wend its way to "puppet people" for over half an hour). Nonetheless, we do have a plot, so: answering a pretty desperate-sounding employment ad in the newspaper, Sally Reynolds (June Kenney) arrives at Dolls, Inc., and within seconds of meeting its proprietor—who's just a little too friendly to feel right—has second thoughts about being his new secretary; but this Mr. Franz (I won't continue calling him "Mister Franz" though there's something about this character that makes it seem like I should) wheedles her into accepting the position. Some time thereafter, a traveling salesman, Bob Westley (John Agar), shows up to sell something. Given that he hangs around for at least the better part of week, it's presumably something complicated and expensive, perhaps some sort of mechanism for Franz's doll factory in the second room—most of the action in the film is divided into three locations, arranged like the layers of a malign personality: a front room, a back room, and a forbidden back room—and in his Agary way he antagonizes then woos Sally, who's receptive enough to the second phase of the Agar two-step that she agrees to marry him, though telling Franz the happy news turns out to have been a mistake.
Bob disappears—though a Bob doll shows up—and Sally, recalling that her predecessor also disappeared (so has the mailman), and they also have dolls in their likenesses, realizes with sudden clarity she's in the clutches of a madman. It's too late: she's knocked out, and when she wakes up, she's naked in a napkin on Franz's work desk in the back-back room, roughly six inches tall. Reuniting her with Bob, as well as introducing her to several other "playmates" (Marlene Willis, Ken Miller, Scott Peters, Laurie Mitchell), Franz explains her situation—he couldn't have her leaving him, but now that he's shrank her with his shrinking gun, he'd be delighted if she and Bob got doll-married—and, in what I suppose he must perceive as his own beneficence, he smiles down at his new toy. But as Sally hadn't kept her suspicions to herself, outside forces are at least vaguely aware of her plight—plus she's at least the fourth person connected directly to Franz to have disappeared lately—and as the cops close in, Franz is pushed to more drastic and more final decisions.
There are fairly well-attested weaknesses to how this shakes out, namely that the action is very constrained and the shrunken victims never really manage a counterattack; I tend to think of these more as strengths (probably because it is a "fairy tale," Puppet People has a solider footing in legitimate horror than Gordon's movies about, e.g., silly giant arthropods), and so I dwell on the less well-attested problems. The big one is that while it's hard to say the movie is too short (it's 79 minutes and its content demands a certain punchiness that, as noted, it maybe doesn't fully achieve even at this runtime), it is kind of abrasively efficient; Sally leaps to the conclusion "Franz is making dolls out of people! somehow!" immediately, skipping over more logical hypotheses like "Franz is a serial killer, who only makes dolls as mementoes," and while we do need efficiency, you'd think Sally would at least have to contemplate that telling the authorities that Franz makes dolls out of people would sound unbelievable and crazy. (The detective (Jack Kosslyn) takes her more seriously than you'd expect as it stands.) She is of course right but it's not going to save her; so it has the ungainly feel of a first act that accelerates right at the end because it's been dawdling for too long.
But it gets to where it needs to go, which is six men and women at the mercy of one of the genre's most uniquely-sketched "mad scientists." I'm firmly on board with Puppet People as far as this goes—the nightmare illogic of a dollmaker who appears to have invented, in his spare time, a shrinking ray that works on the principles of a photographic projector (this is pure gobbyldegook)—and I earnestly wonder how close Mr. Franz is to the source of his "creepy dollmaker" trope. He is, anyway, one of the more frightening evocations of "mad science" in these things, because he's not playing God for knowledge or for world-beating power, but out of what he keeps claiming is friendship and affection, and it's tough to discern if he's so completely insane he actually believes this. Hoyt is pretty perfect at capturing these pathetically small-scaled ambitions—all Franz wants is to never be alone—with a way of looking down at his creations that I'd have to call "kindly leering." (It's never explicitly sexual, but is so implicitly sexual that it somehow feels even more deviant and dangerous.)
This gets underlined in the performances of the secondary cast and their "dynamic" with Hoyt (not a bad trick, considering the four secondary actors probably barely made his acquaintance), particularly young Willis, a teen singer obliged to entertain the new arrivals and Franz himself with her voice, much against her will, though she goes through the motions anyway. (For the record, that song, "You're My Living Doll"—doubtless they wracked their brains for that title—is a darned good 50s earworm.) And this musical performance marks her as the standout of the secondary cast, starting the song off with loud reluctance and throwing impotent glares up at Hoyt (or, you know, at a ball at the end of pole, or whatever it was) that are still more like annoyance (or even just embarrassment) than terror, and after a verse she actually starts to get into it, since, after all, it's practically the only fun, even if it's forced fun, she ever gets to have anymore. The whole crew's "welcome" of the new couple is genuinely enthusiastic, and it says without exposition, or deeper characterizations that we don't have time or temperament for anyway, how helpless and pliant they've become, so they can barely imagine existence outside Franz's prison anymore. And it's kind of horrifying, moreso as Agar and Kenney just gawk in mind-exploded disbelief at their fellow victims' incomprehensible mellowness. I keep wanting to overuse that word "perverse," but it's hard not to, because that's the tone of the film, extremely perverse in a way that keeps the violence of it almost entirely a matter of incipient atmosphere.
Of course, within basically the same scene Sally and Bob are leading them on an escape attempt (this being that "efficiency" roaring right back, but Gordon's gotten the idea out there), but obviously it's not a successful attempt, and it's pretty painfully hopeless even as they undertake it. I do mean "painful" in an exciting, 50s sci-fi way, and this movie knows it still has certain boxes to check, not least "knocking off The Incredible Shrinking Man." The Gordons do a commendable job with their effects, but not necessarily because they've actually gotten better at them. In fact, it's likely this has the fewest process shots of any of Gordon's resizing films: I noted with Colossal Man that bigness is, counterintuitively, cheaper; but if you've got the money, smallness might be easier, as ultimately it's just a matter of building enough oversized crap to put over the concept.
Colossal Man's colossal box office (not my original phrase, unfortunately) meant that there was money to spare, and Puppet People reaps the benefits of that, so for an independently-produced AIP flick Puppet People offers some startlingly strong sci-fi visuals, with a surprising amount of oversized crap for Agar, Kenney, and the rest to clamber around on. The special photography is, accordingly, less of a factor: they do a good job with the main location, but you'd expect them to, because it's basically just the one single angle of Franz's playset that ever relies on compositing rather than editing (the eyelines are very good throughout, however). There are, but only eventually, some bits once the action opens up to the city that offer some more fanciful sci-fi visuals.
The worst effect in the film is likely just the photographs used to represent the "dolls" in their cylinders—bent to give a very slight illusion of dimensionality—and even this only fails because the Gordons didn't take enough photos from enough angles to support all the blocking that Bert was going to use, which is a pity, because from the right angles they work remarkably well considering their utter DIY-cheapness. (Okay, the "worst" effect in the film is the downright dreamlike "drive-in movie theater" Gordon sends Bob and Sally to on a date. The only thing about it that's even properly "effects" is the matted-in theater screen—the rest of it is a photo or maybe even a drawing of a car lot blown up to about life-size and placed behind them. But I kinda dig how weird this makes this scene, prefiguring how they're going to be turned into toys, and it's a weird scene altogether, since what they're watching is The Amazing Colossal Man and we come in about at the part where Glenn Manning growls, "I'm not growing! You're shrinking!")
One can, I think, quibble with how Gordon presents all this: there's something of a one-size-fits-all Franz-eye view of our shrunken heroes, basically all high-angle master shots and oppressive reverse shots of Hoyt's face, that certainly give a visceral sense of their vulnerability (and, of course, identifying the viewer as the puppetmaster is, you guessed it, perverse), but you start to get slightly itchy once you realize that Gordon is essentially never going to put the camera in the middle of the action again—it's a deliberate and defensible strategy, but there are certain moments where breaking the conformity and giving us an angle inside the playset would make the horror pop. I'm thinking especially of the Jekyll & Hyde playlet Franz compels Sally into with an actual puppet, that would've been scary if we saw it from her perspective. Besides that shot with Sally and the telephone reproduced up top, this is about the closest he gets to getting into the thick of things, but if the angle shifting to "theatrical proscenium" is close, we're talking about some pretty buttoned-up shot design. It's aggravating because outside of the big sets Gordon and his real-real DP, Ernest Laszlo, are shooting with some flair.
Still, one doesn't watch 79 minute B.I.G. movies for rich shot design, and Puppet People does all it absolutely needs to. It has a sort of anticlimactic ending, which I've seen people complain about; yet I somewhat love it, a fitting end to a story that's always been more about being unsettling and creepy than action-packed, and that's always been harder for me to pin down than the usual 50s B-movie fare.
That which is indistinguishable from magic:
- Besides projector principles, the shrinking ray works by using "frequencies" or something—it's total placeholder stuff, which is why it's weird that Franz goes on about it for what feels like three or four minutes, giving a whole demonstration with a cat and everything. But I like this, since it emphasizes the story's hazy "not quite science, not quite magic, who can tell these days?" register.
- There were supposed to be some early "mistakes" of Franz's procedure (fuzzy reductions, like a bad photograph, as they were described in the script), but they didn't make the movie. This is a shame.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
- Like, it doesn't go anywhere, but if every cop listened to women like the guy who, however reluctantly, does go out to investigate Sally's allegations that Franz is, ahem, turning people into dolls, maybe the world would be a better place? Well, maybe there's a happier medium.
- I didn't mention it, but don't think that the film's implication that Franz has arranged paired relationships for his "dolls" went unnoticed. Gross.
- An odd one, in that it doesn't give you much of an inspiring, sci-fi sense of wonder like you might want out of a 50s movie, but it's working on a different level anyway, and the strangeness and low-key horror of its atmosphere is very rewarding in its own right.