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Among science fiction film aficionados the films of Bert I. Gordon are often treated with derision or as a major guilty pleasure when compared to his more renowned contemporaries such as producer George Pal (The Time Machine, 1960) or director Jack Arnold (The Incredible Shrinking Man, 1957). Yet, despite the often erratic quality of his fantasy features, Gordon is a true auteur who often serves as the producer, director, screenwriter, and special effects technician on most of his features. That can sometimes be a liability in his case but it is also why movies such as The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and Village of the Giants (1965) have such a wacky, endearing appeal. In Gordon's world, size really does matter and the majority of his sci-fi movies are obsessed with proportion and rear-screen projection. Easily the nuttiest of his early concoctions is Attack of the Puppet People (1958) which attempts to blend two genres science fiction and the youth exploitation film, though the film's protagonists are well past their teenage years.
The movie opens with a Brownie troupe visiting the headquarters of Dolls Incorporated, a private enterprise owned and operated by Mr. Franz (John Hoyt), a European immigrant whose toy store creations are famous for their detailed craftsmanship. The pride of Mr. Franz's current collection are two shelves of glass encased dolls which display amazing lifelike qualities. That's because they're actually miniaturized human beings in a state of suspended animation. Franz has, in effect, created his own nuclear family and is continuing to add to it, driven by extreme loneliness and a desperate need to control everything in his universe. For the next addition to his collection, he has his eye on his new employee Sally Reynolds (June Kenney). She's replacing Franz's previous secretary who mysteriously vanished without a trace. In fact, the police department has a file on several unsolved missing persons cases but no leads on a possible connection between them until Sally approaches them about the strange disappearance of her fianc Bob Westley (John Agar) on the eve of their planned elopement. Shortly thereafter, Sally goes missing as well and joins Bob and the rest of Franz's "living dolls" in a bizarre form of captivity where they are periodically aroused from a deep sleep and trotted out to perform and amuse Mr. Franz. The slaves eventually revolt, hence the exploitive title, when they learn Mr. Franz plans to destroy them and himself because he fears the police will soon apprehend him.
Despite the sci-fi trappings a rarely seen invention that reduces humans to doll size and Franz's cursory mumbo-jumbo explanation of how it works - Attack of the Puppet People is not really a bona-fide science fiction feature and unfolds more in the manner of a demented fairy tale. Underneath the surface absurdity is a portrait of a pathetic man who can only relate to other people as tiny beings he can manipulate at will. John Hoyt, whose quietly insane demeanor as Mr. Franz is the only compelling performance in the movie, is clearly puzzled by his miniaturized captives' rebellious nature. "You funny little people," he tells them, "I wonder why it is you always hate me so at first. I haven't really harmed you. You get the best of care. I never let you get too warm or too cold or too tired. You should be grateful. Think, no daily grind. No budget problems. No taxes or debts or family to support. I see to everything. And it's never dull. You sleep away the long, boring hours in your jars and when I take you out to wake you it's only to have fun."
Franz's twisted philosophical views have clearly had a brainwash effect on the other "dolls" that Bob and Sally first encounter; some of them even seem to enjoy their strange existence, with one excitedly exclaiming to her friend who was left in her glass tube, "You missed a lot of fun. We had a picnic in a flowerpot, two dances and a moonlight swimming party in the sink." And Gordon makes sure we get to see some of the dolls' playtime activities including a hilarious sequence where itty bitty Laurie (Marlene Willis) is prodded to sing "You're My Living Doll" to her companions and an even weirder scene where Bob is forced to perform in a marionette theatre; he is so outraged by the situation that he angrily attacks his string-manipulated co-star, tearing its head off.
On some levels, it's hard to defend Attack of the Puppet People; the rear screen projection is never convincing, the performances, with the exception of John Hoyt, range from amateurish to leaden, and Gordon fails to provide even a semblance of plausibility to the proceedings in order for viewers to suspend disbelief. Then again, watching actors wandering amid oversized sets and wrestling with giant props it takes all of the puppet people to lift a phone to call for help has a fascination for some of us and especially Gordon who build his career on the concept of small vs. big.
Ken Miller, who plays the diminutive Stan, recalled in an interview with Tom Weaver for Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Flashbacks one particularly difficult stunt. "...we had to climb down off of a table and they had to show John [Agar] going down, arm by arm. Well, that poor man, he couldn't move after that, because you use muscles you don't even know you have. I had to climb up, leg by leg, arm by arm, 50 feet up to the top of the soundstage oh, the pain was terrible!...They brought in a guy, a masseur, the next day, 'cause we couldn't actually move right, the pain was so bad. And, my God, they couldn't lose a day's shooting - Puppet People had about a two-week schedule, as I recall!."
Miller also confessed that during his climbing scene, his pants, which were glued on, started to split: "There was no sound and my back was to the camera, so I kept saying, "My pants are splitting." And Bert Gordon kept saying, "Never mind, it's all right." Then at one point he called up to me, "Have you got underwear on?" I said, "Yes," so he said, "Well, keep on going!" They really split, right from the zipper all the way around, but in the film you can't see it."
The infamous musical sequence was also just as uncomfortable for Miller as it appears to be for some of the "living dolls," forced to enjoy it in the movie. "The most embarrassing moment I've ever had on camera," recalled Miller, "was standing there and reacting while she's [Marlene Willis] singing to me that ridiculous song called "You're My Living Doll." I mean, I thought, "What in the f*ck am I supposed to do...? I said, "Let her sing to a doll or something! And they said, "No, no, no..." And that was the hardest thing for me, to react without being completely embarrassed well, I was!....of course, we were a little like dolls, so I suppose that song, in somebody's sick mind, was a clever idea!"
Composer Albert Glasser who scored countless B-movies, many of which were in the horror/sci-fi genre, worked with Bert I. Gordon several times starting with Gordon's giant grasshopper epic, Beginning of the End (1957). He was fascinated by Gordon's production techniques. "I used to watch on the set as much as I could while he was doing the effects," he said to interviewer Tom Weaver. "He used to work a lot out of his garage, where he had his equipment. The funny one, of course, was Attack of the Puppet People. On the set, they made chairs ten feet high so when the actors would sit on them, they would look little. It was cute, a lot of fun. In fact, we wrote a song for that for which they're still paying me..."You're a dolly, you're a dolly." I can't believe it." (From Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes by Tom Weaver).
John Agar's own memories of making Attack of the Puppet People aren't as fond as Glasser's. He said "I don't know whether Bert Gordon liked me very much; we got into a little difficulty one night because he had promised me that I was only going to have to work until a certain hour. I was on a bowling team then and I was supposed to meet my wife and the team at such-and-such a time. Well, they carried me over past the time; Bert kept putting it off and putting it off, and I told him, "Look, you promised me I could be out of here by now, and you're foulin' me up!" I don't think Bert ever forgave me for that. I stayed and finished the work, but I don't think he thought I was giving one hundred percent...That Puppet People was kind of a nonsense picture." (From Return of the B Science Fiction and Horror Heroes by Tom Weaver),
Most film reviewers thought the movie was a lot of nonsense as well but Variety actually gave the film serious consideration in its review, stating "Gordon is a master of special effects and his tricks are ingenious and intriguing." It also pointed out the movie's shortcoming without taking any unnecessary cheap shots: "The remainder of the production is not up to this technical achievement, however, and the presentation is satisfactory, but no more...Story lacks punch because there is no real point to it, so the ending when it comes is inconclusive and somewhat flat."
Attack of the Puppet People was a family affair for Gordon with his wife Flora assisting him on the special effects and his young daughter Susan (in her film debut) playing the part of an inquisitive child who constantly interrupts Franz's work. Gordon also rarely missed an opportunity to reference some of his other films as there is a sequence in Attack of the Puppet People where John Agar and June Kenney are at the drive-in watching The Amazing Colossal Man - talk about shameless self-promotion! But Gordon learned it first hand from his executive co-producers Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson, who had recently launched their highly successful, low-budget film enterprise, American International Pictures.
Producer: Bert I. Gordon
Director: Bert I. Gordon
Screenplay: George Worthing Yates; Bert I. Gordon (story)
Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo
Film Editing: Ronald Sinclair
Cast: John Agar (Bob Westley), John Hoyt (Mr. Franz), June Kenney (Sally Reynolds), Michael Mark (Emil), Jack Kosslyn (Sergeant Paterson), Marlene Willis (Laurie), Ken Miller (Stan), Laurie Mitchell (Georgia Lane), Scott Peters (Mac).
BW-83m. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford
Return of the B Science Fiction and Horror Heroes by Tom Weaver
Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Flashbacks: Conversations with 24 Actors, Writers, Producers and Directors From the Golden Age by Tom Weaver
Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes: Interviews with Actors, Directors, Producers and Writers of the 1940s through 1960s by Tom Weaver