A New Look at an Old Bert I Gordon Classic
Attack of the Puppet People is a Bert I Gordon film from 1958. Gordon is known for his special effects — mostly optical and rear projection. Everyone of my generation knows The Amazing Colossal Man — certainly the film he will be remembered for.
Back in 2012, both Andrea English and I wrote reviews of Attack of the Puppet People. They were both reasonably positive. But I just watched the film again and I have to change my opinion. My argument was that the film was very good but that the script was bad. I don’t think that’s true anymore. It does drag a bit at times. But what I disliked the most, the denouement, actually works remarkably well. And the end of the film is just perfect, where the insane doll maker yells after his former dolls, “Don’t leave me! I’ll be alone.”
The only thing I will add to what’s written below is there are short clips of a rat with rear projection that look terrible. One thing about Gordon is that his special effects were, for their time, quite good. And they are throughout Attack of the Puppet People. I don’t know what went wrong with those shots. But trust me. This isn’t just the complaint of a guy who watches movies too closely. They will yank anyone out of the narrative.
But as of now, I have to say that Attack of the Puppet People is my favorite Bert I Gordon film. And that’s saying something because he is a legend who did a lot of good work. When I wrote down the first four heroes of psychotronic film I could think of, Gordon was there. That’s no accident.
But my complete apology to screenwriter George Worthing Yates. It’s a solid script.
Attack of the Marketing Mutants!
Attack of the Puppet People: Terror Comes in Small Packages!
Really. This is the plot summary on IMDb, in a teeny, tiny, little shell: “Lonely, deranged puppet-master designs a machine that shrinks people.”
Yes, that’s all there is. There’s no attacking, by puppet people (who are actually dolls) or anyone else. There is a hissing cat, a rat, and a viciously barking dog, although they hardly add tension to the story, which is the tragic tale of Mr Franz, a painfully lonely and insane man with serious abandonment issues (thanks to some bitch named Emily back in The Old Country).
Don’t worry about being bogged down by a lengthy explanation of how Franz’s machine works or how he came to invent and build it. With simple and concise sciencey words he easily explains that shrinking people to the size of dolls is as simple as using an overhead projector. It’s too complicated to go into here, but, suffice to say, if Mr. Franz, Super Genius and the sole proprietor of Dolls Inc, takes a liking to you, do not go in the back room with him. He’s nuts.
From a technical point of view, the special effects are staggering in their attempt at non-fluctuating scale. The sound track, which includes, for some inexplicable reason, a dance song that one of Mr Franz’s Living Dolls is forced to sing (or else it’s back in the jar with you missy), is at times a bit overwhelming. Music from this era (1958) is something that people, even then, must have really hated.
Attack of the Puppet People is not a horrible movie. Nor is it a horror movie. The acting isn’t terrible and the script isn’t the worst ever puked out of Hollywood. So all in all a true B-movie. If you want something to half pay attention to while you’re doing something else, this could be the perfect creep-snooze for you.
Earth vs Bert I Gordon!
Dramatic momentum is surprisingly easy to sustain in narrative art. All you have to do is move the plot along in some direction. It absolutely doesn’t matter which direction. So imagine if you came up with an idea for a story about a crazy doll maker who is turning humans into doll sized creatures and holding them hostage. That’s a pretty good idea, right? The little people against the giant! I love it!
How to Ruin a Good Story
But let’s see how we can screw it up, shall we? Instead of creating drama with the constant threat of little people rebellion, let’s have the crazy guy be able to put the little ones asleep inside of tubes. Then, don’t actually show the littles until a half hour into the film. And when you finally do show them, spend about 20 minutes with everyone standing around. And what about a song? (A rather good one sung by co-star Marlene Willis.) That’s it! And don’t forget to use up another 10 minutes with some scientific-sounding mumbo-jumbo about tuning forks causing frequencies that make atoms scale the way projected images do. Just remember: no one cares, so they’ll really be bored!
Finally, for the big finish, just stop. It doesn’t have to make sense. It’s all right for the little people to do what they could have done at the start of the movie. And be sure to forget completely about the vast majority of the littles. Don’t sink to using that cutting-edge technology of cross-cutting, invented no later than 1903 in The Great Train Robbery.
Attack of the Puppet People Is a Bert I Gordon Film
You can always depend upon Bert I Gordon — who, at 89, is still alive [It’s 5 years later and Mr BIG is still rocking the world -FM (2017)] — to take a good idea and, well, give it the Bert I Gordon treatment. What I just described is the plot to Attack of the Puppet People AKA I Was a Teenage Doll AKA Six Inches Tall AKA The Fantastic Puppet People. But the same formula is used in other such Gordon classics as Beginning of the End, Earth vs the Spider, and Tormented. And let us not forget The Amazing Colossal Man (shockingly not available on DVD — unless you want to trust this), which features big in Attack of the Puppet People — Gordon recycles the best part of Colossal Man in a drive-in scene in the first half of the film.
As drama goes, Attack of the Puppet People is a disaster, and yet it somehow works. This is mostly due to a surprisingly compelling performance by John Hoyt as the puppet maker. He isn’t insane so much as desperately lonely. Lonely enough to win the Nobel Prize in, I don’t know: Quantum Puppetry? [I think it is no accident that Hoyt looks something like Ernest Thesiger who played Doctor Pretorius with his miniature people in Bride of Frankenstein. -FM (2017)]
The truth is, the whole film is well rendered. The special effects are quite good; the opticals are as good as anything I remember seeing in the 1950s — better than Hitchcock ever did. The art direction, cinematography, costume design, acting: it is all totally professional. The problem is the script. Unfortunately, when you build your house in a swamp, it tends to sink.
Attack of the Puppet People succeeds because it is so silly. The plot may not pull you through, but one thing will: the screenwriter George Worthing Yates’ desire to somehow make 15 minutes worth of material add up to 80 minutes of film. For want of a script, a fun but awful film was made. With a decent script, this would have been really good on every level. It’s all Gordon’s fault, though: he should have given Yates the entire afternoon to write the script.
 As the King of Swamp Castle says in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “When I first came here, this was all swamp. Everyone said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built it all the same, just to show them. It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up. And that’s what you’re going to get, lad, the strongest castle in all of England!”
 My hero, Crow T Robot had the right idea with his unfilmed script Earth vs Soup: