Attack of the Puppet People (1958)

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A dollmaker finds a way to keep friends close to him forever.

The year after Jack Arnold’s excellent The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), producer-director Bert I. Gordon gave the shrunken human story his own spin in Attack of the Puppet People (1958). Here John Hoyt plays a former puppeteer who left the business after his wife left him. Now he runs a doll factory which is a front for his real operation: shrinking and preserving human beings to ensure he’ll never be alone again.

When Hoyt hires a new secretary (June Kenney), she senses something creepy about him during the job interview. Hoyt asks her to “meet” the dolls and then begs her to just try the job for a few days. She wonders about his locked back room, and finds he’s destroyed mail addressed to the previous secretary who, along with the building’s mailman and a few others, have vanished after crossing Hoyt’s path. When Kenney’s salesman fiance (John Agar) disappears on the eve of their elopement, she goes to the police. The detective sergeant (Jack Kosslyn) has a hard time believing Kenney’s theory that Hoyt made dolls out of all these missing people, but he looks into it and keeps an eye on Hoyt for the rest of the movie. Meanwhile, for involving the police and threatening to leave Hoyt’s employ, Kenney has earned herself a shrinking and a place next to doll-Agar and many others in that “special” locked cabinet.

Hoyt’s method of making these living action figures involves a tuning fork and sonic vibration. He breaks apart a person’s molecular structure and projects them into a smaller form which he then keeps in suspended animation, in vacuum sealed tubes. When he wakes Agar and Kenney to show them their new life, Hoyt is amused by their horror and resentment. He explains that he’s their saviour, taking them away from headaches like taxes, budgets and jobs, away from pesky concerns like independent thinking and individual will. Just like big government, he decides what his little citizens need and what makes them happy, and then he provides it. He only punishes them when they think for themselves, as in the case of one prisoner (Marlene Willis) who rebels against being ordered to sing “You’re My Living Doll” at every party.

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The four other dolls (Willis, plus Ken Miller, Laurie Mitchell and Scott Peters) have surrendered to this “easy life” and allow themselves to be plied with minibar bottles of champagne and the occasional good time, but Kenney and Agar talk them into fighting back and planning escape. Agar’s idea of using the shrinking machine in reverse is a good one, but they’re foiled by the hugeness of everything; the room takes forever to cross, and there are towering mountains of furniture to climb, and nobody can hear their weak voices cry for help.

The effects here aren’t the best, but they are enjoyable and mostly convincing. Hoyt and his “dolls” share the frame a few times thanks to good image joining, Hoyt’s hand waves and points at the puny little humans a few times and when they talk to each other from such different heights, they seem to make eye contact (a small detail in giant-midget interactions that’s always noticeable when it fails). Clever super sized props include a bar of Dove soap, a coffee can bathtub, lipstick the size of your arm, a rotary phone and a box of chocolates used for a wall. It all looks good except for the backgrounds when our little fugitives are running down the street and being menaced by cars, cats, rats and dogs, or when Agar proposes to Kenney at the obviously fake drive-in movie. But I loved the touch of having another Gordon movie, The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), play at that drive-in.

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Suspense is created by meddlers and matters of timing, like Hoyt’s old puppeteer friend (Michael Mark) dropping in and talking his ear off, which gives the tiny people enough time to scramble around the factory but not enough to get anything useful done. Another overly curious visitor Hoyt would like to be rid of is little Susan Gordon, Bert’s daughter who made her debut here and appeared in several of his movies. She hangs around to play with the dolls and falls in love with the kitty he’s shrunk and keeps in a matchbox (so will you, it’s a very cute effect). The girl tells the detective things about Hoyt that backs up everything Kenney said. As Hoyt feels the law closing in, he plots a murder-suicide with his living dolls, right after he gives them a fancy dress theater party and private show with his new Dr. Jekyll puppet. Hoyt gives a good performance showing us this dollmaker’s disturbing and sympathetic hunger for companionship, and it’s that character plus some charming effects that make this corny movie so much fun.

Bert I. Gordon movies reviewed here previously: Tormented (1960), The Cyclops (1957)

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16 thoughts on “Attack of the Puppet People (1958)”

        1. This one really benefits from having a good actor like John Hoyt to make this character human and scary instead of a cartoon. Creepy!

  1. This film had a haunting effect on me when I saw it as a tween, and I never forgot it. More recent screenings (such as a live tweet of it on #trashtue or #riffotronic — can’t recall which) showed its limitations, but I still rank it up there on my list of most memorable B horror films.

    Thanks for sharing your review.

    1. Hoyt’s work is haunting, he does a good job with the “motivation” and the part where he tosses a match into the doll case and “burns” Agar, but has many more identical dolls…stuff like that sticks with you when you’re a youngster. Thanks for reading.

  2. A classic!

    (Great writeup of it, too. I saw the thing decades ago and had forgotten all about it, but you really brought it back to life. Many thanks!)

    1. oh I remember this post now! That’s a good question, I think we have another double, but I can’t remember which. Gordon loved big and small things, which I guess makes sense, it’s the same FX from different perspectives. I love the touch of his other “Giant” movie being on the drive in screen. thanks!

  3. Bert is still with us and has written a book about his experiences in the business; I met him at a memorabilia show in late April and bought said book. I’m currently writing a screenplay about an exotic dancer who’s accidentally tripled in size when an experimental breast-enlargement procedure goes awry. To honor Bert, I named the kindly former owner of the club — whom the dancer adores — Larry Gordon (she always respectfully refers to him as “Mr. Gordon,” a la Mary Richards calling her boss “Mr. Grant”).

    1. I would love to read his book, I’ll look for that, now that I’m revisiting his movies. He loved things extra large or small which are sides of the same effect. Nice tribute to “Mr. Gordon/Mr. Big”!

  4. This sounds delightfully corny, but a little sad too. The thought of a man having a fancy dress-up party with the “dolls” is one of those things that makes you want to laugh and cry at the same time.

    However, this is another movie you’ve sold me on! I think DVD/streaming companies should be paying you commission.

    1. I know, a grown man playing with dollies is comical and terribly disturbing! Credit to John Hoyt for playing it so you can see it both those ways, and feel kind of sorry for him! I love these types of movies, I know you do too, and this is a good time all around.

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