Going into Pinocchio's Revenge, I was expecting a rather limp rip-off of the Chucky films, but Kevin Tenney's film turned out to be a rather positive surprise.
The film concerns divorced public defender Jennifer Garrick (Rosalind Allen) who is convinced her already condemned to be murdered by the state supposed serial killer client Vincent Gotto (Lewis van Bergen) is innocent in the murder of his son and two other children, even though he himself says he's guilty, and only wants do die. Jennifer can't save her client, and unwittingly inherits some of his troubles.
Jennifer's pre-teen daughter Zoe (Brittany Alyse Smith) is a bit of a problem child, having taken the divorce of her parents clearly pretty hard. She already has regular appointments with a - clearly horrible - psychiatrist to help her over anxieties and certain violent tendencies.
By ways that might be natural or quite the opposite, a large wooden puppet depicting Pinocchio Gotto made for his son and buried with his dead body makes its way into Jennifer's car and from there into Zoe's heart. As it goes with these things, Pinocchio seems to have quite a bad influence on Zoe. People who annoy the girl or get between her and her mother develop a tendency to suffer from accidents; Zoe doesn't just talk to the puppet but the puppet seems to answer her.
It takes some time before Jennifer realizes something really horrible is going on, and soon she can't be sure what is actually happening to her daughter - is Zoe "just" suffering from a mental illness that makes her dangerous to herself or others and has found the persona of Pinocchio as her catalyst, or is Pinocchio actually alive and murderous?
Exactly that is the point where Pinocchio's Revenge is more interesting than your average killer doll/evil seed movie, for the film keeps the actual explanation of what's going on ambiguous throughout. While the audience knows pretty soon that some screwy things are happening, it takes more than half of the movie until we actually see the puppet move by itself, and even longer until we hear it speak. Tenney frames even these later scenes in ways that always keep the possibility open and on the surface that we're only seeing what a mentally unstable character thinks she's seeing.
Earlier on, the film doesn't show Pinocchio moving in quite a creepy way. There might be wooden scraping when the camera's not looking, and the next shot sees the puppet staring with suggestive emptiness and a threatening pose at someone. For a long time, the film is more about what its audience suspects and expects than about what is actually going on in it.
Most surprising for a US movie made during the 90s, the film keeps to being ambiguous throughout, not even giving a clear answer about what happened when all is over and done with; there's a clear suggestion that something more than just a little girl cracking has happened - we did after all see Pinocchio attack Jennifer in the end, because the film may want to be ambiguous but it also wants to give its audience some sort of pay off - but Tenney (not a director I'd ever expected to be able of subtlety) manages to still keep a question mark hanging over everything. Even in US horror cinema of the 90s, it turns out, perceptions and mental health can be more complicated than they at first appear.