Thursday, March 13, 2014

Attack of the Puppet People (1958)

Loneliness is a terrible thing, and so is letting people go. Owner and only worker of a small doll factory situated in an American office building Mr Franz (John Hoyt) knows the pain, and he’s found a way to keep people from leaving him behind: he’s shrinking them down to doll size, keeping them in suspended animation, and only taking them out when he wants them to party like it’s 1959.

Franz’s new secretary Sally (June Kenney) doesn’t suspect any of this until she falls for epitome of manliness Bob Westley (John Agar), the best darn sales representative ever to come from St. Louis, and promises to marry him and go away with him. And who wouldn’t, with a marriage proposal taking place during a drive-in showing of The Amazing Colossal Man!? Mr Franz won’t have it of course, and first doll-izes Bob and tells Sally he’s gone off back to St. Louis.

Sally finally realizes what’s up, and does the obvious thing, namely going to the police’s missing persons bureau and telling the cop in charge (Jack Kosslyn) all about how her boss turns people into dolls. To everyone’s surprise, it’s not a very useful approach to the problem, and soon Sally finds herself reunited as doll-sized former secretary with her hunky doll-fiancée. The couple also make the acquaintance of a bunch of other idiots Franz has shrunk down. Clearly, it’s time to party, and perhaps find a way to trick Franz and get back to size again.

Oh Bert I. Gordon. I know, I have called your films boring more than once, but when you were on, you really were on; though I’m not completely sure on what exactly you were. Anyhow, Attack of the Puppet People, an AIP production containing no attack of the puppet people (they’re too involved in being ineffectual, singing the movie’s theme song, and so on), is a thing of utter, slightly deranged beauty, delivering one moment of improbable strangeness after the next, while generally featuring perfectly competent filmmaking and special effects that are mostly delightful, if not convincing.

Well, unless you start fixating on that telephone model that seems to change size every other scene, or the fact that the film can’t really seem to make up its mind how small its puppet people actually are. That’s just part of the charm of the whole affair, though, if you ask me.

And truly, how could I – or any sane audience member – complain about little things (tee-hee) like this when confronted with a film whose rather meta (and pretty weird) marriage proposal sequence is only the tip of the iceberg of pure delight. The film’s high point surely is the scene late in the film, when Franz has decided to have one last doll party (in a theatre, no less, and yes, he calls it a theatre party), and presses his puppet people into playing together with a Jekyll and Hyde marionette - until uncultured old John Agar rips the marionette to pieces, that is. Or, while I’m talking potential high points, what about the cat kindly Mr Franz shrinks down too and houses in a matchbox? Or how about the fact that the older puppet people seem to be mostly fine with their imprisonment – because parties! – more than once seems to attempt to build up to some sort of political subtext but never gets its act together enough to actually gain one? I’m also quite fond of the decisive kind of sloppiness that finds a film repeatedly mentioning the elderly postman turned doll but then never gets around to showing him when it’s time to show the doll people. Because his spot is taken by Marlene Willis whose job it is to sing the theme song, one assumes.

It’s all absolutely fantastic, with barely a second of the film going by that isn’t willing to trade in logic for imagination, and little to distract the willing viewer from Gordon’s inspired creation of a world as much based on his own obsessions and interests as that in Edward Wood’s films was on Wood’s; although Gordon was much more surface-competent a filmmaker than Wood. If that’s not enough to make a girl or boy excited to run out, find a copy of Attack of the Puppet People, and drag an unsuspecting man or woman (hopefully not looking or acting like John Agar) into a combined viewing/marriage proposal, I don’t want to live in the same world as her or him.

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