Attack of the Puppet People / The Fantastic Puppet People / Six Inches Tall (1958) ***
I’m as shocked by this as anybody, believe me. Fond though I am of Bert I. Gordon, I always assumed that the deeply flawed and often ridiculous Tormented was the best that could realistically be asked of him. It turns out, though, that Gordon made at least one solidly good film, only slightly compromised by budgetary inadequacy or the sort of creative misjudgement that he could usually be counted upon to commit at every turn. Attack of the Puppet People was his second and more serious attempt to cash in on The Incredible Shrinking Man (his first, The Amazing Colossal Man, was a rare example of the rip-off by inversion), but in practice, it plays as much like a 1950’s update of Dr. Cyclops. It features hands down the best acting of any movie from what we might call Gordon’s classical period, along with the most convincing special effects, the most individualistic premise, and the most thoughtfully constructed story. Its only serious weakness is an ill-advised reliance on trendy sci-fi explanations for impossibilities that cry out for a magical basis instead.
Sally Reynolds (June Kenney, from Bloodlust! and The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent) answers an ad in the paper from a small businessman seeking a secretary/receptionist/administrative assistant/whatever. The man’s name is Franz (John Hoyt, of Flesh Gordon and Curse of the Undead), and his company is called Dolls Incorporated. Franz does all his own designing, sculpting, molding, and assembly right there in his office-cum-workshop on the fifth floor of the Tilford Building in downtown Los Angeles (although he does subcontract out the dolls’ costumes to a local tailor specializing in such things), which leaves him little time or energy for answering the phone, keeping track of orders, and whatnot. It was therefore quite a disruption for him when his previous secretary, Janet Hall (Jean Moorehead, from The Amazing Colossal Man and The Atomic Submarine), up and quit without any notice at all. If Sally played her cards right, she could easily leverage Franz’s desperation into a sweet salary and a fat benefit package, but after meeting the doll-maker, she’s not at all sure she wants to work for him. Franz isn’t merely eccentric or possessed of an “artistic temperament,” you see. He goes beyond those things become downright weird— arguably even creepy. It’s the way he talks to and about his creations, almost as if he believed they were actual people. And come to think of it, the 1/6-scale dolls that he displays in one securely locked case, each of them individually sealed in some kind of plastic cylinder, are indeed eerily lifelike. Still, Franz can be very persuasive when he needs to, and the terms he’s offering really are better than Sally could probably get anywhere else. She agrees to take the job, if only on a short-term basis.
Three weeks later, Sally’s still there, and although she still isn’t comfortable around Franz, she’s concluded that the old nutter is probably mostly harmless. That third week is also the one when she meets one of the boss’s business associates, a salesman from St. Louis by the name of Bob Westley (John Agar, from Journey to the Seventh Planet and Destination Space). Westley doesn’t work for Franz, strictly speaking, but he or the company he represents does appear to be one of the main vendors of Dolls Incorporated merchandise back east. He’s also a randy, overbearing jerk, almost as if Agar’s Brain from Planet Arous character had gone into hiding under an assumed name, still possessed by an evil, sex-crazed alien. So naturally Sally falls for him almost at once. Bob, for his part, is pretty taken with Sally, too— enough so that he hangs around LA long after his buying arrangements with Franz and whatever other suppliers he has in town are made, solely in order to spend time with her. Indeed, one night, Bob goes so far as to propose marriage while they sit in his car at a drive-in screening of The Amazing Colossal Man. Sally’s reaction is peculiar. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone jump at something reluctantly before, but that’s the best way I can think of to describe it. Sally agrees to pack her bags for St. Louis as soon as she gets back to her apartment, even as every infinitesimal twitch of her body language broadcasts her recognition that this is a terrible idea. She even acquiesces to Bob setting all her local affairs in order for her. Tomorrow morning, when he swings by the Dolls Incorporated office to say his own goodbyes, he’ll tell Franz not to expect her in— that day, or ever again.
You can imagine Sally’s surprise, then, when Franz calls her on the phone shortly after opening time the following day to ask if she isn’t feeling well. Evidently Westley did mention the forthcoming nuptials, but didn’t say anything about them happening now. I’m not sure why Sally finds such a callous, shitty disappearing act so far out of character for Bob, but regardless, the unexpected news causes a pattern to snap into focus which she’d never consciously noticed before. Janet Hall, her predecessor, didn’t just leave Franz in the lurch; no, she vanished so completely that people are still trying to get in touch with her via Dolls Incorporated. And just the other day, Sally heard the Special Delivery mail carrier for the part of the city including the Tilford Building chatting with the elevator operator about how Ernie, who for years was the regular postman on the local route, never came back after setting off for his rounds one morning, and hasn’t been seen or heard from since. Now that’s strange, but what makes it downright freaky is that case full of cylinder-sealed dolls in Franz’s office. Two of them are dressed like a modern office secretary and a mail man respectively, and the newest of the bunch, which Sally notices only this very morning when she goes in to resume the old grind after all, looks exactly like Bob.
Not surprisingly, Sergeant Patterson of the Los Angeles Police Department (Jack Kosslyn, from Empire of the Ants and Earth vs. the Spider) is skeptical when Sally come sto him on her lunch hour, accusing her boss of turning people into dolls. However, there’s no denying that something worthy of attention is going on when a girl wanders in off the street and spontaneously name-drops the subjects of two open missing-person investigations. Franz is able to deflect Patterson’s initial inquiry easily enough, but since Sally really is right about his special dolls, she’ll obviously have to be dealt with now. No sooner has the detective gone on his way than Sally finds herself being shrunken down and placed in suspended animation.
So what the hell is going on here? Getting to the bottom of that will require two exposition dumps, one for the “how” and another for the “why.” As Franz explains to Sally when she wakes up ten and a half inches tall, the doll-maker has perfected a machine that breaks matter down into its constituent molecules using ultrasonic waves, and then projects them back for reconstitution in their original relationship, but at any arbitrary level of resolution. It’s as if the molecules were light waves being projected at an infinitely variable focal length— and Franz even pulls out a slide projector to demonstrate the analogy! (Note that the details of Franz’s shrinking process should mean that objects subjected it retain their original mass. Mini-Sally supposedly has the same number of molecules as normal Sally, only packed together at 216 times the usual density. Inevitably, Attack of the Puppet People does not follow this through to its logical conclusion.) As for the doll-maker’s motive, that comes to light in conversation between Franz and his old friend, Emil (Michael Mack, of The Wasp Woman and Phantom from Space), whom he has not seen for many years. Evidently the two men had a traveling puppet show together in Europe before Franz decided that he was more interested in making tiny representations of people than he was in manipulating them. More to the point, though, Franz was married the last time Emil spoke to him. Franz’s wife ran off with a circus acrobat shortly before he emigrated to America, and he’s harbored a morbid terror of abandonment ever since. That’s why he’s so emotionally invested in his dolls— they’re a family that can never leave him unless and until he is ready to part with them. The shrinking machine, then, is his attempt to improve on that relationship, to create a dependent doll family with which he can interact in the real world, instead of just in his imagination.
But getting back to Sally, she soon has occasion to meet most of Franz’s previous victims— but oddly not the oft-discussed Janet Hall or Ernie. (In fact, there are four doll people whom Franz never does remove from stasis. I have no idea why.) There’s a U.S. Marine named Mac (Scott Peters, from The Cape Canaveral Monsters and Invasion of the Saucer Men), a generic 50’s-movie teenager called Stan (Ken Miller, of Blood Stalkers and I Was a Teenage Werewolf), a brassy broad who introduces herself as Georgia Lane (Laurie Mitchell, from Missile to the Moon and Queen of Outer Space), and an aspiring pop singer by the name of Laurie (Marlene Willis). Oh— and Bob, of course. Stockholm Syndrome is beginning to set in among the people who’ve been doll-sized for a while, but Bob and Sally are both determined to make their escape. Fortunately, it doesn’t take long for the new couple to win their predecessors over to their way of thinking, and soon there’s a plot afoot to seize control of the shrinking machine and turn everybody back to normal. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Franz’s favorite toys, fortuitous aid might be coming their way from no fewer than three directions. Most obviously, Sergeant Patterson wasn’t half as satisfied with the brush-off he got from Franz as he allowed himself to appear, and a few phone calls to St. Louis have convinced him that Bob really has gone missing like the others. Surely he’s going to notice now that Sally is incommunicado, too. Then there’s Emil, who starts hanging around his friend’s office ever more persistently, trying to coax Franz back onto the stage with him. Despite his long relationship with the mad toy-maker, Emil seems like a decent and good-hearted man— someone who could be counted upon to do the right thing if Franz’s secret were brought somehow to his attention. And finally, let’s not forget Agnes (Gordon’s daughter, Susan, who also appeared in Tormented and Picture Mommy Dead). Dolls Incorporated has been just about her favorite place in Los Angeles ever since her Brownie troupe took a tour of the shop a month or so ago, and she’s already found the miniaturized cat that Franz carelessly allowed to escape from his shrinking lab. Imagine how excited she’d be— and how childishly willing to accept Sally and the gang’s story at face value— if she ever discovered that some of Mr. Franz’s dolls were alive.
Sometimes it’s a bad thing to be in synch with the zeitgeist. Attack of the Puppet People does itself a disservice by resorting to mad science to account for Franz’s ability to shrink people to the size of dolls, not least because it insists upon explaining how it works in just enough detail to expose all the holes in the premise. It doesn’t help that the prop shrinking machine is so unimpressive, or that Franz’s lecture on its development and operation halts the movie in its tracks for the duration of an entire scene, but it’s that goddamned slide projector that’ll slash through most of the cables suspending your disbelief. What we have here is a variation on the problem that bedevils all those phony ghost movies from the 20’s and 30’s— the implausible is infinitely harder to accept than the frankly impossible. If Franz were a magician instead of a self-taught Dr. Shrinkenstein, I’d have no trouble accepting anything that happens in this film, but as it stands, I spent far too much of the second half wondering how a puppeteer turned doll-maker acquires the ability to build a photographic enlarger that works on solid matter. What makes the misstep doubly disappointing is that this story has a perfectly suitable in-route for magic built right into it. Not only is Franz an immigrant from some mysterious corner of Gothic, Romantic Europe, but he’s an ex-carny on top of it! But this is an American movie from the 50’s, so bullshit technology it is.
In most other respects, though, I’m way more impressed with Attack of the Puppet People than I ever thought I would be with the work of Bert I. Gordon. Even with the counterproductive sci-fi angle, this movie has a 20th-century fairy tale feel that one rarely encounters in films of its vintage. Especially at the climax, when Franz forces his tiny captives to serve as both audience and supporting players in a puppet show on the theme of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, even as he sets them up for a massive murder/suicide, there’s a pronounced note of scary irrationality to the proceedings, and Gordon puts across the helplessness of the protagonists for all he’s worth— indeed, for a great deal more than I imagined he was worth. The relationship between Franz and Emil is exceedingly well observed and thoughtfully played out by John Hoyt and Michael Mack, adding a touch of psychological realism to firm up what is overall a far-fetched story even by the standards of the genre. The same applies, on a lesser scale, to the initial interactions among the doll people, as the rebellious Bob and Sally rub up against the defeatist complacency of the captives who have spent longer in Franz’s clutches. The action during the doll people’s two big escape attempts has a bit of real suspense to it, and the elliptical ending, which puts all the pieces in place for resolving the conflict, but leaves the resolution itself to our imagination, is somehow just right considering the motivations at work here. And most shocking of all, Attack of the Puppet People actually looks good. The cinematography is a little moodier and more noir-ish than the typical 50’s drive-in flick, with cleverer frame compositions and greater depth and variety of lighting effects. The special effects are unusually strong, too, both the oversized props and set elements that the doll people interact with at close range and the matte shots creating the illusion of them skulking about normally proportioned rooms of the regular sets. Attack of the Puppet People won’t change anybody’s overall opinion of Bert I. Gordon, and it probably shouldn’t. But it might just get you looking at him in a new and more nuanced light.