A note from Lindsey: Halloween is almost here! The time for ghouls, monsters and other-worldly creatures is upon us. This post is the second in TMP’s four-part, through-the-decades Horror Half-Week series in honor of the spooky holiday. Today, we pay a visit to the 1950s: one of the best decades for sci-fi and horror, especially of the corny type. (Previous post in the series: 1946’s The Face of Marble)
Mr. Franz (John Hoyt) is an eccentric doll maker, owning and operating a company called Dolls, Inc. He makes regular dolls – but there are also “special” dolls encased in glass cylinders that are very important to Mr. Franz.
Sally Reynolds (June Kenney) is a young woman with no husband and no family who decides to apply at Dolls, Inc. after seeing an ad in the paper for a secretary position.
Mr. Franz’s old secretary vanished mysteriously. And when Sally meets a handsome salesman (“Bob Westley, the best salesman in St. Louis”) who wants to woo her, he also vanishes. With all of these disappearances around the office, Sally becomes convinced that Mr. Franz is doing the unthinkable – turning people into dolls!
This sci-fi/horror film, Attack of the Puppet People (working title: I Was a Teenage Doll), was released by American International Pictures in 1958 as a double bill drive-in feature. AIP and writer/director Bert Gordon used the film to capitalize on the success of films like 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man and 1936’s The Devil Doll. It also features footage from another Gordon film, The Amazing Colossal Man (which is, ironically, about a man with the opposite problem of Franz’s “living dolls”).
The film had a low budget and received pretty poor critical response, but is notable for one big reason: its unintentional involvement in the Watergate scandal. It has been reported that the man serving as the lookout was watching a run of this film on TV and became so engrossed in it that he neglected to warn his buddies that detectives were approaching.
Political scandal and poor reviews aside, Attack of the Puppet People is a pretty great watch.
John Hoyt gives a fantastic performance in the role of Mr. Franz. He succeeds in making his character seem completely harmless in the beginning of the film: just a kind, older man who is dedicated to his company and loves his work. It becomes clear with every passing minute that he’s deranged and that something odd is going on, and Hoyt builds his character’s creep factor accordingly. One scene in particular stands out, in which his character forces one of the “dolls” to sing a song about being a living doll. In that moment, I fell in love with the film.
“Best salesman” Bob, on the other hand, gives off strange vibes. He’s very pushy toward Sally, trying to convince her to give up her life and follow him across the country. As a result, it’s difficult to feel too bad when he gets “disappears” via shrink machine. Obviously I wouldn’t wish being miniaturized on anyone, but he isn’t a likeable character, so not much sympathy is built at that point.
June Kenney in the role of secretary Sally gives a decent performance. She’s a bit stiff in the beginning but has moments of great emotional impact, particularly in the final quarter of the film.
In terms of special effects, they’re just as you’d expect: awful. It’s clear to see that the “special” dolls are just two-dimensional pictures of the actors, placed in tubes. Still, if you can suspend reality for a moment and put the quality of these effects out of your mind, Hoyt’s performance alone is enough to carry the film off. If you really can’t let go of the poor effects, love the film for the cheese! It carries a few thrills as well, and so is worth watching either for a decent suspense film or great horror-cheese. And if it still doesn’t sound appealing, there’s a really cute miniature cat.
The premise itself is very interesting. Franz isn’t your typical mad scientist. His business is providing toys to children. The film lives up to both the humorous and disturbing potential of the premise, though it does lean more toward the humorous side.
It’s easy to go into low-budget films such as this with very low expectations, but this one is very fun and won’t end up disappointing you. It’s a very strange little piece of work in the best way, leaving you unsure of whether to laugh or feel disturbed. The score: 5/5!