Attack of the Puppet People, The (1958)
Cast: June Kenney, John Agar, John Hoyt, Michael Mark, Jack Kosslyn.
Director: Bert I. Gordon
Nutshell: Dolls Inc is a thriving doll business whose proprietor makes incredibly life like specimens but when another of his secretary’s goes missing, suspicion slowly starts to mount.
American International Pictures, known for their teen-oriented work over the 50s and 60s were hasty to cash in after the success of The Incredible Shrinking Man from the previous year scenting similar success. The similarly themed Attack of the Puppet People was launched and shot at a rapid pace to arrive in theatres within months of being announced with John Agar lending his stamp of class to the production. Samuel Arkoff, part producer of this B movie classic would decades later strike gold with The Amityville Horror. Initially he spent his apprenticeship as part of a major component of AIP with his partner James Nicholson churning out films designed primarily for the teenage market.
The Attack of the Puppet People begins with a group of wide-eyed Brownies arriving at the building that houses the office-cum-factory of the Dolls Inc. company, famous for producing the most astonishingly beautiful and life-like dolls. People travel from far and wide to come to see these dolls fresh from the factory and some of the very special dolls that Dr. Fritz, the owner, doesn’t part with whatever the price offered. A pretty young woman has also arrived seeking the job advertised by Dolls Inc. in the local newspapers for a secretarial position.
Dr. Fritz the proprietor has a winning formula on his hands and orders for his extraordinary dolls pour in at a rate faster than he can produce. Even the enormously steep prices are no deterrent to customers queueing up to own one of his marvels. The only problem seemingly is the propensity for his staff to vanish into thin air or go rushing off to ailing mothers or uncles out of the blue which explains yet another ad in the papers for yet another secretary.
Dr. Fritz is a benign character, gentle as can be. One would imagine that he wouldn’t even hurt a fly nestling on his arm such a docile character he seems and ever since his wife passed on he has been a lonely, forlorn figure with the only joy derived from the company of his beautiful, wondrous dolls.
Naturally all is not quite what meets the eye and we see that there is another side to Dr. Fritz’s persona that is consumed by a dark desire driven by his personal anguish and despair. He has successfully created a machine that has the ability to squish living creatures and shrink them dramatically to tiny doll like living figurines. He has been hiding a dark secret successfully for a while but circumstances are about to change and he is eventually confronted by his demons in an abhorrent apparition that he would never have anticipated in his worst nightmares. The façade slowly starts to crumble and Dr. Fritz has to scramble to maintain his grip, not only on himself and his thus far thriving business but also to stamp out a whiff of rebellion of which he is totally oblivious.
Sensing the noose of the law tightening around his neck, Fritz decides that the only way out is suicide but rather than allow his captives to live, he plans on doing a Jim Jones and taking them down to hell for company. There is now a desperate race against time with the puppets desperate to avoid their doom at the hands of the dangerously unhinged doll maker.
The film may not quite have scored the success that Shrinking Man did and yet it is a perfectly enjoyable little tale in its own right and a highly entertaining one. Perhaps it was due to the scripts demands that the character of Dr. Fritz was so outwardly benign but to be devoid of all traces of anything remotely sinister is a tad disappointing as the role is tailored for some delicious old school evil. Evil old doll makers have been some of the most intriguing characters in horror movies over the years but Dr. Fritz is one of the least fascinating ones alas.
There are some memorable sequences, notably the extended dance party featuring Dr. Fritz’s favourite song “My Little Doll” which is a turning point in the tale and also some giant rats, cats and dogs menacing the little people. All rather exciting if not quite as seamlessly executed as with The Incredible Shrinking Man from the previous year. None the less, the thrills and horrors pile up to a pulse pounding climax and satisfying conclusion.
The Attack of the Puppet People is further evidence for why the 1950s were known as the Golden Age of sci-fi and monster movies. Good, old fashioned, mad-dollmaker yarn of a solidly entertaining nature.