Samuel Z. Arkoff’s American International Pictures made a habit of capitalizing on the successes of Universal Pictures movies in the 1950s. The production and distribution company pumped out modernizations of the classic monster films, including I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein. In 1958, hot on the heels of Universal’s The Incredible Shrinking Man, AIP rushed a film with the working title of I Was a Teenage Doll into production, a film that would be quickly released as Attack of the Puppet People.
Attack of the Puppet People begins with a tour of a doll factory, appropriately called Dolls, Inc. A group of young girls makes its way through the factory, and one of them notices a cabinet with a handful of very lifelike and detailed dolls locked inside. The owner of the company, Mr. Franz (John Hoyt from X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes), explains to the girls that those dolls are his “special collection.” Later, a young woman named Sally Reynolds (B-Movie queen June Kenney from Earth vs. the Spider and Teenage Doll) answers an ad that Mr. Franz has placed for a receptionist. Although a little uncomfortable with his doll obsession, Sally takes the job. In the elevator of the building, Sally meets Bob Westley (Tarantula’s John Agar), a salesman who convinces her to go out with him and, in the world’s fastest whirlwind romance, persuades her to marry him and move to St. Louis. Bob promises to tells Franz that Sally is leaving her job, but when Sally goes to the doll factory looking for Bob, Franz tells her that he has gone back home, alone. However, Sally notices a new doll in the special collection – one that bears a remarkable resemblance to Bob. Sally goes to the police with her crazy story of Mr. Franz turning people into dolls, but they don’t believe her. Going back to the factory, Sally confirms her suspicions, learning that Mr. Franz has invented a machine that shrinks people down to doll size – but, because of her discovery, she becomes his latest victim. Sally, Bob, and the rest of the shrunken citizens must find a way to stop Franz from shrinking any other people while discovering how to grow themselves back to regular size.
Directed by the incomparable Bert I. Gordon (The Food of the Gods, Empire of the Ants) and written by prolific B-Movie scribe George Worthing Yates (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, It Came from Beneath the Sea), Attack of the Puppet People was not the first attempt by AIP to emulate The Incredible Shrinking Man; Gordon and Yates also tackled the reverse of the concept with The Amazing Colossal Man the year before. Never one to rest on his laurels, AIP put Attack of the Puppet People into production right after The Amazing Colossal Man in a double-promotional push (in Attack of the Puppet People, Sally and Bob even go on a date to a drive-in where they watch…The Amazing Colossal Man).
Attack of the Puppet People has a very misleading title. The people are not really puppets and there is hardly an attack. And, the film isn’t as schlocky as it sounds. A big reason for the lack of camp is the cast. John Hoyt isn’t exactly a household name, but he has a famous face; he was the three-armed alien in the “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” episode of “The Twilight Zone,” and would go on to play the grandpa on “Gimme a Break!” June Kenney and John Agar are both seasoned B-Movie professionals, and neither cracks a smile or winks an eyelid as they work their way through the film. While not exactly a science fiction masterpiece, Attack of the Puppet People does what it does very well, and is a better film than many of its contemporaries.
Many of the same visual tricks from The Incredible Shrinking Man are recycled into Attack of the Puppet People. The shrunken people effect is achieved through the combination of camera angles and production design. The doll-people are almost always photographed from a high angle by cinematographer Ernest Laszlo (who would go on to shoot Logan’s Run and Fantastic Voyage), a technique which emphasizes their smallness. The scenes with the little people are shot on large sets with oversized props to make the people look miniature. In places where the mini-people have to interact with Mr. Franz or an animal of some sort, rear-projection is used to give the shots a seamless look. Although primitive by today’s standards, the visual effects in Attack of the Puppet People were cutting edge for their time, and still look effective today.
The character of Mr. Franz is an enigmatic one; he is a misunderstood evil genius. The reasoning behind his shrinking of people is loneliness; since the death of his wife, he gets bored easily and keeps his puppet people around for amusement and companionship. In one scene, Franz makes Sally act out parts of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, playing against a marionette that Franz himself controls. The scene is heartbreaking, as Franz tries desperately to relate to his captives. Although he is obviously crazy, Franz becomes a sympathetic character, giving a deeper element to the antagonist of Attack of the Puppet People.
If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, than American International Pictures was constantly flattering Universal Studios. In the world of B-Movies, however, there is plenty of room for similar movies. No matter where it found its inspiration, Attack of the Puppet People is a fun film in its own right.