Psychotronic Ketchup: Attack of the Puppet People (1958)

Nepotism is such an ugly word. One usually hears it in conjunction with someone getting a step up in a business due to their personal relationship with someone in a position of power within that company. Being from Alaska, this very thing happened in our political system, where a slime-coated State Senator won the Governorship and handed his open slot to his skeezy daughter. As I said, nepotism is an ugly word, sometimes made all the uglier by the participants.

Hollywood is, and always has been, suffused with nepotism, and it is no surprise when a director casts a family member in a production. But is it really nepotism when the casting in question really does nothing to help that person get a leg up in the industry? If your father is the king of rear-projection gigantism films, such as Mister Big himself, Bert I. Gordon, then isn't he really hindering your shot at a career by casting you in one of his justly infamous productions? Isn't this really a form of anti-nepotism?

Bert decided to grace the universe by "introducing" his sweet little chunk-faced daughter Susan in a tiny but plot-hinging role in Attack of the Puppet People, his crass attempt to cash in on the major success of Universal's far superior production of The Incredible Shrinking Man, released in the previous year. Apart from a cat and the subject of miniaturized people (though Universal's film had the usual radiation subplot of the 50's instead of a machine invented by a dollmaker), the chief link from this film to its predecessor is the protaganist's use of a nail as a sword against a dangerous opponent. Scott Carey used his sharp little weapon against a voracious tarantula; John Agar's stiffly played character of Bob uses it to protect himself and his lady love against a barking dog standing on the other side of a cardboard mail package. Unfortunately, though Gordon made the size of the antagonist larger, the effect pays off in much smaller dividends. In fact, it fails utterly, and while one could make the point that this entire film does too, there are things to like here.

I am so used to seeing John Hoyt appear in reruns of 60's television shows that his presence here as the lonely and slightly sympathetic (though emphasis should be placed on the "pathetic") dollmaker seems to make the film seem like a longer, if unsuccessful, episode of The Twilight Zone. He also makes this film surprisingly watchable. While many are quick to point out the cheap special effects, I would counter that many of the prop pieces work quite well, even if they never get close to approaching the grander level of Incredible or especially the Oscar-winning Dr. Cyclops (a personal favorite). The film also gets a major benefit from the cinematography of famed cinematographer Ernest Laszlo, who filmed a few lower-budget sci-fi programmers in the late 50's in the middle of a busy Oscar-winning career. While there is not much in the way of innovative shots, the film does have a sharp look to it (except, of course, when those annoyingly out-of-sync rear-projection shots show up).

It falls apart story-wise, though, mainly because the villain is not black-hearted enough. Even when he threatens to kill his creations, it is because he plans to kill himself as well, because he can't bear to live without his "dolls". Sure, he's a twisted fuck, but the way Hoyt portrays his mad loneliness makes his preposterous methods quite understandable, though I never believed for a second that he would actually carry through on his threat to murder them. Whether he does or not is left up in the air, as the film relies on a rather ambiguous (read: rushed and poorly written) ending regarding the fate of two-thirds of the "puppet people", who never do get around to attacking anyone, not even their tormentor.

And poor little "nepo-tized" Susan Gordon? While I asked if her casting would actually be hindered, this actually wasn't the case.
She did go on to make a string of guest appearances on TV (including The Twilight Zone) through the sixties, but by '67, it seems she was done. It seems that in Bert's roughly 20 years of giant-sized movies (though he did make films in other genres during this period), this film about reducing people to doll-size was the ironic one-off (even if it practically uses the same effect), and perhaps this turnabout caused his daughter's career in showbiz to be shrunk simply by her appearance in it. She did make appearances in three more of her father's flicks, but strangely, none of his epics about giants. Perhaps he never wanted her to grow up. And for a guy obsessed with making everything in his universe enormous, that would be the weirdest thing of all.

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