My Living Doll: ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE (AIP 1958)

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Oh boy. TCM is running a salute to AIP every Thursday this month. Now I’ll never get that DVR cleaned out! American International Pictures released some of my favorite films of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, and TCM’s showing everything from Vincent Price/Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe horrors to outlaw biker flicks to Beach Party teen shenanigans. Expect to see lots of AIP posts in the near future, starting right now with 1958’s ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE.

One of my earliest movie memories is watching this on the local “Four O’ Clock Movie Matinee” when I was about five years old. For some strange reason, it resonated with me. I haven’t seen it in years, and my recent re-viewing had me wondering just why it did. Maybe I was a strange kid! Anyway, ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE was the brainchild of Mr. B.I.G. himself, producer/director/effects wizard Bert I. Gordon. Well, maybe “wizard” isn’t the right term, as Gordon’s special effects were mainly using super-imposing techniques and rear projection screens to create his movie magic. Mr. B.I.G.’s DIY style was popular with the “Monster Kid” generation (that’s me!), and his low-budget masterpieces include THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN and its sequel WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST, EARTH VS THE SPIDER, THE MAGIC SWORD (a fantasy with Basil Rathbone as an evil wizard), VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS, FOOD OF THE GODS, and EMPIRE OF THE ANTS. (As of this writing, Bert Gordon is still with us at age 93).

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ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE is the opposite of Gordon’s giant monster movies, as it concerns shrinking people to doll-size. Sally Reynolds (June Kenny, EARTH VS THE SPIDER) answers an ad for an “office girl” at Dolls Incorporated, run by kindly, eccentric Mr. Franz (character actor John Hoyt ). Franz has a habit of talking to his dolls, especially some particularly lifelike ones he keeps in a glass case. Sally meets Bob Westley (the overacting, eyebrow arching John Agar , star of many a sci-fi schlockfest), the self-proclaimed “best salesman this side of St. Louis”. Bob and Sally don’t hit it off at first, and soon they’re engaged, with Bob promising to tell Franz the good news.

When Franz’s old friend Emil (Michael Mark… more about him later!) pays a visit, we learn the dollmaker’s wife left him, and he now suffers from an exaggerated case of separation anxiety. He can’t stand when people leave him. He tells Sally that Bob has left for St. Louis without her. But when Sally spies a lifelike Bob doll, she fears the worst, and runs to the police, claiming Franz has “made Bob into a doll”. Sgt. Paterson is skeptical of course (wouldn’t you be?), but when she rattles off the names of other recent missing persons, the cop goes with her to confront Franz, who burns the Bob-doll before their very eyes! It seems it’s “only made of plastic”, and Franz has a suitcase full of Bob-dolls he’s made. The cop leaves, and Franz now has Sally in his clutches. Using his ‘molecular disintegration ray’, he turns Sally into one of his doll-people! Now Sally and Bob, along with brassy Georgia, 50’s teens Laurie and Stan, and Mac the Marine, are miniature versions of themselves, and forced to entertain Franz as his ‘Puppet People’, kept in a state of suspended animation until he wants to play with them.

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ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE isn’t very frightening, nor does it achieve any dramatic heights. It’s silly and loopy, and its “shrinking” theme was done much better in DR. CYCLOPS and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. But it’s still fun, and Gordon gives us a nice touch when Bob and Sally go on a date to a drive-in. The film they watch is Gordon’s THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN. The scenes where the doll-people are surrounded by giant props are well done, and the rear projection special effects aren’t all that bad, considering the budget limitations. Hindsight being what it is, I probably enjoyed this movie more when I was five than I did now. Having said that, I recommend ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE for the inner five-year-old in all of us. And that’s not such a bad thing after all!

Trivia Time!

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Michael Mark, who plays Emil, is best known as little Maria’s father in the 1931 classic FRANKENSTEIN. Eagle eyed Cracked Rear Viewers can spot him in uncredited roles in THE BLACK CAT, MAD LOVE , THE MUMMY’S HAND, and even CASABLANCA ! Mr. Mark appeared  in four Universal FRANKENSTEIN films altogether, tying him with Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Dwight Frye for second place in the series. Can you name the two horror icons who appeared in the most Universal FRANKENSTEIN movies, with five? (Hint: one of them played the same role four out of his five times)

 

Tough As Nails: BRUTE FORCE (Universal-International, 1947)

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The prison movie has long been one of the most popular of the crime genre. Beginning with 1930’s THE BIG HOUSE, to THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and beyond, audiences flock to get a forbidden glimpse behind the walls. Newspaper columnist turned film producer Mark Hellinger gave us one of the starkest, most realistic looks at prison life in  BRUTE FORCE, as relevant now as it was back in 1947.

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Westgate Penitentiary is a walled island facility much like Alcatraz, ruled with an iron hand by Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn). The warden (Roman Bohenen) is weak and inefficient, and the prison doctor (Art Baker) a drunk. Inmate Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster), just back from solitary thanks to having a shiv planted on him by one of Munsey’s stoolies, is desperate enough to plan a jailbreak with his cellies in R17. They stage a fight in the machine shop and drive the rat to his death while Joe visits with the doctor, making sure he has an airtight alibi. The politicians are in an uproar about the prison’s lack of discipline, and threaten the warden that changes will be made if things aren’t straightened out. Joe makes a proposition to Gallagher (Charles Bickford), a veteran con, to break out. Gallagher declines, stating he’s up for parole soon, and has it pretty easy playing both sides of the fence.

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Flashbacks are used throughout the movie to humanize the cons in R17, as we see them on the outside with their women. Joe’s girl Ruth (Ann Blyth) is a cripple with cancer. His lawyer tells him she refuses to have a life-saving operation until he returns. Joe doen’t want her to know where he is, as he’s shielded her from his criminal life. Joe gets a message to visit a con in the infirmary, who tells him the drainpipe is the answer to his way out. A cryptic reference to “Hill 633” provides Joe with the means to carry things out. Munsey causes one of the cellmates (Whit Bissell) to hang himself, and the warden, under more pressure, revokes all convict privileges. All scheduled paroles are cancelled, and Gallagher now agrees to go along with Joe’s escape plan. Munsey sends the men to work in the drainpipe, but what they don’t know is there’s a rat among them, and Munsey’s on to their scheme. Just before setting things into play, the warden is forced to resign, and Munsey is put in charge. The cons riot while the breakout is on, culminating in a death struggle between Joe and Munsey in a gory ending inside a flaming guard tower.

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Burt Lancaster’s Joe Collins is the ultimate anti-hero, clearly a criminal, but we sympathize with him. His love for Ruth shows us his softer side, and though he’s on the wrong side of the law, we cheer him on, rather than the corrupt Captain Munsey. Cronyn’s Munsey is vain, sadistic, and tyrannical. His methods of intimidation and brutality make him as bad (if not worse) than even the hardest con. It’s a subtle, well drawn portrait, and I think it’s Cronyn’s best screen performance, which is saying a lot considering his long body of work. The rest of the cast is a testosterone fueled bunch, including Howard Duff (billed as “Radio’s Sam Spade in his first screen role”), Jeff Corey, Sam Levene, Jack Overman, John Hoyt, Jay C. Flippen, and Gene Roth. The ladies are represented by Blyth, Yvonne DeCarlo, Ella Raines, and Anita Colby. Black actor Sir Lancelot plays Calypso, who serves as a sort of Greek chorus for the film, much like he did in Val Lewton’s 1943 I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE.

The screenplay by Richard Brooks is tough as nails. Brooks wrote another Hellinger movie, THE KILLERS, and worked on John Huston’s KEY LARGO, before becoming an acclaimed writer/director of his own with THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, ELMER GANTRY, IN COLD BLOOD, and LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR. Director Jules Dassin came up through the ranks of b-movies before scoring with THE CANTERVILLE GHOST. He collaborated with Hellinger again on THE NAKED CITY , and made NIGHT AND THE CITY before falling victim to the Hollywood blacklist. Moving to Europe, Dassin continued his fine work in films like RIFIFI, TOPKAPI, and NEVER ON SUNDAY with his wife, Greek actress/activist Melina Mercouri.

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BRUTE FORCE is a violent, gritty movie that was way ahead of its time. It’s a no holds barred look at a hard life, and retains its punch even today. Well worth watching for its realism, and particularly for Hume Cronyn’s chilling performance as Captain Munsey.  A true classic!

Less Than Grand Guignol: TWO ON A GUILLOTINE (Warner Bros, 1965)

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TWO ON A GUILLOTINE was one of those movies that used to air frequently on Boston’s Channel 56. I’d seen it numerous times, and had largely forgotten about it when TCM aired it recently. I wondered how it held up after all those decades so, good little film blogger that I am, I DVR’d it to review. While it’s certainly no classic, TWO ON A GUILLOTINE isn’t as bad as the title would imply.

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The movie’s about a famous stage magician, The Great Duquense aka Duke (Cesar Romero), who passes away. The papers say he “vows to return from the grave”. His estranged daughter Cassie (Connie Stevens) shows up at the funeral. She’s a dead ringer for her mom, who mysteriously vanished twenty years ago. Duke’s will is read (at the Hollywood Bowl, no less), and Cassie is set to inherit his estate if she’ll stay at his home for seven days, specifically not to leave between midnight and dawn. Val Henderson (Dean Jones), a reporter looking for a story, cons his way into Cassie’s life by pretending to be a real estate agent interested in the house. She finds him “contemptible”. Of course, they quickly fall in love. 

The creepy old house is gimmicked up with Duke’s stage props. There’s a lot of strange goings-on involving scary noises, secret locked doors, skeletons popping out of nowhere, and general eerieness. Cassie finds out he’s a reporter, dumps him, then wants him back (your classic boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-regains-girl scenario). There’s some genuinely spooky scenes here, but on the whole it’s more Less Than Grand Guignol. I’ve got to admit the twist ending is pretty neat, though.

The cast is full of familiar actors. Likeable Dean Jones has been a favorite of mine since his Disney days (THAT DARN CAT!, THE UGLY DACHSHUND, THE LOVE BUG), and his presence is always welcome. Connie Stevens wasn’t the best actress, but she wasn’t the worst, either. Cesar Romero gives the part of Duquense his customary pizzazz. Others in the picture include Parley Baer, Virginia Gregg, John Hoyt, Connie Gilchrist, and midget actor Billy Curtis in a small role (sorry, I had to do it!!)

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Some of the behind the cameras stuff is more interesting to me than the film itself. Producer/director William Conrad was best known for his two hit TV series, CANNON and JAKE & THE FATMAN. The veteran actor of radio (the original Marshal Dillon on GUNSMOKE), films (THE KILLERS, THE RACKET), and television has a Hitchcockian cameo in this one. Conrad did a lot of TV directing, most notably for 77 SUNSET STRIP. His booming bass voice was often heard narrating movies and shows. (Yes, that’s Conrad narrating the classic animated series ROCKY & BULLWINKLE!) Writer Henry Slesar was an award-winning short-story author who dabbled in TV (ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS), soap operas (SEARCH FOR TOMORROW, EDGE OF NIGHT), and movies (1971’s MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, with Jason Robards). Slesar even contributed the two-part BATMAN episode featuring Shelley Winters as Ma Parker. And TWO ON A GUILLOTINE was the next-to-last score for composer Max Steiner, who was a long way from GONE WITH THE WIND, KING KONG, CASABLANCA, and THE SEARCHERS.

TWO ON A GUILLOTINE was filmed in black and white. and would’ve benefitted from color. There’s a lot of obvious foreshadowing and it covers all too familiar ground, but it’s not a bad way to spend two hours, and I’m glad I got to see it one more time. Oh….that rock band appearing in the club sequence is The Condors, featuring George and Teddy. They aren’t bad, either. Wonder whatever happened to them?