Bright Lights Film Journal

Treasures of Puppet Cinema: Pinocchio, Attack of the Puppet People, Black Devil Doll from Hell

Wooden bottom boyz, teensy teens, and a Satanic blackface Charlie McCarthy – these are just a few of the offerings from le cinema puppet!

Pinocchio

Walt Disney made horror movies disguised as kidflix, and none – except maybe the cosmically sadistic Old Yeller – is as horrific yet strangely thrilling as Pinocchio. This veritable catalog of perversities has sent many a child screaming for the exit, and no wonder. What must mothers in the 1940s (or later) have thought at the images of Pleasure Island, where bratty boys throw rocks through stained-glass windows, smoke big cigars, and undergo an agonizing transformation into donkey slaves? Pinocchio lives with his “daddy” Geppetto, a hunky old confirmed bachelor who wouldn’t look bad at all in chaps and studded jockstrap, and probably wore them in outtakes. Yet Pinocchio is so desperate to escape his puppet status to become just another boring “real boy” that it leads him into all manner of mischief, including a sojourn with quasi-pedophilic puppetmaster Stromboli, who shows Pinocchio’s fate should he choose to resist: a trunk full of frighteningly broken “dead” puppets. Pleasure Island is everyboy’s dream of violent antiauthoritarianism, but the payback is too terrifying. Why couldn’t he be happy as entertainer, surrogate wife, and literal boytoy for the man who “made” him?

Attack of the Puppet People

Special fx sleazeball Bert I. Gordon (known to himself and his immediate family as “Mr. B.I.G.”) excelled at 1950s sci-fi and horror trash. One of his best/worst is Attack of the Puppet People (1958). The name is misleading – there is no attack, and the “puppet people” are teenagers shrunken by an old dollmaking perv who’s “lonely” and apparently too maladjusted to make normal-sized friends. As compensation, there’s loads of cruelty and camp in this too-brief (79 minutes) feature. Mr. Franz (the fabulous John Hoyt) is a “kindly” old man who rules his dolls with an iron hand. They’re only allowed out when he feels like it, or when he thinks they’ve been good. When he does release them from their tubes, they’re forced to enact ridiculous rituals for his amusement: miniature weddings, tiny teenage twist parties. There’s a creepy sexual tone to the whole affair, as if Mr. Franz, off-screen, may be using the dolls’ tubes as part of some wacky penis-enlargement scheme. The film’s taglines are as deceptive as the title, but fun: “Doll dwarves versus the crushing giant beasts!” and “SEE a baby doll take a bubble bath in a coffee can!” The “dolls” have a sense of humor about their situation when they’re not bitching, they refer to themselves as “bottle babies,” sing self-reflexive laments about their size, and dream of a “moonlight swimming party in the sink.” Watch for the genuinely creepy real puppet show toward the end, a short but expertly rendered Jekyll & Hyde melodrama where a little-bitty John Agar gets to punch out Mr. Hyde. Maybe Agar’s practice in beating up his former wife Shirley Temple during their mercifully brief marriage helped bring verisimilitude to the part.

Black Devil Doll from Hell

Shirley L. Jones plays a good churchgoin’ woman in Philadelphia who buys a blackface Charlie McCarthy doll with dreadlocks from the local Rapist Puppets store. Despite her devoutness, Shirley’s horny as heck, and the puppet knows it. At night he sneaks into her bed, exhales devilish smoke in her face, and screams things like “I’m gonna fuck you now bitch!” and “I’m gonna give you your heart’s desire, bitch!” Shirley tries vaguely to resist but her legs are soon spinning upward. She can’t get enough of that wooden pecker and his verbal abuse. But like so many men, Devil Doll is fickle and abandons her, forcing her into the streets to pick up men. But none of them measure up. She wants wood! Chester Novell Turner is the auteur of this misogynist masterpiece of sleaze. Like so many indie auteurs, he’s a regular Renaissance man, writing, photographing, scoring, and probably hiring his kid to dress up as the sex puppet star in those scenes where the little guy has to run across the room and dive into bed with Shirley. There’s a queasy porn feel to much of BDDFH; Mr. Turner lingers on Shirley as she soaps up naked in the shower. It’s not clear if the disco where she goes to pick up men – a rat-trap bar with three or four people dancing to organ music – is typical of the Philly disco scene at the time (1974). And oh yeah, in the Clutch Cargo tradition, the puppet has a real tongue that wiggles out of his mouth when he’s ready to muff-dive. Sweet.