Tag Archives: Elmore Leonard

30 Days of Madness, Day 29: Attack of the Puppet People

Shakes and Lefty are back, and Shakes doesn’t seem to like the latest movie.

Attack of the Puppet People (1958) Written by George Worthing Yates & Bert I. Gordon. Directed by Gordon. Starring John Agar, John Hoyt, June Kenney.

Bert I. Gordon is notorious for his cheesy sci-fi/fantasy/horror flicks. I’ve already written about him in my review of Empire of the Ants, so I won’t go into much detail here except to say that Attack of the Puppet People is better than the rest of his films that I’ve seen but still not what I would call a good movie. The story (screenplay by George Worthing Yates, who also wrote one of my favorite 1950s sci-fi flicks, Them!) involves John Hoyt as a doll-maker who has some real loneliness issues and has devised a method of shrinking people down to doll-size so he can always have company.

According to the trivia section on the Internet Movie Database, it was “rushed into production by American International and Bert I. Gordon to ride the success of Universal-International’s The Incredible Shrinking Man.” All I can say about that is, I’m not surprised, nor am I surprised that not much has changed in Hollywood in this regard in the past 50 years. Writer Richard Matheson and director Jack Arnold’s adaptation of Matheson’s novel The Shrinking Man is one of the greatest sci-fi films of the 1950s. Attack of the Puppet People is a lame coattail-rider.

I didn’t take as many notes as I usually do on cheesy movies like this, but here are the few I did write down:

–I suppose it was only a matter of time before I had to deal with John Agar this month. Thankfully, here he is nowhere near as annoying as he was in The Mole People (a favorite of mine from Mystery Science Theater 3000). Still, in his first scene he immediately earns my contempt. Something about his face just makes me want to slap it around. (If that’s a latent rip-off of something Elmore Leonard once wrote, I apologize.) How his obnoxiousness lands him a date with the woman whose face he brays into like a jackass in their first scene together is beyond me.

–The woman, incidentally, is June Kenney from the movie Bloodlust, another MST3K favorite.

–Gordon’s two protagonists (Agar and Kenney) go on a date at the drive-in, where they are watching yet another MST3K favorite of mine (and Gordon’s previous film), The Amazing Colossal Man. We get to watch almost an entire scene from that movie. Way to pad out the running time, Gordon. Has anyone ever done such a thing, featured their own previous film in their immediate next film, before or since this? Even Spielberg never sank to such depths of self-promotion.

–Gordon is known for films that use the effect of superimposing one image over another to create the illusion of abnormally-sized creatures. Somehow it works better here, in which he shows shrunken people against a giant world, than it does in his other films where he shows giants. Still not the best special effects in the world, though. The limitations become more prominent toward the end, when the effects shots start to pile up. There are some real perspective problems throughout, but never so obvious as when Agar and Kenney are being chased through the streets by a rat. Unless New York City has rats half the size of automobiles. (Then again, this might be more accurate than I thought….)

My Netflix rating: 2 stars (out of 5)

–Tom Kapr

30 Days of Madness, Day 11: Fright Night

Fright Night (1985) Written & directed by Tom Holland. Starring Chris Sarandon, William Ragsdale, Amanda Bearse, Roddy McDowall, Stephen Geoffreys.

Fright Night is about a teenage boy who suspects his new next-door neighbor of being a vampire responsible for a recent series of murders in the town. Of course, nobody believes him–not his mother, not his girlfriend, not his irritating little buddy from school, not the police, and not Peter Vincent, the host of a late-night vampire show who carries the persona of a vampire hunter well enough that an otherwise intelligent high-schooler thinks he’s for real.

Roddy McDowall & William Ragsdale. But this movie actually is in color.

A few notes about the folks who made the film: Fright Night was written and directed by Tom Holland and stars Chris Sarandon as the vampire. Two years after Fright Night came out, these two would re-team for a much better horror flick called Child’s Play, which has a ridiculous premise but is, in fact, quite a terrifying movie. William Ragsdale plays the archetypical hero-no-one-listens-to, Charley Brewster; Ragsdale would go on to appear in one of my favorite current television series, Justified, which is based on a series of Elmore Leonard short stories, and of which I never pass up an opportunity to sing the praises.  Brewster’s girlfriend Amy is played by Amanda Bearse, who went on to play Marcy D’Arcy in some 240 episodes of Married with Children. Fake vampire hunter Peter Vincent is played by Roddy “Cornelius” McDowall, perhaps best known for starring in the original Planet of the Apes as well as three sequels and a spin-off television series. And Brewster’s obnoxious friend “Evil” Ed is played by Stephen Geoffreys, who, in the 1990s and 2000s, under the pseudonym Sam Ritter, had quite a prolific career in the hardcore homosexual pornography industry. Kudos all around.

Here are some of the notes I took while watching Fright Night until about halfway through, when, having filled two sides of a note page, I just got sick of writing statements of incredulity and questions of confusion:

–The movie opens on a dark neighborhood. A wolf howls. A man’s off-camera voice says, “What was that?” presumably because he’s from the big city and doesn’t know what a wolf sounds like. A woman’s voice says what any sensible woman would say in response to such a question: “Just a child of the night, John.”

–A few seconds later, after more awful dialogue, the same man’s voice says, “Your lips are so red!” The woman’s voice says, “Would you like to kiss them?” This is followed by the most ridiculous kissing noises you will hear outside of a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

–As the camera pans in through an upstairs window, it reveals that this dialogue is coming from a TV. A teenage boy and his girlfriend are making out. On the floor between his bed and the wall. More bad kissing sound effects.

–Here’s a random excerpt of dialogue from the actual movie: “Call me anything you want. Only you’re the one failing trig, not me.” This is a horror movie. I almost failed trig too!

–Okay, this kid can’t possibly be the only person in the neighborhood who heard that scream. That was like a Universal Pictures scream-queen scream of epic proportions. People on three blocks over heard that scream. [As we'll soon find out, nobody else heard the scream.]

–I’ve watched a lot of movies and a lot of television, and I’ve learned something: A little bit of explaining oneself goes a long way toward resolving and avoiding unnecessary conflict.

–Here’s a tip for all you voyeurs and neighborhood watch-persons: If you’re going to spy on your next-door neighbor, it’s best not to sit with enormous binoculars in full view of the window in a well-lit room with the TV on.

–Oh! He dropped his binoculars! Now those things will never focus properly again.

–I have to say that, especially for one whom I’m assuming has done this many times before, this vampire neighbor is not very discreet with his killing and disposing of bodies. Then again, only one kid with a built-in obsession with vampire movies noticed anything, so maybe I should be saying that the people in this neighborhood are rock-stupid.

Chris Sarandon waking up early in the morning, before having his makeup applied.

–The detective brings the witness to confront the suspect of multiple murders?

–The kid finds a painting of the likeness of his girlfriend in the vampire’s house and it barely phases him?

–The comic relief sidekick must have been the producer’s nephew or something–and when did this kid get established as an authority on killing vampires?

–”A vampire cannot enter your house without being invited by the rightful owner.” (Here I have a wistful memory of watching Let Me In.) Guess what the next scene is? Mom calls our hero Charley downstairs to meet the new neighbor, the vampire she’s just invited into the living room. The neighbor her son already warned her was a murderer. Mom confirms suspicions of rock-stupidness of neighborhood people.

–Neighbor’s being all super-creepy in front of mom and she’s still clueless.

–Note to aspiring vampires: Breaking the door jamb is not going to make it more difficult for someone to escape the room. And furthermore, why would he trap the mother in the room while she’s sleeping in the middle of the night if his plan is to attack her son? Is Mom such a threat? Why not just kill mom? (Wow, there’s a sentence I never thought I’d type.)

–Again, the vampire is afraid of being found in the house by the kid’s mom, after he’s tried to murder the kid by… pushing him out the second-story window? And he’s thwarted by a pencil through the hand? Not a very good vampire.

–Mom wakes up. Finally breaks out of her room. Rushes into son’s room. Son’s room is a wreck. She asks him if anything’s wrong. He says no, it was just a nightmare. She says she had a nightmare too once, then goes back to bed. Mom’s stupidity goes beyond rock-stupid.

–This kid is presumably about, let’s say, 17 years old. So he goes to the TV horror show host for help? (And this is 1985, before reality TV and social networking destroyed teenagers’ perceptions of reality.)

–”A Vampire tried to kill me last night and trashed my car when he didn’t succeed.” We never actually see this trashed car, but we already know it happened because the vampire called him on the telephone, after failing at killing him, to tell him about trashing his car, and that he’d be back to kill him again the next night, while his minion wraps his pencil wound. One of the weirdest phone call scenes in movie history.

"And spread sunshine all over the place / Just put on a haaappyyy faaace!"

–”He’s a reborn Christian. He thinks crosses would be sacrilegious.” I would like to know what religion courses Tom Holland took to come up with a line like that.

–The kid dresses up in his best suit jacket to go confront the vampire? He looks like he’s getting ready for a date!

–Vampires can teleport?

–Girlfriend sees the vampire slowly approaching for like five minutes across the crowded club while her boyfriend is on the phone, and she says and does, exactly, nothing, but watch.

–Nothing happens in this movie in a way that makes sense.

And then I got tired of taking notes. This was about the halfway mark, about 50 minutes in. But then something amazing happened. There was a good scene. And then something even more amazing happened. The last half–hour or so of this movie was, I have to admit, pretty good. There are some truly fantastic makeup and visual effects. Gosh, I miss the days before CGI when fantasy directors had to use real ingenuity to achieve believable visual effects. There is a scene in which a human transforms into a wolf. The transformation back into human form is absolutely astounding. From there, Fright Night has a solid climactic face-off with the vampire inside his house with more excellent special effects.

If you want to watch Fright Night, I would say, watch it with friends so you can make fun of it. Get through the cloying and senseless first two thirds of the movie, and you’ll be rewarded with some quality horror cinema. I should also say, be on the lookout for the remake next year. From TV-series Buffy the Vampire Slayer writer Marti Noxon and Lars and the Real Girl director Craig Gillespie, it might actually be good.

My Netflix rating: 3 stars (out of 5) because the last third of the movie really saved it in a big way.

–Tom Kapr