SHOCK takes the stand and defends Kevin S. Tenney’s outlandish slasher PINOCCHIO’S REVENGE.
Cult horror movie director Kevin S. Tenney’s PINOCCHIOS REVENGE (1996) combines the evil child subgenre with the possessed doll formula. Much like the surprisingly good Childs Play (1987) cash-in Dolly Dearest (1991), the film pits a young family against a corrupt doll that has completely seduced an impressionable young girl. However, as opposed to Dolly Dearest, Tenney’s movie focuses on a broken family devoid of a father and plagued with mental health concerns. Jennifer Garrick (Rosalind Allen), a successful defense lawyer and single mother to the troubled Zoe (Brittany Alyse Smith), is working on a case involving a suspected child murderer. This supposed criminal is also a woodwork sculptor and as an aside to the hearing, Jennifer adopts the marionette that was at the site of the death of the convicted woodworker’s young son. Although Jennifer genuinely believes that he didn’t commit any murders, the manic sculptor confesses that he had killed his son and the judge sentences him to the death penalty rendering the Pinocchio puppet “ownerless” and therefore ready to be taken in by Jennifer and completely attractive to young lonely Zoe. But this set up is not at all superficial. What makes Tenney’s film instantly engaging is the fact that the film plays with the notion that the woodcutter’s “son” was in actual fact an invention – and much like the mythology of the isolated toymaker Gepetto in the classic story of Pinocchio where he “created a real life boy”, this marionette from Tenneys film also comes to life but is not at all charming and naive much like Disney’s likeable fool in the animated classic adaptation of the Italian story. Instead, here in this mid-nineties creature feature, the puppet is a violent monster that needs to be “killed” metaphorically and in reality by his creator. This Pinocchio marionette is a demented creation that looks like a bloated Rankin-Bass character from a TV Christmas favorite of the 70s. When he is on screen you pay attention, and wish that he had more to do, however, thankfully and fortunately the human co-stars are also a complex and interesting mixed bag.
Essentially, the film is mostly concerned with young Zoe and her relationship with Pinocchio. Zoe has nightmares and anxieties bought on from the separation from her father while the other girls at school think that she is crazy. Of course, Zoe is not “crazy”, but she does have a violent streak. Early on, Zoe bites one of her tormentors and when this incident is bought to her mother Jennifer’s attention it is learned that Zoe had “another fight at school today” implying that her violent nature is nothing new. Zoe sees a shrink who probes about her father and their relationship, but the deep rooted anger Zoe tries to repress causes a lot of grief for her and her mother and puts a strain on the relationship her mother has with her work and her new boyfriend. The only other friendly face in Zoe’s life is the nanny Sofia (Candace McKenzie) who shares a secret world with her. She talks through Zoe’s many stuffed toys, giving them all a personality and a purpose. Sofia is presented as a sexy immigrant (an archetype rather popular during the 90s) and gets to have two “fleshy” sequences – one sexual and one violent. There is a terrific scene where she soaps up her slender naked body in the shower and is being watched by Pinocchio. When Zoe catches Pinocchio perving on the nude Sofia, she reacts hysterically. Zoe’s anger is directed at Sofia, as if she is disgusted that Sofia is “corrupting” Pinocchio’s innocence, but there is something else going on in this scene – Zoe is angry and frustrated by the fact that she is only a little girl. She is flustered by the fact that Pinocchio is in actual fact adult in mind and passion and this is something she, as a child, cannot relate to. Zoe’s frustration in being trapped as a child can be read as derivative of the anger and rage harboured by the child vampire Claudia in Interview With The Vampire (1994); there is this poignant untapped desire from little girls who want to hurry up and become women so they too can be ogled and admired by men (and puppets). The second “fleshy” scene that centers on Sofia is her death sequence where she is smacked to death by a fire poke. She is clearly set up as a sacrificial lamb; she is of that character archetype: the character who is dispensable and a potential threat that can afford to be killed off – and because this movie doesn’t boast many onscreen deaths, she is permitted to have a dramatic and intense one.
The other entertaining death is the one of Jennifer’s boyfriend (and unappealing father-figure to Zoe) David (Todd Allen) who, much like Burke Dennings in The Exorcist (1973), is somehow a threat to the mother/daughter unit. Conversations with Pinocchio start to take a sinister turn when the puppet insists that he can help get rid of David for Zoe: a beautiful “genie in the bottle” motif that cements the movie in the supernatural wish fulfilment mould. Zoe’s thoughts and desires are somewhat articulated by this demonic puppet. Although her rage and anger and violent outbursts are not at all fatalistic, they can be with the aid of the Pinocchio puppet. The difference here is however, much like Andy in Child’s Play, Zoe is not at all asking or requesting sinister happenings, she is merely deeply associated with the supernatural violence bought on from a supposedly inanimate object. The wish fulfilment is something untapped; the bizarre magic of the dark spaces in the mind of a child. Much like Regan MacNeil playing alone in the large adult-orientated Washington house, Zoe is left to her own devices – a world populated by soft toys and an exotic new doll that is completely intertwined with her and heightens the idea that she might actually be mentally unstable and dangerous.
Zoe’s connection to Pinocchio is also that of the surrogate father. The film obsesses with Zoe’s rejection from her father and similarly to the brooding intelligent Elliot in E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982), Zoe projects paternal acceptance and warmth from the contact and intimacy she shares with the puppet. She also acts as the puppet’s enabler; she cuts his strings so he can move freely, she lets him know where people and things are, she covers up for him, she feels safe in his sadism. This is a connection that most definitely brings the film out from the evil doll trope to the demented kid cinema of les enfante terribles. Nothing about the movie is subtle, but the inspired moments are palpable and slick.
The showdown in the film is completely owned by Zoe’s mother Jennifer and the puppet. Zoe’s character is kept on the sidelines as mom and dolly deadly duke it out. This is obviously standard horror movie fare which is entertaining and traditional, but that doesn’t mean the film is completely predictable. The question is: will mom believe that the puppet is alive? Yes. Will anyone else believe her? The answer is no. By the end of the movie, Zoe is confined to a mental institution and her shrink dismisses her mother’s plea that it was the puppet that killed her boyfriend and nanny. This ending is a nice departure from a clean cut happy ending where demonic doll is destroyed and child is redeemed. It also leaves us the audience to have to completely accept the fact that the connection between Zoe and Pinocchio will go on even after the credits roll. The graceful blurring between doll and child is condensed successfully with the image of the silhouette of Pinocchio quickly dissolving into little Zoe standing in the doorway with a knife outstretched toward her sleeping mother. It is both elegant and effective and showcases Tenney’s talents as a director. Much like his very good Witchboard (1986), PINOCCHIOS REVENGE is a surprisingly stylish and fun film about the dangers of childhood loneliness. It manages to explore the sadness of an isolated child (not as lyrically as the hauntingly beautiful Curse of the Cat People (1944) or as swiftly dynamic as Child’s Play and Child’s Play 2 (1990)) who is completely at the mercy of her distancing from the real world and devotion to a doll.
Brittany Alyse Smith is a great little actress; her bratty mean streak is firmly in place and her vulnerability and sorrow is believable and interesting; there is nothing by the numbers here, the young versatile actress gives a dynamic performance as a child not completely innocent and not completely evil. The guessing game of the piece is the strongest factor in that we the audience understand that the movie is superficially about a killer doll, however when we watch the supporting characters question the mental health and sanity of a little girl it is utterly intriguing and not at all dull or frustrating. When characters catch up to the truth or truths in PINOCCHIOS REVENGE, it’s a nice run. Zoe is a flawed child completely capable of invention and malice, but also riddled with sadness and longing for acceptance. Pinocchio comes into her life to balance out the inner-turmoil and the crippling depression. Plus Pinocchio’s violence and reign of terror (however brief) helps to bring mother and daughter together; and in the not-so-happy ending, mother is left to protect daughter’s honor in sacrificing her own integrity – something that the character of Jennifer fights for throughout the movie as a respected lawyer. In short, powerful themes come to the surface in Tenney’s smart film, but most importantly the child in question is complicated and that’s what makes her sinister side all the more interesting.