Less Child’s Play, More Magic: Kevin S. Tenney’s Pinocchio’s Revenge (1996)

Matty gets to grips with the Night of the Demons helmer’s primo puppet shocker.

Having already distributed a couple of Amityville sequels on tape back in the days of Vidmark, Trimark were fairly savvy in low to mid-level horror franchises before they started belting out the likes of Warlock: The Armageddon (1993) and Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993). However, even Trimark boss Mark Amin must’ve been surprised by the success of Mark Jones’ Leprechaun  (1993), which, amazingly, became a real money-spinner for the company and resulted in five further instalments crashing onto video store shelves over the next ten years. Who would have thought that cod ‘Oirish’ whimsy, hoary jokes, and deliciously cheeseball plots and FX would prove so popular for VHS junkies; a discerning breed of movie buff for whom rewindable silliness and a beer n’ pizza viewing vibe was valued above all else? With Brian Trenchard-Smith’s Leprechaun 3 doing particularly great business for Trimark (according to Trenchard-Smith, it was “the biggest selling direct-to-video release of 1995”), it was inevitable that the Ozploitation heavyweight would return for the peerless Leprechaun 4: In Space (1996). But what’s often forgotten is how integral producers Walter Josten and Jeff Geoffray were to Trenchard-Smith’s superlative efforts; so much so that Trimark were keen to keep them and their production outfit, Blue Rider Pictures, on the books for a potential Leprechaun cash-in about another diminutive cultural icon:

Trimark wanted a terror-tinged spin on Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio. [1] 

Prior to their Leprechaun double-whammy, Josten and Geoffray had produced a pair of (rightly) beloved cult shockers, Witchboard (1986) and Night of the Demons (1988), which were helmed by their pal, Kevin S. Tenney. While Tenney was conspicuous in his absence for Blue Rider’s Night of the Demons 2 (1994) (a project that Trenchard-Smith called ‘action!’ on — his American debut, incidentally), he did provide Josten and Geoffray with two charismatic Witchboard follow-ups, writing and directing 1993’s Witchboard 2: The Devil’s Doorway and penning the script for Peter Svatek’s Witchboard: The Possession (1995), and happily supplied them with the screenplay for the massively underappreciated Night of the Demons 3: Demon House (1997). And despite once turning down Trimark’s invitation to tackle Leprechaun 2 (1994) and, then, rebuffing Trimark and Blue Rider’s offer to shepherd Leprechaun 3 (pre Trenchard-Smith, obvs), Tenney was suitably intrigued — and, presumably, wanting the work — when Josten and Geoffray approached him to write and direct a Pinocchio-based horror flick after NOTD 3 began shooting in Canada. He had just one proviso: it had to be less Child’s Play (1988), more Magic (1978). As Tenney told Fangoria’s Thomas Crow on the eventual film’s Los Angeles set: 

“I’m not a big fan of Gremlins, Ghoulies, Leprechauns or Chuckys, so I didn’t want to do them myself. Not that they were bad movies — it’s just that they don’t have any appeal for me… I said that if I were to do a Pinocchio movie, it would be more like the old Anthony Hopkins film, Magic. But [Trimark] wanted some of the FX of Chucky so we compromised. They got their FX and I got my ambiguity. I’m playing it very straight: it’s not a wisecracking, murdering little puppet. This is a dark, moody, psychological little chiller.” [2]

Conceptualised as ‘Bad Pinocchio’ [3], written as ‘The Pinocchio Syndrome’, shot as ‘Pinocchio’, and, finally, released on VHS and Laserdisc on 23rd September 1997 as PINOCCHIO’S REVENGE (1996), Tenney absolutely nailed his film’s description. Pinocchio’s Revenge is indeed a dark and moody psychological chiller — and it’s not hard to understand why this accomplished spine-scraper never landed on British soil, its weighty and upsetting themes of child murder, child mental health, and the nature of evil perhaps a mite close to the bone for a country still coming to terms with the horrific 1993 killing of toddler James Bulger [4]. Now, that isn’t to say Tenney’s gruelling blend of character drama and seat-shiftingly uncomfortable frights is exploitative. Rather, the mature and measured Pinocchio’s Revenge is simply bloody good at what it does.

Opening on a stormy, rain-drenched night, Tenney’s desire to disturb is clear from the outset, as suspected child murderer Vincent Gotto (Lewis Van Bergen) is apprehended burying his dead son in the woods. It’s a tense and gut-knotting beginning, alleviated only by Tenney’s extravagant, comic book stylistics. The entirety of the film drips with a similar heavily expressionistic sheen, cinematographer Eric Roy Anderson emphasising shadows and, in the case of the jail and execution chamber that the eerie yet achingly stoic Gotto ultimately expires in, the Caligari-esque production design of Candi Guterres, and it’s a digestive choice for sure; an aesthetic sweetener masterfully employed by Tenney to stop the grim Pinocchio’s Revenge getting too unpalatable. What strikes, though, is how Tenney reconciles his pomp with the film’s key moments, the visuals twisting and contorting — flitting between brightly lit kiddie-pop and inky and evocative macabre — depending on whose perspective we’re experiencing events.

As noted by Tenney, Pinocchio’s Revenge is a picture of ambiguity. The thrust of Tenney’s story concerns the titular marionette: a striking creation by Leprechaun make-up man Gabe Bartalos that, in the film, has been whittled by woodsmith Gotto and is dumped in a shallow grave a few metres away from his son. Cartoony but sinister, the puppet’s weird aura is amplified when it’s inadvertently given to Zoe (Brittany Alyse Smith), the eight year-old daughter of Gotto’s defence attorney, Jennifer Garrick (Rosalind Allen), as a birthday gift. An angry, troubled soul smarting from her mum and dad’s separation, Zoe is soon attached to Pinocchio to a worrying degree, and those deemed to have wronged her — the school bully, mum’s new bf (Tenney regular and Allen’s then real-life hubby, Todd Allen), and the babysitter (Candace Dale Mckenzie who, appropriately, now ekes a living as a marriage and family therapist) — fall victim to a series of strange attacks. But is it Zoe or is it Pinocchio behind these precisely assembled scenes of mayhem and bloodshed (well, an awkwardly staged schoolbus gag aside)?

Those familiar with the ‘who’s who?’ kicker at the heart Tenney’s crackerjack sci-fi thriller Peacemaker (1990) will be pleased to know that the helmer does the whole ‘keep you guessing’ thing again here with a near equal amount of authority. True, he shows his hand earlier than he should, the film’s dramatic climax telegraphed the second Zoe’s psychiatrist (Aaron Lustig, an actor for whom doctors and medical professionals seem to be a speciality) reviews hidden camera footage of the nipper with mum, but, by that point, Pinocchio’s Revenge is rattling along with fervor. Tenney’s technical moxie supersedes the narrative giveaway and his unnerving and suspenseful spread of jolts ensure such (minor) flaws are easy to ignore. The creep factor is high, and several sequences result in a bunch of genuine gasps — specifically, the goose-pimpling sequence where Zoe cuts Pinocchio’s strings and the wooden menace springs to life [5].

But it’s Tenney’s forensic probing of Jennifer and Zoe that packs a punch. Coaxing quality performances from Mrs. Allen and his junior star, Smith, Tenney cleverly frames their harrowing breakdowns as mirror images of each other, collapses that wouldn’t — couldn’t — exist separately. Both of them slowly succumb to increasingly bleak and dire thoughts, feelings and forces at the same pace, be they situational (an idea hammered home by Jennifer’s daily dalliances with violent criminals); introspective; or, as the film’s beautiful, Psycho (1960)-tipping coda teases, possibly even supernatural after all. Avoiding explicit answers, Tenney suggests a mixture of the three, and leaves us to face a truly terrifying notion as the credits roll: that however and wherever the seeds of evil are planted, once they’re there, they will consume you.

[1] Presumably, in order to ride the coattails of Steve Barron’s $25million family caper, The Adventures of Pinocchio (1996).
[2] ‘Kevin Tenney: Nose For Terror’ by Thomas Crow, Fangoria #155, August 1996.
[3] A holdover from the project’s initial developer, Freaked (1993) director Tom Stern, who jumped ship amidst budgetary disputes with Trimark.
[4] cf. Dennis Dimster’s Mikey (1992) and Joseph Ruben’s The Good Son (1993). The BBFC rejected the former for video certification and insisted upon thirty-three seconds of snips for the latter’s UK cassette bow in 1995. Killer kids and their various permutations were off limits. 
[5] In addition to the puppetry of Bartalos’ Atlantic West FX crew, Pinocchio is portrayed by two iconic little people: he’s voiced by legendary voice actor Dick Beals and, in certain shots, he’s essayed in classic ‘man in a rubber suit’ fashion by a pre Mini-Me Verne Troyer. 

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