In a year full of Pinocchio adaptations, 1996’s Pinocchio’s Revenge stands the test of time as a dark, disturbing update to the living wooden boy narrative.
“I wish you were a real boy. Then I wouldn’t be all alone.”
Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio was first published in 1883 and for more than a century it’s proven to be an evergreen text that’s fascinated so many diverse storytellers and filmmakers. Disney’s animated Pinocchio is getting close to celebrating its 100th birthday, but audiences have no lack of options when it comes to Pinocchio adaptations. There’s 1996’s unintentionally-terrifying The Adventures of Pinocchio with Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Roberto Benigni has been responsible for two separate Pinocchio movies, and 2022 alone has marked the release of two new feature-film adaptations: Robert Zemeckis’ live-action Pinocchio and Guillermo del Toro’s somber stop-motion take on the classic tale. Pinocchio isn’t a story that resonates with everyone and those who are looking for a truly different take on the story should turn to Pinocchio’s Revenge, a psychological horror film from 1996 that punches way above its wooden boy-weight and is the definitive Pinocchio adaptation for horror fans.
Horror fans of the VHS era have perhaps heard of Pinocchio’s Revenge, but it’s often dismissed as direct-to-video shlock that’s along the lines of Jack Frost or Uncle Sam. Pinocchio’s Revenge is actually a surprisingly deep psychological horror movie that does, yes, feature a possibly evil Pinocchio doll, but it also tells a harrowing story about parenthood, guilt, and societal pressures that echo the original Pinocchio narrative, but with a hauntingly bittersweet twist.
Coming off the success of the Leprechaun franchise, Trimark was interested in riding this wave, even if it’s through an ancillary property about a different iconic tiny terror. Kevin S. Tenney of Witchboard, Night of the Demons, and Witchboard 2: The Devil’s Doorway fame approached this project with lofty goals. Originally written under the much more bad-ass title, The Pinocchio Syndrome (which sounds like a political thriller from the 1970s), Tenney draws most inspiration from the Anthony Hopkins ventriloquist dummy drama, Magic, rather than contemporary series like Leprechaun, Critters, or Child’s Play (although curiously the plot of Pinocchio’s Revenge does more closely resemble what was originally planned for Child’s Play where Chucky was more a dark harbinger of Andy’s id).
There’s a good deal of talent that goes into the physical creation of the titular entity from Pinocchio’s Revenge. The film details a special “Pinocchio Effects” credit for Gabe Bartalos, who previously impressed Trimark with his make-up work in the Leprechaun series. Pinocchio’s voice, which is limited in the movie, is also attributed to legendary voice actor Dick Beals, who voiced major characters in Davey and Goliath, Richie Rich, and The Gumby Show. Pinocchio’s Revenge also marks the screen debut of Verne Troyer of Austin Powers fame as a stand-in for Pinocchio, no less. “Pinocchio’s Revenge was pretty bad. I was basically a stunt double for a doll,” is what Troyer has had to say about the project. Nevertheless, it gives this film some odd cache, albeit not quite in the same sense as Warwick Davis in the Leprechaun series.
Some audiences will never give Pinocchio’s Revenge a fair chance because of its B-movie name and sensibilities, but there’s real depth to this film, right down to its inspired cinematography. Lynchian overlays function as transitions from one moody moment to the next. The visuals in Pinocchio’s Revenge can cover the same material, but reflect completely different extremes that are dependent upon whether it’s Zoe or Jennifer who experiences these events. These tactics are subtly employed, which allows the viewer to grow progressively savvy towards how everything is not as it seems. It’s a clever visual cue that foreshadows what’s to come that’s far more sophisticated than most of Tenney’s other directorial efforts. Another similarly impressive touch is how Pinocchio’s Revenge painstakingly doesn’t show its hand and keeps its audience guessing until the end; and even then there’s a massive twist to be had.
The film carefully doesn’t show anything that’s out of the realm of possibility with Pinocchio whenever it’s in an omniscient third-person vantage point. There’s plausible deniability right up until the end of the movie over whether this Pinocchio doll is real or if it’s just in this fractured family’s imagination, which is really what’s the most fun about this film. A weaker movie would give into temptation to show a moving Pinocchio early on, or feature a creepy head turn to punctuate a scene. Oddly enough, a film that’s called Pinocchio’s Revenge manages to show restraint in this department, all of which comes at the benefit of a better, more challenging horror film. Pinocchio’s Revenge succeeds beyond a simple killer doll movie like Child’s Play or Annabelle, but it also manages to evolve and subvert the classic Pinocchio myth at the same time, too.
Pinocchio’s Revenge quickly cobbles together the grounded with the supernatural into a formidable hybrid. The film’s first half-hour is like a bizarre courtroom drama from the weirdest episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and yet, in spite of itself, it works. It’s just bizarre that this direct-to-video slasher film titled Pinocchio’s Revenge decides to begin with a hard-boiled, gripping piece of legal bureaucracy before there’s any hint that an evil sentient Pinocchio doll may be in the mix. The horrors in Pinoccho’s Revenge properly begin once Vincent Gotto (Lewis Van Bergen) whittles a Pinocchio doll that’s dropped in a shallow grave near the resting place of his dead son, only for it to inadvertently wind up in the hands of Zoe (Brittany Alyse Smith), the young daughter of Jennifer (Rosalind Allen), Gotto’s defense attorney.
Zoe forms an unhealthy attachment with the Pinocchio doll and suddenly everyone around her that does her wrong seems to meet a grisly end. This is a strong enough setup that then asks the audience to consider if there are supernatural circumstances going on with this doll–which is probably the case considering the film’s name and poster–or if Zoe is the one who’s hurting these people. Pinocchio’s Revenge certainly gives the young Zoe enough obstacles that eat away at her youthful innocence. Her parents’ separation, and her mom’s reentry into the dating world is the biggest source of stress in Zoe’s life and Pinocchio’s Revenge earnestly explores her pain rather than turn this melodramatic family scenario into a ’90s trope.
These circumstances also plant the seeds for a heartbreaking schism between Zoe and her mother, whose relationship is the film’s beating heart. Rosalind Allen and Brittany Alyse Smith are both excellent in these roles, but Smith really shines as Zoe and brings a natural quality to this girl that makes the movie’s ending all the more devastating. The movie presents them both as flawed individuals who are afraid to admit how much they need each other. At different moments they both separately feel like the puppet on the other’s strings. Jennifer and Zoe have their own unique demons, neither of which are fully put to bed by the end of the movie, but Pinocchio’s Revenge also finds the time to engage in larger meditations on the nature of evil as if this is an episode of The X-Files. Jennifer waxes philosophical with a priest as she briefly considers that maybe this Pinocchio doll is some sinister creation of the devil. Pinocchio’s Revenge doesn’t go too far down this path or posit this as one of the more believable explanations for the events of the film, but it’s still a valid viewpoint that the film makes time from. The original Pinocchio is certainly obsessed with morality, wickedness, and corruption, so it’s fitting to see it addressed here.
A lot of horror movies of this nature create tension through pitting the kids against their parents, who tend to not believe their outlandish claims, but the resolution to all of this in Pinocchio’s Revenge is both heartbreaking and borderline vicious. The film doesn’t just subvert the initial expectations that it’s set up, but it pivots to a pitch black conclusion that’s become increasingly rare in cinema, especially in a “killer doll” movie. There’s a lot to cherish in Pinocchio’s Revenge, but the audacity of its ending might be the film’s best and most memorable trait. It’s just so unexpected to see the film take such a grim turn where even the faint glimmer of hope that’s teased is still infinitely conditional. It hits you in the gut and leaves you stunned as the credits roll, like the ending of Sleepaway Camp.
Pinocchio’s Revenge thankfully doesn’t feel the need to bend over backwards to check arbitrary boxes on a Pinocchio checklist, but it does find clever ways to pay service to a cricket conscience and the Blue Fairy concept. Pinocchio’s Revenge also begins with a grieving father, Vincent Gotto, who’s also a talented woodworker. However, Gotto feels like a real person and it’s appreciated that Pinocchio’s Revenge doesn’t opt to indulge in a caricature like “Joe Petto.” It’s a move that wouldn’t be questioned in direct-to-video fare of this nature. In fact, Tenney actually deserves infinite accolades for avoiding an obvious setpiece where Pinocchio tells a lie and impales someone with his nose.
However, Pinocchio’s Revenge is stronger as a psychological homage to Carlo Collodi’s text rather than a direct adaptation, which has been what’s sunk so many of these big-budget live-action Pinocchio experiments. The only other real connection to Pinocchio that this movie makes is that, metaphorically, this non-living Pinocchio doll does “come to life” through Jennifer and Zoe’s frayed mental states. What’s even more fascinating is that Pinocchio’s Revenge also chronicles a real girl’s transformation into one that’s fake by the end of the movie. It’s a decidedly more haunting resolution for a Pinocchio story that’s akin to Psycho, The Shining, or appropriately enough, Magic, just like Tenney had intended.
There are a lot of options out there, but make sure that Pinocchio’s Revenge is the wooden boy companion piece for the emotional rollercoaster that is Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio. They’re two twisted sides of the same coin.