Dir. Stuart Gordon
Written by Ed Naha
Starring Carrie Lorraine, Guy Rolfe, Stephen Lee, Ian Patrick Williams, Carolyn Purdy
|Normally I always choose a theatrical poster if I can, but I think the recent Shout! Factory Blu is the first media of any type to accurately capture the tone of the movie in an image.|
This is a movie called DOLLS, and it’s about some people who get stuck in an old gothic manor with a bunch of killer dolls. My God, there’s something heartening about that kind of honesty. I mean, I guess it could be called KILLER DOLLS or something if they really wanted to just put it all out there. But come on bud, DOLLS ain’t in the business of foolin’ nobody. DOLLS is what it is. And it’s exactly what you think it is. Nobody rented this movie thinking it was a prequel to GUYS AND DOLLS, or an academic survey of aboriginal doll types from around the world. If you rented DOLLS, you did so because you wanted to see dolls kills a bunch of B-movie actors. DOLLS will provide that service. DOLLS is a generous lover.
What you might not expect -- particularly when I mention that this is a Charles Band production (DOLLMAN VS DEMONIC TOYS, GINGERDEAD MAN 2: PASSION OF THE CRUST, though at least it was from his years with Empire Pictures, when it was still possible to conceive of “A Charles Band Production” as something that could be nonlethally viewed by human eyes) -- is that DOLLS is actually not merely a vehicle to clumsily dump a few colorful deaths into our laps, like a cat cheerfully depositing a mangled squirrel carcass in your bed. It’s actually pretty good! I mean, it’s obvious a B-movie about killer dolls and it was produced by Charles Band, so there was always a ceiling on how good it was possible for it to be. But I’d say that by and large, it comfortably reaches that ceiling and maintains itself there pretty much the entire runtime. It comes perilously close to being a real movie in many ways. If that’s a backhanded compliment, it’s also a sincere one.
The backbone of DOLLS is that is gets the tone right. Director Stuart Gordon, who absolutely nailed the irresponsible, gleefully misanthropic comedy of RE-ANIMATOR and the slimy, twitchy mania of FROM BEYOND a few years earlier, here sets his sights on something sort of surprising: cultivating the feeling of a dark fairy tale, a kid’s movie set in a reality which is ever-so-slightly magical and timeless. Now, it’s also not a kid’s movie, because they talk about child molestation and punk rock and several people will have their eyeballs graphically removed. But there’s an unmistakable, prodding sense that this is a children’s story; it takes place mostly from a child’s perspective (a child who is inevitably right and consequently seldom believed by any adults) which celebrates the imagination and generosity of childhood and condemns the banality and selfishness of adulthood. And there’s also no mistaking the trappings of a classic fairy tale: a shadowy gothic manor house which seems to exist out of time, a magical old craftsman with a twinkle in his eye, a pair of openly wicked step-parents, a stern sense of brutal moralizing, and a marked reverence for classical images and tropes (particularly the iconic Punch puppet who serves as our primary dispenser of punishment, and the old-fashioned ornate porcelain dolls and hand-painted soldier toys who back him up). This is not by accident. Let's dispel once and for all with this fiction that DOLLS doesn't know what it's doing. It knows exactly what it’s doing. DOLLS wants to be a kid’s movie for grownups, and preferably grownups who grew up a little twisted, probably from a high dose of exactly this sort of story in their youth. And that’s exactly what it succeeds in doing.
I would definitely fit that bill, so I pretty much loved it. Your mileage may vary. But suffice to say, the story concerns likeable tyke Judy (Carrie Lorraine, in the last of her four screen roles, the first being an extra in POLTERGEIST 2), who gets stuck in the rain on a country road with her indifferent father (Ian Patrick Williams, an actor who has had a busy 40-year career spanning from Archie Bunker’s Place to SUPERHERO MOVIE apparently without ever having a single good role) and miserable bitch of a stepmother (Carolyn Purdy, wife of director Gordon, who seems to delight in casting her as irredeemable bitches, but hey, ain’t marriage a funny thing?), forcing them to seek shelter at the always-nearby gothic manor of Gabriel Hardwicke (Guy Rolfe, a career which ranged from KING OF KINGS to PUPPETMASTER) and his wife Hilary (Hilary Mason, the blind psychic from DON’T LOOK NOW). (Side note: I swear, this trope is in so many movies that every time I get stuck in the rain I just instinctively walk in any direction, certain I’ll find a mysterious gothic manor willing to put me up for the night). The Hardwickes are dollmakers, and the kindly old patriarch offers a particularly grotesque Punch doll to the youth as compensation for her beloved bear, tossed into the rainy woods by the cruel stepmother on their way up to the house.
About that bear: when he gets tossed away, the first thing we see is his immediate return as a gigantic, flesh-ripping stuffed monster who zestily bites into the unpleasant woman who has just rejected his presence. It turns out to be a fantasy, of course, but that lets you know right away that you’re A) in good hands and B) in the kind of movie which knows and approves of a child having a fantasy about her stuffed bear brutally butchering her stepmother as a means of violent revenge. That pretty much sets the tone for everything that follows.
Anyway, the stepparents are insufferable monsters, so you know they’ll get theirs. But that’s not enough victims to sustain a whole movie, so suddenly two trashy punk chicks (Bunty Bailey, the gal from Ah-Ha’s Take On Me video, and Cassie Stuart, who was in AMADEUS apparently) show up, with a dorky midwesterner named Ralph (Stephen Lee, ROBOCOP 2, “Registered Voter” in a 2004 episode of The West Wing) in tow. The punk rockers, as was customary in the 80’s, are violent thieves who are bound to be punished for their antisocial musical choices by way of killer dolls. But Ralph, Ralph is something special. Ralph is the biggest, dorkiest, most perfectly midwestern Midwesterner I have ever seen on the silver screen. This is the kind of Real America you seldom get from these smarmy Hollywood types, and as soon as I noticed his Cubs hat in the final scene of the film, I knew for a fact that the only way he could be this perfect is if director Gordon was born and raised in Chicago, which a quick IMDB check confirms, not that I needed any confirmation. His complete uncoolness is Ralph’s salvation, though; it’s his innocence and his inherent nice-guy can’t-catch-a-break schlubbiness that allows him to believe, against all real adult logic, that young Judy might just be onto something as she points out that people seem to be mysteriously disappearing around them. This is the point in the review where traditionally I’d say something like, “might it have something to do with dolls, possibly killer dolls of some variety?” But of course there’s no sense in being coy at this point; of course it’s killer dolls, you know that, the movie knows you know that, and it never pretends anything else, making Ralph’s grudging credulence a sign of his fundamental childlike goodness rather than a signal that he’s an irresponsible nincompoop (though his reluctance suggests he’s well aware that the latter is the more likely possibility, but can’t quite bring himself to ignore his gut on this one).
The cast is fairly perfect in their broad, semi-comic B-movie sort of way, and Lee in particular is a delight as the perpetually unlucky Cubs fan stuck, absurdly, in a dangerous fairy tale which he can’t believe but also can’t ignore. And the script, by Ed Neha (TROLL, and also what the fuck, he wrote HONEY I SHRUNK THE KIDS along with Gordon and co-producer Brian Yuzna) gamely sows plenty of knowing comedy beats --both good natured and malicious-- into the fabric of the story, ensuring that you know we’re all here to have a good time. But you didn’t come here to read about that. You want to know about these dolls, do they got the goods or what?
Well of course they do. Special effects guy John Carl Buechler (who we just encountered as the director of CELLAR DWELLER, though he’s known for his special effects work on FROM BEYOND and a generous sampling of FRIDAY THE 13th, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, and HALLOWEEN sequels) manages the difficult feat of instilling dolls with a malevolent life on-screen, using what looks to be a mix of techniques, from stop-motion to green-screening to traditional puppetry. The dolls are splendidly designed to look threatening and eerie without ever looking like they were intended to frighten, and there are a bounty of great scenes with them as the movie goes on (though admittedly it takes a while to get there), most notably a brutal knock-down-drag-out fight between one of the punk chicks and a small army of assailants, and a wonderfully surreal and uncharacteristically restrained sequence where Ralph and Judy stumble into the wrong room and find themselves facing hundreds of the little bastards, all staring accusingly at them. And if there’s one thing I actually ought not to ruin, it’s the final plan the dolls have in store for their victims. But be assured it’s as perfectly ironic and merrily nightmarish as you could want from this concept.
The Dolls are on point, but despite its generous helping of gorey setpieces, what makes DOLLS special aren’t really its genre goods so much as its general ambiance. There’s something which will be either immediately intoxicating or immediately alienating about its odd mix of kid’s movie, dark fable, classic horror, and schlocky 80’s gimmick killer movie. I think perhaps even more than he really intended to, Gordon managed to find a look and a tone which feel distinctly old-fashioned in their sensibilities, without really being meaningfully old-fashioned in execution. A key part of that is probably the score by multi-instrumentalist and occasional composer Fuzzbee Morse (I’ll pause for a minute while you savor how wonderful that name is; he also did GHOULIES II), which just drips with a sense of knowing magical mischief, and another part is the cinematography by Mac Ahlberg (RE-ANIMATOR, PRISON, STRIKING DISTANCE), which captures the gothic grandeur of the excellent manor set with a unassumingly vivid casualness that smacks of a child’s focus and point-of-view.
But DOLLS isn’t really a movie which is defined by its technical qualities; like any good fairy tale, if it reaches you, it’s because of some essential essence that flickers through the conscious mind and takes up somewhere deep beneath the surface. Or, it doesn’t; Ebert, at the time, praised the film’s setting and execution, but bemoaned that “dolls… look too inconsequential to scare us,” and that compared to RE-ANIMATOR and the weekend’s other major horror release, EVIL DEAD 2, DOLLS is” more elegant, civilized, artistic and clever than the first two movies, but less fun.” I think he might have missed that the intent here is to be fun, but by playing with a different set of rules than the anarchic, button-pushing RE-ANIMATOR or EVIL DEAD. But maybe he got it and it just didn’t work for him. I suspect you must have, as the movie does, some fundamental and stubborn love of old things, of dusty old children’s books and corny old puppets from the distant past which seem stodgy until you dig in and realize how depraved they really are. If that’s not your bag, DOLLS still gamely offers plenty of superficial genre delights, and makes each kill a memorable and imaginative meal -- but for me, anyway, that’s just the icing on the cake. There are a million movies which offer that. What makes DOLLS special is its unique desire to compliment its 80’s horror trappings with something darker, older, and --in an odd way-- more innocent. It’s a funny, silly film in a lot of ways, but it’s quite serious about that impulse, and it makes the experience a singularly satisfying one with no real obvious peer among films of its era.
CHAINSAWNUKAH 2016 CHECKLIST!
Good Kill Hunting
They Walk. They Talk. They Kill.
Yup, Dolls confirmed.
None; apparently there was some appetite for it from Gordon, but it never happened.
None, although there is a 2002 Japanese film of the same name by Takashi Kitano, which improbably stars CREEPY’s Hidetoshi Nishijima.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
Killer Toys / Gimmick Killers
BELOVED HORROR ICON?
Stuart Gordon, Brian Yuzna… Charles Band?
WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK!
No, unless you want to count the stuffed bear incident.
GHOST/ ZOMBIE / HAUNTED BUILDING?
Something along these lines, sort of.
Oh. Hell yeah. Enough to justify this category all by itself, even though it hasn’t seen a lot of play these last two years.
MORAL OF THE STORY
You neglect the magical innocence of childhood at your fuckin’ peril, bub.