As some of you know, I have a strict policy of never walking out on movies. No matter how awful a film is--no matter how tempted I might be to turn it off or storm out of the theatre--I owe it to myself to finish anything I start. This stubbornness can lead to panic attacks and bursts of angry writing; but sometimes, rarely, I'm rewarded for sticking around. Such is the case with Stuart Gordon's Dolls.
Dolls doesn't have the name recognition of Child's Play or even Puppet Master, both of which followed it in the late-80s "killer doll" boom; but it's the strongest of the three and, aside from the "Living Doll" episode of The Twilight Zone, it's the best example of the Killer Toy horror niche I've seen. Gordon and writer Ed Naha have put together a funny, creepy, and surprising movie that's not nearly as formulaic as its poster suggests.
But it didn't start out that way. The opening ten minutes of Dolls is so poorly executed that I couldn't believe I was watching a movie from the same guy who directed Re-Animator and From Beyond. We meet the Bower family, a trio of miserable Americans road-tripping through the English countryside. Rosemary (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon) is the rich, wicked stepmother to her new husband David's (Ian Patrick Williams) daughter, Judy (Carrie Lorraine). A sudden storm traps the Bowers in a mud patch, forcing them out of the car and up a hill to a big, creepy house.
I had to infer most of the events leading up to their knocking on the door, as Gordon's visual storytelling didn't do anything to help me understand what was actually going on. The rain doesn't just start suddenly--the film appears to be missing a few minutes of transition between grey afternoon skies and a dead-of-night downpour. Also, the car getting stuck was all shown from inside the vehicle, with the actors throwing themselves forward with a bit of the old Star Trek "Red Alert" acting. The capper, though, is little Judy's hallucination of her teddy bear growing to enormous proportions, stomping through the woods and mutilating her parents.
It's a lousy introduction. Judging by the huge leap in quality and competence a few minutes later, it's clear that Gordon was just rushing to get his characters inside the house. They break in through a back door and encounter Gabriel and Hilary Hartwicke (Guy Rolfe and Hilary Mason, respectively), the kindly, old owners who invite them up to the kitchen for tea. Gabriel tells Judy about his life as a toymaker, and informs her that he hand-crafted the hundreds of dolls that adorn every room of their home. In the middle of their conversation, another door bursts open, ushering in three more travelers seeking shelter from the rain.
Ralph (Stephen Lee) is also a vacationing American who picked up Brit-punk hitchhikers Enid (Cassie Stuart) and Isabel (Bunty Bailey). The Hartwickes put everyone up for the night; Judy and Ralph get separate rooms while the other couples pair up. Since the hosts' quarters are on the other side of the house, the rocker chicks decide to boost whatever antiques they might be able to sell after they leave in the morning.
This doesn't sit well with the house's other residents, the baby-faced plastic-and-porcelain freaks that come to life when no one's looking. Yes, Mr. and Mrs. Hartwicke are black magicians who've imbued the dolls with the spirits of the damned, and their toy children love getting into mischief. When Judy sees one of the girls get dragged away by an army of unseen hands, she runs to warn her parents. They dismiss her immediately, forcing her to confide in Ralph.
That's as far as I'll take this plot summary. Based on what I've written so far, you can probably guess a lot of what happens next. But you may be surprised by some of the twists that Gordon and Naha pepper throughout their wicked little film. They play with the conventions of 80s slasher movies, taking one character in particular completely out of the realm they'd typically be relegated to--even then, they tweak audience expectations until the very end. I wasn't expecting to be invested in the main characters to such a high degree. Sure, the villains are pretty one-dimensional, but the idea of which people are the film's antagonists changes a couple of times during the movie. Sorry for being so vague, but it's difficult to discuss how great Dolls is without giving everything away.
As with many Stuart Gordon movies, Dolls perfectly infuses horror with light comedy. I'm hard-pressed to think of another director who consistently gets this difficult balance just right. Occasionally, characters and situations teeter into cheesy territory, but this movie is brilliantly weird enough that there's rarely a chance to groan. The parents' parts are the only over-the-top distractions, performance-wise, but they reminded me of something I might have seen in HBO's Tales from the Crypt series--another example of tongue-in-cheek entertainment that can also scare the hell out of someone.
The film's only shortcoming is in the dolls' stop-motion animation. That may sound like a bigger deal than it is, but Gordon wisely spends his creature-effects bullets on key scenes, so that the dodgy execution isn't distracting throughout the movie. Until about the halfway mark, we don't even see a doll attack; the director does very well with eerie whispers, scampering feet, and camera tricks--similar to (but arguably better than) the way Child's Play kept the evil Chucky doll hidden until just the right moment. Gordon teases us with cutaways and cutbacks of the dolls' expressions changing right in front of unsuspecting people, which is much more effective than seeing them clumsily stalk across the floor.
When we finally see full-on doll mayhem, the effect is alternately laughable and terrifying. Dave Allen and John Carl Buechler's visual effects and puppet mechanics only work in small doses, and this is one case where I could justify a CG-assisted remake of a film. There are too many inserts, too many blatant cuts to screaming actors' faces, and not enough extended, full-body shots of the murders to sell these effects. Though I must give everyone involved credit for inventiveness: I've never seen a woman stumble down a hallway while miniature people saw her foot off.
These are minor complaints. There's so much more going on here, so many great mysteries surrounding the dolls and the Hartwickes and the survivors of this terrible night, that a few iffy effects didn't diminish my overall enjoyment. Movies like Dolls shine a harsh light on the crap that passes for modern horror movies, and makes me wonder why Stuart Gordon isn't the genre's most popular and successful mainstream director.