Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: November 11th, 2014
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Maybe the true benchmark for a great filmmaker should be one’s ability to pull off a killer doll movie. Few subgenres invite as much skepticism as this one because, hey, it’s about killer dolls. By 1985, Stuart Gordon had already established himself among the greats with Re-Animator and From Beyond, so effortlessly cranking out the kick-ass Dolls for Charles Band’s Empire Pictures must have felt like showing off. A notable departure from Gordon’s first two films, Dolls is a classical throwback that’s more Brothers Grimm than it is Lovecraft, a sort of Old Dark House film with homicidal toys, two awful parents, and one seriously disturbed little girl.
Judy Bower (Carrie Lorraine) is technically travelling the English countryside with her father (Ian Patrick Williams) and step-mother (Carolyn Purdy Gordon) when a violent thunderstorm strands them on the roadside. Luckily, they’re within walking distance of a nearby mansion lorded over by a kindly elderly couple (Guy Rolfe and Hilary Mason) who offers to take the family in for the evening.
Nothing good ever comes from that premise, of course, but Dolls is an especially off-kilter variation on the familiar theme. Its oddness is apparent from the get-go, when it’s obvious that the Bowers aren’t exactly a close-knit clan: father David is under the thumb of the domineering Rosemary, a wealthy but wicked old bird with a fortune. As the two constantly bicker, Judy wishes for nothing more than to see her stuffed bear come to life and rip the two to shreds.
After the audience is treated to this gory fantasy, they’re understandably disinclined to believe Judy when she believes the mansion to be haunted by living, killer dolls— those around her certainly are, including a group of fellow travelers who have also sought refuge in the house. Only the good-natured Ralph (Stephen Lee) even entertains her story, and even he’s more patronizing than he is a true believer. Both he and the audience are quickly converted when Gordon’s camera begins to capture the eerie menagerie of toys in action. Fleeting glimpses of their movement soon give way to full-on murder when the dolls savagely attack one of Ralph’s punk rock companions in a gleefully macabre sequence that sends the film hurtling down the tracks.
At 77 minutes, it’s a rather brisk but thrilling ride, one that’s obviously highlighted by John Carl Buechler’s tremendous effects work. The titular dolls remain among the most impressive work in a long, successful career. Brought to life with nearly seamless stop-motion and mechanical wizardry, the toys exude both menace and a playful sense of personality, making them just as colorful and memorable as the oddball humans surrounding them. With their rich designs and clever methods of dispatching their victims, the dolls are both fun and believable as antagonists, as Gordon doesn’t veer all the way into camp territory, committing instead to the dark storybook aesthetic that drives the film. Dolls often feels like the unshakeable childhood dream caused by potent cough medicine and a late-night plunge into a toy box lined with EC Comics—it’s sort of feverish, sort of fun, and completely unhinged.
While Gordon doesn’t make a gag out of the concept, Dolls is laced with enough wit to reflect its director’s dark sense of humor. Every character is sketched rather broadly to maximize the fairy tale quality, so the world appears as a child might see it, with its wildly wicked parents, overgrown manchildren, and a couple of kindly old folks who offer an escape (not unlike actual grandparents, I suppose). There’s something oddly unsettling about the witchcraft guiding the film, as it seeks to preserve childlike innocence by any means necessary—the ultimate reveal is a silly but sharp, sly takedown of Rockwellian America (or perhaps it owes more to Grant Wood in its taking American Gothic to an extreme) that finds sinister implications even in the happy-ever-after.
A clever and craftily-made affair, Dolls served as a harbinger for both Gordon and Band, who would continue to collaborate on direct-to-video projects into the 90s. With the exception of a few films, neither would recapture the heights of this film: while Gordon would still churn out increasingly interesting and idiosyncratic projects like The Pit and the Pendulum and Castle Freak, Band apparently became obsessed with repeating the success of Dolls, thus explaining why his filmography is littered with demonic toys and assorted miniscule psychopaths. Full Moon can’t be considered the "The House that Dolls Built," but Gordon’s film certainly laid a sturdy foundation that Band would continually stress with a seemingly bottomless chest of similar films. For the most part, though, Band hasn’t recaptured this magic precisely because he’s failed to employ filmmakers as talented as Gordon, whose gonzo mix of splatter, atmosphere, wit, and craftsmanship turned a goofy proposition into an almost impossibly effective little horror movie. Fittingly, its smallness doesn’t detract from its bite.
After rightfully inducting From Beyond into its canon last year, Scream Factory has done the same for Dolls with a Blu-Ray packed with extras and an impressive presentation. The high-definition trailer is pristine; as Dolls is a generally dark, low-budget film, its shadow detail and rich black levels are remarkable. Viewers are also offered a choice between DTS 2.0 and 5.1 tracks, with the latter offering a little bit more ambiance via the film’s score.
Both commentaries from the previous release are retained: one features Gordon and writer Ed Naha, while the second features the four principal cast members. “Toys of Terror,” a newly-produced retrospective joins the commentaries and has many of the same participants reminiscing about the film’s production. A storyboard-to-film comparison, a theatrical trailer, and a photo gallery complete the supplements for a well-deserved Collector’s Edition. Gordon might have made greater films before and after Dolls, but it arguably confirms his genius in a way those other efforts don’t—considering it was basically made simply to maximize the mansion set utilized in From Beyond (Roger Corman nods in approval and perhaps wonders why they didn’t make two movies), Dolls is no small feat--even if it appears to be one. comments powered by Disqus Ratings:
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