Written by: Danny Kolker, Christopher Wiehl
Directed by: Padraig Reynolds
Starring: Christopher Wiehl, Kym Jackson, and Tina Lifford
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
They will possess you.
The Devilís Dolls is a slasher arriving with a supernatural twist and a southern twang, two elements that should theoretically set it apart from this genreís seemingly endless, formulaic throng. With a genre that tends to be repetitive and familiar, one could do worse than to be distinctive in some way, and, on the surface at least, Padraig Reynoldsís effort does just that. So why is it, then, that I found myself constantly wishing The Devilís Dolls would just deliver the cheap, gory thrills expected of any slasher movie?
It could be because it starts with one hell of a bang. We start seemingly at the end of a maniacís killing spree, as a would-be victim escapes the clutches of Henry Bale (Matty Ferraro), a serial killer whoís preoccupied with a mysterious set of dolls when heís not torturing and killing people. The latter obviously becomes more of a priority when this poor girl escapes and comes this close to being rescued by a cop (Graham Skipper) before Bale does his best Driller Killer impersonation. If you didnít get enough of Skipper and splattered skulls in The Mindís Eye, then this gloriously gory opening sequence is for youóitís just a radically gruesome scene-setter that unexpectedly climaxes with Bale being blown away by Matt (Christopher Wiehl), the overworked detective whoís been pursuing this case for months.
Unfortunately, itís an overture that doubles as a crescendo, as the remainder of The Devilís Dolls doesnít quite keep up. After this raucous, brain-smashing opener, the film settles in to fill in the details, however clichťd they may be. In his pursuit of the notorious Bale, Matt has become an obsessive recluse, complete with a labyrinthine board of suspects and a generally unkempt appearance. Do you think this caused a problem at home? Of course it didónot only did it result in a divorce, but it also separated him from a daughter that doesnít quite understand why her father isnít in her life anymore. It is all very, very bad for Matt, and it only gets worse when his kid mistakenly swipes the aforementioned necklaces out of the evidence box in the back of his car (nobody ever said he was the most observant cop).
In true slasher form, random outbursts of violence follow, albeit with a cryptic verve: seemingly normal, rational people suddenly find themselves tearing out the throats of anyone they encounter. Not so coincidentally, each of these people comes into contact with Baleís mysterious necklaces before adopting his psychotic M.O., so the audience spends a good chunk of the running time waiting for everyone else to catch onto that fact. Just about the only thing left to sort out is just how exactly this dead serial killer is inspiring violence from beyond the grave. Not that itís the fault of the film itself, but itís a mystery thatís more or less solved by reading the plot synopsis on the back of the Blu-ray release, so even this modicum of intrigue barely applied here.
What can be pinned on the film is Reynoldís approach in revealing the big mystery with a gabby expository sequence that stops an already choppy film dead in its tracks. Itís actually not the worst mythology, nor is it the worst hook for a slasher movieóitís just that you wish there were more opportunities for, well, slashing. Donít get me wrong: thereís some decent (and mostly practical!) bloodshed, including one bit that doubles as a nice homage to The Burning. Itís just that it all somehow feels overwhelmed and dulled down by the limp drama and plodding story surrounding it. While many slashers can be criticized on similar grounds (how many of these things are really all that intriguing beyond their gory raison díetre?), the best manage to be aware and move with a violent purpose. The Devilís Dolls just slogs along between one death sequence to the next, none of which really compensate enough.
Itís a shame because it has a few things going for it, such as Adam Sampsonís terrific, moody cinematography and its voodoo-tinged setting. For a while, it looks like The Devilís Dolls might be able to coast on its style and atmosphere before most of the life is sucked out of it. Some late twists and turns represent a last-ditch effort to reignite the proceedings a bit, only to land with a predicable thud. At nearly every moment, you sense a shapeless movie trying to form itself out of a pretty solid premise, resulting in a final product that feels more like a rough draft. A few nips and tucks could likely shape it into something a bit tighter and exciting. Sure, itíd probably also feel a bit more formulaic, but thereís a reason this particular genre has thrived on returning to the same old well again and again.
Reynolds finds himself trapped in a slasher Catch-22 by looking to skirt around the formula. In theory, itís admirable; in reality, its effective bursts of violence leave you wishing it were 85 unrepentant minutes of drills plowing through skulls.
The Devil's Dolls is now available on home video from Scream Factory and IFC Midnight.
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