I want to clear away some clutter before I begin this review.
DOLLS gets short shrift from some pseudo Horror aficionados. Let me assure you right now that DOLLS isn't a rip-off of the movie CHILD'S PLAY - which came out a year later in 1988. And the reverse is also true: CHILD'S PLAY isn't a rip off of DOLLS any more than DOLLS is a rip-off of 1975's TRILOGY OF TERROR, or 1978's MAGIC, or even 1979's TOURIST TRAP. Stories of toys coming to life at night, including deadly ones, are as old as legend itself.
In 1985, Stuart Gordon was fresh off of his hit, RE-ANIMATOR. Executive Producer, Charles Band, together with Producer, Brian Yuzna, gave Gordon a multi-picture deal, which included making two movies back to back in Italy. The second movie was FROM BEYOND, which Gordon, who loves H.P. Lovecraft, was eager to make, and this one. Shooting started first on DOLLS.
Written by Ed Naha (TROLLS, C.H.U.D. II, SPELLCASTER), DOLLS is the kind of movie that Charles Band would continue to make for the rest of his career. Band loves Horror movies that play to your inner child.
Not that this is a movie for a child. Not with that R rating, buster.
Oh sure, the main star is an 8 year old Carrie Lorraine, who plays the even younger Judy Bower. Judy has, in perfect fairy tale ethos, a wicked stepmother, Rosemary (Carolyn-Purdy Gordon: RE-ANIMATOR, FROM BEYOND, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, THE ARRIVAL) as an over-the-top, Cruella DeVille in flesh. As an extra edge, Judy also has a rude and abusive father, David (Ian Patrick Williams: RE-ANIMATOR, TERROR VISION, NOT OF THIS WORLD [TV], BAD CHANNELS, KING OF THE ANTS).
What's more, Judy, her father, and her father's new wife, are on a road trip through Europe that nobody is enjoying. Judy doesn't like Rosemary and the feeling is more than mutual. Daddy David is wondering why he even bothered with bringing his daughter along since he doesn't want custody anyway. The car breaks down at night and, wouldn't you know it? They are close to a large house out in the middle of nowhere. I hesitate to call it a castle, though maybe it is good enough for a squire. Did they have squires in Italy? I digress!
The adults openly threaten Judy and she clearly wishes they were dead.
Not finding anyone answering the door and calls for help, David breaks in and the three are quickly confronted by an elderly couple consisting of husband, wife, and their gun.
Hurried apologies accepted, dinner is served. The elderly couple of Gabriel Hartwicke (Guy Rolf: UNCLE SILAS, MR. SARDONICUS, AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS, THE DARK ANGEL, PUPPET MASTER III, 4, AND 5, RETRO-PUPPET MASTER) and Hilary (Hilary Mason: DON'T LOOK NOW) are seemingly kindly, and take a particular interest in Judy. At the same time, they easily see through the barely concealed hostility (concealed behind a thin shellac of politese) of their two adult guests.
But David and Rosemary are just peaches compared to the two young girls who come breaking in and grabbing food without even so much as a "Hello!"
Isabel Prange (Bunty Bailey: SPELLCASTER) and Enid (Cassie Stuart: SLAYGROUND, ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE, HIDDEN CITY, AFRAID OF THE DARK) come bursting in as loud, obnoxious, and rude as they wanna be. So much so in fact, that you are glad this is a Horror movie, because surely these two will gets their just and bitter desserts.
Isabel and Enid thumbed a ride off of the timid and introverted, Ralph Morris (Stephen Lee: WAR GAMES, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, ROBOCOP 2, GHOULIES III, BLACK SCORPION, THE UNINVITED, CARNOSAUR 3, BLACK SCORPION II), who they enjoy humiliating in front of the people they've more or less forced into being their hosts. Strangely, Gabriel and Hilary are quite willing to put them up for the night, having separate room accommodations for everyone.
Gabriel, we discover, is a toy maker, a doll maker to be exact, and gives one to Judy. The doll he gives her is Punch*. Ralph is happily awed by the news, as he can barely contain his childish excitement at having stumbled across the house of a toy maker.
Yes, overall the movie has a certain sweetness and child-like innocent charm, and it could have easily avoided its R rating. If only it wasn't for all of the nasty head smashing, eye-popping, arm ripping, flesh eating, back stabbing, face tearing, fire setting, and gun shooting DOLLS, why t'would be as sweet as being beaten to death with a brick of rock candy.
Stuart Gordon shoots most of DOLLS from the height perspective of a child, or lower. So that even otherwise puny adults loom large and scary as they would to a child of 8.
The movie poster should warn you that someone is in for a very nasty time in this house. And if you never saw the movie poster, the DVD cover isn't any more comforting.
DOLLS plays on all of the old European children's stories that were violent, gory cautionary tales. Europe went through incredibly violent, blood thirsty periods throughout its history and shows no sign at all of letting up. From the milder (by comparison) Hans Christian Anderson to the dark and brutal Brother's Grimm (and the original, un-Disney refined tales were, indeed, VERY grim!), and more, the old children's stories were meant to scare the shit out of youngsters. Fear was the form of discipline when a rod wasn't handy, so children would behave and be cautious in dealings with all strangers: Even leery of their own parents!
DOLLS captures this mood perfectly, and speaking of mood, I have to give extra kudos to cinematographer, Mac Ahlberg (NOCTURNA, HELL NIGHT, THE SEDUCTION, PARASITE, GHOULIES, RE-ANIMATOR, HOUSE, FROM BEYOND, HOUSE II, GHOST TOWN, DEEP STAR SIX, THE HORROR SHOW, MERIDIAN, INNOCENT BLOOD, MY BOYFRIEND'S BACK, HORRORVISION, GROOM LAKE, DEATHBED, KING OF THE ANTS) who captured a noir-style of light and shadows in color, in a manner that many film makers feel can only achieve with black and white.
I wouldn't call DOLLS an achievement in story telling or especially acting, but its individual parts add up to a nice and nasty jewel of a tale.
3 Shriek Girls.
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