Many would consider Stuart Gordon a horror legend due to some of the classic films he directed, especially early on in his career. Films such as Re-Animator, From Beyond, and this fantastical little horror flick called Dolls.
I remember seeing Dolls when I was younger and being seduced by its use of stop motion and puppetry to give life to the toys referred to in the film’s title. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s there was a slew of killer doll and killer toy films on the market, from Child’s Play and Puppet Master to Dolly Dearest and this, Stuart Gordon’s 1987 foray into the creepy doll market. You could even call this film an originator, because while there were demonic toy films prior, this seemed to be the one that set the ball rolling at the back end of the 80’s for the evil toy genre. Before Chucky was stabbing people with a knife, and before Toulon’s puppets came to life, there was an old couple in an old house and in that house was a bunch of crazy fucking dolls.
Dolls begins with David and Rosemary Bower, a married couple who are traveling for a nice quiet getaway somewhere in the English countryside. David’s daughter and step-daughter to Rosemary, Judy, is traveling with them. They find themselves broken down in a rainstorm and with little alternative than to find respite in a nearby house. The house is old, and big, and, well, creepy. Judy appears wary of the house, but David and Rosemary, both of whom seem to be angry that Judy is even with them, spoiling their alone-time, just want to get out of the rain. They are greeted by the owners of the house, Gabriel and Hilary Hartwicke, an old couple who welcome them into their home with promise of a bed and a warm meal. They are happy to accept such a kind invitation, because, why wouldn’t you? Upon entering the house with its creaking floors and antique adornments, Judy, the young girl that the film centres around, notices a bedroom filled with dolls and toys. We find out that Gabriel is a toy maker and he gives Judy a “Punch” doll because it goes well with her name. Three new characters then enter the tale, two punk cockney girls with black eyeliner and spiked wristbands, along with Ralph, a man who picked the two girls up from the side of the road to help them. Ralph seems like a nice guy who is a child at heart and Judy immediately feels safe around him. The characters all in the house, we now begin our gory and strange story of dolls coming to life. I’ll leave the plot outline there, I wouldn’t want to spoil anything for anyone yet to see this cult classic.
The performances are pretty much what you would expect, but while they are certainly corny at times, they are much more likeable and easy to get along with than similar films such as later Puppet Master flicks, or other 80’s monster movies like Ghoulies. The evil stepmother and cruel, unworthy father characters of David and Rosemary, played by Ian Patrick Williams and Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, offer the mean spirit needed for Judy to truly develop in her role, and though Carrie Lorraine, who plays Judy, suffers from “typical-kid-stiffness syndrome” much of the time, she does a decent job and reacts like she needs to at the correct times. Guy Rolfe, who played the home owner and toy maker, Gabriel, is great in his role, a very experienced actor, the late Rolfe would later appear in some of the Puppet Master sequels due to his role here. His wide eyed and somewhat creepy wife, Hilary, played by Hilary Mason, provides the spooky tone with her bizarre greetings to the guests in her house. It is Ralph though, played by Stephen Lee, who brings the heart to the film, and some humour too, which still holds up today. It is a cast that complimented each other, and while the film has dated and isn’t as scary as it might once have been, it is still as entertaining as ever.
The storm, which begins in the opening of the film and continues for most of it, offers a thundering soundtrack to the dolly slaughter we witness. A perfect setting and a nice mixture of character types, it is hard not to enjoy. There is a message in here somewhere too about always allowing your inner child to run free, not a deep message, but one that is relevant to the film and works well in the story’s development.
The dolls and puppets move with the patience-testing art of stop motion animation, and I love these scenes. It might be easy to write them off as laughable today but the amount of time and effort that was put into these scenes is undeniable and the practical effects used in this and the gore sequences is something I miss in today’s film landscape.
The Blu-ray release from 101 Films looks top notch, the transfer and sound is of a high quality and it was great to see the film in such a clear way, we are also given a nice commentary track which provides insight into the making of and preservation of “Dolls”. I would have liked a few extra snippets and featurettes but the quality of the film itself and the commentary is worth the price of admission, and the film is one I am glad to see an updated release of.