Friday, May 10, 2019

Dolls (Italy/USA, 1987)

(Spoilers) Whether one sees Dolls as director Stuart Gordon's secondary or tertiary horror outing hinges on whether you consider when the movie was made or when it was released. Gordon actually shoehorned this odd little horror movie in between his first two Lovecraft adaptations Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986 / trailer), but ended up releasing it after the latter.
Considering how different this movie is to those two visceral and over-the-top blackly humorous gore films, it is perhaps not surprising that Dolls was a commercial flop — most fans of his two earlier horror excursions were surely put off by this film's lack of excessive blood and carnage and its oddly childlike view of horror. But it should be a self-evident fact that just because a film is a commercial flop doesn't mean it isn't good. And while Dolls is far from a perfect film, it does have its moments and is, in the end, far from a waste of time. In fact, some people will find it pretty damn good — as we did.
Dolls flits by at a relatively gaunt 77 minutes, and is far less a roller-coaster ride of unexpected money shots ala Re-Animator than it is a leisurely paced, almost old-fashioned tale that takes a bit to get started but then doesn't overstay its welcome. The script is less than waterproof, due in part to the overall almost fairytale simplicity of the narrative, but then the movie also follows a somewhat childlike logic in which flaws of simplification (such as blood being explained away as spilt paint, a thieving but lightly packed woman who has a flashlight at hand, and adults as one-dimensionally nasty as Cinderella's or Hansel & Gretel's stepmothers, to mention but a few) almost seem acceptable. Within the movie itself, the topic of the child inside is broached more than once — and, arguably, this movie is perhaps best enjoyed by people who still have a bit of child, or at least a child's grasp of horror, inside them. Indeed, if an underlying message can be gleaned when watching Dolls, it is perhaps less "don't be evil" than "don't lose your inner-child".
The basic setup of Dolls is one of the oldest of horror films, and can be found in films probably from before Edgar G Ulmer's classic Black Cat (1934 / trailer) to long after the cult must-see, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975 / trailer): a variety of people get stranded in their vehicles on a dark and stormy night and take refuge in a distant house inhabited by mysterious people who aren't exactly what they seem.*
* In terms of short films, the rainy night in a strange house scenario (minus the cars & mysterious hosts) is already present in our October 2018 Short Film of the Month, Segundo de Chomón's The Haunted House, which is from 1908.
In the case of those stranded, we have the neglectful father David Bower (Ian Patrick Williams of TerrorVision [1986 / trailer], The Last Resort [2009 / trailer], Growth [2010 / trailer] and Dire Wolf [2009 / trailer]), wicked stepmother Rosemary Bower (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon of Castle Freak [1995]) and little daughter Judy Bower (Carrie Lorraine); two obnoxious hitchhikers, the Madonna-wannabe Isabel (Bunty Bailey) and her punkette friend Enid (Cassie Stuart of Afraid of the Dark [1991 / trailer]) and Slayground [1983 / trailer]); and the goofy nice guy Ralf Morris (Stephan Lee [11 Nov 1955 – 14 Aug 2014] of The Pit and the Pendulum [1991 / trailer], Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go to College [1991 / trailer] and Ken Russell's China Blue [1984 / trailer]). As for the mysterious people who aren't exactly what they seem, we have the elderly toymaker Gabriel Hartwicke (Guy Rolfe [27 Dec 1911 – 19 Oct 2003]) of the kiddy fave Mr. Sardonicus [1961 / original trailer] and Retro Puppet Master [1999]), among others, and his wife Hilary Hartwicke (Hilary Mason  [4 Sept 1917 – 5 Sept 2006] of the classic Don't Look Now [1973 / trailer], Haunted [1995/ trailer] and I Don't Want to Be Born [1975/ trailer]).
Creepy and not without a few dead people, the filmmakers are at least smart enough to offer a few likeable characters in Dolls — and as befitting a fairytale, they ride off to what one assumes is happily ever after. That so few survive the night is primarily due to the fact that all but Ralf and little Judy have not only lost the openness and innocence of childhood, but they also all (but R&J) have hidden or unscrupulous agendas. It is the innocence of the two babes in the house o' horror that precariously carries them through the night as the rest of the cast (but for the two hosts) become bodycount.
In the case of Judy, she goes through the night with far greater aplomb than perhaps would be expected of a child her age, were it not for an early scene, perhaps the goriest of the movie, in which she fantasizes the bloody demise of her spiteful (un)parental units at the hands of her mutated, previously tossed away (by wicked stepmother Rosemary) teddy bear. It is a scene that straddles humor and horror, for as ridiculous as the concept of a killer teddy bear might be, the scene does tip into (phantastic) gore.
Other effective scenes of horror include Isabel's death, which easily garners a few "ows" and cringes — and the sight of unknown giggling forms crawling upward under the sheets of Rosemary's bed is a sight/experience one would not want to experience one's self. (Her demise is later used for a blackly humorous scene of one-sided conjugal desire.) A later scene in the attic, when Enid finds Isabel, also offers a truly nightmarish sight that might well sneak into some people's dreams, and it is not difficult to understand why it also influenced the film's original poster image (a pictorial variance of the original scene that is less disturbing than the scene itself).
The dolls are surprisingly effectual in presence: well-made and detailed to the minute, they truly come alive in Dolls, far more so than those found in the subsequent Puppet Master movies that this film so obviously inspired.* Whether gnashing fangs or simply reappearing en masse on a shelf, they seldom seem a purely ridiculous threat, even when played for laughs (as is the demise of the cowboy and a scene of judgment).
* See, for example, our review of Retro Puppet Master (1999) and Curse of the Puppet Master (1998), perhaps two of the worst films of that franchise.
Dolls is definitely not a movie that will appeal to many, despite all its plus points. As befitting a film about dolls, one needs a childlike openness to fully enjoy the film, as it is very much a kiddy horror film but with some gore. And that, in turn, is what makes Dolls oddly inappropriate for those of the impressionable age, particularly those easily frightened or prone to nightmares. But the movie remains an enjoyable excursion into idiosyncratic horror for those with an open mind and a bent for the less mundane and consumerist kind of movie, or even simply a penchant for fairytale-like narratives. It's definitely different, and that alone makes it a movie worth watching.
An extra that has little to do with the movie:
Bunty Bailey, the obnoxious Madonna wannabe Isabel in Dolls,
is also found in the music video to a-ha's classic 80s pop tune, Take On Me.

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