Genre: Horror Running Time: 1 hr. 17 min.
Release Date: May 29th, 1987 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Stuart Gordon Actors: Ian Patrick Williams, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, Carrie Lorraine, Guy Rolfe, Hilary Mason, Bunty Bailey, Cassie Stuart, Stephen Lee
louds begin brewing as abusive father David Bower (Ian Patrick Williams), his nasty new wife Rosemary (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon), and his lonely 7-year-old daughter Judith (Carrie Lorraine) journey to their vacation destination in the English countryside. En route, a storm stalls their car in the mud, forcing the trio to seek shelter in a nearby mansion. Although at first it appears abandoned, the intruders are greeted by the white-haired, skeletal, elderly couple Gabriel (Guy Rolfe, trying his best to channel Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing) and Hilary Hartwicke (Hilary Mason), who quickly provide a hot meal while rattling off ominous comments on the somewhat magical forest and the solitude of their spooky fortress.
Gabriel reveals that he’s a toymaker, and offers up a replacement for a stuffed bear that little Judith lost during the hubbub – Mr. Punch, an incredibly eerie jester. Seconds later, good-natured, kindly trucker Ralph Morris (Stephen Lee) barges into the kitchen with gothic rocker hitchhikers Isabel (Bunty Bailey) and Enid (Cassie Stuart), all trying to escape the foul weather. They’re similarly welcomed and assigned rooms for the night. When Isabel tries to steal some antiques, she’s attacked by a collection of supernatural figurines that drag her across the room and use her face as a battering ram. No one believes Judy, but when Ralph comes to her aide and gets covered in Isabel’s blood, he’s accused of assaulting her like a psychopathic rapist, while also being inappropriate with Judy – all while Gabriel tries to conceal the fact that his dolls are possessed, impish murderers.
Early on, after stepmother Rosemary tosses away Judy’s teddy bear, the young girl envisions a comeuppance that involves her toy growing to monstrous proportions, with its skin falling away to reveal a snarling bear-like creature that tears off Rosemary’s arm and bloodily feasts upon the corpse. It’s a brilliantly unexpected daydreaming aside that sets the tone for the coming horrors, all while creating a curious sense of schlock. The music, costuming, and styling of the characters further add to the cheesiness of the plot, which is odd considering how terrifying “Dolls” could have been if it were handled more seriously. The dialogue is equally silly, which lends to the idea that “Dolls” was purposely fashioned as a horror comedy rather than a standard slasher.
What works best is the assemblage of unnerving playthings scattered around the musty estate, just waiting for unwitting victims to cross their paths. Perhaps even better is the use of real human faces done up with copious amounts of makeup (along with the wearing of masks) to look like dolls for close-up shots. Still, there’s a conspicuous amount of peculiar framing to specifically avoid showing the gremlins’ maneuverings, which would likely appear even hokier (though it succeeded in “Child’s Play” the following year). But the inanimate objects’ eyes rotating on their own are the sensational stuff of nightmares.
The unconvincing and occasionally annoying little girl wandering around in the dark certainly could have been scarier, especially as she struggles to secure allies in her seemingly fairy tale quest to discover the mischievous elves she believes are scurrying about the residence. And the adults fail to act more sincerely, even in the simple haunted house setting. Produced by Brian Yuzna and directed by Stuart Gordon (the team behind “Re-Animator,” “From Beyond,” and “Progeny”), the film expectedly contains plenty of blood and bubbling fluids, too much light, just the right amount of flashing lightning, a touch of stop-motion animation, some appropriate slow-motion, and a ridiculously laugh-out-loud closing sequence.
– Mike Massie