It's hard to know if most of the Charles Band brand of horror-doll films are or aren't intentionally children's movies that children have to sneak around in order to see. Or are they seriously intended for adult viewing & just can't escape their foolishness & immaturity.
Occasionally a doll horror film, like a couple of the Child's Play Chucky films or Stuart Gordon's Dolls (1987), are well-written, well-directed, well-acted, with FX that support the stories to just the right degree. More often, when Charles Band is involved as with the Puppetmaster & Demonic Toys series of films, campy fun is the most one can hope for, & sometimes not enough of that.
If he hadn't been one of the producers on Stuart Gordon's humbly perfect Dolls one might almost suppose if Band's name is on a doll movie, it won't even try for atmosphere or intelligence, but will shoot straight for juvenility.
Band's third or fourth attempt at a doll-horror franchise Blood Dolls (1999) presented Virgil Travis (Jack Maturin) as an eccentric gazillionaire whose mansion is inhabited by girl rockers who live in a cage, a psycho clown for a butler, & a tough-acting dwarf (Phil Fondacaro whose talents are kind of wasted in the restrictive role of operating the juke box, which is the cage with the live girl band).
Travis himself likes to go about with a big golem's head placed over his own head, which is the size of a softball.
Travis has recently obtained some hideous dolls. Made them actually, using his late mother's scientific principles.
These dolls were former foes, a federal prosecutor now transformed into a racistly designed superfly doll, a judge who couldn't be paid off now a skinhead wrestler doll, & his own disappointing attorney now an Asian slut doll.
All of them obey Travis implicitely in matters of murder & mayhem once he turns them loose on still other foes.
It eventually comes down to the secret mastermind ultra femme fatale dominatrix (Debra Mayer) vs Virgil Travis. And though it's not a very good horror flick, with several sequences falling flat as attempts at grotesque humor, it's nevertheless kind of effective as a sicko live-action cartoon packed with playful energy.
In paritcular, the psycho clown butler is brilliantly played with unexpectedly sharp wit & conviction by William Paul Burns, & one doesn't generally encounter anyone that good in films this cheap. He actually succeeds at stealing the show from the minimally articulated dolls.
And the two different endings for the film, one gross & tragic, one gross & happy, insured that, for all the film's weaknesses, the time spent watching it was well worthwhile.
Though I definitely enoyed Blood Dolls through my juvenile side, I prefer what has become an all too rare approach to B-horror, seriousness & conviction, rather than camp & gore.
So I much more appreciate Stuart Gordon's Dolls, which follows a pretty simple straightforward storyline without a lot of surprises, but is highly effective for mood & authentic horror & touches of irony rather than of campiness, & beautifully acted so as to make it all seem perfectly feasible & real.
It predates the beginning of the Child's Play franchise by a year, & the Puppetmaster franchise by two years. So it could be assessed as the film that started the whole cannon of killer doll movies, & still the only modern take to treat the theme seriously.
Rather unjustly, it's not generally recognized as an important work for the genre, as it's a shortish film & obviously low budget; &, not being designed as an ongoing franchise, it mostly just came & went as most B films do. Yet it made the most of the resources available for the production, with fine script & performances & excellently presented dolls.
It mainly regards a self-important couple (Ian Patrick Williams & the director's wife Carolyn Purdy-Gordon) vacationing in Europe with a kid, finding themselves seeking refuge in a romantically appealing country mansion.
The two old dollmakers or doll caretakers (Guy Rolfe, star of Mr. Sardonicus, & Hilary Mason star of Don't Look Now) have set their home up as a museum of dolls. They seem to be so pleasant, warm, & grandparently, though right from the start, there's something subtle in the doll collection that is watchful & creepy.
As the young couple are rather abusive toward the kid, the film would have us believe they pretty much get what they deserve.
The innocent are less at risk from the magic of the dolls. It's told more than not from the point of view of the child, played by Carrie Lorraine, who seems to have vanished from acting after this film, though she was nominated for a Young Artist Award for the performance. There's a distinct fairy tale quality & underlying morality to the piece that makes it suprisingly poetic.
Despite its R rating, Dolls might actually make a decent "family film" as kids ought to love it, though with parents nearby or they're bound to get legitimately scared. Really good, unsanitized fairy tales do scare the bejabbers out of kids & adults, but that doesn't mean kids oughtn't be exposed. And the film's lack of seriously child-prohibitive content does not mean it is too mellow for adult pleasure. It's just that Dolls is more like a really good short story brought to life on the screen.
It's a strong film without resorting to the all-too-common not-for-kids exploitation seediness, like buckets of cherry syrup sleucing through scenes or nudity & sex that frankly spoils more stories than it dresses up. Instead of sex & violence fobbed off as horror, we get the real thing, a scary story.
I first saw Dolls on a big screen when it was new & it was a sharp, bright film with the dolls just so convincing. The work of cinematographer Mac Ahlberg is much to be praised. The dvd transfer alas is imperfect & weakens the effectiveness a little. It's to be hoped that one day new masters digitally restored will appear, as this film deserves the best treatment which to date it has not been given.
The Child's Play series (1988-2004)
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl