Hmmmm Good!

My aunt has had, ever since I could remember, a blank-faced doll with a porcelain head and disturbingly real hair.  This doll must have been made before the Great War, the once white face has the oddly fissured  patina that comes from time.  To me this doll has all the accumulated creepiness that comes from spending decades staring blankly into space.  Every time I went to Auntie’s house, the thing (the doll, not Auntie) would follow my every move with its black soulless eyes . . . like a shark’s eyes, Mr. Hooper.  My only consolation was that Auntie also had a basket of yarn with knitting needles parked next to her enormous wingback chair.  If push came to shove, I could impale the hell doll with one of the long metal knitting needles.

I’m sure that you’ve had your own eerie doll experience.  Perhaps you tossed and turned at night in the fear that Raggedy Andy might come for you in your sleep because you chucked your little sister’s Holly Hobbie doll on the roof, where it was taken apart by malevolent black birds.  Maybe that baby doll the little girl next door carries around, you know, the kind that cry and opens its eyes when you pick it up, is just biding its time; waiting for only for your guard to drop so it can sink its fangs into your throat.  I think about things like that all the time, but really, there is nothing to fear, after all — they’re only Dolls.

Dolls opens with a lovely family enjoying a drive in rural England.  By a lovely family, I mean David Bower (Ian Patrick Williams), a shallow American guy;  Rosemary Bower (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon), his wife, who is the spitting image of Cruella de Vil, and Judy (Carrie Lorraine), David’s ten-year-old daughter from a previous marriage.   David treats his daughter with indifference while Rosemary, in classic fairy tale form, delights in tormenting “the little twerp.”  So, maybe the family isn’t so lovely, and maybe enjoying the drive isn’t exactly true either, but  they are in a car on a rural road when the sky turns black and a violent storm comes up from nowhere, turning the road into impassable mud.  Lucky for them there is a large manor house nearby for them to take refuge.  They grab a few things from the car and head toward the house.  Judy clutching her teddy bear, overawed by the lighting and wind, lags behind Rosemary and David. Rosemary stops briefly, “You’ll move faster solo.”  she says, taking Judy’s teddy bear, Teddy, from Judy’s arms and chucking it into the shrubs.

Judy’s imagination takes over and we’re treated to a brief, darkly comic interlude before the story resumes and they get to the house.  I’d describe it for you, but that would ruin the fun.  Unable to get a response from knocking on the door, they find a pair of storm shutters that have blown open.  Rosemary and David almost immediately enter the basement.  A reluctant Judy has to be pulled in by Rosemary.

In the basement Rosemary comments that it looks like a warehouse, and so it does, with a high ceiling, vast darkness and stacks of innumerable boxes. As  David and his missus shake the water from their coats;  Judy catches a glimpse of a  glowing set of eyes peering at her from the dark gap between two stacks of boxes and screams, startling her father, who in turn topples a nearby stack of boxes.  The resulting crash brings the house’s owners to the basement door, a charming elderly couple, Gabriel (Guy Rolfe) and Hilary Hardwicke (Hilary Mason), who upon learning that the Bowers are stranded, offer to let them warm up by the kitchen fire.  Hilary leads the little party through the house to the kitchen.  Judy is amazed at all the dolls here and there around the house.  Gabriel and Hilary take an instant liking to Judy.

Once we get to the kitchen, the Bowers get bowls of soup and we get a bit of exposition.  Gabriel and Hilary are toy makers that specialize in handmade dolls, puppets, toy soldiers and ballerinas.   Gabriel notices that Judy doesn’t have a doll, which strikes him as odd, since little girls should always have a doll.  Judy starts to explain that she did have a teddy bear.  Rosemary interrupts her, explaining that Judy is clumsy and dropped it during the walk to the house.  Gabriel is having none of that, and offers Judy a doll named Punch (get it?).  Judy, delighted immediately takes to the doll.

Suddenly two 1980’s movie style punk rock skanks (Bunty Baily and Cassie Stuart) burst though the French doors, into the kitchen, uttering streams of vulgarity about the weather, with Ralph (Stephen Lee), a naive American businessman, in tow.  The girls explain that Ralph picked them up and begin making a bunch of lame sexual innuendos, all of which makes Ralph visibly uncomfortable.  Gabriel and Hilary size up their guests quickly.  Hilary suggests that they all stay the night and Gabriel shows everyone to their rooms.  It’s the longest night in the world and murderous doll mayhem ensues.

This Stuart Gordon directed film was easy to watch.  It’s low budget and schlocky, but it’s good low budget and schlocky, akin in that respect to Re-Animator, the film for which Gordon is probably best known.  The movie flows nicely, with the horror and comedy hitting all the right notes.  It’s well paced and feels shorter than its run time.  Dolls is definitely one of Stuart Gordon’s better films.

The acting is a little uneven, Guy Rolfe and Hilary Mason are great, the rest of the cast, less so.  This isn’t to say the actors are bad, as such, after all the whole thing is played for camp, so nobody should be expecting Hamlet . . .  ham, maybe, but not Hamlet.   It’s just that Mason and Rolfe have presence.  Carrie Lorraine as little Judy is tolerable, which says a lot, because I hate kids, which is why I’ll never see The Goonies (Get over it fanboys).

The doll effects are mostly stop motion, and pretty fair stop motion at that.  If Dolls were made today, the filmmakers would no doubt use CGI, which would be more fluid and cheaper to produce, but in the process it would lose the creepy jerkiness and all the great lighting that comes from practical effects.  Stop motion dolls terrorizing a house full of people who deserve it, in a EC comics morality play kind of way, is the reason we’re here.  The dolls don’t disappoint.  It’s a nice example of low budget 1980’s horror-comedy and has some lovely practical special effects.  Though there is a child, dolls and comedy in the film, the horror is still there, as is the gore; this is not a film most people should show to their kids.

Some other random thoughts I have about Dolls: Bunty Baily is a totally great name. The giant teddy bear bit is freaking great, especially at the end of the scene. Stephen Lee is the poor man’s Stephen Furst.  Why can’t punk rock girls in movies actually look like real punk girls instead of poseurs?

Ian Patrick Williams
Carolyn Purdy-Gordon
Carrie Lorraine
Guy Rolfe
Hilary Mason
Stephen Lee

Stuart Gordon

Ed Naha

Three and a half of five Vincents

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