The world of filmmaker Stuart Gordon is wide reaching in tone and content; crime thrillers to cosmic horror have filled the screen for decades. And then there’s Dolls (1987), which occupies a special place for lovers of fairy tales with dripping meat on its bones; it’s as weird as you expect it to be, but with a sweet underbelly that refuses to stay down.
Made quickly after Re-Animator (’85) but before From Beyond (’86) to utilize Charles Band’s Italian studios for Empire Pictures, Dolls didn’t see release until release stateside until March of ’87, and quickly came and went with little fanfare. Perhaps folks were still attuned to Gordon’s very specific Lovecraftian vibrations to appreciate something so different at the time. Time has been kind however, and the film is generally regarded now as one of his better efforts from a varied (and storied) filmography.
Our tale goes something like this: Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Judy (Carrie Lorraine – Poltergeist II: The Other Side) who traveled to Europe with her mean father (Ian Patrick Williams – TerrorVision) and evil stepmother (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon – The Pit and the Pendulum). Their car gets stuck in the rain and mud right in front of a spooky house. They go to the house and are warmly welcomed by the elderly owners, toymaker Gabriel (Guy Rolfe – And Now the Screaming Starts) and his wife Hilary (Hilary Mason – Don’t Look Now), who invite them to stay for the night.
Just then, Gabriel and Hilary have more visitors! A friendly man named Ralph (Stephen Lee – Ghoulies Go to College) has given a ride to two British girls (Bunty Bailey and Cassie Stuart) who aren’t very nice. They’re also invited to stay for the night! Judy really likes Gabriel’s dolls, so much so that he gives her a Punch jester for the night. It turns out that Ralph has the heart of a child too; this pleases Gabriel and Hilary very much – they think no one should forget their inner child! Because those that do are deemed naughty – and when you’re naughty, the dolls get angry…
Dolls, while made with impeccable skill by Gordon and screenwriter Ed Naha (Troll) does very much have a “let’s put on a show” feel; some would call it rushed, I would simply call it small. There are neither inter-dimensional demons nor corpses brought flailing back to life in gruesome ways; this is a simple story told in essentially a single location, with a tiny and contained cast. It has the feel of a Grimm fairy tale that was ripped from the book and fettered around the kingdom until someone gave it life.
And that’s the essence of Gordon anyway; to confront the taboo and unwieldy in shocking and humorous ways that entice the audience more than they repel. But Dolls is gentler than his other works, with a heartwarming message at its core. Usually his messages translate into “don’t play God”, or “close that dimension, dipshit”, or “more Barbara Crampton, thank you” but here he speaks to the child in all of us, begging us never to lose that sense of wonder. A message more attuned to a Spielberg crowd, which I feel Gordon was widening his net for with this film.
Which of course never happened due to studio interference, as Gordon was made by Band to insert more graphic material to appease the horror crowd, therefore earning its R rating; not that the film wallows in bloodshed exactly, but it would have been nice to see Gordon’s vision uncompromised. Having said that, what we’re left with is a bizarre mix of splatter and whimsy like a kid quickly flicking the channel from HBO back to Disney when his parents come back in the room. And yet, it works.
Because even though the potpourri may be messy, Gordon emphasizes both worlds – the ethereal and the visceral – in a way that benefits all. Many horror films have their roots in fairy tales anyway, and Gordon has always been one of the best at highlighting the whimsical amongst the homicidal. At the end of the day, isn’t everything just a dream that we’re passing through?
The home itself holds a great deal of appeal, which is good as it’s the only setting used; budgetary necessity or not, it has gothic vibes for miles, with a basement and attic used to wonderfully creepy effect along with the darkened hallways. This is Gordon’s “dark and stormy night” flick, and he capitalizes on every shadow and lightning flash, with help from constant collaborator, cinematographer Mac Ahlberg (Re-Animator, From Beyond).
As for the dolls themselves, they tend to be dominated by pretty porcelain cherubs in school marm outfits; pretty that is when they aren’t baring razor sharp teeth. Some stop motion work from David Allen (Equinox) gives the kewpies uncanny life, while the late, great John Carl Buechler (Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood) heads up a team to handle the receiving end of the dolls’ follies. What a shame that Charles Band never figured out a way to use killer dolls again.
Not surprisingly, the cast is pretty great; Purdy-Gordon and Williams make a suitably loathsome couple, and the British hitch-hikers find the appropriate levels of obnoxiousness. It’s the two other pairs however, Gabriel and Hilary and Judy and Ralph who provide the pixie dust that swirls the film to the end; Gabriel and Hilary provide the voice of leering prudence, while Judy and Ralph are the youngsters (literally and figuratively) who must learn to grow from their circumstances. That one is an adult gives the film a hopeful lilt regardless of the preceding bloodshed. The entire cast finds the appropriate tone for the material.
It doesn’t matter about the extra gooey bits; Dolls has Stuart Gordon stretching and reaching for that magical place where innocence hides malevolence, and where the best defense against the ravages of life is hanging onto that child-like wonder. Just like the man himself does.
Dolls is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE aka A BAY OF BLOOD (1971)