Dolls (Stuart Gordon, 1987) – There’s a case to be made that Stuart Gordon is the most underrated horror movie director. He permanently carved his name into horror history with his debut Re-Animator, which transformed an old H.P. Lovecraft tale into a deadpan camp comedy drenched in buckets of blood. Yet, that sadly remains his only universally beloved film, despite the fact that he’s rarely ever made a bad one. From his unfairly dismissed follow up From Beyond to his most recent darkly comedy/dramas Stuck and Edmund (written by old friend David Mamet), Gordon’s work has remained just as wildly creative, subversively graphic, and bizarrely humorous. All of which brings us to Dolls, Gordon’s third film that just received a beautiful Blu-Ray thanks to the folks at Shout Factory. Filmed just before From Beyond on the exact same set, but released a year later due to the painstaking stop motion effects involved, Dolls is a strange fairy tale horror film that’s ripe for rediscovery. It’s no classic, but it’s probably a better 80s killer doll movie than that one that launched a franchise that continues to this day.
The set up is pure fairy tale with a touch of sardonic Roald Dahl humor. A precocious little girl (Carrie Loraine) and her giant jerk parents (Ian Patrick Williams and Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, Stuart’s wife) are driving in a creepily isolated countryside when their car breaks down. Conveniently, it happens right in front of the home of a creepy old couple (Guy Rolfe and Hilary Mason) who have a massive collection of handmade dolls. Then just as the couple start chatting up those dolls and why they love them so, a few other characters show up at the house to increase the body count. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out where the story goes from here, but there are a couple of clever ideas explaining why it happens along the way. Compared to Re-Animator or From Beyond, this is quite a conventional B-movie that doesn’t push its tone or violence to nearly as wild of extremes. But, compared to the average 80s genre outing, it’s a pretty nutty and thoroughly enjoyable movie. Stuart Gordon can’t really behave himself even when he’s behaving himself.
To appreciate what a creative film Dolls truly is, you have to keep in mind that the entire project started with a title and a poster courtesy of schlock-master Charles Band and everything else was rushed into place to meet a tight deadline. So, if it’s not as insane as Gordon’s other projects from the time, that’s mostly because he couldn’t lavish quite as much attention on it. Still, it’s quite an interesting and amusing little flick in its own right. The story is pure fairy tale to the point that you can’t help but wonder if it was conceived to be a harsh kiddie horror movie in the Poltergeist vain before the MPAA made it clear that would never happen. It’s graphic sure, but in a way that all classic fairy tales are before Disney scrubbing for contemporary kiddies. Gordon clearly delights in this fairy tale aesthetic, casting everything larger than life (as is his way) and whenever possible shooting from the perspective of his pint-sized protagonist to lend the movie a warped visual sensibility.
Gordon also has his actors play big and broad to pull laughs out of the material for viewers with a sense of irony. The film is hilarious when watched in the right state of mind, deliberately courting giggles in the spots where genuinely bad movies get them accidentally. Gordon might have made the humor a little too subtle and inside this time though and certainly he could have used an actor like Jeffrey Combs to sell it as intended. Sure, it’s hard not to consider a movie with killer dolls tongue-in-cheek, but Gordon’s humor is so deadpan that it can be lost without the right actors to sell it and that happens a few times here. Speaking of the dolls, they are of course the real stars of the show and deliver the goods. Created through a mix of marionettes, animatronics, and astounding stop motion animation, the dolls are milked for all of their slapstick and spook out potential. Gordon of course recognizes the laughs to be had in an obvious prop toy popping up over an actor’s shoulder, but also employs incredibly detailed stop motion from real dolls that has that indescribably creepy Jan Svankmajer effect. Dolls definitely delivers on the creepy and funny quotient required for a successful spooky doll movie and crams it all into a breakneck 78 minute running time to ensure that there’s not even a slight chance of boredom. Even if the more conventional script prevents Gordon from reaching his most delirious highs, he still delivers a damn entertaining romp. I only wish I’d seen it young enough to have the bejesus scared out of me.
As expected, Shout’s Blu-Ray is top notch. Their HD transfer is absolutely beautiful, revealing depth, shading, and colors in the sets and props never visible before. The stop motion sequences especially benefit from the upgrade and as a result offer a few genuine chills in a movie mostly designed to make you giggle. The lossless sound mix is also quite nice, but given that Dolls is a budget priced-Charles Band production from the 80s, don’t expect much depth. It’s just strong enough to do the trick. The special feature section is also robust in the shout factory way. First up comes a pair of audio commentaries taken from MGM’s old DVD, the first with a handful of cast members that’s decent and the second with Gordon and screenwriter Ed Maha that’s both hilariously and fascinatingly candid in its discussion of the production. Best of all is a freshly produced 40 minute documentary produced by Shout Factory that pulls all the major players together and digs deeper than most throwaway DVD docs. Shout is getting particularly good at creating documentaries, and they’ve become as much a reason to get excited about the discs as the films or transfers themselves. Dolls isn’t the greatest horror movie that Shout Factory has released to date, but in keeping with the company’s policy it’s an underrated horror gem that will hopefully expand its audience with this fantastic release. (Phil Brown)