In light of the sad news that director Stuart Gordon has died, we look back at our appreciation of his 1987 film Dolls.
Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Our ongoing Sesame Street Week has us thinking about movies starring puppets.
Dolls is among the best of the late-’80s, early-’90s wave of killer-doll movies, which may sound like damning it with faint praise. But backed by the all-star creative team of director Stuart Gordon, producer Brian Yuzna, and executive producer/doll fetishist Charles Band, Dolls bypasses the Gremlins model that was in vogue at the time (Child’s Play came out two years later) in favor of an old-fashioned fairy tale that unfolds in a literal old dark house.
The screenplay, by future Honey, I Shrunk The Kids writer Ed Naha, is unapologetic ’80s horror-movie goofiness, which has its good points and its bad points. On the one hand, the actors aren’t quite good enough to deliver the dialogue in a way that comes off as (intentionally) funny. But under Gordon’s direction, the broad style clicks into place, riding the line between horror, fantasy, and comedy with only the occasional tone-deaf line reading. And if all it seems more than a little bit childish? Well, that’s because our protagonist is a 7-year-old girl.
Little pigtailed Judy (played by Carrie Lorraine, a child actress whose career never translated into adulthood) is on a car trip with her father, David (Ian Patrick Williams), and stepmother, Rosemary (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon), both of whom are such awful people that by the time the dolls come around, viewers can’t wait to see them get killed. (Rosemary, in particular, is a perfect example of the fur-clad, turban-wrapped, high-society bitch, a specifically ’80s character type that was once ubiquitous in campy horror movies but has disappeared almost entirely.) After their car gets stuck in a ditch during a thunderstorm, the trio takes shelter in an old mansion conveniently located just down the road, where they encounter young punks Isabel (Bunty Bailey) and Enid (Cassie Stuart), two more uniquely ’80s creatures with black leather wardrobes and ludicrous British accents, who are hitching a ride with chubby loser Ralph (Stephen Lee).
Ralph, Isabel, and Enid have also been stranded by the storm, and all have no choice but to accept when the elderly homeowners, Gabriel and Hilary Hartwicke (Guy Rolfe and Hilary Mason), offer to let them stay in their creepy house packed with antique dolls for the evening. When she steps out of her room for a glass of water, Judy sees what she calls “elves” dragging away one of the punk girls; no one believes her because they are all mean old adults with no sense of wonder—no one except Ralph, who gets branded a murderer when he tries to warn the other adults about the dangers in the house. From then on it’s a killer-doll free-for-all, a series of surprisingly effective, if stiffly animated, stop-motion murders—the transformation scene hinted at on the film’s poster is particularly macabre—from which only the young and the young at heart are safe.
Availability: The American DVD of Dolls is currently out of print, but it can still be obtained from Netflix or your local video store/library. Scream Factory also conveniently re-released it on Blu-ray this past Tuesday.