Fairytales are the stuff born of nightmares; I think it’s pretty safe to say that such cautionary morality stories were one of the primary forerunners of the modern horror film. Spirits, “little people”, goblins and long-leggedy beasties…I can’t come up with a single fright film out of the many that I’ve seen that doesn’t have some aspect of one of these elements. Slashers tell you that premarital sex and drug use is bad, and someone (or something) will punish you for doing it. Possession films let you know that even the cautious and pious are susceptible to the evil denizens of the dark. Movies like Frankenstein or Alien or Them! warn us that there is a price to be paid for screwing around with things or in places where we have no business…
Every now and again, a filmmaker comes up with an idea for one of these modern “fairytales” that hearkens back to the spooky stories whispered around those hearths and bedposts long ago, relying upon the fear and loathing to pass on a lesson or give an example of what happens if you’re bad…and one of my personal favorites is one directed by none other than Stuart Gordon back in 1987: Dolls.
Little Judy is on vacation with her father and stepmother, and we gather quite quickly that it’s not the Happy Family Takes A Holiday. Her father is…well, quite frankly her father comes across as an asshole, and her vapid, furred and head-wrapped step-mother is obviously trying out for some kind of “Bitch of the Year” award. We overhear a lot of cruel derision being heaped on the cute little girl when their car becomes stuck in the mud of a sudden storm. Having believed they were in the middle of nowhere, they’re surprised to find a weathered old mansion just through the woods. Once inside, they’re greeted by Gabriel and his wife Hilary, a kindhearted old couple that agree to let them wait out the storm in their home. Judy is thrilled to find that Gabriel is an old-school toymaker, dolls being his specialty (the house is literally covered in the hand-made toys; every shelf and mantle has some). As the family is graciously fed by their hosts, another trio of stranded motorists arrive at the home; Ralph, a good-natured man, and two hitchhikers he had picked up, Enid and Isabel. These three are also invited to sit out the poor weather during what Gabriel cryptically intones as “the longest night in the world.”
The hospitality of the old pair is impeccable, but little Judy can’t help but notice that she hears whispering and the patter of tiny feet coming from Gabriel’s workshop; to allay her concerns, Gabriel allows her to play with one of his dolls: Mr. Punch (It’s fate, he intimates; Punch and Judy). All intentions are not good, however; as the night wears on, the two hitchhikers decide that the loot in this house would be much more profitable than the planned theft of Ralph’s wallet…but when they endeavor to rifle through the old couple’s belongings, they unleash a fury that none of them could have imagined…
As a “killer toy” flick, this one predates Child’s Play and The Puppet Master by a year or two, and in my opinion it more that holds its own in that company; in the case of story and overall atmosphere, I’d say it surpasses the former and at least equals the latter. As I’ve mentioned, the vibe of Dolls was much more of a dark fairytale than a pure horror movie; other than a couple of pretty bloody scenes (it just wouldn’t be a Stuart Gordon film otherwise), it’s a film that you could watch with your kids (older kids; little tots would sleep with a nightlight until they were thirty); not so much as a “family movie night” type of thing, but more of a Goosebumps-on-steroids-style morality play. The effects combine stop-motion animation with mechanical armatures, making the finished product come off as very eerie and otherworldly, adding the to the overall supernatural groove of the film. The acting ran the gamut from better-than-average to very good; there were definitely some standout performances, most notably from Guy Rolfe as kind-but-creepy Gabriel, Carrie Lorraine as innocent Judy, and Carolyn-Purdy Gordon as Rosemary, the Wolf-Bitch stepmom.
The movie doesn’t delve into outright grown-up blood ‘n’ guts exposition, but instead plays through the eyes of a child (it’s certainly no accident that we see the majority of the film through little Judy’s eyes), and thanks to talented filmmakers, this is a very good thing. At least for me, it found that little kid that’s still bouncing around somewhere in my psyche.
I guess that’s the best way to sum up this review: the script, coupled with Gordon’s apt direction, grabs at that dark memory that we all locked away sometime after adolescence, but never quite rid ourselves of. For an hour and seventeen minutes, we can experience the terror of darkened corridors, believe in the magic of the dolls and their makers, and absorb the simplicity of the punishments for being “bad” …all as a child would.
I watch this one two or three times a year; any of you Fellow Fans that haven’t seen it ought to check it out at least once.
I don’t think you’ll regret it.