During a violent thunderstorm, 7-year-old Judy, her father, and her stepmother, end up stuck and stranded in the remote English countryside. Luckily for them they notice an old mansion nearby. They break in thinking the place is deserted, only to be confronted by the Hartwickes, the kindly old owners who make dolls for a living, as evidenced by their large collection of toys located in nearly every room. Not long after their arrival, Ralph, Enid and Isabel also stumble upon the house looking for shelter. The Hartwickes graciously allow all their surprise visitors to stay and set everyone up in their own rooms. But all is not as it seems in the Hartwicke home. While wandering around looking for something to drink, young Judy thinks she hears voices whispering in the walls, and then she inadvertently comes across a bloodied Isabel being dragged down the hall by some “elves.” The only person she can get to believe her strange story is a very befuddled Ralph, and the two of them reluctantly go off to investigate the mansion. While they’re gone the other, shall we say, less than scrupulous visitors of the toy-maker’s home start meeting a similar fate to that of Isabel, and pretty soon it’s just Ralph and Judy who are left to solve the strange mystery of the Hartwicke home.
Dolls is yet another B-movie horror outing produced by none other than modern, cheap horror film aficionado Charles Band. But Dolls is one of the films produced during that brief six-year period when Band ran Empire Pictures, which was basically just an earlier version of Full Moon Entertainment, but with a slightly higher quality output that gave us such films as Re-Animator, From Beyond, Troll and the original Ghoulies. Of course, it also shat out movies like Dreamaniac, Breeders, and Robot Holocaust, the last of which was featured on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which should give you a pretty good idea of about how well that film turned out. So while the studio gave us some gems, the studio’s output still manages to encompass the full spectrum of quality. And while it does have some issues, luckily Dolls seems to lean more towards the “descent” end of the spectrum and ends up being a pretty fun little film.
Well, fun for SOME people.
What really helps a strange film like this work is the effort put into it by some of the people working in the background. Dolls was directed by none other than Stuart Gordon while he was in between making his two better-known films, Re-Animator and From Beyond. From Beyond actually managed to make it to theaters first, thanks to all the post-production work Dolls had to go through to animate all the…well, dolls. But Gordon worked on Dolls first, and even ended up using some of the same sets in both Dolls and From Beyond. So while the film’s end up being vastly different, they do often end up sharing a similarly effective, highly creepy and very gothic atmosphere. And of course Gordon’s direction is spot on, utilizing the claustrophobic sets, lighting and color to full advantage, and often changing the angle of the camera to imitate the viewpoint of specific characters as they go through certain scenes. Especially Judy, who at 7-years old is currently perpetually cursed to be forever looking up at everyone. In many ways, between the visuals and the absurdity of the plot, it almost makes the film feel like a slightly darker child’s fairytale, the kind that mixes the fantastical with equal elements of lighthearted whimsy and bloody, gruesome death. Which may seem like an odd thing to say since the film was rated R, but you gotta remember that Gordon did Dolls while in between working on two incredibly violent films, so compared to those gore-drenched outings this almost feels like his version of a kids film. But regardless of how you’d classify it, it’s still a surprisingly nice looking film that outshines the meager budget I’m sure the movie was given. So kudos to them for that.
Another nice element are the dolls themselves. I’m actually kinda impressed by these suckers. There are likely hundreds of different dolls in this film and the movie actually went to the effort of animating dozens of them. Not just the six or so they’d do later with the Puppet Master films. No, they had to make tiny little animated faces for A LOT of dolls in this movie. All of them might not move to the extent that others do, but you can tell they put a lot of work into getting these dolls to look like they were alive. It’s actually pretty impressive considering the production’s limited funds. I mean, they even gave most of them tiny little weapons to use, too. We’re talking itty-bitty swords and tiny, functional axes. How cutely terrifying is that? It’s no wonder the film spent so much time in post. They had to figure out how to get all the mini rifles to smoke.
Really, the film’s biggest fault lies with the story, but even then only in small parts. The script for the film was written by Ed Naha, who would later collaborate again with Dolls director Stuart Gordon and producer Brian Yuzna to write another script titled The Teenie-Weenies, which would eventually morph into Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. So clearly the dude can write, I just think the problem was the script was probably a little too rushed? Like, at only 1-hour and 17-minutes the film is already pretty short, so some elements of the story are never explained, which is fine, I don’t necessarily need every story element handed to me and dissected. But then you have things like the ending feeling very rushed, or even downright puzzling moments, such as Rosemary’s sudden leap to her death out of a third(?) story window. Like, there was literally NO reason for her to do that. I mean sure, she was surrounded by dolls and had to jump over them to get away, but she could have just as easily made that same jump in the opposite direction down the hall and NOT plummeted to her death, so I’m very, very confused. It’s small head-scratching moments like that hold the movie back from being better than it could be and it’s really a shame, because with a little more polish I think the film could have really turned into something special.
Seriously, lady, what was your end-game here?
Despite its faults, Dolls ends up being a very entertaining experience. The characters are entertaining, the animation work is fascinating and the setting and visuals are lovely. It’s not a perfect film, and there are things in the story like perplexing actions and plot holes that sort of drag the movie down a couple pegs lower than it needed to. But if you can look beyond those strange instances the movie ends up being a very fun time, and at only 77 minutes it goes by fast enough as to not overstay its welcome. So if you’re a fan of fantasy or horror films, feel free to give Dolls the quick watch it deserves.
Dolls is available on a variety of streaming services.
Dolls is also available on DVD and Bluray, though most versions seem to be currently out of print.