Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, September 4, 2017

Director Report Card: Stuart Gordon (1987)


4. Dolls

One can not talk about Stuart Gordon's career without mentioning Charles Band. A prolific B-movie producer, Band has been making low budget features since the mid-seventies. Nowadays, Band is most famous for his company, Full Moon, and its long-running “Puppet Master” series. Before Full Moon, there was Empire Pictures. After “Re-Animator's” success, Stuart Gordon was fully aboard the Empire train. Like many of Band's films, “Dolls” was conceived as a poster first and a movie second. Gordon and screenwriter Ed Naha were allowed to do whatever they wanted, as long as the movie was about a killer doll and feature an image similar to the poster art. “Dolls” didn't connect with audiences in 1987 but has developed a cult following over the years.

Traveling across the British countryside, the Bower family is caught in a severe thunderstorm. David has recently remarried, to the cruel and wealthy Rosemary. Rosemary and David both mistreat Judy, his daughter from a previous marriage. After their car breaks down, they take shelter in a near-by mansion. Inside, they meet the Hartwickes. A kindly elderly couple, Gabriel Hartwicke is a creator of toys and dolls. The sprawling house is full of creations. Soon, three other people join them: The child-like Ralph and two teeny-boppers, Enid and Isabel. While Judy and Ralph immediately bond with the Hartwickes and Gabriel's dolls, the others distrust them. The dolls, who live and kill, strike back against the cynical adults.

“Dolls” is a fairy tale. The film functions within that simple mind-set. This is a world where the cruel are punished and the innocent prevail. Children are beset by boorish adults, including a wicked stepmother. The film draws attention to this parallel frequently. While laying in her bed, Judy reads “Hansel and Gretel” to herself, a classical tale that the film has some minor similarities too. (There is a child lost in the woods and a house, owned by an elderly person who isn't quite what he appears to be.) Throughout the film, Judy often refers to the killer dolls as elves or fairies. But this isn't a sanitized fairy tale. People die, usually in gruesome ways. Yet “Dolls” successfully tows that line.

“Dolls” also belongs to another long tradition. The film is partially about a car full of people forced to take refuge in a spooky old mansion, in the isolated countryside, because of a rain storm. The residents are strange, with bizarre secrets of their own. In other words, “Dolls” is a straight-up old dark house story. The Hartwickes' mansion is, admittedly, not as dilapidated as most old dark houses. However, it makes up with its general ambiance. Those rooms full of strange dolls and shadowy hall walls go a long way. I don't know if this was intentional though it seems unlikely that Gordon, Naha, and Band weren't at least somewhat aware of the cliches they were dealing with.

Of course, “Dolls” is part of another horror tradition. Filmmakers have been capitalizing on the uncanny quality of puppets, dummies, and dolls since at least “The Great Gabbo.” “Dolls” obviously riffs upon this same fear. Dolls freak some people out. They look human but aren't. Their eyes stare, unblinking. Their facial expressions are stiff. “Dolls” handles this in both subtle and blatant ways. The opening credits sequences – doll faces spotlighted in darkness – honestly might be enough to freak out more sensitive pediophobes. Moments when the dolls turn their heads slowly are effective. Lots of people have probably felt like dolls are watching them before. Later, the film repeatedly focus on the dolls' strangely grinning faces, their porcelain skin bending around needle-like teeth. This is some kindertraumatic shit, is what I'm saying.

“Dolls'” fairy tale tone is especially concerned with the place where childhood and adulthood meet. Judy looks at the world through whimsical eyes. She believes in fairies and elves. When the dolls reveal themselves as living beings, she accepts it at face value. Her parents, meanwhile, are cruel, manipulative, and cynical. They are assholes of the highest order, shallow and abusive. In-between these two extremes are Ralph. A childish adult, Ralph still has an affinity for toys. This ends up saving his life. The Hartwickes occupy a world where its okay for grown-ups to keep certain childish interests and seem happier because of it. This is an interesting position – arguing for the importance of a childlike perspective, even into adulthood – for a low budget horror to take.

Ultimately, whatever weightier aspirations the film has, “Dolls” is still an eighties horror movie. Even with its somewhat childish viewpoint, the film throws in some nasty gore. The dolls bite and cut their victims, when they aren't slamming them into walls. That poster image appears when a captive victim, in the process of being turned into a doll, pops her glass eyes out and holds them up. A group of toy soldiers blow bloody holes in another victim. One of the film's best sequences comes early on. A smiling giant teddy bear emerges from the woods. Soon, it tears away its soft fur, revealing a snarling grizzly bear underneath. That then maws someone to death. It's a moment, equally funny and horrific. The whole film effectively carries that balance. (Apparently, “Dolls” was originally meant to feature some more graphic toy-on-human violence but the harsher gore was clipped, after the softer tone was decided upon.)

Charles Band's more recent productions have become notorious for their anemic special effects. Too often, recent Full Moon films feature pathetic looking puppets – the poles, wires, and even hands moving them visible – attacking people on CGI sets. It wasn't always that way. “Dolls” feature some pretty cool effects. The dolls are often brought to life with stop-motion, their little bodies moving in an effectively off-putting jerky manner. It's not exactly flawless but is, nevertheless, highly charming. There's also some other cool effects. When the dolls have their china skin smashed, gooey skeletons are revealed underneath. It hits the same sweet spot that many eighties creature features stimulate.

As in “From Beyond,” "Dolls" has an intentionally limited cast. You can essentially break the characters down into four teams of two. First, there's Judy and Ralph. Carrie Lorraine was only six years old at the time of filming but gives an impressive performance. Judy is lovable but never overly cute. The script requires a perfectly sincere, innocent character and Lorraine delivers. Ralph is played by Stephen Lee, who later appear in “RoboCop 2.” Lee's performance comes dangerously close to mugging at times. He has a naturally jovial, overstated screen presence. Yet Lee keeps his annoying attributes on a leash. His Ralph is a funny character due to his awkwardness but is ultimately endearing, due to his inherent sweetness.

Playing the Hartwickes are a pair of experienced character actors, both of whom have some notable prior credits in the genre. Guy Rolfe plays Gabriel. Perhaps best known as the titular character in William Castle's shocker “Mr. Sardonicus,” Rolfe projects a very different air here. He's a kindly old man with an odd twinkle in his eye. His dolls are sometimes cruel but never unfair, an attribute Rolfe's understated performance conveys. Hilary mason plays his wife, also named Hilary. Mason has had a long career but is best known as the psychic from “Don't Look Now.” She brings a similar spacey quality to her part here, playing Mrs. Hartwicke as a slightly off-putting but ultimately kind old woman.

Then there's the baddies, the characters that get their comeuppance. Gordon regulars, Ian Patrick Williams and Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, play Judy's parents. Williams is intentionally ridiculous, playing David Bower as a massive asshole. Williams is amusingly hammy, clearly enjoying playing such an irredeemable jerk. Purdy-Gordon is on a similar level as Rosemary. She is the definition of a wicked stepmother, petty and needlessly cruel. Purdy-Gordon seem to relish her chance to be so villainous. Also appearing are Bunty Bailey and Cassie Stuart, as the new wave teeny-boppers that tag along. Easily the least essential cast members, Bailey and Stuart are still likable. Both characters may be thieves and scoundrels but they're still preferable to the evil parents.

“Dolls” was actually filmed before “From Beyond” but released later, due to the lengthy post-production necessitated by its visual effects. It's easy to see the movie as a bridge between “Re-Animator” and “From Beyond.” The sense of movement Gordon employed in “Re-Animator” is present here. His cameras often take the perspectives of the dolls, running low to the floor. In one memorable shot, the film takes the perspective of a victim, about to be slammed into the wall. The use of bold, clear colors Gordon would use in “From Beyond” would appear here first. The Hartwickes' mansion is characterized by a gloomy blue tone. This adds to the film's otherworldly atmosphere while also making its night-time setting more plausible.

“Dolls” might not have been a hit at the time but it was clearly a favorite of Charles Band. He would utilize similar premises – people trapped in isolated buildings with killer toys – for many of his later films. The original “Puppet Master” switches out the old mansion for a spooky hotel and the murderous dolls for murderous marionettes. Guy Rolfe would appear in the sequels as the puppets' somewhat benevolent, somewhat villainous creator. “Demonic Toys” changes the setting to an abandoned warehouse and the dolls to, uh, demonic toys. (I haven't seen “Blood Dolls” but assume it has a similar set-up.) The film also came out a year before the far more famous “Child's Play,” clearly being ahead of the killer doll movie curve. Even without these imitators, “Dolls” is a surprisingly solid horror pictures, more thoughtful then expected but still fittingly gruesome. [Grade: A-]

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