Dolls have always scared me. Even now, at thirty, being in a room alone with one can be extremely unsettling. Science refers to this irrational fear as pediophobia which is a more specific type of automatonophobia, or the fear of humanoid figures. Just because it has a name that does not make it any less disturbing, and hollywood knows this. Throughout the history of cinema toys have been brought to life in an effort to entertain audiences. While it can be a whimsical and light-hearted plot device, when you place malevolent intentions behind those lifeless eyes you yield a recipe for terror. With well-known movies such as Child’s Play and Puppetmaster introducing moviegoers to the concept, it would seem only fitting that some titles have been buried at the bottom of the toy box. What lies ahead, if you dare, are some words of acknowledgement for a discarded double feature. Admittedly, the cinematic adventures to be covered within this article are not what one would call “original” or even “good,” but they do hold a special place in the hearts of anyone who shudders in the presence of a Chatty Cathy or a My Buddy.
In hushed conversations in grade school the film “Dolly Dearest” was incorrectly touted as “more terrifying than Chucky.” Unfortunately for the children of my generation, if your local video store didn’t have a copy, you were shit out of luck. It wasn’t until my older sister began dating that I finally got a chance to experience the shock and awe that is Dolly Dearest. In an effort to distract the intrusive little brother later that evening while he diddled my sister, highschool boyfriend “Chip” took us to Hollywood Video so I could select a movie to watch. For those of you not “in the know” a Hollywood Video membership was THE coveted enrollment in my suburban town. This was a superior establishment when compared to the humble offerings attached to my local grocery store. I still vividly remember stumbling upon the cover. That angry looking doll holding a meat cleaver and the word “dolly” spelled out in Ficsher Price blocks. Unfortunately like most childhood desires, I was ultimately disappointed upon finally ascertaining the allusive film. Be that as it may, upon rewatching this gem from 1991, I started appreciating it for the campy quality it offers. Dolly Dearest isn’t a thinking man’s film, but it does fall into that “it’s so bad it’s good” category. With tour de force performances from cult classic actors like Denise Crosby(Pet Semetary, Star Trek: The Next Generation) and the incomparable Rip Torn, this movie offers that perfect mixture of bad taste and artless copycat style. The story is simple enough, a family moves to Mexico so the father can take over a doll factory. Little does he know that an ancient group of devil worshiping aborigines left behind a cursed corpse. When the archeological efforts of one Rip Torn uncover a nearby tomb, an evil spirit is released and it chooses to possess the inventory of dolls. And you thought they didn’t make them like that anymore. I imagine most of the budget went to animating the dolls. Consequently the gore is notably lackluster, with the exception of a sewing machine mishap that still makes me cringe. The nerdy brother offers just the right amount of comic relief. Whether he is investigating the ruins, or poorly operating a boomstick, Jimmy most certainly supplies the chuckles. If you are in the mood for a lesson in early 90s direct to video horror Dolly Dearest is a shining example of the lengths a studio will go to in order to five finger someone else’s idea. If you haven’t seen the film, I insist on adding it to your Halloween watch list, as long as you go in with the mindset of a bar set incomprehensibly low.
What can I say about Dolls(1987)? This film feels like a Disney Channel original movie from hell. Let’s say perhaps for some ill-conceived reason you wanted to introduce a kindergartner to our beloved genre. Dolls would be the perfect movie. As a horror aficionado with a taste for the ludicrous Dolls strikes me as a decidedly delicious movie night choice. Strangely enough this film is the result of a movie poster. Thats right, in the case of Dolls the poster came before the story and it shows. Don’t dismiss it based on that fact alone though. There are dozens of other reasons why normal cinephiles would hate this film. Namely the cliched seeking of shelter in the creepy mansion, or the annoyingly British petty criminals in their Madonna outfits. Palpable reasons to despise Dolls. So being aware of these shortcomings, why do i still recommend this movie? In a word, it’s the animation. There is something so eerie about what I presume is stop motion. The movement of the dolls is choppy and unrealistic but it somehow adds to the charm. Let’s be honest who's to say that if dolls really came to life their movements would be natural and fluid. There is something so surreal and disquieting about the vengeful dolls in this movie. When I recall my nightmares of pint sized assailants, they always seem to move in this manner. Additionally a familiar face in this film, Stepen Lee (Robocop 2) adds a dash of self aware humor to the runtime. This being a trope we wouldn’t see again until Scream. A bit of a fun fact in addition to writing From Beyond and The Reanimator Stuart Gordon, who lent his talents to this film, would go on to gain box office success writing about an entirely different kind of tiny character in Honey I Shrunk the Kids. I’m not claiming that Dolls is an amazing film, but after a few beers or a joint, I think you too could appreciate the subtle nuances that forced my hand to include it in this article.
If you can’t get enough of the deadly toy’s concept, these two films come recommended with a disclaimer. If you were five years old they would terrify you, if you are thirty you have a nostalgic longing for the days when these films could scare you. The kind of terror that sticks with you, forcing you to run up the basement steps when the lights are off. Always knowing that while you can’t see them, you narrowly escaped a murderous Mattel product. I myself still have an irrational fear of dolls, particularly hyper realistic porcelain dolls. As The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling said “we all know dolls can’t really talk” but it’s not the talking I worry about. If those glass eyes were to drift and lock with my own, I know I’d be driven utterly mad in that moment. Destined for a fate worse than death….. The mental institution.