What to say about Dolls? Though it wouldn’t be released until the following year, Dolls was actually Stuart Gordon’s follow-up to Re-Animator, filmed back-to-back with From Beyond and utilizing the same sets, though you can’t really spot it anywhere. The films share a producer in Charles Band, who would go on to fame as the progenitor of Full Moon Home Video and probably cinema’s most prolific purveyor of diminutive monsters. (Given his subsequent filmography, it should come as absolutely no shock to anyone that Charles Band is involved in this movie.)
But while Re-Animator and From Beyond are of a piece with one another—and, I’m sure, require no introduction to anyone reading this—Dolls is something else entirely. Credit that to screenwriter Ed Naha. (Of Troll fame. Or should that be infamy?) Or maybe to Stuart Gordon’s flexibility and willingness to acknowledge that this was a film that required a different approach than the macabre burlesque of Re-Animator. Regardless, the end result of Dolls is a weird tone that you don’t find in many horror movies; equal parts gruesome murder and genuine heart.
I owe a debt of gratitude to Joshua Miller over at CHUD.com for pointing out that Dolls is, in fact, a late-era addition to one of my favorite forgotten genres, the old dark house picture, in which disparate characters gather in a mysterious old mansion when their cars break down on a dark and stormy night. Viewing Dolls as an installment in that grand tradition gives what is probably a more satisfying lens to view the film through than if you go in expecting a standard mid-80s horror flick, or even something in the Re-Animator school.
Guy Rolfe helps out with that, bringing the kind of dignity to his role that you normally only get from horror nobility like Vincent Price or Peter Cushing. (While Rolfe isn’t exactly in their league, he was the title character in William Castle’s Mr. Sardonicus and went on to play Andre Toulon in several installments of Charles Band’s Puppet Master franchise, for which he got some good practice here.)
The people getting stranded at the requisite old dark house include a little girl with a vivid imagination—an early revenge fantasy involving her mutated teddy bear is a memorable high point—her horrible father and her wicked stepmother Cruella De Vil (played by Stuart Gordon’s wife) as well as a pair of very British punk rock girls and a pudgy salesman named Ralph, played by Stephen Lee, whose underappreciated performance is probably the film’s second-best next to Rolfe’s and provides an anchor for the movie’s weirdness.
The real stars here, though, are of course the titular dolls, who titter and skitter throughout the film’s ubiquitous dark shadows. The dolls have a weird and singular design style that lets you immediately recognize them as coming from this movie, including the weird touch of giving them creepily bloodshot eyes.
There was apparently some difficulty with the studio, which expected a movie more in the Re-Animator vein than the bizarre fairy tale that Gordon and company were producing. This tension led in part to some of the film’s best bits, though, including the reveal of the tiny, mummified corpses inside the dolls. Which would be pretty great on its own—and looks so much like something from a Full Moon movie that you’d be forgiven for assuming that the imprint was already in place by this time—but is made even better by the little girl’s repeated insistence on referring to the dolls as “elves” and “little people,” giving the scenes where their true nature is revealed a kind of Machen-ish implication, especially as the corpses begin to bubble and melt when exposed.
Really, though, this is less a review of Dolls—which I love, and which you’ve probably already seen—than it is a review of Scream Factory’s just-released Blu-ray of same, which looks pretty great. The previously murky interiors of the house are now picked out in nice, clean delineations of light and shadow, and the many scenes of people exploring dark corridors by candlelight have never looked better.
Dolls isn’t a great movie. It’s definitely no Re-Animator. But it’s something very much its own thing, and I think if you’re the right kind of person, it’s going to be near and dear to your heart. It certainly is to mine. And Scream Factory has really done a great job bringing it to Blu-ray, with a sharp transfer, great new cover art, and commentary tracks from filmmakers and stars, only one of which I have so far listened to. If, like me, you have a soft spot for this weird flick, this is the version you’ve been waiting for.