Reviewed by Steve Biodrowski
This is the third theatrical feature directed by Stuart Gordon, and the first one that he did not write himself. Although it lacks the groundbreaking energy of REANIMATOR (1985), it is probably an improvement over the somewhat disappointing FROM BEYOND (1986); the somewhat more traditional horror conventions (stranded travelers take refuge in an old house during a storm) actually lend a pleasing sense of familiarity, marking this as a horror film that intends to frighten in a pleasantly old-fashioned way (albeit with the help of gruesome gore effects).
The screenplay by Ed Naha bends its clichés in interesting directions as it introduces Judy, a young girl on vacation with her father and step-mother (an unpleasant, bickering couple) in an unspecified European location (probably England -- their car's steering wheel is on the right-hand side). The inevitable storm inevitably strands their vehicle in the mud, and they inevitably seek shelter in a nearby house, which is populated by the inevitable lonely, spooky old couple (Guy Rolfe and Hillary Mason).
The surprise is that the old couple immediately engenders a sense of good will, presenting themselves as a set of surrogate parents who are clearly preferable to the real ones. And their old house, although adequately serving as the requisite scary manse, is also filled with a certain sense of wonder and imagination; it is an oasis from the modern world, where one-of-a-kind, hand-made dolls reside in all their glory -- a sort of time capsule preserving a childhood sense of playful joy.
The story itself is a bizarre conflation of fairy tale and slasher flick, with the "bad" (i.e., unlikable) characters being killed off in grizzly fashion, in a way that suggests they are getting what they deserve (whether or not they have actually done anything terribly wrong). Of course, fairy tales themselves offered plenty of grue, but they were acceptable children's entertainment because the horrible violence always befell clearly evil villains (in case we miss the point, little Judy reads from "Hansel and Gretel," in which a wicked witch ends up burned to death in an oven). In a sense, DOLLS twists this formula into a childish revenge fantasy, with the uncaring and unimaginative grown-ups paying a heavy price for being grown-up (the one adult survivor is carefully labeled "a child at heart").
The film announces its intentions early, when Judy's step-mother tosses Judy's beloved teddy bear into the bushes. Tears in her eyes, Judy announces to herself, "Teddy will get you for that," then imagines the suddenly stuffed toy -- suddenly enlarged to Might Joe Young proportions -- emerging from the bushes, bursting through its skin to reveal a new monstrous form, and tearing the parents to bits, before turning to Judy (who is now screaming in fear) and giving a hapless shrug, as if to say, "I thought this is what you wanted."
Unfortunately, the execution does not always live up to the conception. Gordon's handling of the horror is of course effective, but he can't quite maintain a handle on the admittedly tricky tone, which mixes childish awe, R-rated gore, and tongue-in-cheek humor. The latter, especially, tends to fall flat, and the result sometimes sounds almost like camp -- you start to laugh at rather than with it.
Part of the problem rests with the cast, who deliver performances with a uniform level of mediocrity. The exceptions are Rolfe and Mason, who are excellent. They effectively combine a sense of warmth, mingled with the obligatory creepiness, which is perfectly suited for the story's childish sense of morality. Or to put it another way, they seem to know they're in a fairly tale, while the other actors think they're in a slasher movie. (And who can blame them, when the script drags in a pair of flirty British girls in slutty clothing and excessive makeup who might as well have a sign hanging round their necks marked "Dead Meat.")
The special effects (including makeup by John Carl Buechler and stop-motion by David Allen) are modest but quite effective. In fact, this may be a case where budgetary limitations helped the film, forcing the editor to rely on quick cuts and briefly glimpsed bits of action, rather than dwelling on the details. Even the old stop-motion bugaboo -- the strobing that results from frame-by-frame photogrpahy (here softened to suggest motion-blur) -- works in the film's favor, making the motion of the malevolent titular toys look all the more unnatural and strange.
While it may not be a masterpiece, DOLLS is an entertaining effort. Uneven tone and weak performances not withstanding, its story unfolds in a satisfying way, inviting us to enjoy watching the bloody demise of each obnoxious character. The result is a gruesomely funny kind of fear that is not truly frightening (because we're rooting against the victims), but it is extremely fun. And against all odds, the move even generates quite a bit of genuine warmth in its affectionate attitude toward toys, perhaps best summed up in the following dialogue exchange:
"Ya know, I can remember every toy I had as a kid."
"And they remember you, Ralph. Toys are very loyal, and that's a fact."
Screenwriter Ed Naha had written several books about horror and/or science-fiction movies before turning his pen to the screenplay form.
Surprisingly for a Charles Band production, the background music is only marginally effective. Charles Band's brother, composer Richard Band, often scores his brother's productions, but in this case, he merely served as "music supervisor." The actual music, by Fuzzbee Morse and Victor Spiegel is adequate but unexceptional.
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