I am always on the lookout for horror movies I missed while growing up. Usually, I didn’t see a particular film for one of two reasons. Firstly, I was too young to get into the theater because the film had an R rating and no adult would accompany my friends and me. A major shout-out to my mother, Marian, who endured “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master” because the ticket sales girl wouldn’t allow my friend, Nick and me in to the see the movie unless an adult accompanied us into the theater and stayed there with us, even though my mother brought us to the box office, paid for the tickets, and said we had her permission to see it. The second reason was that a particular film simply came and went with a whimper at the box-office, so I didn’t catch it in the brief period of time it was offered to the viewing public. The Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) directed, atmospheric film “Dolls,” did not fall into either of those categories. I simply don’t remember it at all. I was made aware of it thanks to a documentary I watched on Netflix a few nights ago titled “Nightmare in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film.” After the documentary was over, I jotted several titles down, “Dolls,” among them, and began to search for those films on Netflix and youtube. I found a few offerings for “Dolls” on youtube right away, so I proceeded to watch it.
Premiering at the Los Angeles International Film Festival in March of 1987, “Dolls” is a mixture of the genres of fantasy and horror. The movie, which has a runtime of 77 minutes, was written for the screen by Ed Naha (Honey, I shrunk the Kids). The film opens with a family of three, on vacation, driving in the English countryside. The trio consists of a sweet, imaginative little girl named Judy Bower (Carrie Lorraine), her jerk of a father, David (Ian Patrick Wilson), and her ice queen, step-mother, Rosemary (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon). A bad rain storm, causing the family’s car to get stuck in the mud, forces the three to leave the vehicle to seek help and shelter. Making their way on foot, Rosemary takes Judy’s teddy bear and tosses it into the woods, claiming that the girl’s carrying of the doll will only slow them down. The act leads to the viewer learning that Judy has a vivid imagination, as she envisions her stuffed animal coming to life and seeking vengeance on the two adults. No sooner does that scene end, when David spots a mansion, which is fairly close by.
When the family arrives at the house, there seems to be no one home. David finds a way into the mansion, and after the three make their way in, they are confronted by an elderly couple: the gun toting Gabriel Hartwicke (Guy Rolfe) and his wife Hilary (Hilary Mason). Gabriel informs the trio that while he and his wife are welcoming of guests, they usually like to be informed of their arrival ahead of time. After a brief exchange of information as to why the three are there, things become more congenial, and the elderly couple welcomes the family. A short time later, three additional people will arrive, seeking shelter from the storm . . . good natured, kid-at-heart, Ralph (Stephen Lee), and hitchhiking girls, Isabel (Bunty Bailey) and Enid (Cassie Stuart), he picked up while traveling.
Gabriel gives Judy a Punch doll to play with, but he doesn’t merely have a child’s toy lying around, he is a doll maker. He also informs the guests that, that particular evening, as well as the storm raging outside, is all part of what he calls ‘the longest night of the year.’ No one is quite sure what to make of that statement. Shortly thereafter, the guests are shown to their rooms, and that is when the real fun begins, for this silly, yet campy film that held my interest throughout.
Soon after being shown to their room, not only do Isabel and Enid blare their music from a boom box, but they talk about stealing some antiques from the house. Isabel figures the Hartwicke’s won’t realize that things have been stolen until long after she and Enid have left. That line of thinking will get her way more than she bargained for, at the hands of the dolls, who don’t like being mistreated, and whose existence, it comes to be known, is meant to punish people who do wrong.
Judy witnesses Isabel’s death at the hands of the dolls. While the actions they take against Isabel are shown, the dolls themselves aren’t actually seen on screen while committing the murder. Judy attempts to tell her father and step-mother what she has witnessed, but they don’t want to hear any of it. David is angered by what he considers to be his daughter’s wild storytelling. Apparently it’s not the first time she’s spoken of all sorts of monsters really existing outside of her imagination. Next, Judy turns to Ralph, who she wakes up, giving him a terrible fright. While he no more believes her than her father and step-mother, he handles it in a much nicer way. Indulging Judy, he follows her to where she says she saw Isabel attacked. Once he sees a long red blood streak on the wooden floor, where Judy says the toys dragged Isabel’s body, he becomes concerned, and begins to look further into things. Initially, all Ralph will get for his efforts is being blamed for the missing Isabel, and suspicion on the part of David, of being a pedophile. From this moment forth in the film, the presence of the dolls and the actions they take are greatly increased.
The effects for the time period are of a quality nature, and involve stop-motion animation. For fans of 80s horror films, this should be an enjoyable trip down memory lane. In addition, for those of you who enjoy the “Puppet Master” horror series, or films like “Demonic Toys,” you might very well want to watch this entry in the killer doll sub-genre of horror. The film is directed in a manner, which, shown from Judy’s point-of-view, gives it an almost dark fairy-tale quality.