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  • nickkarner

Dolls (1987)

As a parent, it’s your job to encourage a child with an active imagination to express themselves. Whether through art, writing, building, or simply watching as they create little adventures for their toys, it’s all an important aspect of their development. One of the earliest tools parents possess in their arsenal are fairy tales. They’re short, exciting parables which feature fantastical elements just scary enough to entice, yet not repel a child. That is, as long as you’re not reading the original versions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s original compositions are some fucked-up shit. Relentlessly grim (pardon the pun) and violent, they’re a unique representation of the difference between what was considered appropriate for children starting in the 19th century. I’d assume these kids grew up to be badasses considering how dark some of those fables are. Sanitized beyond belief nowadays, the original stories are but a shadow of their former selves, but that doesn’t mean they’ve lost the power to frighten children listening to them. An evil witch, a hungry wolf, or a crafty elf is still scary regardless of whether you remove most of the bloodshed. If one were to filter a fairy tale through the prism of a group of filmmakers who have no problem with copious blood-letting, then the resultant movie would very likely resemble Dolls (1987).

Executive producer Charles Band is like that inappropriate uncle at family gatherings. He’s funny, off-putting, a bit crude, but you love him all the same. The founder of Empire International Pictures (along with father Albert Band) and later Full Moon Features, he’s the pre-eminent purveyor of movies featuring so-called “tiny terrors.” In other words, films with walking, sometimes-talking, little monsters. These days, Band is best known for the Puppet Master series, and with good reason. The number of sequels (16, as of 2023) prove that somebody out there wants to see movies featuring an amusing mix of sentient puppets with a real nasty streak. But while little monsters (not the Fred Savage movie) are his bread-and-butter, he also produced and/or directed the original Troll, The Gingerdead Man, and Ghoulies. He even found time to produce and/or distribute movies featuring non-tiny antagonists. While bad-movie lovers can certainly revel in his involvement with Laserblast, Evil Bong, Prehysteria!, and Breeders, there are a few decent features like Rawhead Rex, Subspecies, and TerrorVision, and even a gem like Trancers. His greatest contributions to cinema, however, have come from his long relationship with producer Brian Yuzna and the late, legendary director Stuart Gordon.

Together, they brought the world, amongst others, Re-Animator, From Beyond, Robot Jox, and the underrated The Pit and the Pendulum. Due to the massive success of Joe Dante and Chris Columbus’ Gremlins (1984), B-movie producers scrambled to release similarly-themed productions featuring homicidal little monsters that skitter around in the shadows. Along with Ghoulies and Troll, there was Munchies and Hobgoblins, but the strongest and most resilient of the bunch was Critters. Dolls was actually shot before Gordon’s From Beyond, but the complex doll effects forced the film to push back its release date by nearly a year. Although released around the same time as its other supposed imitators, Dolls remains unique due to the delightfully warped sensibilities of its creators.

Written by prolific fantasist Ed Naha, who was given complete creative freedom on the script, the film blends whimsy and terror in equal measure. To be clear, Dolls isn’t scary, but it does draw on the very common creepiness many dolls possess. Particularly porcelain, Victorian dolls. In an interview, Gordon once recalled being accidentally locked in a museum surrounded by these types of dolls and becoming genuinely unnerved by the experience. What’s utterly bizarre is the tone. It oscillates wildly between a sweet, magical tale about a little girl and her living doll friends and an evil little yarn about punishing adults who have forgotten what it’s like to be a child. As I’m prone to do when presented with this type of situation, I’m reminded of Henry Selick and Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Jack Skellington wants to make Christmas his own, but his insights cause him to seriously distort the traditions of Xmas. In the hands of less macabre filmmakers, Dolls could easily have been a bloodless, cute little affair which would be appropriate for children but deadly dull. In the hands of Yuzna, Naha, Band, and Gordon, the film absolutely resembles a full-blown children’s film and could easily pass for one if it weren’t for the utter mayhem inflicted upon the deserving and very mean adults. It’s impressive for a film to boast that it technically kills off half its cast.

The fairy tale elements are in full swing as we meet little Judy (Carrie Lorraine, Poltergeist II) reading Hansel and Gretel, her disdainful father David (Ian Patrick Williams, a Gordon favorite), and her wicked stepmother Rosemary (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, obviously Stuart Gordon’s absolute favorite) as they drive through the countryside in what’s clearly (but never identified as) Italy. Due to his status as a horror master, Gordon’s theatre work in Chicago is often overlooked, but many of his early films feature his old collaborators, including Williams and Purdy-Gordon, who were both coming off the heels of Re-Animator. If I were being cruel, I’d call the acting in this film pretty bad. However, while I believe Gordon’s experience as a theatre director has a lot to do with the hammy, over-the-top performances in Dolls, it’s also very clear the acting is pitched at a children’s movie level. Williams resembles a B or C-list Ryan O’Neal or Bruce Davison-type while Purdy-Gordon looks like a less off-putting Sandra Bernhard. Rosemary is some sort of rich heiress or socialite who hates Judy and doesn’t even appear to enjoy the company of David. In turn, David doesn’t really seem to get along with Rosemary, but he does like her money. The car gets stuck and in the best tradition of haunted house movies, they happen to be stranded outside of a creepy old mansion.

As they approach the house, Rosemary, bitch that she is, throws away Judy’s stuffed bear, Teddy. Purdy-Gordon's performance is deliciously mean and uncompromising, without the hint of a wink to the audience, but seriously? The bear is going to slow Judy down? She’s just being cruel to be cruel. Fortunately, Judy’s very active imagination revs up and a towering version of Teddy comes rumbling out of the bushes. It’s a giant, but rather adorable bear which you would likely win at a county fair. We’re less than ten minutes into the film, and Gordon and co. get right to work twisting expectations. The cuddly exterior of the bear is ripped apart, revealing a monstrous creature who tears off Rosemary’s arms and slashes David across the face. Judy is freaking out, but all she can say is “Oh, Teddy...” Of course, it’s a figment of her seriously fucked-up imagination. Legend has it that Carrie Lorraine, who veers closely to sickly sweet in Dolls but is still engaging, quit acting after this film due to the terror she experienced while the Teddy attack sequence was filmed. Impolite crew members would supposedly scare her throughout the shoot, jumping out of shadows with the bear. This story sounds rather apocryphal, but perhaps it’s true. I just doubt that she was anywhere near the shoot when the inserts of the creature effects were shot. Either way, she later became a criminal defense lawyer, so I guess she’s not afraid of defending possible murderers, as long as they’re not giant monsters.

The residents of the mansion, Gabriel (Guy Rolfe, who’d later appear as Toulon in four Puppet Master films) and Hilary (Hilary Mason, the creepy blind psychic in Don’t Look Now) seem ready to rumble, with Gabriel sporting a shotgun, but Judy pops up and explains the situation. Their demeanor changes immediately and they’re pleased as punch to welcome them, especially Judy. In fact, since Teddy got “lost,” Gabriel gifts Judy with a Punch doll, which Judy immediately begins to play with. She adopts a funny voice for Mr. Punch, very much like my own daughter does with her dolls. Gabriel is a toy-maker who specializes in elegant, hand-crafted dolls. Rolfe and Mason are enchanted with Judy and dote upon her, which is satisfying since we’ve seen David and Rosemary treat Judy like garbage in the previous scenes.

More guests burst through the door in the form of American Ralph (Stephen Lee, prolific TV guest star) and two British Madonna enthusiasts, the wild Isabel (Bunty Bailey, best known for the “Take On Me” video) and Enid (Cassie Stuart, Amadeus, Slayground). If you thought David and Rosemary were extreme caricatures, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. If it weren’t for IMDB, I’d assume Stephen Lee never worked again after this film. It’s not all bad; in fact, he’s pretty likeable, but his constant double takes and mugging make you wanna sock the pudgy bastard. The award for most extreme example of a stereotype goes to Isabel, who is shockingly inappropriate and implies that Ralph was looking for a little three-way action since he picked them up on the road. Again, it feels like a children’s film and considering this was made in the 80’s, it easily could’ve been, but then we get scenes like this, so it's unclear what it wants to be. And you know what? That’s fine. It’s unfair to place a label on any film since it’s all a matter of perspective and opinion. It’s just that the many hallmarks of a children’s movie keep getting upended by the insane doll attacks and vulgarities. Looking at it from a parent’s perspective, I could see myself showing this film to my young daughter, yet those doll attacks are so violent that I’d immediately have Child Services called on me.

Oh yeah, you came here for some killer dolls, didn’t you? Well, you certainly do get them. In a combination of stop-motion, puppetry, and practical effects, a wide array of mean little fuckers get to work eliminating the naughty adults. The puppet design is by husband-and-wife team John and Vivian Brunner, whom Purdy-Gordon described as very much like Gabriel and Hilary in the film. The great John Carl Buechler provides the blood and guts while Oscar-nominee David Allen brings the dolls to life with his stop-motion animation. While some may regard the stop-motion as rudimentary and unconvincing, I’ve seen a lot worse, it works quite well in the world of the film. These dolls aren’t supposed to be flesh-and-blood things, unlike other stop-motion monsters. Their porcelain, artificial exteriors lend themselves well to the animation, which makes their movements otherworldly, but also not unrealistic because they’re meant to look like non-human objects with human-like features.

The reason for the doll’s existence is the highlight of the film. It involves witchcraft and magic. In the most disturbing twist, many of the dolls are former guests whom Gabriel and Hilary deemed unfit to live, so they were transformed. When Enid does battle with them, she smashes one of their faces open, revealing the small, rotted, and decayed skeletal remains of what appears to have once been a human being. It’s deeply unsettling to think that these unfortunate victims (deserving or not), could be rotting on the inside while their exteriors remain pristine. There’s also an indication that the other dolls which were crafted by Gabriel himself are actually fairies because they burn up when exposed to Enid’s metallic “Boy Toy” belt, which, according to folklore, is what happens when fairies touch metal or iron.

The kills are a lot of fun. Isabel is busily stealing the various “antikees,” as she calls them, when unseen forces grab her and repeatedly slam her face into the wall. The only scene which even comes close to scary is when Enid discovers Isabel in the attic. She’s been “doll-ified,” with hard skin and eyeballs that fall out of her empty socket. The lead-up to this reveal is also impressive, as her silhouette is only seen in shadow while she begs Enid to run. Enid manages to fend off the horde but gets shot multiple times by a toy soldier firing squad, complete with a trumpet and drum solo as well as some nice squib work. The finest and most impressive death comes for Rosemary, however. She’s slashed and gashed by various knives and even a hacksaw while being hammered in the head with...a hammer. It’s a crazy, wonderfully inventive scene which apparently took almost half a week to shoot, an eternity in the world of low budget filmmaking. The budget for Dolls was reportedly only 2 million, which makes sense considering the cast and single location.

Ralph is obviously a man-child and Gabriel, Hilary, and especially Judy take a liking to this big goofball of a man. However, he finally loses it and begins smashing the dolls. I suppose this is understandable as he’s not only blamed for the murder of Isabel, but also suspected of being a child molester as well. Once more with feeling...this isn’t a children’s film, but goddamnit, it still acts like one! Eventually, the dolls pile on top of him, but Judy yells at them and we get a kooky sequence where they commiserate on what to do with Ralph. The squeaky, giggly voices of the dolls recall the work of Howie Mandel or Frank Welker, but was actually provided by Purdy-Gordon and her children.

Each character is broadly-drawn and broadly performed, but although David is certainly a very bad father, he’s also presented as being not-entirely without humanity. It’s not enough, however, to save him from the wrath of the dolls, who beat the hell out of him before he’s ultimately transformed into a replacement for Mr. Punch. In a final scene which borders on parody, Gabriel and Hilary convince Ralph that the entire event was a bad dream and that Judy’s father and stepmother have run off. Ralph will accompany her back to America. It’s all silly and contrived, but you can tell it’s done with tongue firmly in cheek.

The word which comes to mind while watching Dolls, provided you enjoy the work of Gordon and appreciate the blend of fantasy, black humor, and horror, is charm. It’s got loads of charm and works very well, despite the kookiness of the performances. It’s definitely a mindset movie and one has to be in the correct mood to watch it otherwise it could grate on the senses something fierce. Many regard Dolls as minor-Gordon, and I’m inclined to agree, but that doesn’t make it any less of an achievement as one of the stronger entries in the many, many films and shows featuring tiny terrors.


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