When horror fans hear the name Stuart Gordon, their minds are likely to jump right to career-making, Lovecraftian fare like Re-Animator and From Beyond. However, those who have studied his career know that such transgressive horror represents just one side of his output: he’s done everything from David Mamet adaptations to sci-fi. His most interesting example of genre-tourism has to be Dolls, an offbeat but unexpectedly charming item that mixes horror with a surprising sense of childlike wonder.
Ed Naha’s clever script for Dolls has a macabre sense of humor that is half E.C. Comics and half Brothers Grimm shock-moralism. The heroine is Judy (Carrie Lorraine), an imaginative little girl trapped on a bad vacation with her inattentive dad (Ian Patrick Williams) and her rich-bitch stepmom (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon). A storm and a car breakdown leads them to take shelter at the home of Gabriel (Guy Rolfe) and Hilary (Hilary Mason), a pair of aging toymakers who live in a house filled with dolls.
Carrie is delighted by the dolls at first, as is Ralph (Stephen Lee), another stranded traveler who is a grownup with a kid’s fondness for toys. However, they soon discover that these toys aren’t just inanimate objects – and these dolls aren’t afraid to strike back at those who are cruel or dismissive. Before the night is over, Carrie and Ralph have a scary adventure that reveals the true nature of their hosts and the secret behind their dolls.
Dolls is the rarest of rare breeds: a horror movie that delivers the ghastly goods while also being possessed of a big heart. Both the script and direction deliver a string of ace setpieces where humans who have misbehaved have to contend with an army of weapon-wielding, grinning dolls. They’re marvels of special effects, mixing prosthetics, puppetry and even some killer stop-motion effects from the great David Allen. Naha and Gordon also figure out how to work in one of the more unique transformation sequences in ’80s horror into their finale.
However, the element that gives Dolls its staying power is the unexpected sweetness that lurks under the macabre flights of fancy. Like any good fairy tale, Dolls has a strong sense of morality and justice: through the characters of Carrie and Ralph, it establishes the idea that the nicest people in life are the ones who keep their childhood sense of kindness and imagination in the face of all the temptations and cruelty that life can dish out. Through the dolls and their creators, Dolls presents a kind of fantasy justice towards those would be cruel or deceptive towards the Carries and Ralphs of the world. It’s the kind of worldview any “monster kid” can relate to and it gives Dolls a surprising emotional resonance that other killer doll films seldom have.
Finally and most importantly, Dolls is both well-made and well-acted. Gordon directs with flair and confidence, backed up nicely by Mac Ahlberg’s sleek cinematography and snappy, pace-conscious editing from Lee Percy. Lorraine is a likeably natural child actor who shows nice comic timing and a good rapport with Lee, who has a flashier sense of comic skills that allow him to steal many a scene. Patrick and Purdy-Gordon are amusing as the nasty parents but it’s Rolfe and Mason who carry the adult side of things as the toymakers. Rolfe in particular is called on to deliver the film’s morals via his character and he does so with elegance and sly wit.
In short, Dolls is a treat for horror fans: it will appeal to your sense of E.C. Comics justice while also charming the monster kid most horror types have deep inside. Movies like this should be cherished by the horror crowd because they’re all too rare.