Everybody’s Into Weirdness: DOLLS (1987)

There's a lot to love about Stuart Gordon's killer doll movie.

The Alamo Drafthouse is a brand built on weird. Beyond being situated in a town that has long aspired to remain eccentric in the face of all normality, it’s easy to forget that the original Alamo started as something of a private screening club, running prints of the odd and obscure into all hours of the night. Though the company has obviously grown into an internationally recognized chain of first run movie palaces, the Drafthouse Ritz in Austin, Texas remains committed to showcasing genre repertory programming, namely via its Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday showcases. This column is a concentrated effort to keep that spirit of strangeness alive, as programmers Joe A. Ziemba and Laird Jimenez (often pulling from the extensive AGFA archives) are truly doing Satan’s bidding by bringing ATX weekly doses of delightful trash art.

The twenty-sixth entry into this disreputable canon is Stuart Gordon’s creepy killer toy opus, Dolls

Year: 1987

Trailers: Child’s Play 2; Tales From the Hood

It’s easy to look at Charles Band now, after innumerable Puppet Master and other Full Moon schlock titles, as a VHS huckster; out to make a buck autocannibalizing his work and then regurgitating the best pieces for his niche following to gobble up again and again. However, Band was also integral in aiding Stuart Gordon, one of the most talented horror directors of all time, create the original Re-Animator. Following that unexpected Cannes darling (which, as we all know, grew into a revered classic), Band and Empire Pictures assisted Gordon and producer Brian Yuzna in funding their next two terror titles. Ultimately, Yuzna and Gordon wanted to make another H.P. Lovecraft adaptation (From Beyond). But before that project began, Band charged the creative team with the task of bringing to life a script by Ed Naha (Troll), revolving around an old dark house and some seriously pissed off porcelain. Thus, Dolls was born.

Naha based his screenplay around Band’s promotional pitch, having seen an early poster mock up. The rest simply sprung from his head, as the only prompt Band gave him before sitting down to write was “killer doll”. Naha quickly knocked a draft out, and Gordon went to work fillng the roles with former players from his Organic Theater— including Ian Patrick Williams and his own wife, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, as a pair of diabolically awful parents. Like all of Gordon’s other movies, the spooky conceit becomes a surface level entry point for the filmmaker to center his movie around mature observations. From Beyond explores the outer limits of carnal perversion. Castle Freak is just as much about domestic strife as it is a chronicle of the titular beast’s quest for slaughter. Keeping in line with this artistic MO, Dolls proudly wears subtext on its sleeve, damning the neglctful pair of child-rearing assholes while celebrating the wild imagination that their child (Carrie Lorraine) fosters as a means to cope with her dreadul elders.

Lorraine is extraordinary as Judy, the tiny girl who’s so fed up with her Cruella de Vil of a stepmom that she imagines a giant stuffed animal chewing the skeletal queen to pieces. There’s a naturalism to the novice actress’ performance that cannot be faked or taught, as she approaches even the most dimly lit hallway with a glint of wonder in her eye. Once she meets up with Ralph (Stephen Lee), the goofy manchild who also finds himself stranded in the dark house after picking up two punk rock pixie hitchhikers (Bunty Bailey, Cassie Stuart), there’s a palpable bond the two performers share that is positively infectious. As they search the cavernous mansion for the source of mysterious goings-on that leave weird giggles echoing in empty rooms, Lee brings a spontaneous comedy to every single take, never reacting to a scary situation the same way. It’s a refreshing, incredibly fun pair of protagonists leading us through this creaky, terrifying maze.  

One of the great marvels of Gordon’s killer doll film is the cobweb-covered dwelling the movie is set almost entirely in. Charles Band arranged to shoot the movie at a classic sound studio in Rome, and the completely manufactured set adds stagey textutre to this loopy fairy tale. You can practically smell the paint, plaster dust and elbow grease that went into erecting this engulfing monstrosity, some of which was constructed by carpenters who worked on Roger Vadim’s Barbarella and several Federico Fellini films. Much like Castle Freak, Dolls has a European flavor that’s impossible to shake, as though Band’s primary motivation was cost effectiveness (for example, he could avoid SAG regulations if the movie was shot overseas), the old world craft is on full display. There’s an amazing, lived-in quality to the home of Gabriel (Guy Rolfe, looking like David Lynch’s demented cousin) and Hilary Hartwicke (Hilary Mason), the master toymakers reponsible for the movie’s eponymous creepy plasticities. It’s a fantastical abode, hiding shadows and spooks around every single corner.

Yet no matter how impressive the set architechture is, the practically pieced together monsters are the real stars of this show. Designed and brought to life by John Carl Buechler’s Mechanical Imageries Inc., there’s a tangible quality to the beasts that aligns them with the best of analog 80s horror. Each of these weird little killers has a distinct personality; glass eyes shifting to follow those who cross the room as tiny mouths curl up with maniacal smiles. Almost all of Gordon’s movies have incredibly memorable mutants (even Dagon, which is unfortunately something of a snooze as a whole), but Dolls delivers an entire legion of miniature nightmares. Often times, horror fans wax nostalgic about practical effects without detailing what actually makes them work so well. Here it’s a mixture of interaction with the actors on screen, as well as a jaw-dropping group of designs, all working together to create an idiosyncratic creature feature aesthetic. It’s a true joy for scare movie junkies.

Dolls ultimately feels like a minor film in the Gordon canon, and that’s perfectly fine. Not every movie a director makes can be a stone cold masterwork like Re-Animator or From Beyond.  Instead, Dolls is lean and light, carrying a sense of funhouse, spook-a-blast purpose that’s almost cartoonish in its exection. This is a Märchen‬‎‬ brought to life with a colorful, multi-panel mindset. When mixed with Fuzzbee Morse’s wonky, twinking synths, the lightning crashes and thunder strikes suddenly take on an EC Comics vibe. But Dolls is also a great reminder that just because a producer is mostly known for pure goofball trash doesn’t mean they didn’t stumble across a great creative partner once in a blue moon. The collaborations between Band, Yuzna and Gordon are now a thing of horror film legend. Together they crafted a body of work that was as unique and diverse as any inside of the genre’s borders, and Dolls is easily the breeziest sit in the whole of Stuart Gordon’s filmography.

This Week at Weird Wednesday: Detroit 9000

Previous WW Features: Penitentiary; Skatetown USA; Blood Games; The Last Match; Invasion of the Bee Girls; Julie Darling; Shanty Tramp; Coffy; Lady Terminator; Day of the Dead; The Kentucky Fried Movie; Gone With the Pope; Fright Night; Aliens; Future-Kill; Ladies and Gentlemen…The Fabulous Stains; Pieces; Last House on the Left; Pink Flamingos; In the Mouth of Madness; Evilspeak; Deadly Friend; Don’t Look in the Basement; Vampyres; She