A recurring joke among the BMD staff is the undying popularity of Devin's "True Story of Annabelle" article, which is one of the most read in the site's history and is still, three years later, finding its way into our daily top five articles on a fairly regular basis (as the writer of almost every other horror-related article on this site, this doesn't make me bitter at all, nope). Granted, it's an excellent piece and a must-read for anyone who has seen The Conjuring or the full-on Annabelle spinoff, but I suspect the real reason for its popularity is pretty simple: people just love being terrified by dolls, and her unique status as a horror movie icon that is based on reality puts her in the upper pantheon of killer playthings.
Then again, it's kind of a selective group. Hitting Blu-ray today from Universal is The Boy, a creepy doll movie that performed well at the box office and will probably find a new audience on video, as it's a perfect "at home" chiller (95% of the movie takes place in a single house). And it's possible that your home might have something like Brahms, the porcelain creeper at the film's center, who is treated like a living child by his parents and left in the care of his new babysitter (Lauren Cohan) when they go on a vacation. The film basically has one question - is he REALLY alive or are they nuts - but the answer is teased out perfectly well, letting you know the answer with just enough time left in the movie to reward the patient audience with a frantic, fast-paced ending that made me very happy (partly due to an homage to Friday the 13th Part 2).
Now, whether Brahms turns out to be alive or not doesn't ultimately matter - he makes an impact before we get our answers, even though we can't ever see him move (obviously if he moved on his own too soon it'd spoil the mystery). He's dressed and treated as a young boy of about 8 or 9, though the doll's diminutive size (he's about as big as a one year old) makes him look creepy just from a wardrobe perspective. But his face is the real draw, with the beady little eyes and blank expression that gives him more of a Michael Myers look than Chucky. I don't know if the movie was a big enough hit to warrant merchandise, but if so I suspect fans would be freaking out their significant others with Brahms replicas for a long time, propping them up in the bed or on the counter... Someone crafted one for the "museum" at last month's Monsterpalooza (a local horror con that focuses more on makeup and creations than signing autographs with the people who got killed by those creations), and I was happy to see him in there with Freddy and The Wolf Man and some of the other icons from past and present - he's made it!
The aforementioned Chucky will probably always be the go-to example for a killer doll, at least for my generation. It's unavoidable - not only was he the only one to get theatrically released sequels, but he also had something a lot of his peers don't: license to move around at will. The Boy is not the first nor will it be the last "killer doll" movie that leaves things ambiguous for most (in some cases, all) of its runtime, as many want you to guess whether it's really alive or if it's all in the protagonist's mind. Not Chucky though; there's some of that uncertainty in the first film, but it's probably only about 40 or so minutes into it that we are shown without a doubt that Charles Lee Ray really has possessed this plastic My Buddy ripoff, and then obviously there was no point in hiding it for the sequels. He became a mini-Freddy, shooting off one-liners with every kill and appearing just as much as the human actors (some of which weren't as animated as the doll). Chucky's first two films made a mint at the box office, but no major studio bothered to rip him off - anything similar went straight to video.
That doesn't mean they were all junk, however. Kevin Tenney, who gave us the very entertaining Witchboard, borrowed a page from the original Child's Play and made Pinocchio's Revenge, which takes a more psychological approach to a similar story of a child's toy killing people and everyone thinking that the kid is behind it. Tenney doesn't tip his hand at the halfway point like Tom Holland did with Chucky though - we are left to wonder until its closing moments, where he certainly seems to be suggesting one way over the other but never fully spells it out. Those expecting another foul-mouthed killer doll will be disappointed, but if you can appreciate the more psychological elements of the concept, you'll find it's one of the best DTV horror flicks of the decade. Sure, that may not be a very high hurdle, but it's certainly a pretty populated arena of competition (the '90s were overflowing with DTV fare since theatrical horror was a wasteland until Scream came along). Another solid film in that vein is the 2008 indie Triloquist, from Leprechaun director Mark Jones, which blends the usual "is the doll alive or not?" stuff with a Badlands-esque killing spree. In both you can see the potential for sequels, but in a way their one-off nature makes them better - the characters weren't reduced to jokes.
Which brings us back to Chucky, who got "funnier" (in theory) with each movie, until 2004's Seed of Chucky did away with horror altogether in favor of a full on camp comedy. That entry was not well received (with inflation considered, it's the lowest grossing of the five theatrically released films), which I can assume played a part in the decision for the next sequel, 2013's Curse of Chucky, to return the character to his scarier roots... by having him just kinda sit there for a good chunk of the first hour. He's quiet, he's more subtle, he's EFFECTIVE again, and it was during that film (which, if you haven't seen yet, he eventually returns to his usual self, but still in better form than the previous couple movies) that I realized why so many of the others opt for ambiguity: it's just plain scarier to not know. It's a horror film, so we know something is going to kill one or more of our characters, but not knowing if it's an unhinged adult or a living hunk of plastic is a skin-crawling situation. Not that one or the other can't be scary on their own, but that extra bit of uncertainty is a big help in turning an average horror flick into something a little more memorable.
And that may be why I never got into the Puppet Master series as much as a lot of my same-aged pals who swear that the older ones are good (I can't find anyone to defend the last ten years' worth of entries). I mean, sure, they're all well-designed and there's a certain appeal to watching them do their thing back when they had solid stop-motion animation bringing them to life, but the gag grew tiresome, quick - and they're not even suspenseful, let alone scary. It's not a surprise that they basically turned the puppets into heroes by the 3rd (and best) film, having them kill Nazis and thus making it more of a weird action movie than a horror flick. And the next two entries were like R-rated kids' films, pitting them against other-worldly beasties that were about the same size. After those two, the money dried up and they barely appeared (or at least, moved) in the films, which got increasingly convoluted (yes, there's actually a mythology behind these things) and often introduced new Puppets that were in no way as fun as the original group of Blade, Leech Woman, Pinhead, etc. The series is currently slated for a reboot (from Bone Tomahawk's S. Craig Zahler!), which holds some promise if there's some money (or at least, cheap animators who can produce great work), but it's not exactly something I'm dying to see. As a kid I preferred Demonic Toys, which went with traditional playthings (a baby, a jack-in-the-box, a little robot) as opposed to Puppet Master's custom creepers, but I couldn't imagine trying to watch it today (I DID watch its long-overdue sequel, as well as its "unofficial" vs film with Puppet Master, and both were terrible).
Plus those films had a bunch of toys at once, preventing them from being full blown icons like Chucky and Annabelle are. Not that those two were the first - we can't and shouldn't forget Fats, the ventriloquist's dummy to Anthony Hopkins' character in 1978's terrific Magic, which if nothing else may be the only horror film that was directed by AND starring a "Sir" (Hopkins was knighted a while back, and it was directed by none other than Sir Richard Attenborough). I did a contest for a Boy Blu-ray and asked people to name their favorite killer doll, and was happy to see how many of them picked Fats - the film tends to fly under the radar despite its cast/crew pedigree. As usual, Fats doesn't do much on his own because it's all in Hopkins' head (OR IS IT?), but their "chemistry" is dynamite and I love that they have matching outfits on occasion. And he wasn't even the first one, as Hugo in Devil Doll (1964) probably can claim that right, though the movie is slightly less effective (let's put it this way - it's Hugo, not Fats, who is probably best remembered from a MST3k episode). I couldn't find any full-length horror features focused entirely on a doll/puppet/toy before that, so please let me know if there's an even earlier one (not The Great Gabbo - it's not a horror movie).
Indeed, many of the others we fondly remember and stack up with these are actually from anthology segments or episodes: Talky Tina (from Twilight Zone), the Zuni doll from Trilogy of Terror, or (a different) Hugo in the original Dead of Night - all great and deserve a place at the table, but didn't get their own movie. Or they're just one of many sources of danger; the clown may be the most iconic source of danger from Poltergeist (so much that the shitty remake centered much of its marketing around their own, much lesser version), but he takes up maybe five minutes of that movie. Other dolls play second fiddle to human villains; James Wan has done this twice, in fact, with Billy in Saw and Mary Shaw's puppets in his followup Dead Silence. Annabelle's kind of a mix - she was only a tiny part of The Conjuring, but people responded so well to these scenes that she got her own prequel movie the following year, which performed quite well (especially overseas, where its take nearly matched that of Conjuring) - and now there will be an Annabelle 2 along with the proper Conjuring followup.
Of course, that doesn't make them any less iconic (certainly not in Billy's case - you're more likely to see someone dressed as him on Halloween than John Kramer), but Brahms, Annabelle, Chucky and the other "stars" deserve that extra bit of credit for doing the heavy lifting in their movies - the relatively low number of these films (most of which are hits and/or are well respected) tells me that it's not something that can work as (theoretically) easily as a slasher or a ghost movie. And the fact that we're not oversaturated with evil doll/toy/puppet movies is part of why they tend to do well - they always feel like a breath of fresh air, because we're never getting a bunch of them at once like we do with pretty much every other sub-genre that proves successful. Maybe if Annabelle 2 is a smash (it usually takes two hit movies for the rest of Hollywood to start ripping something off, now that they're sure the first wasn't a fluke) that will change, but I suspect not. Like many of the movies themselves, they're smarter than they seem (sometimes), and seem to know that we only need one every now and then to freak us out and make us cover up our kid's (or our own) toys in the middle of the night.