After the critical and commercial success of Re-Animator, director Stuart Gordon was offered a three-picture deal at Empire Pictures. His next film was From Beyond, which was released in 1986, but it wasn't exactly his direct follow-up. Before filming his second H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, Gordon went off to shoot a different film based on some real-life experiences. While in college, Gordon found himself locked up in a room full of Victorian-era porcelain dolls, which freaked him out. Also, like most of his productions, Charles Band had presented a concept and a poster for a killer doll movie. Screenwriter Ed Naha turned that concept into a story involving a family trapped in an old house with killer dolls. Much of the cast and crew Gordon had worked with previously returned, though the film wouldn't be released until 1987. That film would become the underrated gem, Dolls.
On a vacation in England, David (Ian Patrick Williams), Rosemary (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon), and Judy Bower (Carrie Lorraine) get lost. With their car stuck in the mud and a raging storm, they decide to take shelter in a nearby house. They soon meet the residents, eccentric dollmaker Gabriel Hartwicke (Guy Rolfe) and his equally eccentric wife Hilary (Hilary Mason). Before long, hitchhikers Isabel (Bunty Bailey) and Enid (Cassie Stuart), and their driver Ralph (Stephen Lee) show up. The Hartwickes agree to let them all stay for the night, but before long, strange things start happening. Isabel ends up getting killed and dragged off, which Judy witnesses, so she gets Ralph to help her investigate. They discover the secret behind the Hartwickes: they are witches who have brought their dolls to life to kill. Unfortunately, no one else believes them, so it's up to Judy and Ralph to stop them.
While lacking the over-the-top gore and dark humor of his previous films, Dolls is still another great Stuart Gordon chiller. For this movie, Gordon went for more of a fairy tale/haunted house vibe, focused on a small child. Like many fairy tales, Dolls is a morality tale, where the bad get punished and the good get spared. In terms of bad, there's the girl's hateful father and stepmother, and the two hitchhikers looking to rob the Hartwickes. Each of them gets their comeuppance, and it's satisfying to see each of them get their just desserts. Ian Patrick Williams and, especially, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon do a great job playing characters that you just love to hate. The two hitchhikers, Bunty Bailey & Cassie Stuart, are fun riffs on 80s punk girls, though they don't do much. Stephen Lee and Carrie Lorraine make a good and likable pair as well.
Guy Rolfe and Hilary Mason are the real standouts, acting both warm and friendly, as well as dark and sinister. However, the true stars of the show are the dolls themselves, brought to life thanks to stop-motion animator David Allen. Though they don't have much screentime, it's impressive to see them move about and go on their killing spree. It's pretty easy to see how this film led to Charles Band coming up with the concept for Puppet Master. Also, the makeup effects from the always talented John Carl Buechler are quite good, yet some don't hold up well. Fans of Re-Animator and From Beyond might be disappointed that this lacks the weirdness and crazies of those two films. Even still, this is worth a watch thanks to its chilling atmosphere, solid performances, and ability to make dolls creepy. Overall, Dolls is an underrated gem from a talented cult filmmaker.
Buy Dolls from Amazon: https://amzn.to/2WKS4aR
Stuart Gordon, 1947 - 2020
This review is dedicated to the memory of cult filmmaker Stuart Gordon, who passed away on March 24, 2020, at the age of 72.