Stuart Gordon’s ‘Dolls’ (1987) – A Lesson In Embracing Your Inner Child – Retro Review

There’s something so enjoyably haunting about murderous dolls that, no matter how many times it’s done in film or television, it never gets old. Typically, the plotlines of these toy-focused projects keep to the status quo — kid gets doll, doll is possessed by an evil entity, evil entity wrecks havoc on the unsuspecting family. From Chucky in the Child’s Play franchise to The Conjuring universe’s Annabelle, and even Talky Tina in The Twilight Zone, the list goes on. However, Stuart Gordon’s Dolls, which premiered at the Seattle Film Festival on April 27, 1987, shakes up the norm in the best way possible. As Dolls celebrates its 35th anniversary, let’s take a look back at its creepy, campy greatness.

Dolls centers on little Judy Bower (Carrie Lorraine: Poltergeist II: The Other Side 1986), her unloving father David (Ian Patrick Williams: Deathwell 2020) and evil stepmother Rosemary (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon: From Beyond 1986), whose car gets trapped in mud during a sudden thunderstorm. They take shelter at the nearby mansion of elderly couple Gabriel (Guy Rolfe: The Bride 1985) and Hilary Hartwicke (Hilary Mason: Haunted 1995). They’re soon joined by businessman Ralph Morris (Stephen Lee: The Uninvited 1996) and two pretty, thieving hitchhikers, who are also seeking refuge from Mother Nature. Judy, who had her beloved teddy bear chucked into the bushes by Rosemary upon their arrival, is enamored with Gabriel’s vast collection of handmade dolls, especially Mr. Punch. Ralph, a child at heart, also shows an appreciation for Gabriel’s work.

However, during the group’s overnight stay, all hell breaks loose after Judy spots one of the hitchhikers being dragged off by what she describes as “little people.” It’s soon revealed that Gabriel’s creations aren’t just your average dolls, and that they’re not thrilled to have such mean-spirited people in their space. One by one, the Hartwickes’ guests meet their demise until Judy and Ralph are the last two standing in the morning. As they drive away to reunite Judy with her mother (she’s told her father left in the night with Rosemary), four fresh additions to Gabriel’s collection are shown — miniature versions of the hitchhikers, Rosemary and, as a new-and-improved Mr. Punch, David. Given the real-life history of Mr. Punch, a character in a British puppet show who regularly beat up his wife Judy, this is truly fitting. The camera pans away from the mansion to show another car getting trapped in the very same spot.

At a first glimpse, it could seem that Gabriel and Hilary have ill intentions as they utilize their magic to turn guests into dolls. That’s not exactly what one would call a gracious host. However, it’s no accident that Judy and Ralph make it out unscathed. Judy treats her toys with respect and appreciates the happiness they can bring during dark times, like the summers she’s forced to spend with her miserable father and stepmother. And though Ralph is freaked out at first when he realizes the dolls are alive (who wouldn’t be?), he never lost his inner child and is able to believe that what he’s seeing is real. In turn, the dolls spare their lives.

As for the others, they’re all horrible people. David and Rosemary have no love for Judy, and the hitchhikers plot to steal the Hartwickes’ belongings. In their own strange way, the Hartwickes are actually doing the world a service. If the dozens of dolls at their estate were all once equally terrible, being turned into porcelain for eternity seems like a warranted fate. Any travelers who fall victim to the muddy dip in the road have their character put to the test. If they’re kind, loving and generous, they can continue on their way. Otherwise, they’re destined to life on the shelf. This is all a very fun and clever detour from the typical possession concept.

Of course, Dolls will never be hailed as the greatest film of all time. Much of it is very cheesy and laughable, such as the jerky stop-motion movements of the dolls as they plot their various attacks. But that’s the brilliance of it. Similar to Don Mancini’s humorous spiral into Seed of Chucky, which is a perfect blend of horror and comedy, Dolls isn’t meant to be taken so seriously with jumpy moments and gorey murders. Additionally, it can’t easily fit into one category. In fact, many elements are reminiscent of a charming fairy tale. There’s a fantastical wonder about Gabriel and his workshop, not unlike Geppetto in Pinocchio. If it weren’t for the gruesome kills, including one of the hitchhikers having her eyeballs removed, Dolls could almost pass for a children’s flick.

Thirty-five years later, Dolls stands the test of time thanks to its dark humor, unique storyline and friendly reminder to be nice to others and hold fast to your inner child.

About Samantha Bambino

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