I first saw Stuart Gordon's Dolls -- the slight horror movie he shot between his two classic Lovecraft adaptations Re-Animator and From Beyond -- during our first Scary Movie Month in 2010. It was a Saturday night, and Erika and I decided to watch it on a whim (at the time it was streaming on Netflix) because neither of us had ever seen it but were both familiar with that image from the box art. I wasn't crazy about the movie. I got on our podcast covering Rob Zombie's Halloween and complained to my co-host Mike that the movie "fucking sucks" (I was far less measured and eloquent in the early days of the site) and expressed disappointment over what I felt was a bad movie from a filmmaker I like.
I don't know what I was thinking.
Maybe it's just a matter or context. I watched the movie during Scary Movie Month and was clearly in a different frame of mind, expecting something other than what this movie is. Or maybe I was comparing it to Gordon's other horror movies of the time, which are the work of a madman -- crazy gory, funny and over the top in every way. Dolls isn't those things. It's smaller. Gentler, even. If not for a few moments of violence inserted into the movie (reportedly at the insistence of some higher-ups, including Empire Pictures honcho Charles Band*) it could have been a great, creepy, kid-friendly horror movie -- the kind of gateway film used to introduce young people to the genre, scaring them in a fun way mostly by turning something they love against them.
Soon, more travelers arrive: two female British punks who caught a ride with nice guy Ralph (Stephen Lee). Before long, all the assholes are reacting like assholes and the dolls make them pay for it, leaving sole believer Judy to try and convince Ralph of what's going on before they both end up trapped in the house as dolls for the rest of time.
Tourist Trap did something similar back in '79, but technically those were mannequins. There is a difference. Andrew McCarthy will only fuck one of them (RIP Hollywood).
Shot quickly as a way of getting maximum use of the Italian mansion where From Beyond would shoot, Dolls is, as I hinted, somewhat schizophrenic as a movie. Stuart Gordon wanted to make one movie -- one steeped in child psychology -- while producer Band wanted something more violent and edgy. Screenwriter Ed Naha was trying to write something more classically '40s inspired. The three things don't butt up against one another quite as uncomfortably as one might expect, and if I didn't know a little about the production history (and wish it was less gory so I can show it to my son sooner than later) I might assume it was the exact movie Gordon set out to make. I like its willingness to get weird later on in its (brief) running time, and there's a reveal as to what's really going on with the dolls that's creepy and fun and feels like it fits right into the world Gordon has created despite being a post-production insert. It makes no sense given what we see in the movie's final moments, but it's a cool moment nonetheless.
The way Gordon blends the Old Dark House movie with a dark fairy tale and keeps it all just funny enough makes Dolls much more a special and interesting movie that I originally realized. It has its own kind of nightmare logic -- specific rules that must be followed or else bad people will be punished. It's Grimm's fairy tales by way of E.C. Comics. The simple morality of it all is another reason I wish it was a bit less gory and a bit more appropriate for kids, as it offers them a good message -- be happy you're a kid, because it's incredibly special -- without talking down to them when it comes to be creepy or weird or atmospheric. As a grown-up (chronologically at least), I can embrace the gore as part of what makes Dolls the cool little movie that it is. But seeing how close it comes to be something else and knowing what I know about the production history does make me long a little bit for what might have been.
One of the movie's strong suits is the presence of Stephen Lee as Ralph. While his performance is sometimes uneven -- he has a tendency to go a little too big -- it's the key to enjoying the movie. Ralph is not our audience conduit; it's too much told from a child's perspective (Gordon even shoots a number of scenes from a low angle, the way a kid might view the world) and requires that we embrace our inner child to get on board. But that kind of suspension of disbelief isn't always easy, and Ralph is the guy who represents that more than anyone. He's the guy who recognizes how crazy everything is -- his loud, shocked outbursts are very funny -- but who has to adapt to the rules and embrace childhood in order to make it through. That's us. Yes, we might find the prospect of killer dolls silly (as horror fans we really shouldn't), but if we're going to make it to the end of the movie we need to tap in to the movie's wavelength. I guess I wasn't able to do that the first time I saw it.
I get asked all the time why I bother rewatching movies I don't like. It's because my tastes change. It's because context changes. It's because I know I'm not infallible. It's because of movies like Dolls. I could have easily written it off when it didn't do anything for me four years ago, but that would only have been my loss.
*This information comes courtesy of the Dave Jay's new book Empire of the 'B's: The Mad Movie World of Charles Band.
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