In the midst of making adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft stories (Re-Animator, From Beyond) for producer Charles Band, Stuart Gordon also directed a project for Band’s Empire Pictures that had subject matter much more along the lines of Band’s usual output, something that seems to be dear to the producer’s heart. Small creatures that kill people. In this case, as evident from the title, the creatures were killer dolls.
The screenplay by Ed Naha has a very fairy tale-esque quality to it, and that feeling translates to the finished film.
The lead character is a seven-year-old girl named Judy, who has been dragged along on a European vacation with her inattentive father David and his new wife/Judy’s new wicked stepmother Rosemary. When their rental car becomes bogged down on the muddy road while this dysfunctional family is driving in a forested area during a dark and stormy night, the three are forced to abandon it and seek shelter.
While they trek through the forest, Rosemary cruelly takes Judy’s beloved teddy bear away from her and tosses it into the bushes. Being a very imaginative little girl, Judy daydreams that teddy comes back for revenge, now a giant that towers over her father and stepmother, transforming into a vicious beat and tearing into them. The image of this bear-monster in the woods, illuminated by sporadic flashes of lightning, used to freak me out when I would watch this movie as a young child.
Eventually, the trio comes across a large old home nestled deep in the woods. Entering the home, they find it’s inhabited by an elderly couple, Gabriel and Hilary Hartwicke, and a great many dolls, as Gabriel is a doll maker.
Soon, three more travelers are forced in by the storm – nice guy American Ralph, and a pair of wild punk rock chick hitchhikers he picked up, Isabel and Enid.
Gabriel and Hilary feed their surprise guests, then provide them all with bedrooms to spend the night in. But as the storm continues to rage outside, the night that commences is anything but restful.
The trouble starts when Isabel leaves her room to go snooping around the house for items to steal. Instead of scoring some ill-gotten gains, Isabel finds herself being attacked by a small – in more than one way – army of Gabriel’s dolls, who repeatedly bash her face into the wall, then drag the bloody woman off down a hallway… as Judy watches.
From that point on, the characters try to figure out just what is going on in the Hartwicke home. Judy finds a supportive friend in Ralph, but the more unpleasant of the houseguests get picked off one-by-one in bloody, brutal ways – shot down by toy soldiers, attacked by dolls wielding knives and saws – and then are magically transformed into dolls themselves.
As it turns out, all of the dolls in the house used to be people, people who didn’t live up to the Hartwickes’ standard of what it means to be a good person. And everyone who gets punished during this long, stormy night, “the longest night in the world”, certainly deserved to receive some punishment.
It’s almost a shame that there is so much blood and violence to the doll attacks in this film, because without it Dolls could more easily be widely accepted as a good, although creepy, kids movie. It even has a perfect running time to be enjoyed by little tykes, a mere 74 minutes.
The blood and violence didn’t keep it from being a movie that was in my regular viewing rotation when I was young, I watched Dolls a whole bunch of times on cable TV while being babysat by my grandmother. I was such an established fan of Dolls at such a young age that when Puppet Master II, another Charles Band production, hit video shelves when I was just seven-years-old, I rented it immediately, thinking it was a sequel to that doll movie I liked. And that is how I became a fan of the Puppet Master series.
The movie’s cast all played their roles well, with Guy Rolfe (who went on to play puppet master Andre Toulon) and Hilary Mason coming off kindly and otherworldly as the Hardwickes, Ian Patrick Williams and especially Carolyn Purdy-Gordon being appropriately despicable as Judy’s parental figures, and Cassie Stuart and Bunty Bailey (who was The Girl in the famous music video for a-ha’s “Take On Me”) being an amusing presence as the punk rock mini-Madonnas.
The astoundingly tiny Carrie Lorraine is adorable as the daydream-prone Judy, while Stephen Lee makes Ralph one of the most endearingly sweet and pure hearted adult males ever put on film. At times, he even has a sort of Lou Costello vibe to him.
I loved Dolls as a child, and I still greatly enjoy it to this day. I would highly recommend it to anyone who’s in the mood to spend some time watching a twisted fairy tale. Don’t mind the blood.