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Late to the Party: ‘Dolls’ (1987)

by Mike Joyce

Welcome back to another weekly edition of Late to the Party, the review series that pits iHorror writers against the cult classics and fan favorites we somehow haven’t seen. This week’s film is 1987’s “Dolls,” directed by Stuard Gordon, produced by Charles Band and Brian Yuzna, and written by Ed Naha.

If you’re like me and your earliest memories of horror fandom are from perusing the cover art in your local video rental store, then you probably remember this one:

Late to the Party: Dolls

Empire Pictures

Despite that amazing cover always sticking out to me, I never actually got around to seeing it until now. I’m particularly ashamed since I’m a big Stuart Gordon fan. Sadly, there’s no Jeffrey Combs here. He could’ve done so much with this wacky script, in a number of different roles.

Welcome to the Dollhouse

For a lean 77 minutes, “Dolls” takes a while to get started. It takes place in the English countryside, but we can only be certain it’s in Britain because everyone drives on the left side. The characters seem split between English and American.

We meet young Judy, her father David and her stepmother Rosemary. David and Rosemary just got married, and they’re spending their honeymoon driving through the country in a Rolls-Royce with Judy in tow. Rosemary is your typical evil stepmother, who considers Judy a burden and wants nothing to do with her. What’s a real surprise is that David doesn’t want her there either, and keeps reminding Rosemary that he only has custody of her for the summer. We learn that Rosemary is rich, so I don’t understand why David doesn’t just pay child support and leave Judy with her mother. Then again, this whole movie feels like it’s told from a child’s point of view. More on that later.

One of the best scenes in the film happens early on, when Rosemary throws Judy’s teddy bear, Teddy, into the bushes during a rainstorm. Teddy comes to life and emerges as a giant stuffed bear with actual teeth and claws, and slaughters Rosemary and David. However, that’s revealed to be Judy’s imagination, unfortunately.

They look for a place to hunker down and wait out the storm, and stumble upon a spooky old mansion inhabited by an elderly couple, Gabriel and Hilary, along with a buttload of dolls. They have no children of their own, but Gabriel is a toymaker who makes creepy dolls while Hilary puts the dolls in a baby carriage and walks them around the house in the middle of the night. Charming!

Late to the Party: Dolls

“I’m having a fucking tea party, what does it look like?”
Empire Pictures

The mansion itself does a lot of the heavy lifting for this film: It’s a gorgeous old house that would be at home in any gothic story. Each room has dozens of dolls, and you notice early on that the dolls eyes move.

Ralph, Enid and Isabel storm the party next. Enid and Isabel are two punk girls who are hoping to rob Ralph, and Ralph is an American tourist who’s hoping to score with one or both of them. Ralph also looks like a budget Sean Astin.

The punk girls seem out of place in this setting, even more so than the American characters. I don’t think they gave any explanation as to what they were doing in the middle of nowhere. Then again, no one really does. We see Isabel and Enid briefly hitchhiking in the opening scene. Then Ralph picked them up, and then his car died near the house.

Everyone ends up staying the night, and it’s only at this point that things start to pick up. It took a lot to bring this diverse cast of characters to this place, and that took me out of the movie more than the killer dolls. It reminded me of “Spookies” from the previous year, which had multiple unrelated groups wandering into an old house for various reasons just to add more fodder for the monsters. However, “Spookies” was one movie awkwardly shoehorned into another after the original creators bailed. I don’t think “Dolls” had the same issues to explain all the questions.

Late to the Party: Dolls

This “Little Rascals” remake is awfully dark.
Empire Pictures

The Valley of the Killer Dolls

The real stars of this film are the dolls. The stop-motion animation works well, and the dolls come off as vicious when they attack our human characters. They bite, they stab and some of them even use little toy guns, with lethal results.

I do have some questions about the dolls themselves, and most of their backstory is left to the viewer’s interpretation. When people fight back, some of the dolls are hollow and shatter easily, while others seem to have little skeletons inside them. It’s not entirely clear why some dolls are different, but one character gets turned into a doll as punishment. Are these humanoid dolls the souls of bad people, trapped in this house for eternity? It’s never really fully explained.

I’d almost classify “Dolls” as a dark fairy tale rather than a straight-up horror. It has a dreamlike quality and its own sense of morality. Children and adults who remember their childhood wonder are spared, while cynical adults are brutally murdered. Do the dolls know the difference? Are Gabriel and Hilary, the kindly old toymakers trapping people here in the bodies of dolls? Probably. What else are you going to do in a big old house in the countryside?

Overall, this film is uneven, and it seems to drag in places despite its short runtime. While it has its faults, but it’s still worth watching if you enjoy creepy dolls, Stuart Gordon, Brian Yuzna and dark fantasy. There isn’t a lot of gore, but the few gory scenes are impressive. For a relatively low budget of $2 million, the special effects by John Carl Buechler are impressive.

“Dolls” wasn’t a commercial success, but recently it’s become a cult favorite, thanks in part to a new collector’s edition Blu-ray from Shout! Factory.

Watch the trailer here:

Let us know what you thought of “Dolls.”

Stay tuned next week for more Late to the Party, or check out our past reviews here!

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