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Recently I bought the DVD of 1987 horror movie Dolls by Stuart Gordon, the director of Re-Animator (1985) among others: I watched Dolls in my early teens and, basically, forgot about it until I picked up a copy at HMV. Seeing the movie so many years later, with a different approach to cinema, I came to love it: thus, my intent with this review is to recommend the film (hence, the article is spoiler-free) and try to explain why it’s such a great watch. Please, keep in mind that the sub-genre of possessed dolls (or puppets) is my least favourite in horror, therefore if you’re a fan of this kind of flicks (and 80s horror) you might even love Dolls much more than I do.
Quickly, the story: a little girl is travelling somewhere with her dad and annoying stepmom when their car gets trapped quicksand. Luckily for them (or maybe not), there’s a mansion nearby where they can spend the night: there they find two punk girls and a goofy guy, who also got stuck, and the owners, and an old and gentle, but also creepy couple of doll-makers. The little girl, Judy, is convinced that the dolls are alive but, since she’s also proved to have a vivid imagination, her dad and stepmom don’t believe her. So, alongside the very likeable Ralph (played by Stephen Lee), she tries to figure out the mystery.
Continue reading and check my final grade below…
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My review is also available on IMDb – Dolls (1987)
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There’s plenty of aspects I utterly love about Dolls but the first thing that stands out to me is the atmosphere: the movie has an American cast and director, but the rest of the crew is Italian, as well as the beautiful rural locations. This odd combination culminates in a film that has the fun of 80s American films and the sombre, atmospheric feel of Euro horror.
The look and feel of the movie are perfectly carried out by the two main characters, Judy and Ralph: he’s playful and goofy, he cracks jokes that always hit the mark, whereas she’s somewhat constantly terrified and sad, probably due to her family situation. The acting by the two leads is solid, especially the girl’s, who gives a surprisingly convincing performance given her age and inexperience at that point. Although the rest of the cast is quite one-dimensional, the performances are all-around good enough and likeable, even the mother who’s supposed to be, basically, just a bitch.
Even though the storyline might make you think of a PG-13 rating, Dolls is extremely brutal and gory. There are tons of practical effects that were way ahead of the time this film came out, some of which are truly jaw-dropping and memorable (one of the punks is tied up in the attic and then… something happens to her face). Even Judy’s fantasies and daydreams are very disturbing and violent, given that she’s a young girl, therefore she’s supposed to be innocent and naïve.
The whole picture strikes this balance between fairy-tale/horror-comedy and gory, disturbing mystery, which is something that could totally make Dolls uneven but that somehow works perfectly. I don’t know if you get what I mean, but if you’re familiar with some of Stuart Gordon’s movies you’ll probably get an idea.
Why is Dolls not often talked about if it’s so great? Well, in my opinion there are two convincing reasons, the first one being rather fatalistic and unsatisfying: it just happened to be forgotten. There are many great horror films – even some masterpieces, I’d say – that are not generally considered while talking about good “old” horror. Maybe Dolls bombed at the box office, therefore its existence kind of faded away throughout the years. Maybe critics didn’t like it enough for it to be put on those peddy lists that sum up the best horror movies of the so and so decade. Maybe the distribution companies that owned the rights to Dolls simply did a bad job at selling the film. I honestly don’t know.
Another plausible reason, which I much prefer, is that Dolls was ahead of its time. This movie is, in fact, packed with modern jump-scares, something that wasn’t as common in the 80s, especially in non-slasher movies. Yet, its humour is not as slapstick as it is in most 80s horror-comedies, but it’s the kind of humour that would please modern audiences.
Don’t get me wrong, Dolls is far from a flawless film: there are technical inconsistencies, for example, there are shots where the dolls are on screen and then, when the movie cuts to another character, the filmmakers forgot to place the dolls where they should be; the score isn’t always fitting; one jump-scare is badly timed, as the loud noise anticipates the image; there’s some motion picture animation at the end that, albeit impressive 30 years ago, now looks a bit laughable.
Despite some obvious shortcomings, though, Dolls remains a rather unique horror movie that I have no trouble recommending to anyone: you can pay attention to the details and notice loads of important clues or you can distractedly watch the movie, and your enjoyment won’t change. This is a movie that’s scary, gory, funny, entertaining and a bit touching and sweet all at the same time. If you haven’t seen it before, I hopefully helped you finding out something really worthwhile.
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