Cinemaniacs have shown many nasty and, some might say, mean-spirited horror movies this year – DOLLS is not one of them.
It is a horror movie. That is undisputable. But it is one of the numerous examples out there that proves horror movies come in many different and colourful forms.
It is the work of director Stuart Gordon and producer Brian Yuzna. These guys met in Chicago and bonded over their mutual love for the gothic horror fiction of writer H.P. Lovecraft.
(As an aside, if you get the chance, read up about H.P. Lovecraft’s life – it is truly heartbreaking – I dare you not to cry).
In particular, Gordon and Yuzna were intent on bringing Lovecraft’s short story ‘Herbert West – Reanimator’ to the screen, which is basically a parody of Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN, and they did in 1985 thanks to some help from Charles Band at Empire Pictures. It was a big success and secured them an ongoing deal with Empire.
Now Charles Band – he’s an interesting dude. He comes from the William Castle and Roger Corman school of ‘showbiz’. He is one of those eccentric movie businessmen who also has a flair for the outlandishly creative. I suggest you take a moment to trawl his list of movies on IMDB.com because the titles are insanely good.
Charles Band had leapt on what was (at the time) the new phenomenon of home entertainment, and he was pumping it for all it was worth. His movies very rarely made money at the box office – REANIMATOR included – but they made him a lot of money from the video rental market. He would eventually go bankrupt, start another company, etc, etc, but that’s a whole other story.
Charles Band headquartered Empire Pictures in Italy because it was cheaper to shoot there (largely, he could dodge union and guild fees, etc). He also bought out Dino De Laurentis’ Italian studio, which was dubbed ‘Dino Citta’, and was already hallowed film turf having been the location for around 100 films since its inception in 1946, including THE BIBLE and BARBARELLA, among others.
As far as Gordon and Yuzna were concerned, Band was going to be sending them to Italy to follow up REANIMATOR with more of the same in the form of FROM BEYOND, which is another gothic and gory HP Lovecraft tale. But instead, he handed them a script for a film called DOLLS, written by Ed Naha (who had previously written the film TROLL for Band). Charlie Band told them they would be shooting it on the same sets as FROM BEYOND in the few weeks before they made FROM BEYOND.
Now, if anyone’s clocking timelines, DOLLS would be released in 1987, the year after FROM BEYOND even though it was shot before this film, but this was due to the extensive stop-motion effects that stretched out its post-production time.
Charles Band had an interesting way of conceiving films. He would come up with a title, create artwork for a poster and then he would get the concept scripted. When he asked Ed Naha to write DOLLS, he presented him with an image of a humanoid doll holding its eyes between its fingers like this… The title was THE DOLL.
Band told Naha, I want you to write a film about a killer doll. Naha asked if there was anything else he should know about it. Band said, no – just write it. And Naha asked, can it be about more than one doll? And Band said, yes. With that, DOLLS was born.
This might sound like the makings of a film that’s just an after-thought. But DOLLS managed to belie such beginnings to become much more than that, mainly due to the commitment of its filmmakers. Even for Charles Band, DOLLS would signal the beginning of many doll/puppet-themed movies, including the PUPPETMASTER franchise.
Stuart Gordon saw DOLLS as a fairytale. And it is very much a fairytale. He subscribed to the theories of Bruno Bettelheim, who was a psychologist who applied Freudian theory to fairytales.
Bettelheim wrote a book called ‘The Uses of Enchantment’ where he argued that fairytales are life lessons for children and, therefore, they need to be scary in order to have impact. They need to present the world as it is – a very scary place – and teach children that, if you’re good and your heart is pure, you will do well and rise above the evil.
Consequently, Bruno Bettelheim was a big critic of Disney for sanitising fairytales and destroying their intent.
DOLLS meets Bettelheim’s mold of fairytales – it even has a special thanks to Bettelheim and the Brothers Grimm in the end credits.
You’ll see references to HANSEL & GRETEL throughout: the little girl, Judy, who is the central character reads HANSEL & GRETEL and, at one point, Mrs Hartwicke, played by Hilary Mason, pinches the flesh of Judy’s finger, which is a direct reference to HANSEL & GRETEL too.
There are other common fairytale tropes scattered throughout – the ‘witch’ stirring her cauldron, the descent into the woods at the very beginning, etc, etc.
But DOLLS is not a fairytale for children. It is a fairytale for adults, that has been created to remind us of the fairytales we all saw or read as kids. If we’ve gone off track, it is designed to bring us back in line again. It tells us to be good and to remain pure like children at heart. It is a very sweet film, not mean-spirited at all… with a little bit of blood & guts thrown in for good measure.
In making DOLLS, Stuart Gordon was expected to meet the gore-threshold set by REANIMATOR but he pared it all back because he felt it didn’t suit the film. They actually shot a scene where one character gets their intestines pulled out but it was dumped for being too graphic and, therefore, not quite right.
Otherwise, tonally, you could say that REANIMATOR and DOLLS are not unlike in their pantomime, slapstick element. Both films do not play for subtlety whether in the styling, direction or the acting.
What is notable about DOLLS is the cast. It is very good. Extremely good, I would go so far as saying.
Stuart Gordon drew from his Chicago theatre company in casting the roles of the father, Ian Patrick Williams, and the ‘evil stepmother’, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon (who also happens to be his wife – she is quite obviously styled here as Cruella Deville from 101 DALMATIONS).
It is a small cast so I’ll run through them all:
Guy Rolfe, who Stuart Gordon admired from William Castle’s MR SARDONICUS, plays the dollmaker, Mr Hartwicke. He has one of those superb faces almost specifically made for fairytales so you really couldn’t go wrong with him. This also kickstarted a relationship for Rolfe with Charles Band, as he would go on to appear in Band’s PUPPETMASTER movies.
And, just as another interesting aside, Guy Rolfe is the great-great-grandson of John Rolfe who married Pocahontas.
There is Hilary Mason, who played the blind ‘see-er’ in Nicolas Roeg’s DON’T LOOK NOW, and is wonderful here as Guy Rolfe’s wife, Mrs Hartwicke.
Then there’s the central character of Judy, played by Carrie Lorraine. The whole film really hangs on her and she holds it up on her tiny little shoulders. She is really so very small, like a doll, even though she was about eight years old when the film was made. Stuart Gordon said they auditioned hundreds of kids who were all way too showbizzy and ‘Hollywood’. Carrie Lorraine stood out because she just wasn’t like that.
We watch the film from a child’s perspective, which is one of the reasons why Carrie Lorraine is so important. Gordon even directed the film with DoP Mac Ahlberg shooting a number of shots from a low angle, as if from the point of view or height of a child. Ahlberg experimented with shooting into mirrors in order to get the camera as low as possible for certain scenes – much lower than what a steadicam could achieve at the time.
Then there is the other ‘child’ of the film – the ‘man-child’ – Ralph, played by Stephen Lee. He is exceptional because he sells this character perfectly when it could have gone oh-so-wrong. We actually believe he has a friendship of equals with a little girl, and not some creepy paedo thing going on. It could have easily slipped into dodgy territory but instead we actually believe he is a fully-grown man who has remained a child at heart, which is no mean feat.
There are two further characters – two punk rockers played by English actresses, Cassie Stuart and this woman…
If anyone can tell me what else she is famous for (without looking it up on your phones), I’ll buy you a drink at the bar…
It is Bunty Bailey. She is famous for being the girl in the Aha video clips – ‘Take on Me’ and ‘The Shine Always Shines on TV’ – and not a helluva lot more, except for Billy Idol’s ‘To be a Lover’ but to a lesser degree. Incidentally, she also dated Aha’s singer, Morten Harket.
In this pre-CGI era, DOLLS relied on on-set mechanical puppets, hand puppets and marionettes. A team of Italian puppeteers were assembled to pull it off – a bunch of real-life ‘Geppettos’ – while the really time-consuming stuff – the stop-motion animation – was created after the shoot in post-production by a fellow named David Allen.
Stop-motion has fallen out of favour in this day and age – a lot of people find it hammy and filmmakers find it expensive – but it is used to its best effect in DOLLS. In particular, the stop/start quality of stop-motion animation suits the movement of the dolls and their articulated joints (do the robot). You may think you can tell what shots are stop-motion and what are not, but you are very likely to be fooled in the case DOLLS.
So, I will wind up my presentation so we can move onto this tight, little horror film – a film that doesn’t outstay its welcome at a running time of 77 minutes – and I hope you all get to enjoy a bit of a laugh at the expense of some evil adults.
And, remember, as Mr Hartwicke the dollmaker says, “Toys are very loyal – and that’s a fact.”