This isn’t to say that cult films don’t have characteristics in common. In some cases, they might emerge from the same creative mind or have been marshaled to the screen by the same director. As a result, they may have attributes that look and/or aesthetically feel similar, giving audiences an overwhelming sense of familiarity that they’re subconsciously drawn to in modest numbers. Still – on other opportunities – the storyteller along with the cast and crew might revel in degrees of excess, turning what might be a rather ordinary experience into something extraordinary along the way. It’s this over-the-top sensibility that more often than not turns many Horror flicks into cult favorites, giving projects the legs to stand on their own each and every time some new prospects plunk the DVD in the player or order it up for streaming.
And … then there’s Dolls (1986).
On the surface, Dolls would appear to be a Horror picture. Its destructive cabal of animated action figures – ones coming in all shapes and sizes – seemingly exist only to lie patiently in wait for another victim to show up at their respective doors; but – for a Horror picture – there really isn’t all that much blood. Furthermore, it never quite revels in any surplus of the usual gory circumstances or grim awareness, pretty much offing one unsuspecting victim and moving along – when appropriate – to the next. Lastly, while it stems (in part) from the library of the late director Stuart Gordon -- a man who had a reputation at the time for producing things more than a bit drenched in blood – Dolls never quite feels much less looks like the routine Gordon potboiler.
So how did this … this … this thing become a cult film?
Well, I suspect it’s because each of us at some point in our past had a doll (though boys prefer not to call it such). And I suspect each of us in those days gone by probably confided in that piece of fabric and plastic. Maybe we gave it attributes, traits, or responsibilities, imagined it gave us some fateful advice, and watched over us while we slept in our beds, keeping us safe from those things that went bump in the night. Our creativity alone imbued these precious treasures with skills and abilities beyond mortal men, and I think it’s these private but shared harmonies that resonated so well with enough viewers that Dolls became a closeted favorite.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“A dysfunctional family of three stops by a mansion during a storm – father, stepmother, and child. The child discovers that the elderly owners are magical toy makers and have a haunted collection of dolls.”
As a project, Dolls isn’t all that complex: an imaginative young girl, Judy (played winningly by a young Carrie Lorraine), and her embittered father David (Ian Patrick Williams) and even worse shrew/stepmother Rosemary (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon) happen across an elderly estate that conceals more than a bit of magic and mystery where its hundreds of custom-built dolls come to life to extract a bit of plastic justice on those who’ve led some very bad, bad lives. When the home’s elderly caretakers (exceptional performances from Guy Rolfe and Hilary Mason) invite them in for the night out of the rain – along with a few other strays who stumble on the same path – it becomes increasingly clear that not everyone is destined to make it out alive. What can I say? Rural Europe is a dangerous place, but we already learned that lesson from An American Werewolf In London (1981).
The script is attributed to Ed Naha, a name that certainly carries its own influence among those of us who follow genre materials. His career has been filled with hits big and small including such titles as C.H.U.D. II – Bud The Chud (1989), Honey I Shrunk The Kids (1989), Dollman (1991), and Omega Doom (1996). With Dolls, he weaves an interesting concoction, giving this particular cabal of toys enough menace to match their magic. While his characters might suffer a bit from being a bit too predictable here and there, I think it’s safe to conclude that not even he took much of this with any degree of seriousness, crafting it all under the rubric of being a fairy tale … if not one of the darkest and deadliest fairy tales of them all.
Dolls (1986) was produced by Empire Pictures and Taryn Productions, Inc. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated by the fine folks at Arrow Films. As for the technical specifications? While I’m no trained video expert, I thought that the sights and sounds to what’s reported as an all-new 2K restoration from the original interpositive to be exceptionally good. Lastly, if you’re looking for special features? The disc boasts an incredible three different audio commentaries (one specially recorded for this release) along with a new interview (with editor Lee Percy), a fabulous making-of documentary, and the usual fodder like photo galleries, storyboards, and theatrical trailers. Arrow Films rarely (if ever) disappoints, and there’s plenty here to keep fans interested for quite some time.
Though the film vacillates between Horror and Fantasy, I think the narrative formula propelling Dolls from start-to-finish is quite good. It might have a storytelling blemish here and there that could’ve been handled with greater aplomb (the opening Teddy bit is a clumsy insertion, and a particular kill sequence could’ve been handled with better reveal), but because all of it feels like its descended from a child’s cautionary fairy tale I found it hard to pick apart even the smallest scab. There’s enough magic in here – both dark and light – to give one ample opportunity to credibly suspend disbelief and be swept off into a place where the impossible happens time and time again … even as the closing scenes prepare you for what could’ve easily been a theatrical follow-up that likely still lives on in our imagination.
After all, dolls never die.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Arrow Films provided me with a complimentary screening copy of Dolls (1986) as part of their Enter The Video Store: Empire Of Screams Collection for the expressed purposes of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.