Every time I watch a Stuart Gordon film, I forget that I’ve watched other Stuart Gordon films. There are certain recurring elements in most of his feature. He usually works in a dark comedy/horror hybrid with lots of bloody gags. The performances are exaggerated to make even the traditional hero seem uncanny and ghastly. There’s some big shocking conceit that he’s not afraid of revealing in the first five minutes. Yet, the subjects and stories he chooses to tell couldn’t be any more different unless he intentionally set out to do a new genre with every film (like musical, sci-fi, or Western).
Dolls is no exception to those rules. Judy Bower is a young girl with a strong imagination. Her best friend in the world is her teddy bear and only he gets her through the struggles of long summers spent with her father and stepmother. The reluctant family gets caught in the mud somewhere in Great Britain and are force to spend the night in a large mansion populated by an elderly toy maker, his caring wife, and thousands of handmade dolls. A bumbling man and a pair of pickpockets join them for a stay during the longest night in the world.In case you haven’t figured it out, Dolls is an evil toy movie. It might be the best evil toy movie, too. Gordon takes the conceit and twists it in every imaginable way. Judy becomes best friends with an ugly Punch doll (Punch & Judy, get it?). The toy maker goes on and on about the magic of toys created by the love of children. His wife brews large pots of strange soups and charms with a cackle and an eerie smile. The bumbling man befriends the little girl when no one else believes her stories. And the other four adults refuse to see the value of toys in the modern world.
Ostensibly, the only problem with the film is a very distinct tone. It’s very dark and fantastique. No one, not even our young protagonist, acts like a normal person. Every movement, every word, every expression is a grotesque caricature of human emotion. It’s not enough to smile–everyone must grimace. A tear must be painful and pain must be the worst thing in the world to see. It’s an unsettling blend of fantasy and the grotesque to say the least.Yet, if you accept Gordon’s vision of a world ruled by the morality of children, Dolls is a rewarding nightmare. The special effects work from the long defunct Mechanical and Makeup Imageries company (From Beyond, Ghoulies) is still quite startling. When the dolls first come to life, you’ll notice. The design and decoration of the mansion is just exaggerated enough to create tension without falling into parody. And the story, penned by Ed Naha, is internally consistent and genuinely frightening.
Dolls is not a very serious horror film. Where it excels is creating a morality tale surrounding a child intended to speak to adults. It’s too graphic to actually be a children’s story, but it might just open up a childlike sense of wonder again for the adult viewer.
Thoughts? Dolls is available on Netflix streaming right now if you haven’t seen it. What do you think? Sound off below.