In 1987—one year before Child’s Play, two before Puppet Master, and 5 before Charles Band again resorted to killer toys with Demonic Toys—Stuart Gordon’s Dolls became the first film to capitalize on the idea of a horror film where the killer(s) were toys. Following the success of Re-Animator, Gordon teamed up once again with producer Brian Yuzna (Society) and distributor Charles Band (Empire Pictures at the time, now Full Moon features) to work on another Lovecraft film, From Beyond. To capitalize on time, Band and Yuzna set it up so that Gordon could shoot From Beyond back-to-back with a script from Ed Naha (Troll) they had been developing—Dolls. They had recently acquired a gigantic studio on the outskirts and built a working house, which would become the setting for both films. While Dolls was in the can in 1985, it would be From Beyond that would first acquire release, stalling the release of Dolls for two years. Now, nearly thirty years later, Scream Factory have granted North Americans the first chance to own the disc on Blu-Ray, restoring the film to a quality few ever dreamed of.
The plot for Dolls is fairly simplistic. After a torrential storm, six people take shelter in a secluded Gothic mansion in the middle of the English countryside. The homeowners, Gabriel (Guy Rolfe) and Hilary (Hilary Mason) Hartwicke, are a quaint old couple, who earn their living fashioning olden-style dolls and toys. It is not, however, long after the six people arrive that Gabriel and Hilary’s creations come to life. In a structure crossed somewhere between the ‘haunted house’ and slasher film, each guest begins to be systematically attacked by the dolls. Rejected and neglected by her father David and wicked stepmother Rosemary, Judy turns to Ralph (Stephen Lee) for support to survive the night.One of the film’s charming aspects is that, while it is certainly not a children’s film, the film’s protagonist is a child. This results in a film that is a lot more sentimental and kindhearted than you may expect from the involved parties. There is a heart, even a decent message, hidden beneath the surface of the film. Ultimately, the film serves as a reminder that people shouldn’t abandon all of their childlike innocence, that in doing so we submit ourselves to the real evils of the world. This is proved in the demeanor of nearly all of the adult characters in the film. Both David and Rosemary are insufferable, selfish, and downright abusive. In addition, Ralph’s two hitchhiker friends, Madonna-esque new wave ‘punks’ Isabel and Enid, are callous, crude, and devious—planning to rob Ralph and the Hartwicke’s of their possessions. The dolls, thus, act as morality enforcers, picking off those who fail to live up their standards. While there is a sentimental core to the film, Gordon doesn’t shy on the screen violence. It is not as explicit as something like Re-Animator—and certainly nothing comparable to Yuzna’s Society—but there is plenty of disturbing imagery packed in the film. In particular, Rosemary’s death is quite unsettling. It is during Rosemary’s death that spectators are first granted a view of the dolls in complete animated form. The blending of puppetry and stop motion effects is haunting, a sort of phantasmagoria-esque trip. I would argue that the success of the rendered effect is the single aspect that makes the film work, as admittedly the idea is a bit hokey.
Every once in awhile there is a release that completely exceeds our expectations, Dolls was one of these releases. The upkeep of the original 35mm elements was phenomenal, resulting in a stunning 1080p HD transfer. As per usual, there are no overt signs of digital enhancement, leaving a strong semblance of film grain. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Colors are naturally preserved, allowing the film’s bright red blood to pop. Finally, there is, surprisingly, little signs of scratches, dust, or any other age-related deterioration. In acquiring this transfer, Scream Factory really has gone above and beyond what anyone would expect and hope for.
Similar to the video track, the audio track for this release is of the highest standards. Both the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 allow the film’s soundtrack to boom. There is a great mix between the aural components, balancing the dialogue, score, and the film’s sound effects nicely. There are no signs of damage, hiss, pops, or cracks to note.
In line for special features on this collector’s edition are a few nice pieces. First of all, there are two feature length commentary tracks; the first with director Stuart Gordon and writer Ed Naha, and the second with members of the cast including Stephen Lee, Ian Patrick Wiliams, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, and Carrie Lorraine. There not newly commissioned pieces, but certainly welcomed additions for Dolls fans. Next up, there is a storyboard-to-film comparison video. I think with these kinds of pieces it can go either way, and to be honest they rarely impress me. For Dolls, the biggest flaw is that the storyboards are very rudimentarily drawn. Not that we expected fine pieces of art—and actually there is a charm to the archaic nature of the sketches—, but it does somewhat deter from the viewing experience. The best addition to the collection, and also the only newly commissioned one, is the featurette Toys Of Terror: The Making Of Dolls. This mini-doc goes behind the scenes and offers a glimpse into the origins of the film, as well as featuring numerous interviews with the filmmakers, cast, and even special effects team. There are a lot of humorous anecdotes and interesting aspects that attributed to the shaping of the film, and even a mention of gorier parts of the film that were shot but never included—too bad SF couldn’t track those segments down as an additional special feature. Finally, rounding out the collection is a photo gallery and the original theatrical trailer.
There is no other way to put, Dolls is just a great deal of fun. There is no aspect of the film that takes itself too seriously. Produced by the same team that brought us Reanimator and From Beyond, Dolls manages to heighten the comedy-to-gore ratio, the result is nothing short of an absurd thrill ride. With that said, the mixture between the practical puppetry and stop motion animation creates a genuinely frightening aspect to the film. As the precursor to films like Child’s Play and both the Puppet Master series and the Demonic Toys series—both also produced by Dolls’ producer Charles Band—, Dolls is an important point in horror history, and one that is often outshined by the mainstream success of Child’s Play. While there was a Japanese release in 2013, and a British release earlier this year, the Scream Factory release marks the first time that Dolls has been available on region A Blu-Ray, and it is about time.