Rentals Revisited – Dolls (1987)

As mentioned in the book, Adventures in VHS began life as a series of articles for a site named Eat Sleep Live Film. Here is one of those original, unedited posts focused on a film which gave me genuine nightmares as a kid… before I’d even seen it – 1987’s Dolls.

Dolls (1987)

Vestron Video International – VA 14442

(Originally posted April 22nd 2011)

As I’ve mentioned in previous ‘Rentals Revisited’ articles, the advent of VHS and the proliferation of independent rental stores was as essential to the development of my love for film as anything else I can think of. My memories of those days are as blissful and filled with golden moments as they are over-nostalgic and, quite probably, semi-fictitious.

In particular, I had a pretty big appetite for horror at this early formative age. My video diet consisted pretty heavily of what the DPP and its associated cronies would have considered ‘nasties’ just a few years prior and I actively tested myself on what I could cope with. I’m happy to report that, like millions of others, I had a great time watching dozens of morally objective films and can add that not once did I brutally murder anybody… in your dead decaying FACE Mary Whitehouse!

However, while there are many movie recollections from this time that have since faded, thanks to the years of cerebral abuse I enjoyed in my teens, some remained as clear as a remastered 1080p digital transfer being beamed directly onto my retinas using a 4k projector (let’s see how that reference holds up in five years’ time).
Of those that stuck around to haunt me long after VHS went the way of Corey Haim, is a film called Dolls. While I had no problems with murderers, zombies, werewolves and cannibals as a pre-pubescent film fan, I did have a big issue with possessed toys. Dead of Night (1945), Child’s Play (1988) and Puppet Master (1989) all left their mark on me, but strangely it’s this lesser-known Stuart Gordon oddity that seemed to do the most damage.

If you’re around my age, you might remember some of the free magazines you could pick up in most independent video stores during the 80s. You might also recall that every other page of these glorious publications featured a full-page version of the front covers of the latest releases, serving as simple, yet perfectly effective advertising. But these miniature posters had another great use, they could be used to cover every inch of space you had on your bedroom wall. The A4 Dolls picture I had on my wall managed to keep me awake at night for weeks on end, until my Mum eventually forced me to take it down to save my twilight screams of terror. I don’t know what it was about that image; the vacant porcelain face of the demon doll, her two beady detached eyes staring at me through the dark, or the army of approaching toys below that sat below her, which according to the film’s tagline were particularly keen to ‘play’ with me… all I know is that when I finally convinced my parents to let me see the film, I may well have shit in my Spider-man pyjamas. Would it have the same effect on me now? Nah, it couldn’t… could it?

So, I kind of wanted to avoid coming back to him quite this soon, but the truth is, if you grew up in the 80s and 90s and had a penchant for genre films, Stuart Gordon would almost certainly be a name that came up on more than one occasion. Re-animator, Robot Jox, Fortress, this is a guy who did some great work back in the day and recently returned with the moderately entertaining Stuck. After thoroughly enjoying a revisit to From Beyond just a few weeks back, sitting down with another of his films – and one which I remember having affected me so significantly – was an easy decision.

We start off in pretty familiar genre territory. A family out in the middle of nowhere bickering as their car breaks down and, as luck would have it, they chance upon an old, dark mansion owned by a kindly old gentleman doll-maker (Rolfe) and his decrepit spouse. Early on, we get a wonderful flash of the bizarre when young Rosemary (Purdy-Gordon) exercises her overactive imagination by bringing back her lost teddy bear to gruesomely kill her callous father (Williams) and insufferable stepmother (Lorraine) in a freakishly funny daydream.

Soon though, we’re introduced to our other House on Haunted Hill-style players. A gentle giant named Ralph (Stephen Lee), who’s child-like demeanour enamours him to both Rosemary and the old couple, and two devious English punk girls planning to rip off the many antiques adorning the shelves of the mansion they’ve found themselves in. Needless to say, it’s the latter who are first to suffer at the hands of the titular mini-demons, who we find out later are the reincarnated souls of previous guests who failed the old doll-maker’s test of moral fortitude. We then get to witness Rosemary’s father and stepmother killed by the dolls, while she and her new best friend Ralph form a cautious truce with the toys and their master that has them make it to a sunny, upbeat ending.

Watching Dolls for the first time since renting it on VHS well over 20 years ago, I was forced to reassess my reasons for writing this particular column (which I must say, I’ve greatly enjoyed so far). If this is merely to be an exercise in nostalgia, then surely each film will hold at least some value? If my intention is to truly understand how these b-movies stand up against their modern day equivalents, then can I just expect to lament the dated effects and bad dialogue on behalf of ‘today’s viewer’? Well, to some degree, yes. But from what I’ve seen so far, there’s been one thing that has elevated all three of the films I’ve picked above many of the low-rent releases one might see head straight to DVD nowadays – charm.

This charm presents itself in a number of ways throughout Dolls. The familiar set-up is a great way to get everyone into one place to begin terrorising them with the demonic toys. Having a deadbeat dad and an almost Disney-esque wicked stepmother gives you reason enough to want bloodshed. And finally, while the effects may have more in common with Harryhausen than WETA, they’re still incredibly creepy and – for those of you who feel like me about glazed eyes and plasticised faces – should still make you feel a bit unnerved.

As I found with The Wraith and From Beyond, there’s a certain amount of retrospective quaintness to Dolls that, through rose-tinted 80s lenses make it thoroughly enjoyable. At the same time, there are moments that might seem silly, out-of-date and clunky to viewers who only have access to modern, polarised, Cameron-tinted glasses. I admit, this time around, my Spider-man pyjamas will live to see another night beneath the covers – but I’ll still be wondering what might be at the foot of the bed.