You know, I can remember every toy I had as a kid.
And they remember you, Ralph. Toys are very loyal, and that is a fact.
"Dolls" is an R-rated Grimm's fairy tale, and a surprisingly sweet one at that. Well, as sweet as can be expected for a film about toys killing people, who in turn are shrunk into corpsy, doll-sized versions of themselves. Coming off the Grand Guignol
double dose that was 1984's "Re-Animator" and 1986's "From Beyond," director Stuart Gordon changed his pace and broadened the boundaries of what viewers thought he was capable of. "Dolls" is still firmly rooted in horror, but it takes an innocent child's-eye view of a society that has grown up too fast and forgotten too quickly what it is like to believe anything is possible.
Six-year-old Judy Bower (the adorable Carrie Lorraine) is a daydreamer at heart, and her temperamental dad David (Ian Patrick Williams) and wicked stepmother Rosemary (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, gnashing her teeth) have no patience for it. While on a road trip, their car gets stuck in the mud and Rosemary cruelly tosses Judy's beloved teddy bear in the bushes. Sad about losing her stuffed animal, Judy can't help but imagine it growing to human scale and mauling her family to death. With a storm quickly approaching, the three of them seek shelter in a nearby mansion owned by welcoming elderly couple Gabriel (Guy Rolfe) and Hilary Hartwicke (Hilary Mason), the former a dollmaker by trade.
Soon, three more unexpected guests arrivenice-guy Ralph Morris (Stephen Lee) and the two hitchhikers he picked up, British rocker chicks Isabel (a very funny Bunty Bailey) and Enid (Cassie Stuart). They're all graciously invited to spend the night"the longest night in the world," Gabriel tells Judybut as the witching hour approaches and Isabel and Enid scam to steal antiques from the house while everyone sleeps, it becomes clear that the porcelain dolls adorning the shelves and mantles in every room aren't as lifeless as they may seem.
"Dolls" is whimsical and devilish in equal measures, a spin on the classic haunted house tale and a fable about an underappreciated little girl who finally gets a shot at happiness. Judy's father clearly prefers his snooty, rich wife to his daughter, and Rosemary revels in it. They can't wait for Judy to be out of their lives and back with her real mother in Boston. Judy, meanwhile, keeps a brave face, allowing her gift for imagination to take her away whenever she's feeling low. It is not the inner musings of a child, though, when Judy witnesses Isabel, her face bloodied, being dragged down the hallway by "little people." With her parents no help, she seeks out Ralph, the one grown-up out of all the guests who hasn't lost touch with his childhood and might possibly be able to buy into what she's just seen.
The dolls, in fact, are
alive, and, as cute and unassuming as they can be, they don't take kindly to being mistreated or disrespected. As the no-good adult population dwindles, each one of them getting what's coming to them, fast friends Judy and Ralph try to keep their calm as they investigate Gabriel's basement toy shop. Impressive special effects (for 1987) bring the dolls to believable, often malicious life, with director Stuart Gordon nicely blending stop-motion with animatronics. Violence comes in frequent bursts, and the murder set-pieces are inventive without being too graphic or nasty. A sequence involving toy soldiers who blow theirs horns and sound the drums before popping Enid full of lead is a highlight, as is a vicious, much-deserved attack on Rosemary from all sides. When David returns to bed, cuddling up next to his now-dead spouse as the blood from her wounds leaks through the bedsheet and just out of his eyesight, it is a delightfully twisted moment. The transformation of one of the characters into a Punch doll, who is then given to Judy as a parting gift, is beautifully perverse.
"Dolls" is as warm and sincere as it is dastardly and spooky. Laced in crimson, its messagesabout one's fleeting innocence, about never losing your sense of wonder, about always keeping the good memories of your childhood aliveremain well-meaning and pure of heart. For the adventurous parent whose own kids can handle this sort of film, it would make for a great companion piece to 1999's "Toy Story 2
," or even 2004's "The Polar Express
." If you think that sounds odd, consider this: I watched "Dolls" at a young age, and to this day I still keep a little stuffed polar bear sitting on the dashboard of my car.