Dolls is an elegant “old dark house” movie, complete with furious thunderstorms, clueless interlopers, elaborate corridors, and an old matronly couple who fail to hide the evil side that lurks beneath their courteous exterior. The film is almost aggressively quaint, which disappointed horror fans who expected from director Stuart Gordon something wilder and more free-wheeling in the style of his Re-Animator and From Beyond. But the film’s misleadingly conservative appearance only renders the outré elements all the more disturbing when they eventually arrive. At times, Gordon appears to be parodying the cheesy Americana that was often celebrated by 1980s Steven Spielberg productions like The Goonies or, most gallingly, the “Kick the Can” segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie. Gordon lowers the audience’s guard with an insufferably cute girl given to mumbling the usual movie-kid banalities, only to suddenly spring malevolent dolls with surprisingly literal teeth.
The film’s best joke is to reveal that the kindly old man normally positioned by a Spielberg production as a font of winsome idealism is quietly deranged, and intent on ensuring that his “innocence” is fanatically imposed on others. Gabriel Hartwicke (Guy Rolfe), the proprietor of the story’s crumbling mansion, is also a toymaker who turns people unable to appreciate and respect his creations into dolls that are to spend presumable eternity in servitude and confined imprisonment. Though the people who come knocking on Gabriel’s door are a generally loathsome lot, the punishment that befalls them ludicrously surpasses the cruelty of their assorted crimes. The only people spared Gabriel’s wrath are those who parrot his delusional platitudes about childhood as a state of mind, either by virtue of actually being a child, or by embracing arrested development as a life choice.
This subtext informs Dolls with a cheeky sense of subversion that’s more characteristic of prior Gordon films than many first noticed, though it’s admittedly best enjoyed by those who share the director’s obvious predilections for the heightened gothic atmospheres of old Universal Horror movies, most obviously those directed by James Whale. Gordon particularly lovingly lingers over the dolls themselves, as well as the various antique clocks and bric-a-brac that litter the house, capturing the comfort that pack rats derive from the reassuring clutter of things, while simultaneously showing how others can find such an overabundance of objects stifling and, eventually, terrifying.
Gordon’s patience primes the well for some impressive doll-centric set pieces, which are all the more effective because the filmmaker misleads us into believing that our view of the titular creatures will be solely relegated to the realm of suggestion, in a manner reminiscent of Val Lewton’s productions. But, no, the money shots are delivered, and to often spectacularly detailed effect, such as when toy soldiers hauntingly ambush a woman with a firing squad, or when someone stumbles upon an unfortunate soul who’s in the midst of doll transformation, dropping her eyes onto the wooded attic floor (a sequence added to correspond with the film’s memorable poster, which was, in classic B-movie fashion, designed before the story had barely been conceived). Dolls is still ultimately minor-key Gordon, exhibiting nowhere near the level of ambition or invention of many of his hot-house splatter classics (including his David Mamet adaptation Edmond), but it has been rendered with an artisanal level of craftsmanship that distinguishes it as an almost-hidden horror gem, ready for rediscovery.
Grain in the image is variable, as is often the case with older low-budget genre films, but even the noisier portions aren’t that bad. Colors are generally crisp and well differentiated, particularly the varying shades of brown that dominate the cinematography. Flesh tones are lifelike and well-detailed. The two sound mixes struck these ears as similarly clean and balanced, as well as notably attentive to the dimensions of the film’s eerie score. Not a transformative restoration, but solid.
Two audio commentaries, which collectively feature the director, writer, and half of the principal cast, have been ported over from the previous MGM DVD. Both include anecdotes that should be of interest to blossoming horror nerds, but they’re also characterized by long silences and sentiments that are either obvious or prone to stopping conversations dead in their tracks. The new retrospective filmed specifically for this disc is much livelier and more informative, particularly in revealing how marketing concerns informed the shape of the film’s narrative. (The revelation that the dolls contain souls represented by mummified little zombies, for instance, was added to the script late in the production to assuage fears that the film didn’t fit confidently enough into the horror genre.) The trailer, a stills gallery, and a storyboard-to-film comparison round out the package.
This package is a little slim, but it’s a miracle that this underappreciated Stuart Gordon horror fantasy has received any attention at all. Horror fans should be appropriately grateful.