July 18, 2019 Doll Cemetery (Movie Review)
Set for release come September in USA & UK on DVD and Digital VOD via 101 films and Viva Pictures, the Steven M. Smith directed Doll Cemetery explores what happens when Jon-Paul Gates (The Howling 2017, Borstal 2017) and Jimmy Bennett (Londongrad series, Roofied 2017) find themselves trapped in a nightmare they might not live through…
Before going further, a film like Doll Cemetery must always be judged with something of an asterisk to it thanks to the details of it’s production – namely, it’s almost microscopic budget of approximately $15,000. There are plenty of arguments for why this should not be the case, but those arguments typically fall on deaf ears once an audience finds out that the film they are watching had a budget that is always going to directly impact what they see on screen.
In some cases, this can be a good thing – knowing a film has a small budget tends to impress an audience when the film already impresses them, as the praise shifts from not just the film but the filmmakers themselves who presumably were ingenious in how they stretched a tight budget. However, other times it can darken any read of the material: an audience can be primed to see the production as “cheap”, and any evidence they see that confirms that theory will be noticed much more readily than if they had just never noticed anything at all.
Luckily, Doll Cemetery tends towards the first of these options. The production team stretched their budget as far as it could possibly go, and the film looks magnitudes better than it should at that budget level. In fact, surprisingly it is often stylistic choices that actually make it look worse than any fundamental issues related to a lack of money – the film often engages a blue filter that is several tads too obnoxious to really work, and instead constantly reminds the audience of the clear intent behind it rather than just allowing it work it’s way into the audience’s subconscious.
However, this is more than made up for with some otherwise excellent cinematography. By not trying to get too flashy with the camera work, the filmmakers often manage to construct tense and technically satisfying scenes that first and foremost foreground the actors. The manner in which the camera tends to hang on its subjects does good work in subtly building tension, and it is refreshing to see a Horror film that realizes that the camera work should focus on the characters first over the scares.
The performances themselves are a mixed bag, but often trend towards being quite effective. What is particularly nice is how the film avoids a lot of stiffness in personality that pervades a lot of similar work: the actors do good work in giving the characters naturalistic rhythms to their speech, and it does great work in grounding the film. In truth, this isn’t just preferred but utterly necessary for a low-budget flick like this: when you don’t have money to throw around, you need to wring every drop of quality out of the things you have in front of you, which are primarily the actors.
This also bleeds over to exposition, which this film handles quite well. What Doll Cemetery gets right when it comes to exposition is that it remembers that good, believable exposition has a habit of doing two things at once: exposing whatever important plot information the writer wants you to know and exposing important character information about the speaker at the same time. This craft-based focus married with some surprisingly effective performances gives a lot of the dialogue more life than it might otherwise hold, and certainly makes the exposition more interesting than most similar Horror flicks pull off.
There is however some unfortunately recurrent poor editing work, and it does drag the film down. It’s the area in which you can start to see the frayed low-budget side of the production, and it sometimes feels like the editing team was trying to edit around missing shots that they simply could not afford to re-shoot, leading to sequences in which the spatial geography of the scene feels clumsy and flimsy.
That having been said, Doll Cemetery still does a lot with what it has and thankfully manages to punch far above its weight. For that, Cryptic Rock gives it 3 out of 5 stars.