Dolls – A Fantastic Nightmare 30 Years Later

Fairy tales have always been a wonderful source of entertainment, filled with magic, tragedy, and triumph. The fun part about them is their ability to twist into something entirely new and exciting. Film Director Stuart Gordon did just that working with wife Carolyn Purdy-Gordon (Re-Animator 1985; ABC’s Of Death 2.5 2016), and friend Ian Patrick Williams (Re-Animator 1985Days Of Our Lives), going on to make the 1987 Horror film Dolls.

Still from Dolls

Immediately following his esteemed cult classic of 1985’s Re-Animator, Gordon was sold right away on the story of Dolls, written by Ed Naha (Honey, I Shrunk The Kids 1989; Honey, I Blew Up The Kid 1992), envisioning it as a twisted fairy tale. The result was not only a fun piece of work, but a grandiose film that was visually ahead of its time looking back as it celebrates its 30th anniversary. 

Released in theaters on Friday, March 6th of 1987, the story of Dolls begins with the Bower Family on a vacation. David (Williams), his daughter Judy (Carrie Lorraine: Poltergeist 2 1986; Alf 1986), and Judy’s step mom Rosemary (Purdy-Gordon) find themselves in trouble when their car gets stuck in the middle of a storm.

Luckily, they spot a house nearby, and are welcomed to stay the night by a doll maker, Gabriel Hartwicke (Guy Rolfe: Ivanhoe 1952; Puppet Masters 3-5 1991-94), and his wife Hilary (Hilary Mason: Don’t Look Now 1973; Afraid Of The Dark 1991). As they get acquainted, three more strangers barge in with the same car trouble – the driver, Ralph Morris (Stephen Lee: La Bamba 1987; RoboCop 2 1990), and his recently picked up Punk Rock hitchhikers, Isabel and Enid (Bunty Bailey: Spellcaster 1988; A’Ha’s “Take On Me” Video 1985; Cassie Stuart: The Secret Garden 1987; Afraid Of The Dark 1991).

The generous elderly couple feed the strangers in distress, then show them all to different rooms to stay the night while the storm passes, able to easily accommodate everyone. Each room is filled with Gabriel’s creations, dolls that seem to watch the guests every movement. When strange things start to happen, it is easy at first to interpret it to be a figment of a child’s imagination, but they soon find out that the elderly couple have an intricate way to create the dolls that consume their household.

Still from Dolls

From start to finish, Dolls really came together to create a successful film. It had a great cast and wonderful imagery to help carry the story written by Naha, who was inspired from a book filled of photos of Victorian dolls. Every character was portrayed differently, but still worked together effortlessly. Stephen Lee was a great comic relief, often encouraged to improv a lot of his scenes as he is naturally funny. Carolyn Purdy-Gordon’s character was modeled after Cruella De Ville, a role she portrayed confidently, right down to the fur coat. The Madonna wannabe teenage girls had just the right amount of annoying quality, deeming them the perfect victims.

To balance all the adult atrocity, there was 8 year old Carrie Lorraine, whose adorable innocence helped teach a valuable lesson. Her dimwitted father, played by Ian Patrick Williams, should be applauded for his epic and hilarious fight scene with a single doll. Completing the cast are the Hartwicke’s, played by the late Guy Rolfe (1911-2003) and Hilary Mason (1917-2006). Their characters were the most interesting, playing both a good and sinister role. Their addition to the story reminded Director Gordon of Hansel & Gretel, the perfect portrayal to this dark and twisted fairy tale.

Still from Dolls

Although filming was wrapped in 1985, Dolls was not released for another year or so, a result from the doll effects taking so long. With no CGI available at the time, stop animation was used by Special Effects Designer David Allan. To help create the look, many dolls were designed specially for the movie, including marionettes and mechanical ones. Gordon was also particular on filming from low point angles, resembling the point of view from a child, or a doll. He was also able to add on scenes during post production with the help of family members.

Having elements of both Fantasy and Horror, an idea was initiated during filming to add more gore, but this was later scrapped as it did not fit the tone. One example was Rosemary’s death scene, the dolls cutting and removing her intestines shortly after her jump through a window, a stunt Carolyn Purdy-Gordon insisted on doing herself. Instead, the middle sequence was cut out, leaving the window scene, and then the discovery of her mangled body. Although the overall gore factor was kept to a minimum, filmmakers had to take special precautions to not traumatize the young Carrie Lorraine who was in fact nominated for best young actress in a Horror movie at 1988’s Young Artists Awards.

Sadly, Dolls was considered a commercial failure, and perhaps this played into the fact that Gordon’s plans for a sequel never came to fruition. In hindsight, Dolls is admirable all by itself. Beyond that, the film is still very impressive to this day and did win the award for best special effects at 1987’s Italian Fantafestival. The corny dialogue meshed well with the graphics, balancing Dolls on a level both funny and creepy.

Still from Dolls

While Dolls could have developed into a possible series had box office expectations been met, it did in fact spark a slew of similar styled movies soon after, ala 1988’s Child’s Play and 1989’s Puppet Master series to name a few. A film with so much imagination rarely seen in this genre today, whether one prefers Fantasy to Horror, or vice versa, fans of Dolls will always remain loyal for another 30 years, and that’s a fact. 

Empire Pictures

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Shannon MontalbanoAuthor posts

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  • I legit forgot how fabulous this movie is. I need to see this again. Never had dolls as a child, they scared me to death.

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