She is a miserable little girl. Her parents are divorced. Her kind, loving Mom lives in Boston while her verbally abusive Dad is now married to a rich snob who can’t stand her. Her best friend is a teddy bear.
While en route to Monte Carlo, there’s a sudden thunderstorm, an odd occurrence since the weatherman on the radio has just said conditions would be clear and cool. The rain makes driving impossible and just like that, it’s the end of this dysfunctional family’s road trip. Two sticks in the mud are stuck in the mud.
Conveniently, an old castle just happens to be nearby. But no one is answering the front door. After sneaking into the basement, they make too much noise. A suspiciously hospitable old couple materializes. They don’t mind having company for the night.
Shortly thereafter, three more people join them. They’re welcomed, as well. None of them have any idea what they will be in for.
That’s the set-up for Dolls, a peculiar horror film that’s remarkably short on scares, thrills and laughs. (I did dig the catchy, electronic opening theme music, though.) Mercifully edited to a tight 77 minutes, a better movie is surely lurking somewhere underneath this mediocre one.
The troubled, lonely little girl is Judy (pint-size Stooges-era Iggy Pop lookalike Carrie Lorraine). How she feels about her dad (Ian Patrick Williams) and his second wife (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon) is summed up in a daydream. She reimagines her discarded teddy bear (bitchy stepmom thinks it’s slowing her down) as an enormous, vicious monster. It’s the only time she feels powerful.
The three people who eventually join them are Ralph (Stephen Lee who played the indecisive contractor on an episode of Seinfeld) and two Madonna-inspired hitchhikers he picks up off-screen. Judy’s stepmom almost runs over the two punks in the first scene.
The two young women (Cassie Stuart and Bunty Bailey who played the love interest in aha’s Take On Me video) tease the child-like Ralph about a possible threesome which is all a smoke screen for their real agenda: stealing his wallet. But once they get a load of all the antiques lying around the castle, the plan changes. Bailey decides that she’ll start scooping up the goodies all by herself. You know immediately this is a terrible idea.
Why is it a terrible idea? I will tell you why it is a terrible idea. It’s a terrible idea because there are dolls all over this place and they are alive. Not only are they alive, they’re homicidal. And they don’t like assholes. Unfortunately, they’re not very terrifying or interesting.
Judy’s dad, her stepmom and the two would-be thieves have zero perception of the tragedies that await them. When the inevitable happens to Bailey, Judy, who witnesses her ordeal, tries to warn her family. She nearly gets smacked for bringing it up. Needless to say, they’re not very bright.
So then Judy startles Ralph who initially shows skepticism but becomes a believer when he sees Bailey’s blood on the back of her slippers. They go looking for her up in the attic but it’s her pal Stuart who eventually finds her.
So, what’s with all the dolls? Well, they were made by the old man of this castle, Gabriel Hartwicke (the nicely understated Guy Rolfe) who has an unusual philosophy. He thinks adults should keep playing with toys. He believes one’s childhood should never end and no parent has any right to say otherwise. Good thing the completely unfunny Ralph is a big kid at heart.
There is some intelligence at work in Dolls, most especially in some of the dialogue. It’s clearly conceived as a fantasy morality tale with the old couple serving as self-appointed judges of bad adult behaviour. But the movie never establishes a true mood of malice in this castle set that isn’t all that creepy. The mansion in The Haunting could’ve loaned it its considerably chillier atmosphere.
While they don’t come off as unintentionally silly, the horror sequences don’t exactly send shivers down your spine, either. These demonic playthings come to life through puppetry and stop-motion animation. The differing standards are too noticeable and hurt the impact of every scene.
I never quite understood why Gabriel and his witchy wife Hilary (Hilary Mason) who appear to be childless care so much about children and the preservation of their love of play in the first place. What’s in it for them? I also don’t think the adults their dolls target are nearly as cruel as they should be. (Throwing a teddy bear in a tree? Come on.) I never hated them enough to the point where I wanted them all dead. That said, did we really need Judy’s dad threatening to smack her with the mere gesture of his hand? Surely, he can generate heel heat in a less exploitative manner.
By the end, a pattern emerges. We learn this is not the first time an inexplicable thunderstorm has come out of nowhere to strand dickish parents and their long suffering children outside the old couple’s castle. My question is how come the authorities aren’t aware of this?
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, June 11, 2016