A precursor to the Puppet Master movies, Dolls is a thoroughly enjoyable b-movie horror yarn stuffed with murderous living toys, some nonsensical plotting, a partially-brilliant cast and a typically silly ending. The cover alone is enough to send some people into fits of screaming, but if you're familiar with the work of Charles Band and his merry, erm, band of cohorts, you'll know what you're in for with this film. If you find dolls to be terrifying thing, then for crying out loud, don't watch this flick, ever.
Dolls wasn't directed by Band, though. That honour fell to none other that Stuart Gordon, which is probably why Dolls plays and looks much better than it would have done in other hands. The film is cheap and schlocky, but also contains sequences that are surprisingly creepy, thanks to the use of myriad methods of bring the dolls to life, including puppets, animatronics and stop-motion animation, all executed with great flair and style.
The story is sadly pretty stupid, to be honest, but come on, we don't watch a lot of these things expecting to have our minds expanded and enriched do we? A family stops at a creepy mansion to shelter from a storm, soon followed by a loveable oaf of a guy with the same problem. These are then complemented a little later by – out of absolutely nowhere – two punk girls (one with a ludicrous English accent which is torture to hear to these English ears, but probably 'quaint' to everyone outside of the UK).
The old couple who live in the creepy mansion are pantomime-scary old timers (featuring none other than Guy Rolfe - Andre Toulon himself from the Puppet Master movies) with a passion for making terrifying dolls. Of course, the group of unwitting guests soon discovers that these dolls are more than just toys, and very soon there is mayhem, mutilation and murder as playtime gets underway for the army of chilling toys.
Something that is immediately frightening about the dolls is that they really do look like toys rather than movie props, which is where other films with a similar concept fall down dead. These things are freaky. The flick is basically an excuse to have some horrible living dolls kill a bunch of people in nasty ways, and on that level it succeeds completely. As a coherent narrative, it fails miserably, but hey, there are dolls, so who cares?
Stuart Gordon's direction demonstrates the visual ingenuity he is known for (even on such a small budget production), while the effects team brings a unique addition to the animated doll genre, namely gory skulls that are revealed within the dolls' heads when they are destroyed. Nice touch there guys. Thanks for the nightmares.
The kill scenes are well done, but the creepiest has to be the slow-motion death of one character who falls foul of a squad of toy soldiers. In true war movie style, the footage slips into slow-mo as the soldiers unload their ammunition at their enemy. The look of horror on the character's face as they are gunned down in a cloud of their own blood is actually very effective.
One of the finest moments in the whole movie comes very early on, when the daughter of the snotty family that first arrives at the mansion (played by Carrie Lorraine, who incidentally makes for a very cool lead character as she's played so well) visualizes her teddy bear growing to monstrous proportions and eviscerating her parents in a shower of gore. This is played out on camera exactly how she pictures it, and it's a beautifully mad moment worthy of the Evil Dead movies or indeed Gordon's own Re-Animator.
With a short running time (about 75 minutes in total) and no pretence of being anything other than a slightly patchy and nonsensical horror movie, Dolls does exactly what you would want it to with that title. They're watching you, y'know. Be nice to your toys, folks.