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Made two years after the seminal Re-Animator and once again produced by Charles Band and Empire Pictures, Stuart Gordon's Dolls is part horror movie, part black comedy and part fairy tale and while it does tend to lean towards the clichés often associated with horror films, that doesn't diminish the film's entertainment value. Go into this one with expectations in check and it turns out to be a whole lot of screwy fun.
The movie begins on a rainy, stormy night where we see a girl named Judy Bower (Carrie Loraine) and her crotchety dad David (Ian Patrick Williams) and step-mother Rosemary (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon) driving out in the middle of nowhere. They run into some car trouble but are relieved to see, on the other side of the woods, an old mansion home. They head to the home in search of some assistance and meet an elderly couple, Gabriel Hartwicke (Guy Rolfe) and his wife Hilary (Hilary Mason), who seems to have a strange thing for creepy old toys. It turns out that they're doll-makers, and they let the family inside.
Shortly after the Bowers arrive, so too do two punk girls named Enid (Cassie Stuart) and Isabel (Bunty Bailey) and a dopey guy named Ralph (Stephen Lee). It seems that the Bowers aren't the only ones who ran into car trouble this night, and the Hartwickes let these three into their home as well. Young Julie is far more perceptive than any of the adults she's surrounded by but when she tries to warn her parents that the dolls in the house are alive and considerably nastier than they might expect, but of course, they don't believe her. She's just a dumb kid with an overactive imagination, right…?
It's no spoiler to note that yeah, of course Judy is right and of course the dolls are alive, otherwise this wouldn't really be much of a horror movie at all. Made in a decade where other ‘killer doll' movies were fairly popular (think the Puppet Master films and of course, Child's Play), Gordon's picture doesn't really stand out as all that original but it is well paced, atmospheric and pretty entertaining. The story doesn't give us a whole lot of character development: we know Judy is smarter than the adults realize, we know her parents are jerks, we know the punk girls and Ralph are a bit ditzy and we know that the Hartwickes have a secret of some sort. That's about it, there's not a ton of depth here, but it is enough to move the story along nicely and to keep us interested.
The dolls themselves are the real stars of the movie. John Carl Buechler handled most of the doll effects and he does do a fine job here. The little buggers move in an unearthly and super creepy way thanks tom some really effective stop motion techniques mixed in alongside traditional puppet work and what looks like some (admittedly less effective but still pretty good) green screen work. Breathing life into inanimate objects can often times go wrong and when not done properly, if your film lives or dies based on this idea, it'll easily crash and burn. Dolls doesn't do that. It gets the effects work right and compliments this by dressing up the old mansion to make it the perfect location for a twisted, dark fairy tale like this to play out in. If this is a movie based more around effects and set pieces than characters, at least it is successful in that regard.
Add to this some of the effective gallows style humor that makes a lot of Gordon's directorial efforts as amusing as they are and it is easy to see why Dolls has remained a bit of a cult hit. It might not reinvent the wheel but it mixes quirky, cool and creepy together in equal doses and makes for a fun time at the movies.The Blu-ray:
Dolls is presented on Blu-ray in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 1.78.1 widescreen. While for the most part the transfer is pretty good, some shots look a bit softer than others, probably stemming back to the way in which the movie was initially shot. There's a bit more print damage here than some might hope to see, but it's almost entirely in the form of little white specks, nothing massive. These are visible throughout the movie though. Having said that, the good definitely does outweigh the bad here. Black levels are pretty decent and there are no issues with any noise reduction, as such, skin tones look lifelike and not waxy. Detail is typically pretty solid and there's a fair bit of depth to the picture as well. Color reproduction is problem free and while a little bit more cleanup work would probably have helped a bit, all in all the movie looks quite good on Blu-ray.Sound:
Audio options are provided on the disc in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio and DTS-HD 2.0 Stereo options with optional English closed captioning provided. The two tracks are pretty similar with the 5.1 mix occasionally using the rear channels for sound effects or to add some directionality to the score. Aside from that, it's fairly front heavy but in that regard it seems accurate. Levels are properly balanced and dialogue remains clean, clear and easily discernible throughout. The score has better depth and presence than the sound effects do but all in all the audio here is problem free even if we don't wind up with a reference quality surround sound remix.Extras:
The main extras are the two audio commentary tracks contained on the disc, the first featuring director Stuart Gordon and writer Ed Naha. Although there is occasionally a bit of dead air here and there, for the most part the pair keeps the talk going at a decent clip. There's a fair bit of discussion here about where a lot of the ideas came from but so too do they discuss the effects work, the writing process, the involvement of various cast and crew members, the difficulty of shooting dolls in certain scenes and filming the movie in Europe. The second commentary features cast members Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, Stephen Lee, Carrie Lorraine and Ian Patrick Williams and it's definitely the busier of the two tracks but it keeps things at surface level. There are some interesting stories told about getting into character, acting alongside the props, environmental factors involved in the shooting of certain scenes and quirks involved in the shoot which is all well and good but the first track with Gordon and Naha tends to be more engaging, possibly because it's a little more scene specific and a little more technical in nature. Obviously personal preference will play a factor here but ultimately both tracks have their merits. Both of these commentary tracks originally appeared on the previous DVD release from MGM.
The disc also contains a featurette entitled Toys Of Terror and at twenty-eight minutes it proves to be a pretty thorough examination of the history of Dolls. Made up of interviews not only with commentary participants like Gordon, Naha, Purdy-Gordon and Williams but also with producers Brian Yuzna and Charles Band and makeup artists Gino Crognale, John Vulich and Gabe Bartalos it covers a fair bit of ground that the commentaries don't get to touch on. Yes, we once again cover scripting and the genesis of the project but we get it from Yuzna and Band's side as well as Gordon and Naha's so it's interesting for that reason. The fact that it spends a good bit of time with the makeup guys also keeps it intriguing as we go into a fair bit of detail on the effects work and the sets/locations. It's a well put together piece and if you're not into commentary tracks, this is an interesting sort of ‘condensed version' of a lot of what's covered there with the added bonus of the visuals of the interviews, clips and ephemera used to illustrate various points.
Rounding out the extras we get a Film-To-Storyboard Comparison gallery, a traditional Still Gallery, a trailer for the feature, trailers for a few other Scream Factory releases, animated menus and chapter selection. The Blu-ray cover insert features reversible artwork and the case fits inside a cardboard slipcover.Final Thoughts:
To call Dolls a great film would be unfair to truly great films but it's tough to deny that this is an engaging low budget horror picture with its heart surely in the right place. The effects work is consistently cool and some of the performances are pretty fun too. It's not always original and occasionally leans towards obvious genre conventions but if you are in the right frame of mind for it the movie is pretty entertaining stuff. Scream Factory's Blu-ray isn't the absolute pinnacle of high definition presentations but it does definitely offer quite a nice upgrade over what has come before in the audio and video departments and it's got a pretty decent array of extras too. Recommended for horror movie buffs and those who appreciate Stuart Gordon's unique brand of quirky cinema.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.