In Praise of Stuart Gordon’s DOLLS

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SHOCK sings the praises of one of director Stuart Gordon’s finest films.

Although released a year after director Stuart Gordon’s FROM BEYOND, DOLLS (part of a three picture deal Charles Band and Empire Pictures signed Gordon to after the success of RE-ANIMATOR, that also included ROBOT JOX) was actually made before it. And because it appeared at the tail end of that one-two-Lovecraft-punch, horror fans and critics either were far too harsh in their assessment of its merits…or they simply ignored it entirely.

DOLLS is not a better film than Gordon’s other celebrated horror and fantasy films. In fact, it’s rather unfair and lazy to compare it to any of his other work and the same can be said for all of Gordon’s work really. For although he has his craft down and carries over a sort of theatricality (his roots are on the stage, after all), each of Gordon’s remarkable pictures stand alone.

Forsaking the phantasmagorical erotic gore opera of those other two Lovecraft flicks for something more lyrical, restrained and fairy-tale like, DOLLS is elegant,dark, playful and decidedly European, shot as it was in Rome with Band’s skilled Italian crew. It riffs richly on Brothers Grimm and other morality-based mythologies and the movie, along with Band’s previous hit GHOULIES, set the template for Band’s lucrative PUPPET MASTER series of films and the endless spate of “little monster” movies that would follow (and that Band still cheerfully cranks out whenever the muse moves him).

DOLLS, 1987 © Empire Pictures /

DOLLS follows a little girl (sweet-faced Carrie Lorraine), her distant father (Ian Patrick Williams) and wicked stepmother (a delightfully bitchy turn by Gordon’s wife, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon) who wind-up stranded in an old English manor along with a friendly schlep (the late Stephen Lee) and two sneering goth girls looking for kicks (one of them played by New Wave “It Girl” Bunty Bailey).

The house is owned by a kindly, elderly couple (Guy Rolfe and Hilary Mason) who make and collect intricately designed humanoid dolls. When the diverse group settles in to this “old dark house”, the dolls come crawling to life (on occasion, both the dolls stalking scenes and the kind of rough justice they mete out echoes Tod Browning’s immortal 1932 melodrama FREAKS), defending their turf and revealing the true nature of what they are.

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DOLLS offers both the best of Gordon as a director and stylist and the absolute apex of what Band’s long defunct Empire Pictures could do with a decent budget. The film is gloriously lensed by the late, great Mac Ahlberg, a frequent Empire collaborator and the man responsible for giving much of Empire’s 80’s films their “look”, TROLL writer Ed Naha’s screenplay is witty and offbeat (as indeed was his TROLL script) and man, has the movie aged beautifully. It’s a timeless piece of work, not chained to trend or technology. Watching it today is as fresh an experience as it was in 1987.

Throw in a rich, haunting and often macabre orchestra-meets-electro score by Fuzbee Morse and Victor Spiegel, one that gently propels the action and wrenches suspense from key shock sequences and remarkable stop-motion effects by the late, great David Allen and you have one of the most opulent and unusual horror films of the 1980s; a picture that demands multiple viewings and is long overdue to lock the devout cult following it deserves…

 

 

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Weekend: Sep. 19, 2019, Sep. 22, 2019

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