The Deadly Doll's Pick: Dolls (1987)

Hey folks. First off, you might have been wondering where I’ve been this week. Well, I was on vacation from work so I had to take care of a lot of things that have been building up around The Lair. With October and wall to wall horror coverage coming soon, it was going to be my last fall turned my thoughts to ghosts and goblins. Today is actually the second full day of fall, and already there is crispness to the air down here in the South that tells me that soon all the green leaves around me with start fading to brown, orange, and gold. That first hint is all it takes for me to be ready for October and Halloween to get here. To quench my thirst for horror, today I have the selection for the film swap that Emily, from the Deadly Doll’s House of Horror Nonsense, and I have been doing for the past few months.

Warwick Davis Ruins the Wedgewood in  Skinned Deep
So far I’ve had a great time with this watching Baxter, We Are Going to Eat You, and Popcorn while choosing for her viewing pleasure Squirm, Hot Wax Zombies on Wheels, and Motorama. This month I chose for her the Fangoria produced hunk of schlock known as Skinned Deep starring the star of Willow as a plate throwing psychopath named ‘Plates’. Yeah I’m sure she’ll have a few choice words about the film and perhaps about my pick as well. For me she first chose the 1985 film Rumpelstiltskin, but either Netflix has lost all of their copies or people were compelled to keep it because they didn't know its name.So in its place, The Deadly Doll picked one of her favorites Stuart Gordon’s 1987 film Dolls, a film I had not seen before.

Now Stuart Gordon should not be an unfamiliar name to most genre film fans. With films like Re-Animator, From Beyond, Fortress, and Robot Jox to his credit, his name has been listed as one of the greats of horror cinema. However for each Gordon film that I love there’s a Castle Freak or a King of The Ants waiting around the corner to dash my image of the director’s catalog. So even though Emily had given this one her seal of approval, I approached it with some trepidation. That feeling only increased as the opening credits rolled revealing that the film was produced by Empire Pictures and Charles Band. Speaking of someone with a hit and miss career, Band seems to actively try to produce all levels of material. Sometimes you get Puppet Master, and sometimes you get Netherworld. Add to that the fact that Mr. Band’s track record with killer small things (Demonic Toys, Shrunken Heads, Ghoulies, etc.) contains more than their share of poorly scripted or acted films.

So I waited for the next hundred minutes for the bottom to fall out, for the script from Troll writer Ed Naha to run out of steam, for Gordon to take a departure into complete camp or total perversity, but it never happened. Instead what I received was one of the most enjoyable horror films that I’ve seen in the last three months at least. Dolls stars young Carrie Lorraine as Judy, a girl on a road trip with her asshole father (Ian Patrick Williams) and shrewish stepmother (played by Stuart Gordon’s wife Carolyn Purdy-Gordon). When they get caught in a sudden thunderstorm, they take shelter in a nearby house inhabited by a doll maker (Guy Rolfe) and his wife. The family, along with a pair of skanky punk rocker chicks and nice guy Ralph (Stephen Lee) are all invited to spend the night to ride out the storm. When Judy sees “little people” drag one of the punk rock girl’s away, the young girl tries to warn everyone, but no one believes her except Ralph, who is quite young at heart himself. When the two begin to investigate, it soon becomes apparent that their genial host‘s creations are something more than just innocent toys.

Dolls was filmed two years before 1989’s Puppet Master, with its script from Charles Band, made its way to the video shelves, and there are enough similarities here to think that Mr. Band might have been a bit inspired by the flick and enough differences to keep you from feeling sad about director David Scholar’s film. The real difference is this. Where Puppet Master contained some degree of origin for the creatures and a cast of characters that you felt good about getting torn apart, Dolls doesn’t bother with back-story (because who needs it, the titular glass eyed dolls are creepy as heck, I don’t care where they come from) and actually contains characters that you can feel good liking.

From her very first scene Carrie Lorraine melted my heart as the precocious Judy. I mean to the point to where this itinerantly childless writer had a passing thought that was something in the realm of, “if I could get one just like that”. I usually have the same reaction to child actors that I do of children in general. They’re ok if they’re not around much. Lorraine not only carried the film, but managed to be cute and precocious without being tiresome and irritating. Her performance was only enhanced by character actor Stephen Lee as Ralph. Lee is the type of actor whose face is so familiar that it will bother you for days on end thinking about where you know him from. It will distract you from work and your loved ones. You could make lose your job and life savings and end up on the street selling pencils for a dime out of a tin cup. It could make you so despondent that you lose touch with reality and start watching a "Jersey Shore" marathon. Before it does any of those things, I recommend just looking on IMDB where you’ll quickly find that you’ve probably seen him in a dozen things from his role as The Big Bopper in La Bamba to TV roles in “Nash Bridges” and “Bones” among dozens of others to his upcoming role in the Cher/X-tina epic Burlesque. As solid as his performance was in a film like Dolls, it’s a shame that Lee hasn’t gone on to more prominent roles.

The rest of the cast, her diabolical dad, devilish mother, and seemingly out of place and time British punk rockers (who looked more like they would rather be listening to the Material Girl than The Buzzcocks), are all suitably easy to hate. So while the film maintains a great light tone with Judy and Ralph, the rest of the cast get dispatched in a series of very unappealing fashions. Ian Patrick-Williams, who plays Judy’s dad, gives a great performance in the final moments of the film leading to a conclusion that is both extremely entertaining and a satisfying way to end the film. I do wish that Guy Rolfe, who I loved so much in William Castle’s Mr. Sardonicus, had been given more screen time. Though I do think that his turn as Gabriel the Dollmaker would lead to him being tapped to take over the role of Andre Toulon the Puppet Master in many of that series’ sequels.

Now, I’ve been praising Dolls pretty highly, and I don’t really have much negative to say. Some of the supporting cast (especially Mr. Gordon’s wife Carolyn) grated on my nerves a bit, but it was just all the better to see them get bumped off later. The doll effects could occasionally be a tad campier than the overall tone of the film, but they had such an intrinsic creepiness to them that it kept the idea of killer toys firmly in check. While I may enjoy Puppet Master more, I do think that Dolls is the better horror film of the two. Where Blade and company have a campy appeal, I just couldn't see myself wanting to be in a room with any of Dolls titular charactersIt has definitely made the shortlist of films I am sure to revisit again and again. So if you’ve never seen it or seen it a hundred times before, it seems like the perfect little eerie gem to help usher in the fall season and Halloween's impending presence.

So I have to give a big thanks to Emily for the great pick this month. Don’t forget that you can check out her review of Skinned Deep today at The Deadly Doll’s House of Horror Nonsense, and both Emily and I are now also writing for The Gentlemen’s Blog to Midnite Cinema to hop over there and check that out as well. I’ll be back tomorrow with my second entry into Blog Cabins’ 30 Days of Crazy Blogathon when I keep the season change theme going and start Falling Down.

Bugg Rating


  1. After blowing me away with DAGON, Gordon disappointed me with EMPIRE OF ANTS. Haven't seen DOLLS since it came out... I *think* I liked it. Been on my DVR for ages now, haven't gotten around to rewatching it.

  2. Yay! Soooo glad you enjoyed this one. It has such a unique tone about it: part children’s fairy tale, part brutal horror. The dolls are so darn creepy, but much like later Puppet Masters, carefully governed by a strict mortal code. The only minor bummer I have now is that I do think Rumplestiltskin would’ve been the PERFECT companion piece to Skinned Deep, but seriously, I’m truly overjoyed that you finally saw and loved Dolls.

    And now I'm even more excited to see the Glitter-meets-Showgirls extravaganza that will undoubtedly be awesome, Burlesque!

  3. Nice! DOLLS is a good one. One of my favorite Stuart Gordon movies, for sure. Good pick, Emily! Also glad to see that you enjoyed it as well, Lightning Bug.

  4. Yep, a pretty good one. I didn't see this until about 5 years ago...another one that slipped under the radar when it came out.


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