Face-Off: Dolls vs. Dolly Dearest

With the evil doll movie ANNABELLE: CREATION currently sitting at #1 at the box office, having received much better reviews and word of mouth than its predecessor, this seemed like an appropriate time for a deadly doll Face-Off. There have been a lot of horror movies based around killer toys released over the decades, but the two I decided to focus on this week are a pair of films that I remember from my childhood, for different reasons: Stuart Gordon's DOLLS from 1987 and the 1991 Maria Lease film DOLLY DEAREST. These dolls were terrifying and murdering long before ANNABELLE, but which dolls will come out the victors when they're put against each other?
Car troubles and an intense storm drive six people - two groups of three - into a remote house in the English countryside that is inhabited by a kind but strange old couple. During their overnight stay in this house, a pair of thieving hitchhikers are shown the error of their ways, a bad father and wicked stepmother are punished for the way they treat their little girl, and a man learns the benefit of remaining a child at heart. Master of horror Stuart Gordon brings the gore and violence you expect from him, but DOLLS is really a modern fairytale. If it weren't for the bloodshed and mutilation, this would be a good way to introduce younger viewers to the horror genre.
When the Wade family moves down to Mexico to check out the doll factory they have just purchased, they find that it's quite underwhelming - this rundown place looks like the former owner was just making the dolls by hand there. Even worse, the archaeological dig in the field next to the factory has unleashed an ancient evil that has inhabited the dolls in its continuing quest to torment children. While an archaeologist works to figure out what exactly this evil force is, the Wades have to deal with the fact that daughter Jessica is falling under the spell of a doll that is causing the deaths of people around them. It's CHILD'S PLAY with a gender swap and a demonic twist.
The home of Gabriel and Hilary Hartwicke is full of various types of dolls the couple has made by hand... with the aid of some witchcraft, which they use to turn people who need to be taught a lesson into living toys. Standard dolls, toy soldiers, Punch puppets, the Hartwickes make it all, and each doll they create is alive and ready to kill if necessary. This film boasts some excellent stop-motion animation work from the great David Allen, who would go on to work with Charles Band on the early PUPPET MASTER films.
Elliot Wade thinks he's going to have great success selling these dolls, but they don't look all that special to me. They're rather plain... at least until the possessed ones clearly show their evil side with the expressions on their faces. Then these dolls become quite creepy and hideous. The dolls are often brought to life by people in costume, movements shown in close-ups of hands and feet or with dolls walking in the distance, but as the end draws near there are some cool animatronic effects as well.
The little girl at the heart of DOLLS is Judy Bower, who is played by Carrie Lorraine. Lorraine got an "introducing" credit on this film, which also ended up being her last acting job. It's not very surprising that she didn't pursue an acting career beyond this, because she doesn't really seem to have been cut out for it. Her line deliveries aren't always the best. Still, Lorraine is endearingly adorable as Judy, and you're on the kid's side because she's so cute and most of the adults around her are so awful.
Candace Hutson delivered a surprisingly strong performance as Jessica Wade. She starts off sad about the move to Mexico, writing letters to her friends back in L.A., but when she gets a doll from the factory everything changes. The doll gets Jessica playing again, but unfortunately it also causes her to undergo a terrible change in attitude. The evil in the doll starts to take over Jessica as well, and she becomes a little brat who threatens to kill her mother, speaks in a demonic voice, and reacts poorly to the presence of a priest.
Six people enter the Hartwicke home on this dark and stormy night, and most of them aren't in any condition to leave in the morning. These dolls deal out some brutal, bloody deaths, beating characters to death, stabbing and cutting them, removing eyeballs, pumping people full of holes with toy guns that fire real bullets. When it comes time for a character to be removed from the story, this movie doesn't hold back in the slightest.
This one doesn't have many death scenes in it, and while there is some stabbing and slashing, that's not how the dolls finish their victims. One person is electrocuted, another... well, I really didn't know what happened to the guy at first. It looked like something was moving beneath his skin, but I think that was supposed to be his heart beating erratically. If that was a heart attack, it's the strangest heart attack ever put on film.
How scary you'll find DOLLS will depend on how creepy you think vintage toys are. While I'm just marveling at the stop-motion effects when these things are on the screen, there's a chance they might put other viewers on edge. More than being scary, DOLLS is really weird. There's a strange atmosphere hanging over the entire film - which drives home the idea of it being a sort of twisted fairytale. Parents might not want to show this film to their children due to the level of violence, but this is a movie I grew up watching. I was probably around 4 years old the first time I saw DOLLS, and I always loved it. I wasn't ever scared by it, but the weirdness did get to me a bit.
DOLLY DEAREST has an oppressively dark tone, and Lease did her best to pack the film with suspense and tension. I felt that she went a little overboard with that at times - the movie started to feel like it was dragging because there were so many scenes that took a slow build-up to the scares. There's no one moment in the film that I would point out as being scary, but the story and tone of this film freaked me out as a kid. The evil dolls are so ugly and the concept of the evil force, "the Sanzia devil child", was so troubling to me that I had never watched DOLLY DEAREST in full until this week, opting to just stick with the safety of CHILD'S PLAY and Chucky.
DOLLS and DOLLY DEAREST both have their unique charms, and while DOLLY DEAREST is a darker film with a child star who was quite a good actress, in the end it's DOLLS that takes the win. I like the story and tone of DOLLS better, love David Allen's stop-motion animation, and the film features better kills than DOLLY DEAREST. Maria Lease had some tough competition going into this Face-Off, having her film compared to the work of a genre icon like Stuart Gordon, but Lease's movie took two categories vs. Gordon's three. Not a bad showing.

Do you agree with the outcome of this Face-Off, or do you prefer DOLLY DEAREST over DOLLS? Share your thoughts on these films, and let us know what your favorite deadly doll movie is, in the comments section below. If you have suggestions for future Face-Off articles, you can send them to me at [email protected].



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