Stuart Gordon's DOLL walk, talk, and kill in high definition on Scream Factory's Blu-ray Collector's Edition.
On a dark and stormy night in the English countryside, honeymooning American couple David (Ian Patrick Williams, RE-ANIMATOR) and Rosemary Bower (the director's wife Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, FROM BEYOND), along with David's third wheel of a daughter Judy (Carrie Lorraine, POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE) from a prior marriage, break down on a lonely road and are forced to seek shelter at spooky home of avuncular doll maker Gabriel Hartwicke (Guy Rolfe, MR. SARDONICUS) and his wife Hilary (Hilary Mason, DON'T LOOK NOW). Also seeking shelter are hapless American motorist Ralph (Stephen Lee, WARGAMES) and brassy cockney hitchhikers Isabel (Bunty Bailey, SPELLCASTER) and Enid (Cassie Stewart, AMADEUS). Judy and Ralph are entranced by the dolls in Gabriel's workshop ("Toys are very loyal, and that is a fact," he tells Ralph) but Rosemary is disdainful of the couple's hospitality, David is more interested in the scotch, and the girls are interested in fleecing the house of its "anteekees." They all soon discover what happens to naughty people when the toys have free reign of the house during the "longest night in the world."
Although released after FROM BEYOND, DOLLS was Stuart Gordon's second film (the long post-production period having delayed its release) and its creepy poster/video cover image of a doll holding its eyeballs beside its empty sockets was indelibly stamped in the minds of many a kid even before films like CHILD'S PLAY and DOLLY DEAREST gave them more reason to be afraid of their own toys. The film's delicate balance of dark fairytale and horror film tips towards the latter, but this is perhaps appropriate since its moral is directed at adults. Rolfe and Mason turn in appropriately warm yet authoritative performances (Mason would play another knowing and mystical part in MERIDIAN, a Full Moon production shot in Italy a few years later by executive producer Charles Band) while Bailey and Stuart are delightfully tacky. Lorraine gives an impressive child performance ("What do you want from me? I'm seven years old") but Lee – who sadly passed away at 58 this past August – turns in the film's sweetest performance as a "kid at heart." Purdy-Gordon is delightfully bitchy as the wicked stepmother while Williams goes from suitably guileless to snide to over-the-top since he could go either way in the survival stakes. Mac Ahlberg's masterful lighting cannot always conceal the strings of the dolls operated by puppeteers John and Vivian Brunner (who had both also puppeteered the creatures in LIFEFORCE) – augmented with stop motion by David Allen and animatronics and prosthetics by CELLAR DWELLAR's John Carl Buechler and his Mechanical and Make-up Imageries crew – but it is a sumptuous-looking film thanks also in part to the production design of Giovanni Natalucci (TERRORVISION) which includes a two-story practical set with several whole rooms and a forced-perspective exterior house façade (both of which were redressed to be used in FROM BEYOND). It is really unfortunate that the score of Fuzzbee Morse (GHOULIES II) – with its main theme by Victor Spiegel – was never released as a soundtrack album.
Released on VHS by Vestron Video and laserdisc by Image Entertainment in 1988, DOLLS was one of the Empire Pictures titles fortunate enough to get not only an anamorphic widescreen DVD release (a double-sided disc with a fullscreen option on the reverse) courtesy of MGM in 2005, but a full works special edition with two commentary tracks (the first with Gordon and Naha and the second with actors Purdy-Gordon, Lorraine, Williams, and Lee), three storyboard-to-film comparisons, a photo gallery, and the film's theatrical trailer. The film hit Blu-ray first in Japan from Happinet and in the UK from 101 Films. The UK disc had a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, but the only extra was the Gordon/Naha commentary track (a more recent Austrian release replicated the MGM DVD package).
Scream Factory's Blu-ray features all of the MGM extras – two commentary tracks, the storyboard-to-film comparison, the trailer, and still gallery – plus a new retrospective documentary (dedicated to the memory of actor Stephen Lee who died in August). The MGM DVD was great for the time, but the 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen transfer looks sharper and more colorful. The location shots (including the openings hot) still look less crisp than the studio footage, and the strings are visible in more of the puppet shots than on the DVD (including some of the ones against black backgrounds that were less visible on the earlier format). Audio options include the already active original Ultra Stereo surround mix in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 as well as a lossless 5.1 upmix that give additional depth to the score and the background noises (thunder, rain, and doll chatter and giggling). Optional English SDH subtitles are also available.
The two commentary tracks have been ported over from the DVD. On the director and writer track, Naha recalls how Band brought him the killer doll idea after he had written TROLL for him while Gordon describes the three picture deal he had signed with Band following RE-ANIMATOR and springing the back-to-back shooting of DOLLS and FROM BEYOND on him. Gordon sees it as a sweeter film than his debut film while Naha describes it as a twisted fairytale (Gordon cites Bruno Bettelheim's "The Uses of Enchantment" and its interpretation of the function of fairy tales, which are supposed to be scary). They also recall their concern about traumatizing child actress Lorraine and keeping her off the set while shooting some of the scarier bits (as well as how the film made Gordon's own kids afraid of their toys).
The actor track is warmer and more humorous with Purdy-Gordon giving anecdotes about the goings-on both sides of the camera (including Gordon's own fear of dolls after getting trapped in a doll display after hours at the University of Wisconsin). Williams discusses reworking his character after a last minute switch from him being the rich sugar daddy to Rosemary being the wealthy one, as well as his awe about the immense Italian shooting stages (all comment at various points on Natalucci's sets and Ahlberg's photography). Lorraine recalls being terrified by transformed "Teddy" even though she understood it was an actor in a suit, points out the scenes that freaked her out as a child, how the filmmakers had her watch them do the make-up for the gorier scenes so she would not be afraid, and her memories of Mason and Rolfe.
The only new extra is "Toys of Terror: The Making of DOLLS" (38:22) featuring new comments from Purdy-Gordon, Williams, Naha, Gordon, producer Brian Yuzna, executive producer Charles Band, and effects artist John Vulich (the NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD remale), Gabe Bartalos (LEPRECHAUN), and Gino Crognale (TV's THE WALKING DEAD). Band describes how the poster art preceded the concept of the film while Naha describes how much creative freedom Band gave him to craft a "killer doll" story. Purdy-Gordon and Williams – both stage actors from Gordon's theater company – affectionately discuss their cast mates while Gordon and Yuzna recall casting Lorraine. Purdy-Gordon also describes the Brunner puppeteer couple as being very much like the old couple in the film, while the effects artists recall how the effects pieces were meant to be made in Los Angeles and shipped over to Italy but Yuzna's last minute idea that the dolls should have a form beneath their porcelain facades required them to make additional creations using materials at hand in Rome. Band, Gordon, and Yuzna describe the long post-production period where they added more gore but then pulled back when it made the film too grim, as well as the additional mechanical dolls the Italian technicians created before he commissioned Allen for stop-motion shots to show more doll movement. Yuzna speculates that the film divides Gordon fans because of its lower splatter factor and the emphasis on dark fairytale.
The disc also includes the storyboard-to-film comparisons (8:21) of the bear attack, the attack on Rosemary, and the Mr. Punch transformation from the DVD, a photo and poster gallery, the film's theatrical trailer (2:32), and trailers for PUMPKINHEAD, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, and SLEEPAWAY CAMP. (Eric Cotenas)
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