Color, 1987, 77m.
Directed by Stuart Gordon
Starring Stephen Lee, Guy Rolfe, Hillary Mason, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, Carrie Lorraine
Scream Factory (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), MGM (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9),
Hollywood (HK R0 NTSC)
During his tenure at Empire Pictures, Stuart Gordon took time out from his delirious H.P. Lovecraft adaptations (Re-Animator and From Beyond) for this twisted, comparatively low-key fairy tale for adults, which bears a closer resemblance to The Company of Wolves than a standard '80s gorefest. Fans tend to be split down the middle over this one, but horror buffs willing to savor atmosphere and craft special effects should find more than enough to enjoy.
On a dark, spooky night, little Judy (Carrie Lorraine) rides in a car with her spineless father, David (Ian Patrick Williams), and his nasty new wife, Rosemary (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, the director's wife). An automotive mishap sends them seeking shelter at the isolated home of the Hartwickes, Gabriel (Mr. Sardonicus himself, Guy Rolfe) and Hilary (Don't Look Now's Hilary Mason). Soon more stragglers appear, namely man-child Ralph (Stephen Lee) and an obnoxious group of punks who decide to rummage the place for possible loot. However, the Hartwickes are also compulsive dollmakers and collectors, and those hundreds of creepy-looking dolls have a very nasty tendency to come to life at night.
Skillfully shot, scored, and edited, Dolls is easily one of the classiest films from the Empire canon; in fact, the mixture is so effective that many of the effects crew went on to shine in the similar Puppetmaster series from the next incarnation of Empire, Full Moon Pictures. The sly casting of old pros Rolfe and Mason works wonders, as the couple projects a potent combination of suppressed menace and twisted attentiveness that carries the story through some of its slower patches. Running less than 80 minutes, this feels like more of a sketch than a fully developed film, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do and demonstrates a director as comfortable with slowly mounting, psychological terror as overt bloodshed. However, Gordon does deliver a handful of brief but nasty, E.C. Comics-style moments worth mentioning, including a nasty bit of ankle violence and the screen's most unusual firing squad.
As with other Empire titles, Dolls suffered from a smeary, colorless transfer from Vestron Video in both its VHS and laserdisc incarnations. Though not perfect, the Hong Kong DVD offers a far more colorful appearance. Some compression problems are evident in a few of the darker scenes, and detail tends to clog up badly during the night exteriors; however, this is by far the best the film has looked on home video to date. The open matte compositions appear to be fine, though some matting would have focused in several of the more imaginative visual set ups. The audio is a bit more disappointing; though technically it is a 5.1 mix, dialogue is shoved off to both of the front speakers with some minor musical bleed-through to the rears. It's a distracting mix, and frankly listening to the film through a television monitor provides a more balanced listening experience. The disc, which is bargain priced by import standards, features optional English or Chinese subtitles. When the film passed over to the domain of MGM, they issued a nice DVD featuring two great commentaries: the first with Gordon and writer Ed Naha, and the second with Lee, Ian Patrick Wiliams, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, and Carrie Lorraine. Also included were a storyboard-to-film comparison, a trailer, and a photo gallery. A subsequent Scream Factory Blu-ray ported over all of those for a superior HD presenation that also adds a robust new extra, a "Toys Of Terror" featurette with Gordon, producer Brian Yuzna, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, Ian Patrick Williams, and executive producer Charles Band.