Color, 1991, 93 mins. 50 secs.
Directed by Maria Lease
Starring Denise Crosby, Sam Bottoms, Rip Torn, Chris Demetral, Lupe Ontiveros, Candace Hutson, Enrique Renaldo, Alma Martinez
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Lionsgate (DVD) (US R1 NTSC), Bellevue (DVD) (UK R2 PAL)
Women had been directing genre films for quite a while by the time Kathryn Bigelow and Mary Lambert shook up horror with Near Dark and Pet Sematary, but it was those two films that became major barrier breakers for mainstream audiences in an age when VHS was commanding as large a turnout as movie theaters. Riding hot on their heels was Dolly Dearest from onetime script supervisor Maria Lease which brought back Pet Sematary's Denise Crosby for a film that was largely perceived as a gender-switched variation on 1988's surprise killer doll hit, Child's Play. To an extent that comparison is valid given that both films involve disbelieving parents dealing with children whose dolls have gone homicidal (not to mention an obvious parallel to the great toy factory climax of Child's Play 2), though in this case there's also a strong subtext involving cultural exploitation that actually plays more strongly now than when the film was first released.
During a nighttime exploration of a mining property in Mexico, an evil glowing red spirit is released from a walled-up tunnel and crushes an archaeologist before escaping into the ether. Soon after, Elliot Wade (Bottoms) brings his family, wife Marilyn (Crosby) and children Jessica (Huston) and Jimmy (Demetra), to Mexico where he's overseeing the factory production of a doll he expects to take the market by storm. With production already underway by the previous abandoned ownership, he gives one of the dolls to Jessica only to find her personality radically changing into something surly and mean-spirited. Only a handful of people recognize the true nature of the threat including another archaeologist (Torn as the world's least plausible Mexican) and the family housekeeper (veteran character actor Riverfront). As the Wades come to realize their good financial investment might not be so wonderful after all, they have to contend with a pint-sized homicidal menace intent on spreading far and wide.
As far as killer doll movies go, this one certainly gets the job done in the second half with plenty of mayhem and absurdity once the title character gets going. It's strange seeing the late Bottoms giving such a detached, listless performance, but that's balanced out by Torn and Riverfront acting like their lives depend on it-- not to mention a spirited performance by Huston who's so outrageously snotty it's a wonder her parents don't send her packing. Unlike Child's Play, this one is less successful when it comes to the humorous aspects of the script and saddles poor Demetra with the bulk of the one liners, including a climactic send off that isn't exactly "This is the end, friend." Overall though it's a diverting little supernatural offering designed to kill time on a slow evening, and it gets the job more than done in that respect.
Initially released on VHS with fairly heavy promotion by Landmark after a brief, limited theatrical run (from its big screen branch, Trim ark), Dolly Dearest had a sparse history on DVD with a tired, very dated full frame master used for releases in 2005 in the U.S. and U.K. Luckily you can chuck those in the recycle bin thanks to the 2020 dual format Blu-ray and DVD release from Vinegar Syndrome, which features a new 2K scan from the 35mm interpositive. Apparently getting the suitable materials scanned in time and gotten up to snuff was daunting, surprisingly so for a title from the '90s, but what we have here is a massive step in every possible way. The dark scenes in particular are no longer drab, flat, and gray; there's a strong shadowy atmosphere that helps out a lot and gives some menace to scenes that were once plodding and confusing. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 stereo track (with optional English SDH subtitles) is a fairly good mix replicating the Ultra Stereo presentation with some nice front channel separation and some decent surround activity, especially at the end. In "Playing With Dolls" (14m52s), Crosby chats about working with two female horror directors in a row, the tendency of Rip Torn to chew up filmmakers, and the approach she takes to the varying climates on each set. In "Dressing the Part" (8m11s), Ed Gale recalls his own experience on the production including slipping on a dress to play the doll in several action shots (after standing in for Chucky already elsewhere). And yes, he still has a crucial item of memorabilia from the set. Be advised the audio on this one is quite low, so be prepared to adjust your volume. Surprisingly the trailer isn't here (despite being included on every single Landmark release for what seemed like years), but you can easily find it online.
Reviewed on May 12, 2020.