Directed by Stuart Gordon
Distributed by The Scream Factory
Dolls are creepy, plain and simple. Their tiny, blank faces sculpted to appear nearly human; it’s an unsettling thought to imagine them taking on a life of their own when night falls. In some ways they’re actually scarier when you’re an adult, since as a kid your doll is usually a best friend. It’s only when you get older that you begin to think, “I wonder if this tiny effigy will spring to life while I sleep and attempt to murder me.” Or maybe that’s just me. Either way, tiny terrors have a long history in horror; and one man who knows this better than anyone is Charles Band. The prolific producer has been churning out doll-related horrors since the ‘80s, with his most well-known creation being the Puppet Master series (1989-2012). A large percentage of the 266 (!) films he’s produced in his career feature deadly dolls or miniscule misfits in some form or fashion. But it’s Dolls (1987) that is arguably the apex of his work, and a large part of that success can be attributed to the then-hot duo of director Stuart Gordon and producer Brian Yuzna.
The two had just come off the cult classic Re-Animator (1985) and were called over to Italy, where Band had set up shop in a studio run by Dino DeLaurentiis. Gordon was planning to shoot his next Lovecraftian tale, From Beyond (1986), when Band showed him a script he’d been developing and asked the director if he’d be willing to knock it out in a few weeks. Gordon agreed. The interesting tale of Dolls is that, although it was shot before From Beyond, it didn’t receive a release until the year after because of a lengthy post-production schedule to complete the stop-motion effects. And once you’ve seen the work that was put in to bringing the film’s titular characters to life, it’s evident that was time well spent.
Gordon’s film is a horror fairytale, one in which curious children are rewarded, bad parents are punished, and two aging dollmakers amiably pull the strings. On a dark and stormy night, a “family” – daughter Judy (Carrie Lorraine); her disconnected father, David (Ian Patrick Williams); and his new (bitchy) bride, Rosemary (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon) – find themselves stranded outside an old Victorian home. Seeking shelter, they enter and find an elderly couple, Gabriel (Guy Rolfe) and Hilary (Hilary Mason), who are brimming with altruistic intent. Soon after they arrive another group shows up, this time a mild-mannered child at heart, Ralph (Stephen Lee), and a couple of scuzzy, unscrupulous punker girls. Hilary shows everyone to their respective rooms, assuming they’re going to tuck in for the night. But this is a big home, replete with dolls and a dozen rooms – prime exploring opportunities abound.
As is necessary in horror, all of our characters are split up and find themselves in situations both bad & good. The two scummy punks are quick fodder for the dolls, which are much tougher than expected. This is probably because a tiny zombie-like creature inhabits each one. Escaping their little clutches isn’t as easy as it would seem; they tend to win by either getting humans down to their level (which usually involves hacking away at limbs) or by overwhelming in sheer numbers. Through it all Gabriel and Hilary keep a close vigil, ensuring that even if their creations are destroyed there will be something, or someone, to take their place.
Dolls is fun horror; a throwback full of clichés and character archetypes that works because of its simplicity. In this fantasy world bad people get their comeuppance, and it isn’t pretty. This film doesn’t need a lot of bloodshed – and Gordon’s initial cut wasn’t very bloody – but additional shooting pumped up the gore factor to more typical ‘80s levels. There’s nothing outrageously over the top here; just some sweet, sinister gags that end poorly for those on the receiving side. The dolls themselves take a good licking, too, including Judy’s newfound friend Mr. Punch, who is famously dispatched along with the film’s best line: “Fuck you, clownie!”
The characters are all fairly one-note, save for Ralph. Stephen Lee has this “working class/John Goodman” look going on, and his childish heart still full of love for toys makes him relatable. He’s the viewer avatar, unsure of how to process what’s occurring around him but smart enough not to place himself in any serious danger. He doesn’t go “asking for it” like nearly every other character. Ralph is just a big kid who experiences a wave of nostalgia combing through this old house. Really, though, all of the casting here is spot-on. Each character looks their part, which is maybe a bit unfortunate for Purdy-Gordon because she always gets cast as “the bitch”.
The team of Gordon and Yuzna were never hotter than during this two year period from 1985-1987, when they released a trio of well-received horror pictures. Dolls tends to be overlooked more than the other, more popular films they did together, but it is no less deserving of cult classic status.
You know, for a low-budget production Dolls sure looks sharp as hell. The 1.78:1 1080p image was sourced from a very clean print, with no obvious signs of damage or dirt. Other than some rough insert shots during the opening storm the film is remarkably defined – especially close-ups which yield all sorts of minute details. Colors appear accurate and well-saturated, and black levels are completely stable. No haze here. Cinematographer Mac Ahlberg’s lighting is moody and rich with atmosphere, all without compromising images cloaked within the shadows.
Although the film was mixed in Ultra Stereo originally, even purists will agree the English DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound track is the best option for listening. The 2.0 stereo option is a bit thin and lacking in presence, whereas the multi-channel track is more robust and has a wider range. Dialogue comes through loud & clear with no hisses, cracks or pops present. Effects fill the soundfield nicely, such as when the storm is whipping into a frenzy outside and the crash of thunder and rain pan across the speakers. Rear speakers are used minimally, but their subtlety aids in providing immersion. Bass isn’t overpowering, just supportive and present. Subtitles are included in English.
First up in the supplemental department, a returning audio commentary track with director Stuart Gordon and writer Ed Naha. Anyone who has listened to Gordon speak knows he has a certain tone & cadence to his speech that makes him a bit hypnotic; I could listen to him drone on and on for hours. Here, he supplies all the requisite information on the shoot in Italy, reusing the house for other projects and much more.
The second track is also a carryover from the previous DVD, this time featuring cast members Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, Stephen Lee, Carrie Lorraine, and Ian Patrick Williams. This is one of those fun, “the gang’s all here” tracks, brimming with anecdotes and fond recollections.
Toys of Terror: The Making of Dolls is a new featurette that runs for 38 minutes. Gordon and some of the film’s principal cast & crew are interviewed about their time on set. This piece covers the details about the shoot, sets, post-production, FX work and more. Highly informative.
Film-To-Storyboard Comparisons is a featurette wherein clips from the film are shown, while a small picture-in-picture window in the bottom right of the screen shows the original storyboard sketches.
Also included here are the film’s theatrical trailer, an extensive still gallery, and a handful of trailers for other Scream Factory releases.
- Audio commentary with director Stuart Gordon and writer Ed Naha
- Audio commentary with cast members Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, Stephen Lee, Carrie Lorraine, and Ian Patrick Williams
- NEW Toys of Terror: The Making of Dolls
- Theatrical trailer
- Film-to-Storyboard comparisons
- Still gallery
- Reversible cover art
Who Goes There Podcast: Ep 152 – Cloverfield Paradox & The Ritual
Last week Netflix shocked the world by not only releasing a new trailer for Cloverfield Paradox during the Superbowl, but announcing the film would be available to stream right after the game. In a move no one saw coming, Netflix shook the film industry to it’s very core. A few days later, Netflix quietly released horror festival darling: The Ritual.
Hold on to your Higgs Boson, because this week we’ve got a double header for ya, and we’re not talking about that “world’s largest gummy worm” in your mom’s nightstand. Why was one film marketed during the biggest sporting event of the year, and why was one quietly snuck in like a pinky in your pooper? Tune in a find out!
Meet me at the waterfront after the social for the Who Goes There Podcast episode 152!
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The Housemaid Review – Love Makes the Ghost Grow Stronger
Written and directed by Derek Nguyen
Vietnamese horror films are something of a rarity due largely to pressure from the country’s law enforcement agencies that have warned filmmakers to steer clear of the genre in recent years. The country’s exposure to the industry is limited, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a handful of filmmakers out there that are passionate and determined to get their art out into the world. IFC Midnight has stepped up to the plate to shepherd writer/director Derek Nguyen’s period ghost thriller The Housemaid in hopes of getting it in front of American horror fans.
Aside from a few moments that delve into soap opera territory, Nguyen’s film is full of well-crafted scares and some surprisingly memorable scenes that sneak up at just the right times. For history buffs there’s also a lot of material to sink your teeth into dealing with French Colonial rule and mistreatment of the Vietnamese during the 1950’s. Abuse that, if you’re not careful, could lead to a vengeful spirit seeking atonement.
Desperate and exhausted after walking for miles, an orphaned woman named Linh (Kate) seeks refuge and employment as a housemaid at a large rubber plantation in 1953 French Indochina. Once hired, she learns of the dark history surrounding the property and how her mere presence has awakened an accursed spirit that wanders the surrounding woods and dark corners of the estate. Injured in battle, French officer Sebastien Laurent (Richaud) returns to preside over the manor and, unexpectedly, begins a dangerous love affair with Linh that stirs up an even darker evil.
Told in flashbacks, the abuse of workers reveals a long history of mistreatment that enshrouds the surrounding land in darkness and despair, providing ripe ground for a sinister spirit that continues to grow stronger. Once it’s revealed that the ghost has a long history with Laurent before her death, the reasons she begins to kill become more and more obvious as the death toll piles up. Using the real life history of indentured servants during Colonial rule, The Housemaid becomes more than just a self-contained ghost story, adding a good deal of depth to a story that could have just centered around a love triangle among Laurent, Linh, and the specter of Laurent’s dead wife.
Powered by desire to avenge tortured workers of the past and the anger fueled by seeing her husband in the embrace of a peasant girl, the apparition is frightening and eerily beautiful as she stalks her victims. One scene in particular showing her wielding an axe is the most indelible image to take away from the film, and other moments like it are what make The Housemaid a standout. The twisted sense of romance found in a suffering spirit scorned in death is the heart of the story even if the romance between the two living lovers winds up having more screen time.
The melodrama and underwhelming love scenes between Linh and Laurent are the least effective part of The Housemaid, revealing some of Nguyen’s limitations in providing dialogue and character moments that make us connect with these two characters as much as we do when the ghost is lurking around the frame. What does help to save the story is a well kept secret revealing a connection with the housemaid and the apparition.
Honestly, if this was an American genre film, the limitations seen in The Housemaid might cause more criticism, but seeing an emerging artist and his team out of Vietnam turn out a solid product like this leads me to highlight the good and champion the effort in hopes of encouraging more filmmakers to carry the flag. Ironically, the film is set for a U.S. remake in the near future.
The Housemaid hits select theaters, VOD, and digital platforms TODAY, February 16th.
Using the real life history of indentured servants during Colonial rule, The Housemaid becomes more than just a self-contained ghost story, adding a good deal of depth to a story that could have just centered around a love triangle.
Scorched Earth Review – Gina Carano Making Motherf**kers Pay In The Apocalypse
Starring Gina Carano, John Hannah, Ryan Robbins
Written by Bobby Mort and Kevin Leeson
Directed by Peter Howitt
Let me preface this review by stating right off the bat that I’m a huge Gina Carano fan, and will pretty much accept her in any role that she’s put in (are you going to tell her no), regardless of the structure and plausibility behind it, and while that might make me a tad-bit biased in my opinions, just accept it as that and nothing more. Now that I’ve professed my cinematic devotion to the woman, let’s dive headlong into her latest film, Scorched Earth.
Directed by Peter Howitt, the backdrop is an apocalyptic world brought on by the imminent disaster known as global warming, and the air has become toxic to intake, generally leaving inhabitants yacking up blood and other viscous liquids after a prolonged exposure, unless you’re one of the privileged that possesses a filter lined with powdered silver. Filters of water and the precious metal are in high demand, and only true offenders in this world still drive automobiles, effectively speeding up the destruction of what’s left of the planet. Carano plays Atticus Gage, a seriously stoic and tough-as-nails bounty hunter who is responsible for taking these “criminals” down, and her travels lead her to a compound jam-packed with bounties that will have her collecting riches until the end of time…but aren’t we at the end of time already? Anyway, Gage’s main opponent here is a man by the name of Thomas Jackson (Robbins) – acting as the leader of sorts to these futuristic baddies, the situation of Gage just stepping in and taking him out becomes a bit complicated when…oh, I’m not going to pork this one up for you all – you’ve got to invest the time into it just as I did, and trust me when I tell you that the film is pretty entertaining to peep.
While Carano’s acting still needs some refining, let there be no ever-loving mistake that this woman knows how to beat the shit out of people, and for all intents and purposes this will be the thing that carries her through many a picture. There are much larger roles in the future for Gina, and she’ll more than likely take over as a very big player in the industry – hey, I’m a gambling man, and I’ve done pretty well with my powers of prognostication. With that being said, the thing that does hold this picture back is the plot itself- it’s a bit stale and not overly showy, and when I look for a villain to oppose the hero, I’m wanting someone with at least a shred of a magnetic iota, and I just couldn’t latch onto anything with Robbins’ performance – his character desperately needed an injection of “bad-assness” and it hurt in that particular instance.
In the end of it all, I’d recommend Scorched Earth to fans of directionless, slam-bang wasteland pics with a touch of unrestrained violence…plus, Gina Carano is in it, so you can’t go wrong. If you’re not a fan of any of the above, feel free to skate on along to another piece of barren territory.
Looking to get your butt kicked in the apocalypse with extreme prejudice? Drive on up, and allow me to introduce you to someone who’ll be more than happy to oblige.
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