7 Deadly Sinns: Killer Dolls!
Dolls! Oh, how I hate them. Their flat little frozen faces might appear to say nothing, but they’ve never fooled me! Sure, they don’t move; at least when you’re looking directly at them. They sit still and polite, dressed in their Victorian gown, clown suit, or whatever ridiculous garb they hope is charming enough for them to seem harmless. Don’t be fooled! Dolls wouldn’t only kill you if they could; they’d fry your liver with onions and feed it to your cat. Dolls would steal your mail and forward any porn to your mom.
Dolls are, in every single way, evil incarnate and deserve nothing more than be melted down into small itsy bitsy plastic lumps and force fed to death row inmates prior to execution in order to better expedite their quite necessary trip to hell. Egads!
There have been many instances of wonderful killer toys in films over the years, and here I want to spotlight seven that, I feel, deserve comment. This summary was inspired by a recent anniversary by a rather well known murderous doll, and therefore there is no better film to head up this list.
Child’s Play (1988)
It’s been over 20 years since a particularly vicious red-headed orphan brought national attention to the problem of killer dolls. Chucky skittered into the screen, wielding freckles, a charming smile, and a heart-warming pair of light blue overalls; not to mention a bloody knife, black magic voodoo, and seething murderous rage. The first Child’s Play was a hit back in the late 80's, started up the well known franchise, and is now an outright horror genre icon.
Child’s Play had a strong undercurrent of tongue-in-cheek comedy, but it also played out fairly straight (at least, as much as can be imagined considering the subject matter). The Chucky we’re first introducted to is one mean son of a bitch; sure, he might crack a joke here or there, but for the most part, he’s all rage and cruelty. It’s a shame he didn’t stay that way. The subsequent films in the franchise somewhat fell into the same trap as A Nightmare on Elm Street as the writers began to rely more and more on cheesy puns and one-liners for their villain’s dialogue. The original Chucky didn’t necessarily have to tell jokes to be funny; the irony of having a soul of pure hate bound into a cuddly little buddy was a good enough punch-line that made the doll best played straight and mean.
The emergence of Chucky was effective in his time in part due to a surge in popularity of dolls, particularly those rather loathsome Cabbage Patch Kids. It’s arguable that the film rode the cultural backlash against these poisonously cute stuffed dolls. The population was so tired of the flood of cutesy dolls that someone had to cut them down a notch and show them for the vile little shin-kickers they are. For that pleasure, you have no one better to thank than Don Mancini, the man behind the original conception of Chucky. Don has been quoted that this was intentional; he was tired of seeing commercials for dolls of the Cabbage Patch variety and he felt the need to strike back.
It is in honor of this mighty mini-villain and his twenty years of infamy that this list was even constructed. Killer dolls aren’t typically the sort of evil critters that manage any sort of box office success; however Chucky is top of the heap in national notoriety and an outright genre icon. Thank you Chucky, as well as Mr. Mancini, for all the good times!
Devil Doll (1936)
Tod Browning might be commonly known among modern horror fans (as well as fans of the Ramones) for his classic film Freaks; however, the man’s fairly prolific directorial career also spawned a lesser known film featuring human dolls up to no good. Devil Doll tells the tale of an escaped prisoner (played by Lionel Barrymore, Drew Barrymore’s great uncle) who discovers a method of not only shrinking human beings to a fraction of their height, but also controlling their movements with the simple power of his mind. With his tiny doll-like slaves, he sets out to exact a terrible revenge upon his old cohorts who’d originally sent him to the big house on a bogus frame-up.
Admittedly it is Barrymore himself who steals the show from the dolls, simply because the man appears in much of the film in drag. He sneaks back into town in a ridiculous old grandmother costume and sets up shop as a creator of dolls, which is all a front to launch his revenge. His old woman acting has a definite humor to it, with his bad wig, stuffed chest, and the absurd high octave blithering. There is so much Mrs. Doubtfire in Barrymore’s performance that it just must be that Robin Williams used this character as an inspiration for his own performance. Someone go ask him.
While the film does attempt to lay on the tension and intrigue (in an old-fashioned way, of course), the humor doesn’t end with a Barrymore’s gender bending. The human dolls are completely under the control of Barrymore, which makes one raise an eyebrow when they suddenly see the attractive female doll lying around in her slip. Every time he invokes the tiny hottie to life, she stretches girlishly and appears to get rather come-hither and friendly. What kind of mental instructions is Barrymore sending? We’ll never know, but I could hazard a guess.
This film differs from the others on this list in that the dolls of ruin here are truly miniaturized people instead of animated dolls. One of the other comic absurdities is the original purpose the mad doctor, who teaches the miniaturization method to Barrymore, had in even coming up with this strange science. It’s economic! With everyone only six inches high, there will be more food and general resources for everyone to share. Why, it’s just taking environmentalism to the next logical conclusion; to save the world, we should all just get small. Steve Martin concurs with this message.
Poltergeist was a smash hit back in its time and still carries a punch to this day. While the film does have a well known, and often discussed, Spielberg-esque family quality to it, it’s also true that the aggressive ghosts and roller coaster scares are still a hell of a good time over 20 years later. The hordes of invisible malcontents living in the home attack the family in many forms, some tangible, some not; and one of the more memorable is that of one significantly creepy clown doll.
If that charmer Chucky could be called the Ted Bundy of the evil doll kingdom, then this painted villain has to be John Wayne Gacy. The setup for the possession of the hideous clown doll is a brilliant piece of contextual horror constructed around the classic fears so many children have in the middle of the night. Flashes of lightning through a night time window, things bumping around in the darkness, things disappearing where they shouldn’t, fears of what might be lurking underneath the bed; it’s all great scary stuff that most of us with a pulse can readily identify with.
If any fans desired to somehow recreate this horrific scene, it can be done! Supermongrel Studios sells life sized replicas of the Poltergeist doll for the low, low, price of $1200 (the evil version being $200 more). Someone pick me up one for my birthday; I have an empty rocking chair just waiting to stick the ugly thing in.
Chinga: "X-files", Season 5, Episode 10 (1998)
Fans of Stephen King should have no problem recognizing his influence in this episode of "X-Files". It is set in a small town in New England, contains quirky humor, an assortment of King-like common townsfolk, and also includes the often King requisite of a nasty old woman who is a dedicated religious zealot. Scully visits this small town in a half-hearted attempt to get a real vacation, only to have her relaxation spoiled when a demonic doll begins a telepathic assault upon such everyday types as friendly Dave the Butcher. The common townsfolk suddenly find their own bodies in a state of treachery; they use their own fingers to gouge out their eyes, knives to slit their wrists, and broken records to tear out their own throats.
The doll itself has found an escort and champion in the form of a young autistic girl who seems only too willing to throw petulant commands at the shocked adults of the town, and to have those commands backed by the threatening authority of the evil doll. Whenever the girl doesn’t get her way with her crazy demands, then all hell breaks out. The mind-controlling episodes are marked by the creepy doll’s catch phrase of “Let’s have fun!”, which heralds each bloody event with an almost celebratory sense of play. It’s never really explained if the girl was always a horrific brat, or if the doll is somehow channeling its malignant evil through the child; though I think the latter can be assumed. The end product feels structurally similar to the classic "Twilight Zone" episode ‘It’s a Good Life’, in which bratty Anthony Fremont sends anyone who doesn’t oblige his childish whims to the horrid dimension known only as the cornfield.
The episode has a lot of humor going for it, mostly in the shots of a bored Mulder, back at work without Scully, trying to fill his time until she gets back by watching porn, bouncing basketballs around the office, and obsessively sharpening a year’s supply of pencils. Also worth a chuckle is that writer Stephen King was unaware the word “Chinga”, the name he gave the episode as well as the doll, is also a rather vulgar word in Spanish on par with the f-bomb. “Let’s have fun?” Bah! Given the title, the doll’s catch phrase should have been “¡Chinga tu madre!” Once the meaning of “Chinga” was realized, Fox changed the title in foreign markets to “Bunghoney”, a nonsense term that, ironically, sounds even fouler if you sit and dwell on it. Funny stuff.
One of the more obvious films in any conversation of evil dolls has to be Stuart Gordon’s cult classic from the fun filled 80’s, appropriately and quite simply named for the evil things it features. Dolls is a catchy blend of 80’s horror camp and comedy, with just a touch of child-like fantasy thrown in for good measure. The story follows a young mildly retarded girl on a road trip with her unloving father and evil step-mom (okay, maybe not really mildly retarded, but pretend she is and it makes the film even funnier). Severe weather out in the country brings the trip to a halt and the dysfunctional family, in desperation, commits forced entry to break into an old and mysterious home in an attempt to escape the storm. They soon encounter the home’s occupants, being an old and equally mysterious couple who seem kindly enough; though they do have a rather strange and voluminous collection of weird and disturbing dolls.
Other travelers in the night, caught up in the storm, soon arrive in the form of a good hearted young man and two not-so-well-inclined young women. These two girls are the first to get into trouble in the doll infested home, as the Madonna clone (enjoyably hammed by Bunty Bailey, also notable for playing the girl in that old Aha video “Take On Me”) of the two is intent on investigating the house for old jewels and “ant-y-ques”. The two soon find that the dolls are far more than simple decorations; they are guards, enforcers, and outright killers. The doll’s fragile restraint quickly crumbles as they get a good taste of blood, and soon many of the visitors come in contact with their horribly pointed teeth, tiny little stilettos, and miniature firearms.
There is a certain rather appealing subtext in how the dolls protect the little girl, as well as each other, from the evils of the adult world. The blood thirsty dolls have a soft spot for all youngsters, as well as for adults who remain, at least somewhat, children at heart. While the teeth gnashing little stabbers do go a little crazy, it’s also true that the bulk of their victims in the film do have it coming and represent the fouler sides of growing up; the final effect being the creepy dolls are champions of childhood, lashing at the oppression and immorality of the adult world in order to preserve the innocence of youth. Great film!
You just can’t have a list like this and not have a representative from the evil ventriloquist dummy club. These can be some of the more insidious from the evil doll collection, pretending on the surface to be friends and companions but secretly yearning to pull the strings of their masters. Corky Withers, played disturbingly well by the legendary Anthony Hopkins, gets his strings tied into knots by wooden dummy sidekick Fats in this murderous thriller from the late 70’s.
Corky Withers has managed to hit it big with his straight man jokes and magic tricks backed up with a wise cracking wooden dummy. Burgess Meredith dryly plays his agent, who manages to get the oddball Corky a gig in the big leagues. Corky, faced with the prospect of having to undergo psychological analysis as part of the contract, flees to the hills to visit a long lost crush Peggy Ann Snow, played by Ann Margaret (and played in a rather mousy way – a far cry from the sexually charged bean and chocolate rolling dynamo she was two years earlier in Tommy).
It is in the wooded hills that Corky seriously cracks up and Fats the dummy begins to assume real power. Fats is a jealous doll, you see, and Fats really doesn’t like too many of the others crowding in on Corky’s time. As Corky sinks more and more into insanity, the doll takes charge, and eventually there are some bodies to be sunk in the local lake.
Magic is arguably one of the smartest evil doll films ever to come rolling out of the toy shop. This is a film set firmly in the real world; the influence of Fats the doll plays out solely in master Corky’s own mind. The subject matter describes the spiraling descent into shivering and sweaty madness, and the manipulation, murder, and psychosis that accompanies such a fall. Anthony Hopkin’s portrayal of a disturbed artist caught up in a powerful fit of schizophrenia is definitely worth a look.
Trilogy of Terror (1975)
There is no doll like the infamous Zuni fetish doll which launched into nightmare in the third and final story of the Trilogy of Terror. This tiny little warrior, with its crazy needle teeth and insane jerky mannerisms, immediately terrorized the world of every child who saw the thing on ABC back on March 4, 1975, including myself. I admit, it’s true; the thing is dated to the point that it’s almost laughable now. The little bastard’s rabid frenetic nature is so over-the-top that it’s hard not to giggle at its antics. But seeing it back in the 70’s as a little wide-eyed tow head? Ho, boy!
I was so terrorized by this wild gibbering monstrosity as a child that I developed a strange fear the damned thing would somehow get me in the shower. I was stricken by horrific visions of it swinging out of the medicine cabinet or popping out of the towel hamper while I was in the tub washing my parts. It created such a pit of worry that I finally took to bathing with the medicine cabinet wide open so I could see clearly in it, and the towel hamper sitting out in the hallway on the other side of the closed and locked bathroom door. For years, my bewildered parents kept asking me, “Tristan, er, why do you put the hamper in the hallway every time you take a shower?”
I’d freeze up and refuse to answer the question. I don’t think I ever did. They’d never understand that I was absolutely sure that the damned doll would somehow materialize amongst our damp linens and leap out to stab at my kneecaps. Now, if they’re reading this, they finally know. Mom? Dad? It was all because of that damned evil Zuni fetish doll. I hope you understand.
I wasn’t the only one to be affected. A few years ago, I attended the yearly Comic Con in sunny San Diego. One of the vendors was selling a Zuni fetish doll replica, which I immediately tagged to buy as my last purchase of the day. As I approached the vendor on the way to the door, there was a large sweaty guy already at the cashier, buying one himself. I heard him speak and it was a rather familiar voice: Guillermo del Toro! The sight of one of my favorite people in the whole world also buying the very same doll that terrorized the showers of my youth made me giddy. “Hey! I’m here to buy one of those things myself. That doll scared the crap out of me as a kid!”
“Oh geez,” he said sincerely, “it scares the crap out of me now!” I love that man. Go see this old film if you’ve been so denied in the past.
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