Moppet-Made Murder and Mayhem: Darren Gaskell Reviews Dolls (2019)

Review by Darren Gaskell


Before I get going with this review, I’m reminded of the time a friend stayed over at our house. We hadn’t thought about my wife’s childhood doll which was sitting in the corner of the room in which he was sleeping. Long story short, the following morning we discovered that our friend had turned the doll around so it was facing the wall.

So yes, dolls can be pretty creepy, hence they’re prime fodder for horror stories. And here’s another one, focusing on troubled children’s book author/illustrator Robert Holbrook (Thomas Downey) and his rebellious teenage daughter Sammey (Trinity Simpson). I say troubled because Robert is separated from wife Lynn (Elise Muller), he’s drinking heavily and these factors have left him in the middle of a creative nadir.

Oh, did I say that Robert’s mother has also passed away? Yep, this guy’s in a real mess. Despite the fact that Robert and his mum didn’t get on, she’s left him her house and he moves in there in an attempt to kick the booze and work on a new book away from it all. Well, until his daughter crashes the situation because she can’t be with Lynn. In time-honoured plot tradition, Robert agrees Sammey can stay for a short while. Hey, maybe she can even help him out with the new book, which has taken its inspiration from three dolls he discovered in one of the upstairs rooms.

And the book gets published and there’s nothing wrong with the dolls at all. The end.

Yeah, right. Of course there’s something wrong with the dolls. They have a habit of appearing in different parts of the house, for one thing. Is it just the work of some mischievous, prank-addicted raccoon that’s been seen around the area? Neighbour Margaret (Dee Wallace) doesn’t seem to think so, her initial meeting with Robert and Sammey ending abruptly as she gets out of the place pronto as soon as Sammey mentions the dolls.

So Robert thinks “Hmm, something’s wrong here”, he throws away the dolls and the book gets published and everything is fine. The end.

Yeah, right. There’s no way Robert is throwing away these dolls. They’re providing the grist for his literary mill and Margaret is obviously a crackpot. How could these dolls have been responsible for anything murderous? Has he not seen a horror movie before?

It’s all very well me joking about hokey plots because let’s face it, if people didn’t make bad decisions then these movies wouldn’t exist. And in the case of Dolls there’s no raging stupidity on display. In fact, the characters behave rationally, it’s just that we know something dreadful and otherworldly is going on and at some point they’ll eventually catch on, just not yet.

The film builds pleasingly and deliberately, setting up the troubled family life of our main protagonists in the first act, introducing a couple of key supporting players (including Wallace) in the second and then having things turn very, very bad in the third. Some of the father/daughter dialogue in the early stages might seem well-worn but Downey and Simpson’s characters are likeably flawed enough to sell it.

And of course, you’re always going to be entertained if Dee Wallace is around and she brings her A-game to the show as the concerned, panicky Margaret who – spoiler alert, though it’s pretty obvious – has a much bigger stake in the proceedings than she first lets on. She’s not overused either and this makes for a much bigger impact when her character is on screen but I’m leaving it at that lest I give too much away.

The dolls themselves are not the animated, all-running, all-dancing, all-slashing types of, say, a Puppet Master or even the Dolls of the Stuart Gordon incarnation. When they move they disappear and reappear somewhere totally different, very much like the Fulci zombies of City Of The Living Dead. When they drag a corpse away, they’re out of shot and our eyes are fixed firmly on the bloody body.

I’m assuming this was a budgetary decision and the fact that we’re not seeing fully articulated effects puppets or stop-motion sequences matters very little here. That all costs time and money and we don’t really need to see the dolls charging about to know that they’re dangerous. This clearly isn’t going for a Puppet Master vibe anyway.

There are a couple of decent jump scares and a smattering of gore resulting from some vicious, darkly comic set ups – one involving a household appliance which you just know will be utilised in bloody mayhem the moment it’s put there. It all ties up with an unexpectedly nasty little gut-punch that hits you square in the feels without it being overblown and the final scene echoes a pivotal plot point in a rather satisfying way.

A fun, chilling, well-performed, entertainingly twisted little diversion, this is a fine feature debut from director Cuyle Carvin.

Rating: 3 / 5

About celluloiddeej

Film fan, horror festival goer, karaoke enthusiast, cat whisperer, world traveller, complete idiot. Invite me on your podcast if you can stand the Yorkshire accent.

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