A new Annabelle sequel I haven’t seen is out; faced with the grim opportunity of reviewing its immediate predecessor, here is a much better killer doll film.
In the ’80s, an era of next-big-thing horror, Stuart Gordon’s Dolls – a Weimar-styled Faustian film FW Murnau might have directed in the ‘20s, although certainly with more skill – coaxes something remarkably and unexpectedly classical out of its mélange of Gothic glee. Not to mention its general atmosphere of childlike (not childish, mind you) uncertainty about the state of adult affairs. Although the lovingly demented John Carpenter-speckled intro credits sequence, all severed doll heads and spotlights and portals into darkness both literal and metaphorical, speaks to Gordon’s awareness of the godfather of slasher cinema, the film’s spirit is much older. Or, perhaps, it merely connects the dots from Carpenter and, say, Spielberg’s Poltergeist, to the classics they were implicitly quoting.
Those influences, incidentally much precede cinema. Dolls is, like many of the original horror films, an extraordinarily Germanic fairy tale, stitched together not out of back-patting and compassion but moral retribution and gravely-imagined, essentially tragic certainties about anti-rationalist, ambiguous forces creeping around beneath the veneer of adult domestication and reason. Ambiguous forces, I might add, that are unambiguously ready to drive a knife not only into your body but your existentially-resolved certainty that the world, broadly, functions according to the rulesets your mind sets out for it. Although nominally the story of a collection of adults and one child trapped in a puppet maker’s house for the night, murdered one by one by his creations, Dolls is really about the fragility (and possibly the fraudulence) of the hubris adults collect when they believe their rationalist way of seeing the world is intrinsically unalterable.
To that extent, Dolls is obviously smitten with not only the look and feel but the mindset of the original horror cinema fad: the old dark house genre, back when horror was more playful (and less ironic) than it is today. It’s simple enough in theory: a bunch of archetypal characters gathered for a dark and stormy night in a house. But Gordon cottons not only to the horror of the old dark house genre, but the demented-whimsy, the wry quasi-absurdist comedy, and the existential uncertainty of classic films of the genre, especially the genre-defining The Old Dark House or Paul Leni’s mordant The Cat and the Canary. Previously a director of Lovecraftian adaptations, Gordon is inherently drawn to the antiquarian atmosphere of the mansion itself, a location which brandishes both a diabolical incongruity with modernity and, conversely, premonitions of – or callbacks to – a more innocent time.
But, by more innocent, Dolls also calls back to the relative moral certainty of the past, the pre-modern feeling that guilty people will inevitably receive their just desserts. Gordon harbors no pretense that these characters have any agency to escape the limits of their worldview, their callous vision of bourgeois modernity. While easy to accuse slipping into a child’s state of mind as a retreat from experience, Gordon’s film obviously disagrees, proposing that living the life the adult world expects of you is, rather than pragmatic, ultimately a cowardly proposition. The signature shot of the film is symbolically telling. A woman partially puppetified has her eyes replaced with artificial marble-like spheres; they fall out, clattering to the ground, leaving empty vessels where portals of perception once stood. Yet in this corporeal deflowering, her eyes have finally been opened to the state of affairs around her, to the looming moral forces just beneath the perceptual realm that invade when the world needs correcting.
For metaphorical gusto, this image hardly equals Charles Foster Kane’s glass snow-globe falling and shattering, fracturing Kane’s perceptual limits and capitalist, power-centric worldview along with it. Orson Welles’ formal pairing for this revelation was a violent visual splintering of our desire to understand the world, to perceive unambiguously and without ambivalence. The intro to his landmark film disfigured classical Hollywood cause-effect clarity in a sequence that unfolds not as a continual narrative but a clarity-puncturing, sensory flow of nearly free-form thought. Our worldview, like Kane’s, was unravelled before our eyes, or rather, by and through our eyes.
Simply stated, Gordon can’t compete. But he is a quiet auteur, not a counterfeit one. Although his ambition is always limited and hemmed-in by the confines of his semi-mainstream attitude more than his budget (great cinema is possible on even the most hamstring budget), he treats every image in Dolls – ostensibly a throwaway film – with the utmost gravity and respect. It’s a monochromatic production, ultimately failing to plumb the murky abysses of either moral relativism or stylistic bravado that his many HP Lovecraft adaptations do. But his craft is spirited, his elan for the material undeniable. His obvious kinship with – and fearful connection to – a childhood state of mind is revealed early on, when he routinely calls on Wellesian forced perspective shots to emphasize the size difference between the child protagonist and the adults who are nominally more powerful and self-aware.
The center of the film isn’t the physical difference between the child and the adults, but their emotional and mental schisms, probed with real brio by Gordon, who evinces a sharp ear for not only the toxic murmurs found in uncertain spaces – places of unclear truth – but for the dismissive, conceited worldviews of the film’s adults, as if outflanking them with the limits and gaps in their own imagination. The adults, in fact, are mostly hopelessly oblivious to the smaller, more invisible energies that only the child – owing to her stature-enforced lack of ego – can see.
Ultimately, Dolls flirts with radicalism and chaos rather than genuinely eclipsing the limits of its mainstream form, but it coaxes out as much genuine uncertainty and garish-hued glee as any Tim Burton film from around this time. I’d love to write that it truly tears open the ostensibly unquestionable façade of normalcy to reveal the shards of discontent underneath, but its ambitions are far more modest and appealingly sensory than that. The standouts are the puppets, who begin as suggestive shadows only to morph into very corporeal presences, entities the film shows off with a carnival-barking zest for their extreme expressivity. Many flaws – other than Guy Wolfe as the sinister elderly puppeteer Gabriel Hartwicke, the acting is uniformly poor, even actively awful in some cases – devastate the possibility of unearthing Dolls as a long-lost classic, a pendant of doom and gloom surrounded by the fat of slasher sequels from this era. But the puppets are obviously metaphors for, or at least emblematic of, the film’s pleasures as well: short and grinning with fangs, like a lollipop sharded into an impromptu knife.