Stuart Gordon’s DOLLS was basically just a dry run for the 1989 cult horror classic PUPPET MASTER. Both films were productions run by Charles Band for Empire Pictures and both have the same kind of childish wonder to their tone. They are films positively dripping with a keen sense of old fashioned, spook show kitsch. Had the gore on display in DOLLS been dialed down a bit, this would have been a perfect horror film for the under 13 crowd. That isn’t a slam against the film. Absolutely not. That DOLLS manages to be able to juggle the serious horror bits with the more old fashioned and relatively harmless fluff horror of childhood bedtime stories is a true testament to how well the film operates. It’s a definite charmer, a work that might be a bit too thin for the hardcore crowd but will easily please those who just enjoy a good horror yarn.
Stuart Gordon was one of the more audacious horror directors of the time and he is both the films greatest asset and, paradoxically, its greatest weakness. Gordon’s surefire direction keeps the film in focus and imbues it with a genuine sense of momentum, but in comparison to Gordon’s previous horror output, the film feels a bit underwhelming. Visually, it is quite beautiful at times and Gordon’s framing makes sure every bit of the small budget is optimized on the screen, but the small budget has seriously crippled Gordon’s ability to really let his extraordinary vision run wild. The film is missing that kind of manic intensity that marked Gordon’s best films. It is professional and lovely to watch, but feels a bit mechanical. This is however a criticism that can only be made in light of Gordon’s earlier works and perhaps not a proper criticism of the film itself.
Killer dolls were a hot commodity in the horror industry in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It is often fun to compare all of these kinds of films. CHILD'S PLAY was great fun, but it took the more obvious approach, taking a child's toy and turning it into a vulgar, bloodthirsty killer. The PUPPET MASTER series treated its killer dolls like antiheroes with distinct personalities and MOs that made their murderous rampages all the more fun to watch (especially in part 3, TOULON'S REVENGE, when their targets are Nazis). DEMONIC TOYS tried to marry those two franchises into one by mixing the vulgarity of the former with the inventiveness of the latter, but largely came across as little more than an inferior rip-off of the PUPPET MASTER series. DOLLS is the sweetest of the films/franchises. It has the most wonder to it, the most heart and soul. It really is a wonderful little film and one that deserves reappraisal.