Aug 5, 2016

13 Deadly Dolls

Article By: Tony Timpone

They say size doesn’t matter, and that certainly holds true in horror films and TV programs. Possessed dolls, puppets and ventriloquist dummies have made life miserable for movie heroes and heroines since the 1940s. Today Chiller’s latest installment of The Friday 13 selects our favorite Deadly Dolls. (Titles arranged according to year of release.)

1. Dead of Night (1945)

Michael Redgrave (father of Vanessa and Lynn) appears as a paranoid ventriloquist in the most famous—and scariest—segment of this classic British horror anthology. As Maxwell Frere, Redgrave’s one half of a ventriloquist-dummy act who starts to lose his grip on reality when he sees his inanimate “partner” Hugo getting all the attention. When Frere fears that the needling Hugo may leave him for another act, he turns mad and murderous, claiming Hugo’s alive. This frightening tale inspired countless imitators, including several on this list!


2. Asylum (1972)

In this entertainingly creepy anthology from Britain’s Amicus production outfit, Herbert Lom (Inspector Clouseau’s nemesis Dreyfus in the original Pink Panther series) plays a patient in the titular nuthouse who builds a tiny mannequin version of himself and sends it off to execute a rival colleague. The scalpel-wielding Lom automaton goes about its lethal business, until ultimately landing on the wrong end of someone’s shoe. Psycho author Robert Bloch handled Asylum’s scripting chores, so expect some impious mirth mixed with the madness. 


3. Trilogy of Terror (1975)

This TV anthology film, directed by Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis and penned by Twilight Zone contributor Richard Matheson, continues to haunt the nightmares of couch potatoes decades later. And it’s Trilogy’s final segment, “Amelia,” that still has them jumping off their sofas. Karen Black stars as an unlucky woman spending a night trapped in her apartment by a homicidal “Zuni Fetish Doll.” The wide-eyed, stringy-haired diminutive demon shows a penchant for steak knives and other sharp objects, shrieking its way into horror infamy. Curtis sequelized the movie and Zuni story in 1996, but left out the thrills.


4. Magic (1978)

No one does crazy quite like Anthony Hopkins, and this “terrifying love story” (Magic’s original tagline) served as a dry run before he limned Dr. Hannibal Lecter 13 years later. In Magic, Hopkins toplines as troubled ventriloquist/magician Corky Withers, whose relationship with dummy Fats (voiced by Hopkins) takes a toxic turn when he reunites with old flame Ann-Margret. Though this macabre movie comes a little too close to being an extended version of that Dead of Night chestnut, director Richard Attenborough (the Gandhi guy!) and Oscar winner William Goldman, who adapted his own novel, bring a great deal of class and menace to this production. And Fats? So damn freaky!


5. Poltergeist (1982)

Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper directed this horror hit with a little help from a 900 pound gorilla (meddling producer Steven Spielberg). The movie rates as a rollercoaster ride of spectacular scares, as a family learns the hard way that you don’t move into a suburban home built over an old cemetery. Despite the plethora of outrageous ghosts and FX showstoppers, the film’s best jolt comes courtesy of an innocent looking clown doll that traumatizes adolescent Oliver Robins in his bedroom. The recent Poltergeist remake failed to top the original chills here.


6. Dolls (1987)

Re-Animator director Stuart Gordon and screenwriter Ed Naha (Fangoria magazine’s first editor) spin a modern Grimm’s fairy tale with this little-seen horror nugget. During a dark and stormy night (the only kind in movies like this, right?), a group of disparate travelers crashes at the home of elderly husband and wife toymakers. The toys they fashion, however, spring to life to off the least sympathetic visitors, while sparing 7-year-old Judy and innocent-at-heart adult Ralph. Gordon and company have a field day reanimating old dark house-style pleasures, while Dolls’ devilish playthings prove quite frightening in between the lightning bolts.


7. Child's Play (1988)

Cinema’s shortest horror icon first tore out of his toy box for this Tom (Fright Night) Holland-directed smash. When 6-year-old Andy receives a Good Guy doll from Mom Catherine Hicks for his birthday, he never figures the cherubic-faced doll also happens to hold the spirit of a dead serial killer (memorably voiced by Brad Dourif). Utilizing an assortment of ingenious animatronic puppets, Freddy Krueger makeup ace Kevin Yagher (who married the film’s leading lady!) did an amazing job breathing life into Chucky. Creator/co-writer Don Mancini scripted five more rambunctious rampages for the unstoppable Chuckster, with a seventh film reportedly in the works.


8. Puppetmaster (1989)

Indefatigable producer Charles Band has a thing for tiny terrors, and his 250+-title filmography boasts an unrivalled hodgepodge of munchkin monsters, from Dolls (see #6) to Blood Dolls to Demonic Toys to Gingerdead Man. This 1989 Full Moon production spawned nine further installments of diminishing quality. In the superior first outing, the puppet assassins of Nazi-era toymaker William Hickey (just four years after his Oscar win for Prizzi’s Honor!) make short work of a faction of modern-day psychics hot on their trail. The petrifying pipsqueaks include the disgusting Leech Woman; the drill-headed Tunneler; the biceps-swinging Pinhead; clownish Jester and our bad dream-inducing fave, the knife-and-hook-handed Blade.


9. Bride of Chucky (1998)

In this top choice in the Child’s Play pantheon, Chucky demands a mate! She comes in the form of blonde-tressed baddie Tiffany (voiced with baby-doll cuteness by Jennifer Tilly). Tilly also portrays Chucky’s human ex-flame, whose soul ends up in the body of an overgrown Barbie. Wanting to be human again, the minuscule maniacs go on a bloody slaughter spree that surpasses Bonnie and Clyde’s. Director Ronny Yu, a veteran of Hong Kong action and fantasy flicks, delivers a great deal of visual panache and wild humor to complement Bride’s gory proceedings. Chucky gets lucky—and so does the audience in this clever and funny addition to the series.


10. May (2002)

10. MAY (2002)

In this poignant exercise depicting the trauma of alienation and loneliness, indie horror queen Angela Bettis (now working on the latest Texas Chainsaw Massacre prequel) essays the tragic title character (sort of a dark-haired version of Carrie White). May’s closest friend is the eerie pale-faced doll she keeps in a glass case at home. When said doll is accidentally destroyed, the bullied and socially-awkward May begins assembling body parts from her unwilling friends to craft a new companion… Written and directed by Lucky McKee, the disturbing May remains one of the finest fright features of the new millennium. 


11. Saw (2004)

Our next three entries all sprang from the perverse genius of Australian director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell. No one could predict that this low-budget sensation would storm the Halloween season box office, propagate an almost endless run of sequels and rip-offs and instigate the much-maligned “torture-porn” cycle. But in this debut effort, about a dying madman (Tobin Bell) who crafts elaborate punishment devices to inflict on imprisoned strangers, the film’s most unsettling element just may be the garishly-painted Jigsaw puppet (nicknamed Billy), who arrives on his tricycle as the bearer of the worse kind of bad news for Jigsaw’s trapped victims.


12. Dead Silence (2007)

Puppet lovers Wan and Whannell returned for this, their first big studio film. This is the kind of atmospheric horror turn that William (13 Ghosts) Castle used to make in his sleep. Widower Ryan Kwanten (of True Blood) journeys back to his ancestral home to uncover the mystery behind the dummy he received at his door and possibly solve his wife’s murder in the process. A 1940s backstory unveils the tragic fate of ventriloquist Mary Shaw, who’d been killed by suspicious townsfolk and buried with her uncanny puppets. Soon people start popping up dead with their tongues ripped out, and shaky fingers point to Shaw’s ghost and her stage minions. With Dead Silence, Wan and Whannell turn the dials up high in the dread and atmosphere departments. And though studio interference diluted the duo’s old-fashioned vision, those musty mannequins generate ample gooseflesh.


13. Annabelle (2014)

This surprise hit reveals the origin of that wicked Raggedy Ann stand-in that terrorized paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren in the prologue to Wan’s true-life supernatural yarn The Conjuring. Set in the 1960s, Annabelle winds up on the shelf of antique doll enthusiast Mia and husband John. After Satanists besiege their Santa Monica home, a diabolical spirit possesses the inanimate object and all hell soon breaks loose. What’s notable here is that we never see Annabelle actually do anything, but director Michael Leonetti builds suspense in slowly revealing the doll/demon’s depraved agenda. The movie’s numerous “gotcha” jolts play the audience like the keys on a piano, part of Annabelle’s mass appeal. That and the ugly-ass doll’s completely unsettling design.

Watch for more tiny terrors in the entertaining African American-themed Tales from the Hood (1995), where the souls of murdered slaves possess voodoo dolls to rebuke racist Corbin Bernsen. And for TV, no less than Stephen King provided the killer doll shenanigans on the 1998 X-Files episode “Chinga,” while The Omen’s Richard Donner helmed the 1990 Tales from the Crypt episode “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy.” If none of these little guys scare you, tell us what does at our Facebook page or Twitter using #Friday13. Watch your ankles!

Tony Timpone wrote the book Men, Makeup, and Monsters (St. Martin’s), featured in the documentary Creature Designers (which you can follow here).

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