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  • Writer's pictureGabe Powers

Dolls Blu-ray Review


Arrow Video

Blu-ray Release: June 27, 2023 (as part of the Enter the Video Store: Empire of Screams collection)

Video: 1.85:1/1080p/Color

Audio: English LPCM 2.0 Stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Subtitles: English SDH

Run Time: 77:29

Director: Stuart Gordon


Note: This Blu-ray is currently only available as part of Arrow’s Enter the Video Store: Empire of Screams five movie collection, which also includes David Allen, Charles Band, John Carl Buechler, Steven Ford, Peter Manoogian, Ted Nicolaou & Rosemarie Turko’s Dungeonmaster (1984), Stuart Gordon’s Robot Jox (1990), John Carl Buechler’s Cellar Dweller (1989), and Peter Manoogian’s Arena (1989).


Little Judy Bower (Carrie Lorraine) and her parents (Ian Patrick Williams and Carolyn Purdy-Gordon) are forced to seek shelter at the isolated home of an old toymaker (Guy Rolfe) and his wife (Hilary Mason), only to find that the puppets and dolls have a vicious life of their own. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)



Formally founded in 1983, Charles Band’s Empire International Pictures had minor box office success, but didn’t enjoy critical acclaim until it paired with first-time director Stuart Gordon and first-time producer Brian Yuzna to distribute Re-Animator in 1985. It also made a small profit in theaters and a bigger profit on home video, all building to a major cultural impact and reputation as one of the greatest horror comedies of all time. Naturally, Band and Empire wanted to be involved with Gordon & Yuzna’s follow-up and the team moved to Rome, Italy, where Empire had recently purchased a soundstage (once belonging to Dino DeLaurentiis, but that’s another story). There, they shot another colorful, sex & violence-filled H.P. Lovecraft adaptation known as From Beyond (1986) – a film that, by the estimation of many fans, would be the best film the director, producer, and studio would make. But, technically speaking, Gordon & Yuzna completed a different project first – Dolls.


The story goes that Dolls finished shooting and required extensive post-production time in order to punch-up the creature effects using stop-motion animation, at which point the crew began filming From Beyond. After being held back until 1987, Dolls was a minor success, but has since remained largely overshadowed by Gordon’s H.P. Lovecraft films and his Poe adaptation, The Pit and the Pendulum (1991). This is in large part due to the fact that, despite also being a pulpy dark comedy, Dolls doesn’t otherwise fit the cult niche Gordon & Yuzna had carved out for themselves. Unlike Re-Animator and From Beyond, which endeavor to look like otherworldly comic books, Dolls is shot in a classic horror movie fashion and, like all the best movies of this early Empire era, it utilizes its lush soundstages and artisan-quality Italian crew to great effect. It’s incredible to think that it actually shared sets with From Beyond. The effects may be a little dated, but, unlike Re-Animator, which embraces its lack of resources as part of the joke, Dolls rarely looks cheap, setting a perfectly spooky tone and giving the film a production value upgrade over similarly priced projects. At the very least, it keeps it from looking too much like an episode of Tales From the Crypt (1989-’96), which it already resembles on a tonal level.



Dolls was initially based on a basic pitch from Band about a killer toy and was designed to evoke a lighter fantasy tone, not the gross-out, darkly comic, and sexually-charge tone of Re-Animator and From Beyond. Evidently, Band loved to make movies about bloodthirsty little moppets – Empire made Ghoulies (1984) and Troll (1986) and his post-Empire studio, Full Moon, was built on the popularity of the Puppetmaster franchise (1990-?), Dollman (1991), and Demonic Toys (1992) – and, as such, of the six movies Gordon and Band made together, Dolls most thoroughly fits the Empire/Full Moon ethos, if not its aesthetic. Personally, it’s the borderline family-friendly, fairytale quality that makes Dolls such a memorable piece of Gordon’s horror filmography, specifically. He made family-friendly sci-fi and fantasy films in Robot Jox, The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit (1998), and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (which he wrote with Yuzna, 1988), but his other horror films are strictly adults-only affairs. Dolls is light on gore and intensity (it’s rated R, but didn’t have to fight against an X, like Re-Animator and From Beyond) in service of its theme, which values imagination over cynicism, which is delivered like a Roald Dahl story, but framed more like an EC Comic, where the bad guys are transformed into children’s toys as ironic punishment for their sins.


Besides not being a Lovecraft adaptation or a particularly hard-edged horror film, Dolls also didn’t use much of Gordon & Yuzna’s Re-Animator and From Beyond cast. Only Gordon’s wife, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, who had parts in nearly every one of her husband’s films (here, she’s a literal evil stepmother), and Ian Patrick Williams, who has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him bit in Re-Animator, make an appearance. The tiny cast of eight also includes Stephen Lee, young Carrie Lorraine, Cassie Stuart, Bunty Bailey (the star of the groundbreaking music video for a-ha’s “Take On Me” and its sequel, “The Sun Always Shines on T.V.”), and aging industry favorites, Guy Rolfe and Hilary Mason. Lee worked with Gordon again on The Pit and the Pendulum, Mason and Williams have parts in Robot Jox, and Band snatched up Rolfe for a recurring role (André Toulon) in four Puppetmaster sequels.



Video

Following a short theatrical run, Dolls had a successful VHS run via Vestron Video in 1988 (I swear, you could find it in literally every single rental store I ever set foot in). The first stateside DVD was a decent special edition from MGM in 2005, which included an anamorphic 1.85:1 and open-matte 1.33:1 video options, and the film debuted on Blu-ray from Scream Factory in 2015. Arrow’s new disc, which is currently only available as part of their Empire of Screams box set, features an exclusive 2K restoration of the original interpositive. The Scream Factory disc already looked pretty good, but was an older scan (likely created for DVD and HD streaming) and there’s almost always room for improvement.


I’ve included some comparison sliders on this page with the Arrow transfer on the left and the older SF transfer on the right. Despite the shrunken size and JPG compression, the grading differences are pretty clear with the remaster slightly lightening everything just enough to bring out extra detail without softening the important shadows. The colors are almost identical between releases, but the punched-up whites ensure that important elements pop. The bigger difference, which is hard to see on this page, is found in the textures. The SF disc has decent overall detail, but its grain is soft and the subtler surfaces and patterns are definitely mushier than there are in this re-release. Neither disc utilizes aggressive digital filtering, but the older transfer does exhibit minor edge enhancement, whereas Arrow’s remaster features more naturalistic transitions alongside its more filmic textures.



Audio

Like pretty much every home video release since the MGM DVD, Dolls has two audio options – the original stereo in LPCM 2.0 and the 5.1 DVD remix in DTS-HD Master Audio. The remix is subtle and respectful of the original tracks, but I still preferred the authenticity of the stereo option, especially because it was slightly louder and has most of the same directional effects as the 5.1 track. Furthermore, the remix doesn’t even completely center the dialogue, which tends to be the one major advantage a 5.1 remix has over older stereo tracks. Charles Band’s brother Richard did not return to score this particular movie, but would go on to collaborate with Gordon for From Beyond, The Pit and the Pendulum, Castle Freak (1995), and Masters of Horror: Dreams in the Witch-House (2005). Replacement composer Fuzzbee Morse was a multi-instrumentalist and famed sessions musician and Dolls was his movie debut. Morse, whose film career was short and spotty, worked with Band again on Ghoulies II (1987), Dark Angel: The Ascent (1994), and Huntress: Spirit of the Night (1995).



Extras

  • Commentary with David Decoteau – The director, producer, and Empire & Full Moon regular (whose credits include Dreamaniac [1986], Creepazoids [1987], and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama [1988], among 140 others) shares stories about his friends and cohorts Stuart Gordon and Charles Band, working for Empire (and Full Moon), and various connections to the cast & crew over his career.

  • Commentary with director Stuart Gordon and writer Ed Naha – This track was originally recorded for the 2005 MGM DVD. The late director and writer discuss the making of the film, its tone and influences, working with the cast, technical aspects, usually pertaining to the special effects, and shooting on location in Italy.

  • Commentary with Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, Stephen Lee, Carrie Lorraine, and Ian Patrick Williams – Another MGM DVD holdover, this track is a fun trip down memory lane for the cast members, who enjoy revisiting the film and remembering its production. Lorraine, who retired from acting after Dolls, offers a particularly unique perspective as a child on set.

  • Assembling Dolls (17:01, HD) – In this new interview, editor Lee Percy discusses his training as an actor, being thrown into his first editing job without any experience, his process, knowing Gordon from his stage plays, and working with Gordon on Re-Animator, Dolls, and From Beyond.

  • Toys of Terror: The Making of Dolls (38:31, HD) – This featurette is borrowed from the now OOP Scream Factory disc and includes interviews with Band, Gordon, Yuzna, Naha, make-up effects artists Gabe Barlatos, John Volich, and Gino Crognale, and cast members Purdy-Gordon and Williams.

  • Film-to-Storyboard Comparison (8:30, SD)

  • U.S. theatrical trailer, alternate US trailer, U.K. home video trailer

  • Image gallery



The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.


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