Killer of Dolls Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: October 22, 2019
Audio: Spanish LPCM 1.0 Mono
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: 103 minutes
Director: Miguel Madrid (as Michael Skaife)
A young man named Paul (David Rocha) is thrown out of medical school, due to his inability to deal with the sight of blood. He goes home to Montpellier in France, where his father is gardener on a huge estate belonging to Countess Olivia (Helga Liné). But fear of blood is not Paul's only quirk – he was raised as a girl after his sister died and likes to play with dolls, performing strange operations on them, attempting to extract their hearts. Meanwhile, in the park surrounding the Countess’ home, a number of young girls have been found murdered. The killer seems to be a mysterious individual wearing a black wig, a white doll mask, and speaking with a woman's voice. As the killings multiply around him, Paul sinks ever deeper into a world of hallucination and nightmare. (From Mondo Macabro’s official synopsis)
Miguel Madrid’s Killer of Dolls (Spanish: El asesino de muñecas; aka: The Killing of the Dolls, 1975) is an especially rare entry in the similarly rare subgenre of Spanish-made giallo movies. Obviously, not all Spanish thrillers released during the 1970s count as gialli-adjacent (I suppose that, given the language differences, they should be labeled as amarillo movies?), but there was a handful of movies that were made specifically to appeal to the international market that made stylish Italian thrillers into a full-blown phenomenon. Key entries included Carlos Aured’s Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (Spanish: Los Ojos Azules de la Muñeca Rota; aka: House of Psychotic Women, 1973), José Luis Madrid’s Jack the Ripper of London (Spanish: Jack el destripador de Londres; aka: 7 Corpses for Scotland Yard, 1971), Eloy de la Iglesias’ The Glass Ceiling (Spanish: Spanish: El techo de cristal, 1971), A Dragonfly for Each Corpse (Spanish: Una libélula para cada muerto; aka: Red Killer, 1975), and Alfonso Balcazar’s An Open Tomb...An Empty Coffin (Spanish: La casa de las muertas vivientes, 1972).
Killer of Dolls doesn’t redefine gialli or protoslashers, but everything about it is just enough off model to create a uniquely unsettling and often amusing experience (I’m honestly unsure if it’s meant to be a funny movie, but I think it is). For example, it opens with a callback to the coda of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), in which a man (Madrid himself) dismantles a doll and explains to camera the supposed psychosexual criminology of someone who “kills” dolls. From here, the film opts to focus on the routine struggles of a compulsive, mentally ill young man, rather than the common giallo plotline of an outsider trying to solve a series of connected crimes. The subsequent (relatively) gruesome murders are presented entirely from the killer’s perspective, so, as an audience, we get to see the victims turn into mannequins. Then, the film blurs the lines between the crimes and killer’s psychosis as Paul sometimes hallucinates that the people in his day-to-day life are also mannequins. This is giallo-esque, as are Paul’s Sergio Martino/Lucio Fulci-esque slow motion nightmares, but Madrid’s storytelling rules are so inconsistent that, in the end, there really isn’t a mystery to solve.
I feel comfortable spoiling that last fact, because Paul’s identity as a killer is so obvious that it’s actually disappointing when the movie officially reveals that there was no other culprit. His whole life is a parade of sensitive movie murderer clichés: he’s childish (even befriending a local boy), he works a skilled service job (gardening), he sketches macabre illustrations, he pins insects, he has a collection of medical devices, he makes creepy memento moris out of dolls, and he has avant-garde dreams that would give Freud an aneurysm. Yet, there’s a distinct lack of authoritative interest in the murders (i.e. the cops never show up looking for answers) and clues throughout the film hint towards the possibility that Paul’s unreliable point-of-view indicates a lack of murders altogether (à la Mary Harron’s American Psycho, 2000). It’s better to ignore logic – even internal logic – and approach Killer of Dolls as a subversive mood piece about an ever-expanding psychotic breakdown, populated by eccentric guest players and built on giallo and protoslasher trappings.
Another thing that makes Killer of Dolls interesting in a genre context is the fact that Paul’s neuroses more closely fit the female giallo protagonist/villain template than the male. This is by design, of course – he was raised (for a time) as a girl and, as a side effect, he somehow took on part of his dead sister’s personality. This surprisingly uneventful reveal is a version of Psycho’s intersex personality transfer, but, because Killer of Dolls was made in an openly sexual era, Paul’s “queerness” means that he acts more outwardly feminine than Norman Bates. Queer characters appear in many Italian thrillers, but they’re typically hypersexual, lesbian-curious women who strip for the pleasure of a straight male audience. Key exceptions include the openly gay detective of Dario Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet (Italian: 4 mosche di velluto grigio, 1971) and Luigi Bazzoni’s The Fifth Cord (Italian: Giornata nera per l'ariete, 1971), which, in an interesting twist, reveals that its male killer was murdering out of love for another man. Killer of Dolls shows empathy for Paul, but still kind of treats his gender ambiguity as another symptom of his psychopathy. Fellow Spanish filmmaker Eloy de la Iglesia’s giallo-adjacent The Cannibal Man (Spanish: La Semana del asesino, 1972) is notable for treating its maybe gay/definitely bisexual protagonist’s sexuality with comparative dignity.
It’s oddball and underseen, but I do wonder if Killer of Dolls inspired William Lustig’s mannequin-obsessed sad serial killer opus, Maniac (1980) on some level. It’s more likely that they both grew out of Psycho, Emeric Pressburger’s Peeping Tom (1960), and gialli, but I wouldn’t put it past Lustig to draw influence from something this obscure. Madrid only directed three movies in total, often under the pseudonym Michael Skaife, including this one, Necrophagus (aka: The Butcher of Binbrook, 1971), and sexploitation drama Bacanal en directo (1979). Necrophagus has a small cult following, but, otherwise, he remains an enigmatic figure in Spanish arthouse, exploitation, and horror.
Previous to this moment, surprise, surprise, Killer of Dolls was not released on English language friendly home video. There was a decent looking Spanish DVD, but it had no English dub or subtitle options and was also the censored “clothed” version of the movie. Exploitation fans managed to add subtitles and deleted scenes from an uncensored, pan & scan VHS tape to create a superior, but not great bootleg. Mondo Digital’s Blu-ray is the official North American debut and the world-wide HD debut. The box proclaims that this 1.85:1, 1080p transfer was created using a 4K scan from the original film negative. The disc itself is a little more cautious, however, and the feature begins with the following disclaimer:
This film was restored from the best available materials. However, the negative had not been well looked after and there remain instances of damage to sound and picture throughout. A short effects sequence was missing and has been inserted from an existing video source. We hope these issues will not mar your enjoyment of this unique piece of cinema.
As that warning would suggest, the problems here relate mostly to the condition of the material, which ranges from fantastic to pretty rough. Print damage usually consists of white flecks and smaller artifacts, but can include some muddy spots, vertical lines, and blue/red snow. That said, even the roughest sequence is plenty watchable and the messiness is preferable to a bad scan or overabundant DNR. Details are nice and colors are consistent, though everything is a little blown-out, which is likely a side effect of the mistreatment of the materials. Black levels are less consistent, sometimes appearing flattened and grayish. The occasional blurriness appears to be a focus issue, not an issue with the transfer.
Killer of Dolls is presented in its original Spanish (I imagine Castilian, though I cannot tell the difference) and uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 sound. The warning about quality pertains to the audio as well as video, but, again, the problems are comparable to plenty of other Euro-exploitation discs. The track doesn’t buzz, the sound floor is low, and crackle exists mostly between obvious shifts in material, like edits and reel changes. Sound effects sometimes peak and dialogue hisses a bit at high levels, but Alfonso Santisteban’s score, which combines go-go rock with spooky variations of Beethoven “Für Elise,” always sounds sharp and clean. Spanish films from the era were often shot without synced sound and this is no exception, so lip sync tends to be slightly off.
Commentary with Kat Ellinger – The Diabolique Magazine editor and author of All The Colours Of Sergio Martino (Arrow, 2018) does a typically great job offering up a veritable cornucopia of information about the film, writer/director Madrid’s career, and Spanish political strife during the era (Spain was still technically a fascist dictatorship at the time). Ellinger’s exploration of Killer of Dolls’ themes and its connections to other works is valuable and helps give context to those of us that may be less literate in Spanish cult film (I was personally relieved to learn that it is meant to be subversively funny at times).
Commentary by film historians/critics Robert Monell and Rod Barnett – General Spanish horror expert Monell and Barnett of the Paul Naschy podcast (NaschyCast) roll out even more behind-the-scenes information. Monell seems to have come prepared with copious notes, while Barnett is working a little more off the cuff, keeping the discussion moving by asking questions or expanding upon Monell’s notes. For the sake of time, I had to cherry-pick this track a bit more than the first one, but still found little overlap between them.
The Doll Killer Speaks (24:33, HD) – Star David Rocha recalls shooting the film (apparently, Madrid never shot more than one take), refusing to wear a bathing suit during shower scenes, other censorship woes, his real sister playing his movie sister, onset injuries, and a controversial magazine interview in which he announced an exact date that he was planning on committing suicide (he didn’t follow through, obviously).
Two part interview with Dr. Antonio Lázaro-Reboll – The University of Kent Reader in Hispanic Studies begins with a general examination of Spanish horror (27:43). This covers the so-called boom of horror movies that grew out of the ‘60s, complete with trailers & clips from the movies being discussed. Part two focuses directly on Madrid and Killer of Dolls (21:10). Naturally, there’s some overlap with the two commentaries and the actor interview, but the stuff about Madrid’s other movies and the extremely subversive art movies that it may have inspired (again, including clips) is great. Overall, this disc’s special features add up to the most extensive look back on the director and film available in any format.
Mondo Macabro Reel
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Full-sized versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab. Note that there will be some JPG compression.