Cinema Fearité Presents Killer Doll Movie Trend Follower Dolly Dearest
Move over, Chucky! Watch out, Annabelle! Here comes Dolly Dearest!
With the release of Annabelle Comes Home and the recent Child’s Play reboot, it seems as if we are living in the summer of the killer doll movie (even without the just-bumped Brahms: The Boy II). So Cinema Fearité is celebrating by taking a look back at one of the lesser-known demonic dolly movies, 1991’s Dolly Dearest.
Dolly Dearest is about an American businessman named Elliot Wade (Sam Bottoms from Apocalypse Now) who purchases a doll factory in Mexico with the intent of manufacturing a line of toys called Dolly Dearest. Along with his wife Marilyn (Pet Sematary’s Denise Crosby), son Jimmy (Chris Demetral from Sometimes They Come Back), and daughter Jessica (Hider in the House’s Candy Hutson), Elliot moves south of the border to oversee the operation. When he visits the factory, he discovers that it is located next to a Mayan tomb that contains evil spirits known as the Sanzia. Elliot also finds that a handful of old dolls have been left behind at the old factory, and Jessica convinces him to let her keep one.
Unfortunately for the Wade family, the doll that Jessica adopts contains a Sanzia spirit, which promptly decides to possess the young girl. Furthermore, an archeologist named Karl Resnick (the awesomely named Rip Torn from Coma and A Stranger Is Watching) learns that the rest of the Sanzia spirits have also been released from the tomb and have taken up residence in the other dolls. As the bodies start to pile up around the factory, Elliot and Karl struggle to contain the entities in order to save the business, the family…and their lives.
By the time Dolly Dearest was made, the Child’s Play franchise was already on its second sequel, so the killer doll movie trend was going strong. Director Maria Lease (“Silk Stalking”) wrote the screenplay based upon a story that she cooked up with Rod Nave and Peter Sutcliffe (neither of whom have any other produced credits), and on the surface, it seems like a typical coattail-riding movie.
Indeed, Dolly Dearest does seem to contain every horror cliché in the book, from the tomb in the backyard to the ominous warnings from the Hispanic maid (played by Lupe Ontiveros from The Goonies), from the spooky graveyard to the convent from which Marilyn seeks help – there’s even a cat scare in there. Dolly Dearest is not a straight-up comedy, but the unintentional humor has an intentional feel to it, as if Lease knew that they were making a turkey, but still presented it as seriously as she could. Sort of like the Child’s Play movies.
Once Dolly Dearest gets rolling, there are two separate threats to the heroes. The initial one is Dolly’s possession of Jessica. Immediately after the little girl brings the doll home, she starts acting strangely, drawing creepy pictures and cutting her hair to look more like Dolly. When things get violent, it’s Marilyn who has to deal with this problem herself, because Elliot, Jimmy, and Karl are busy with the second threat – all of the other dolls who have become possessed and are overtaking the factory. It almost seems like Dolly Dearest is two movies in one. Two delightfully campy, wonderfully bad movies in one.
The killer doll in Dolly Dearest, conveniently just called Dolly, was sculpted by Brian Wade (The Thing, Galaxy of Terror) and brought to life by puppeteer Vance Hartwell (Army of Darkness, The Frighteners). Most of Dolly’s movements seem to have been performed through puppetry and animatronics, with a handful of scenes using live actor/stuntman Ed Gale in the role, who not only played Chucky in Child’s Play, but was also the title character in Howard the Duck. And then there’s one shot where it looks like stop-motion Claymation was used to animate a weird Dolly tongue lashing. Of course, Dolly owes a debt of gratitude to Chucky, particularly with the nasty facial expressions, but she also has a freaky identity that is all her own.
Because Dolly Dearest is essentially a slasher movie, there are some fun special effects in the movie. The makeup team, a crack unit which included Wade and Hartwell along with Michael Burnett (Night of the Creeps, Flatliners) and Jake Garber (The Hateful Eight, Avengers: Infinity War), cut and sliced their way through scissors stabbings, sewing machine mutilations, and even an electrocution. And, with the exception of a handful of corny looking rotoscoping effects, the effects all look to be practical. Just as they should be in a killer doll movie like Dolly Dearest.
The minimalistic score for Dolly Dearest was composed by Mark Snow, who is most famous for his television work on shows like “The X-Files” and “Smallville.” The soundtrack is suitably spooky, with very little discernable melody, so it sounds more like ambient sound design rather than a cinematic score. It’s a subtle mood-setter that compliments the silly corniness of the visuals.
The Evil Doll subgenre of horror is pretty much owned by Chucky, with the heir apparent being Annabelle. But if you look hard enough, you can find other great killer doll movies like Trilogy of Terror, Magic, Puppet Master…and Dolly Dearest. Yes, Dolly Dearest is great in its own fascinating way.