6WH: Week 5 - Dolls and Dummies

It's funny how many horror sub-genres are derived from harmless entertainments of years past. Most infamously, clowns are pure nightmare fuel these days, but this week, I focused on a more goofy sub-genre, that of dolls and dummies, particularly of the ventriloquist variety. For the most part, when you see a doll or dummy on screen these days, chances are that it's being played for scares. And it's not hard to see why. Dolls often seem to occupy the same Uncanny Valley territory that CGI characters, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and pretty much any other politician inhabit (zing!) Ventriloquist dummies, in particular, have lots of metaphorical potential - a body that must be occupied from the outside just begs to be filled with something supernatural, right? So let's take a look at some dolls and dummies:
  • Chinga (The X-Files)
  • The Dummy (Short)
  • The Inheritance (Friday the 13th: The Series)
  • Magic - This movie has the most weirdly impressive pedigree of anything I've watched for 6WH this year. Directed by Richard Attenborough, written by William Goldman, starring Anthony Hopkins, Ann-Margret, Burgess Meredith, and Ed Lauter, none of whom are particularly well known for horror movies (except perhaps for Hopkins' turn as Hannibal Lecter over a decade later). While a lot of "Demonic Dummy" type stories have an element of goofy irony to them, this movie plays the whole thing completely straight, not even a trace of ironic winking. What's more, this approach actually works. Anthony Hopkins plays a talented stage magician that doesn't really have any stage presence. Cut to a year later, and he's a big star, doing Johnny Carson and talking to the networks about a series of specials. What happened? How did he turn it all around? With his ventriloquist dummy, named Fats, of course!
    Magic
    A shy, timid man, he gets scared of his sudden success and packs his bags to return to his hometown and visit with his old crush. Soon, though, we begin to suspect that Fats has other plans. This is a surprisingly effective movie. It's hard to really call it horror, but there are several very suspenseful, Hitchcockian sequences. Fats is suitably creepy, and the movie does an excellent job maintaining plausibility (Fats never really speaks or movies unless Hopkins is in he room with him). Things do get a little more farfetched as the film moves along, but by that point, we're wrapped up enough in the characters to give it a pass. Hopkins is excellent here, and I don't know that the movie would work without his performance. A surprisingly decent film! ***
  • The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror III: Clown Without Pity
  • Buffy Season 8 (Robot Chicken)
  • Child's Play (trailer)
  • Bride of Chucky - I've never been a huge Child's Play/Chucky fan, but the franchise has some serious legs, and this fourth installment had a surprisingly good reception back in the day. Clearly influenced by the self-referential Scream, this film took the series in a decidedly more comedic direction than the first three films. The Chucky doll is liberated from the police evidence locker (where you get glimpses of a bunch of other horror icons and their masks and whatnot) by his former girlfriend Tiffany, played by Jennifer Tilly, who immediately sets about trying to repair and revive the "dead" doll (using a "Voodoo for Dummies" book, obviously) Tiffany and Chucky have an argument, and Chucky throws a TV (which is playing Bride of Frankenstein, obviously) into her bubble bath, then uses his own voodoo to transfer her spirit into another doll.
    Chucky and his Bride
    From there, they employ some unwitting teenagers (one of which is played by a very young Katherine Heigl) to drive them to Chucky's grave, where they can retrieve the amulet... you know what, it doesn't really matter. It's all in good fun, and Chucky/Tiffany do a good job framing out unsuspecting teen heroes. This isn't exactly deep stuff. The references are ham fisted and superficial, Jennifer Tilly's voice has always grated on me, and the whole mean-spirited black comedy bit is overplayed, and yet, it worked well enough, and somehow manages to entertain for the full running time, and it ends pretty damn strong, with the only real unexpectedly interesting tidbit in the movie. It's fun, but nothing more than that. **
  • Living with Jigsaw (short)
  • Sawed by the Bell (Robot Chicken)
  • Annabelle (trailer)
  • Dead Silence - James Wan must have something for creepy dolls. Saw employs a creepy doll, as does The Conjuring, not to mention other movies he had less involvement with, like Annabelle. Then you have this film, his follow up to Saw, a film about a man who receives a mysterious ventriloquist dummy in the mail. Shortly after that, his wife dies in suspicious circumstances. He returns to his hometown to investigate a local urban legend about a ventriloquist who gets you if you scream, and quickly starts to unravel. Wan is visually talented and that's the best part of the movie; it looks great. Lots of well constructed sequences with the dummies, some very creepy imagery, and nifty enough twists late in the story. Some of the beats are a bit tired and predictable, but there's always room for good execution in my book, and Wan certainly manages that. There's no real irony here either, but it does rely on the supernatural quite a bit, so perhaps not as effective or as metaphorical as Magic, but still a creepily entertaining sit. **1/2
There you have it. Stay tuned for a horror quiz and next week, we'll tackle some recent releases (I think).