Few tropes have been as long-lasting in horror as the killer doll motif. While vampire, werewolf and haunted house movies have had a tendency to fall in and out of fashion at random intervals, movies about deadly toys and murderous playthings have been trickling out quite consistently since the 1940s. From subgenre pioneer Dead of Night to 1964’s Devil Doll to the Zuni fetish doll in Trilogy of Terror, there’s no shortage of iconic killer dummies and figurines to trudge through, and that’s without even bringing up the Child’s Play and Puppet Master movies. Alas, while Chucky and Annabelle get the most publicity, there are plenty of other noteworthy killer toys littering the genre landscape who–deservedly and sometimes undeservedly–get nowhere near as much admiration and attention.
So how about we expand our collective knowledge of the “deadly toy” subgenre and celebrate (and skewer) some of the lesser known killer dolls of horror filmdom? Here’s a look at ten movies featuring demonic dummies, fatal figurines, and every other variety of pernicious plaything you may not have seen. And no worries–you don’t even need batteries to experience the handiwork of these dangerous dollies and mortiferous mannequins …
Black Devil Doll From Hell (1984)
Four years before Chucky, there was the antagonist of Chester Novell Turner’s infamous 1984 shlocker Black Devil Doll From Hell. While the unnamed dummy’s misdeeds don’t quite reach the lofty heights established by one Charles Lee Ray, that’s not to say he doesn’t get a chance or two to engage in some incontestably insidious behavior–including a very Psycho-like shower attack and, yes, even a full-blown rape sequence. The VHS-era oddity–allegedly filmed on a $10,000 budget–had a small revival a few years back, complete with The New York Times giving the obscure flick a write up. And odds are, we haven’t seen the last of the dreadlocked menace–director Turner said he’s wanted to do a sequel for years.
Blood Dolls (1999)
Legit horror aficionados are no doubt familiar with Full Moon’s Puppet Master series. And while considerably less well-known, their Demonic Toys franchise has also garnered its fair share of fans. But even the hardcore genre faithful have forgotten about the company’s third-tier killer toy, I.P., the rudimentarily titled Blood Dolls. The 1999 straight-to-the-bottom-rack-at-Blockbuster offering is a more tongue-in-cheek variation on the Puppet Master formula, featuring such horrific playthings as a four-armed samurai catwoman, a bomb-throwing gnome and–the film’s breakout star–a killer pimp clown action figure. Even more bizarre, the movie was the subject of a full length documentary by Penelope Spheeris titled Hollyweird–which, apparently, has been lost for almost 20 years.
Dolly Dearest (1991)
Basically a gender-swapped Child’s Play, this 1991 straight-to-video release is one of the more brazen Chucky ripoffs to hit the market–right down to the central plot device about adults suspecting the doll’s gruesome handiwork is actually the doings of a disturbed young child. Still, Dolly Dearest does deviate from the Chucky script here and there, most notably by featuring an entire factory of possessed dolls instead of just one antagonist. The special effects are pretty lame and the scares are non-existent, but at least the cast is pretty decent–what Rip Torn and Sam Bottoms did to wind up in this feature is simply beyond me.
Long, long before he brought us Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, Roland Emmerich cut his directorial teeth on this weird West German production, which is also known as Making Contact in some markets. A blatant Poltergeist clone, the movie is about this little kid who is quite despondent after his father’s death, but his spirits pick up a little when he finds a magical toy telephone to the astral plane in his closet, which–naturally–also gives him telekinetic powers. Alas, the deal isn’t as sweet as it sounds, since the same extradimensional forces that made him an elementary school superhero have also sent a demonic dummy (given the least intimidating monster movie name ever … Fletcher) after him to kill his friends and parents. Opinions on this one differ wildly, with some sects declaring it a mini subgenre masterpiece and other circles deriding it as formulaic nonsense; I guess you’ll just have to watch this one and come to your own conclusions, folks.
It’s inconceivable that after 40 years, this movie remains so criminally underappreciated. One of the greatest (and most underrated) psychological thrillers of the 1970s, director Richard Attenborough brings us this superb mind-screwer starring a youngish Anthony Hopkins as a ventriloquist with a dummy that apparently has a mind of its own. Things become even more complicated when Hopkins gets involved in a love triangle with Ann-Margaret and Ed Lauter, and it’s only a matter of time before somebody gets a taste of some extra sharp stainless steel cutlery. The ensemble cast (especially Burgess Meredith) is outstanding, and the grand finale–in which Hopkins and Fats the dummy finally have their long brewing break-up fight–concludes with one of the best genre movie twists of the decade. Definitely check this one out when you’ve got some time to spare–you won’t regret it.
Now here’s an oft-overlooked psychological thriller that’s definitely worth tracking down. This Canadian feature revolves around a brother and sister duo whose physician father gives ‘em a talking to about the birds and the bees using the titular character, an anatomically correct medical dummy, as a prop. Well, after mom and dad die in a mysterious auto accident, the male sibling develops a weird jealousy of his sister, and even worse, starts talking to the medical dummy like it’s his therapist, and–well, without giving away the rest of the plot, let’s just say when you think things can’t possibly get any more unnerving, they do. If you’re big on suspense but have a low threshold for gore, this ought to be right up your alley–even bloodless, it’s still one of the spookier (and most underappreciated) genre movies of the late ‘80s.
Pinocchio’s Revenge (1996)
No, Disney did not give their blessing to this mid-’90s VHS offering. From Kevin S. Tenney–the same mastermind behind late ‘80s cult classics Witchboard and Night of the Demons-–Pinocchio’s Revenge is a brazen Child’s Play wannabe about a lawyer who gives her 8-year-old daughter a puppet … which just so happened to be ripped from the arms of a little boy murdered by his father and buried in a shallow grave. Of course, it isn’t long before mysterious “accidents” start happening and mom starts wondering if her sweet little girl has turned into a pint-sized Aileen Wuornos or that Pinocchio doll stolen from a dead child is actually alive and committing a series of increasingly outlandish homicides. Long story short, if you’ve seen the first Chucky movie, you’ll know what to expect here–although the twist ending might throw you for a slightly harder than anticipated loop.
The Pit (1981)
This forgotten ‘80s B-movie (also known as Teddy) isn’t a killer doll movie per se, seeing as how the living toy in the flick doesn’t hurt anybody, but that still doesn’t stop it from being pretty damn creepy, regardless. The movie revolves around this one troubled boy, who hears voices from a teddy bear telling him to do all sorts of unsavory things, like write unsettling messages on a mirror while his crush takes a shower. Oh, and he also keeps a pet troll in a sinkhole in his backyard, and has no qualms about feeding his teachers and bullies to the beast below, either. Things get perhaps a bit too cheesy in the conclusion, but it’s still a really fun movie–and one that’s significantly scarier than it probably had any right to be.
Silent Night Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker (1991)
This is pretty much the zenith of killer toy movies, since it features just about every lethal plaything you could imagine. We’ve got characters being strangled to death by Santa Claus Jack in the Boxes (or is that Jacks in the Box?), larvae action figures chewing people’s eyeballs out, actors getting killed by rocket-powered skates, army figurines with real guns and–my personal favorite–the Hot Wheels that launches freakin’ circular saws at people. Unfortunately, the plot (believe it or not, the whole thing is actually a furtive retelling of the Pinocchio mythos) leaves quite a bit to be desired. But just as long as you’re watching it for the androids getting stabbed in the face with screwdrivers and not Mickey Rooney’s scenery chewing, it should be serviceable.
Tales from the Hood (1994)
All of the vignettes in this stellar horror anthology are quite good, but the third yarn–about a former KKK member who moves into a plantation haunted by killer Hoodoo dolls–is especially entertaining. Veteran character actor Corbin Bernsen lays it on thick as the super racist U.S. congress hopeful (obviously inspired by real-life Klansman David Duke), and watching him get his just desserts at the hands of cannibal claymation dolls is just the right mix of satire and terror. The racially charged dynamics of the mini-movie–not to mention its gory conclusion–might not be for all tastes, but if you’re looking for a killer doll story that’s actually frightening, you won’t find too many creepier than this one.