It seems to be the summer of dolls in cinema: Toy Story 4 opened last weekend, with dolls (and/or action figures if you care to make a distinction) in most of the lead roles (along with a spork). At the same time the evil doll Chucky returned to theaters in the reboot of Child’s Play, which may or may not involve a human receiving a spork to the eyeball. And this week Annabelle Comes Home when the possessed doll from the Conjuring spinoff series is brought into the home of ghost-chasers Ed and Lorraine Warren. Earlier this year the children’s film UglyDolls bombed with critics and at the box office, but that probably didn’t stop it from selling some toys. And next week we celebrate the triumphant return of Dee Wallace (Cujo, Critters, Aliens from Uranus) in—you guessed it—Dolls, a low-budget horror movie which may have trouble at the theaters against Spider-Man: Far From Home.
Even though it seems the screens are suddenly dense with deadly dolls, they’ve been a staple of cinema for decades. Take the 1975 television movie Trilogy of Terror, apparently made to celebrate the slightly cross-eyed brilliance of ‘70s scream queen Karen Black. In the episode Amelia, Black plays a woman terrorized by a Zuni warrior doll with razor-sharp teeth and various pointy objects. It’s great fun to watch a foot-high doll on the attack, and its screeching, cartoonish voice is unforgettable. Just three years later the great Anthony Hopkins starred in the Richard Attenborough film Magic as Corky, a ventriloquist trying to woo an old girlfriend (Ann-Margret). Corky’s jealous and deadly dummy Fats has other plans, and the result is an effective and atmospheric psychological thriller that showcases Hopkins’ ability to play the obsessive and unhinged.
The most famous killer doll—the one that all others aspire to be—is, of course, Chucky, star of the original Child’s Play in 1988. The wonderful Brad Dourif, known for his penchant for playing the psycho and the disturbed, voices the overalls-clad doll who has been possessed by the spirit of serial killer Charles Lee Ray. Short on special effects but long on dark humor and snark, Child’s Play would spawn half a dozen sequels before this summer’s reboot.
Like clowns, who have unwittingly become the stuff of horror, there must be something inherently creepy about dolls. Perhaps humans can be so awful on our own that the thought of miniature versions of ourselves stimulates a natural fear response, or maybe, like Ray Stantz’s Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, it’s more effective to imagine the most harmless thing we can think of turning its tiny self against us.