Sometimes they’re our faithful childhood companions, sometimes they’re the stuff of our childhood nightmares, and often they wind up being both. Maybe it’s because they never stop smiling, or because they can look a little too realistic. Whatever the reason, dolls of one form or another have been reliable horror film fodder for decades. With an October chill in the air (in the Northeast U.S., anyway) and this past week’s release of the new chiller Annabelle, a spin-off from last year’s The Conjuring that explores the origin of the titular possessed plaything, the time is right for a quick pictorial tribute to some of the most memorably malevolent dolls, dummies and figurines in film and television:
Hugo, Dead of Night (1945) – The idea of a ventriloquist’s dummy with a mind of its own had been used before on the screen (1929’s The Great Gabbo with Eric Von Stroheim, for example), but Michael Redgrave’s little wooden sidekick–who “convinces” Redgrave to murder a rival performer–remains the most memorable character in this British anthology shocker.
George, “The Glass Eye,” Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1957) – I almost didn’t include this little fella, the stage partner of Max Collodi (Tom Conway)–who attracts the attention of lonely spinster Julia Lester (Jessica Tandy)–because he’s not truly evil…as well as another reason that I can’t go into without spoiling the wonderful twist ending of this third-season episode from Hitchcock’s series.
The “Doll Men,” Curse of the Doll People (1961) – What do you get when Mexican filmmakers put papier-maché heads on diminutive actors and give them needles to stab their victims with? Some surprisingly effective scares, courtesy of this low-budget thriller in which a vengeful voodoo priest sends his mite-sized minions after the Mexican archeologists who made off with a sacred idol.
Willie, “The Dummy,” The Twilight Zone (1962) – Little Willie manages to do his predecessor Hugo one better, pulling what narrator Rod Serling calls “the old switcheroo” on hapless owner Cliff Robertson in this third-season Twilight Zone tale. Not one to rest on his laurels, Willie was given a name change and returned to the Zone two years later, this time partnered with Jackie Cooper, in the episode “Caesar and Me.”
Talky Tina, “Living Doll,” The Twilight Zone (1963) – “My name is Talky Tina, and you’d better be nice to me!” If only Telly Savalas had heeded the warnings from his stepdaughter’s new doll. But then, we wouldn’t have had this classic TZ tale which finds jealous new dad Savalas trying to get rid of Tina, only to discover that she has abandonment issues and some very definite views on what makes a happy family,
Hugo, The Devil Doll (1964) – A word of advice to any aspiring Edgar Bergens out there; Do not name your dummy Hugo! Between this film and Dead of Night, you’re just asking for trouble. But whereas the earlier Hugo’s evil persona may have been a figment of Michael Redgrave’s imagination, the little guy (actually played by a doll-sized actress) in this British film seems to be a reluctant participant in the schemes of twisted ventriloquist The Great Vorelli (Bryant Haliday), until he…well, I’ve already said too much.
The doll, “The Doll,” Night Gallery (1971) – The young ward of Victorian British Army veteran John Williams makes a playmate of the very creepy effigy seen here, sent from India and meant for the retired soldier as part of a supernatural revenge plot. So, just how frightening was this installment of Serling’s early ’70s series? Well, no less a horror expert than director Guillermo Del Toro (“The Strain”), who saw the episode as a child, called it “The only time I literally, literally peed my pants in fear!”
The Zuni fetish doll, Trilogy of Terror (1975) – People sometimes tend to forget that this made-for-TV chiller, as its title indicates, actually features three stories, all staring Karen Black. That’s because the only thing anyone remembers is the charming little fella on the right (by the by, the Zuni people lived in the American Southwest, so why does he look like an Australian aborigine?), who scurried across the floor of Black’s apartment, stabbing her in the ankles with a spear and a kitchen knife.
Fats, Magic (1978) – Okay, when you’re a ventriloquist’s dummy whose “owner” is played by Hannibal Lecter himself, Anthony Hopkins, it’s not going to be too hard to make it look as though your partner is going off the deep end. That being said, this Richard Attenborough-directed thriller still manages to pack a punch.
The clown doll, Poltergeist (1982) – Talk about your double whammy. Ask any kid and they’ll tell you that the only thing scarier than a clown is a clown doll, and ’80s audiences knew the possessed Punchinello in the Freeling kids’ bedroom was bad news well before he came to “life” and started attacking poor Robbie (Oliver Robbins).
The Black Devil Doll, Black Devil Doll from Hell (1984) – Well, the title certainly says it all, doesn’t it? This twisted piece of ’80s exploitation horror from no-budget African-American filmmaker Chester Novell Turner follows a respectable young woman who, for no apparent reason, purchases the demonic, dreadlocked dummy at a thrift store. No sooner does she get it home than the diabolical doll sexually assaults her and fills her mind with all sorts of decadent temptations (Apparently, once you go wood, nothing else satisfies as good). By the way, don’t confuse this movie with an even sleazier (!) 2007 opus, Black Devil Doll, with conflates its predecessor’s story with elements from our next entry.
Chucky, the Child’s Play series – Voiced by the inimitable Brad Dourif, the serial killer who manages to send his soul into a “Good Guy” doll is as quick with an insult as he is with a blade and proved popular enough for various studios to make five follow-ups to 1988’s original terror tale. Chucky even managed to talk his one-time girlfiend Tiffany (Jennifer Tilly) to join him–temporarily, anyway–in toy form in 1998’s Bride of Chucky. Thanks to Dourif’s wonderfully manic voice work, Chucky managed to prevail over some (let’s face it) not-so-hot sequel scripts and hacked his way into the upper echelons of the “killer doll” ranks.
Six Shooter, Pinhead, Blade, Jester and company, the Puppet Master series – Puppeteer Andre Toulon’s murderous marionettes have been a direct-to-home-video horror staple since famed “B” producer Charles Band brought them to life–artistically speaking, that is–in 1989’s Puppet Master. A quarter-century and 10 films later, the silent-but-deadly playthings have amassed legions of fans and spawned several series of movie-based toys.
That thing riding the tricycle, Saw (2004) – Seriously, what is the story with that guy? Is he a remote-controlled puppet? A wind-up toy? A little person wearing a mask? Whatever Jigsaw’s nattily dressed herald may be, he appears in seven of the eight entries in the shock-filled Saw series, pedaling along as he keeps a beady eye on his owner/employer/alter ego’s captives and explains the “rules” of Jigsaw’s twisted games. Oh, and while it’s never mentioned in the films, his name–according to director/co-scripter James Wan–is apparently Billy. Which, in an amazing coincidence, happens to be the name of our next subject…
Billy, Dead Silence (2007) – Looks like this Billy raided the wardrobe of his trike-riding namesake, doesn’t it? Audiences, it seems, will never tire of watching ventriloquist dummies go bad. And they don’t come much worse than this wooden-bodied wonder, the creation of Mary Shaw, a deranged female voice-thrower who stopped at nothing–including murder–in her quest to create the “perfect puppet.” Billy, as this shocker directed by Saw’s Wan demonstrates, is ready to carry on his creator’s chilling quest.
Big Baby, Toy Story 3 (2010) – Now, some of you may question this final choice. I’ll admit that Sid’s homemade monstrosities in the original Toy Story were a tad unsettling, but let’s face it; There was just something eerie about this bottle-toting toddler. Big Baby came to the Sunnyside day care center along with Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear and became one of the tyrannical teddy’s top “enforcers” before Woody, Buzz and the gang helped him see the light.
Did your favorite demonic dolly not make the cut (No, we didn’t count the doll that looked like George’s mother in that Seinfeld episode)? Sound off in the comments below.