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The Evolution of Creepy Dolls in Horror Cinema

The Evolution of Creepy Dolls in Horror Cinema

They say the only things certain in life are death and taxes. True, but I’m going to have to add to that…any doll in a horror movie means bad news, and probably a death or two.

The use of a creepy doll in visual tales of mystery and terror have been told time and again since the early days of black and white films. Hey, if ain’t broke, don’t fix it, am I right? Utilizing a doll as a device for scares is a safe bet to make your audience uncomfortable, much like the use of creepy kids in a horror film. Such as the innocence associated with childhood, dolls and playthings hold the hand of that kind of purity. They remind us of a time when we, as kids, didn’t have to worry about the stresses of being an adult (could this be the reason we get so damn nostalgic over plastic relics from our younger years?). The thought of something that gives us the nostalgic fuzzies becoming a weapon of murder and mayhem is psychologically terrifying.

Oh, how all this pleases the Oopsie Daisy.

Digressing, studios and filmmakers are no dummies and know full well demonic dollies mean dollar signs – not to mention that us horror fanatics can’t get enough of it. For nearly ninety years, the cinematic deadly doll genre has revolutionized the way we look at children’s playthings, instilling or waking the pediophobia in audiences everywhere; and that visual toy train of terror has no signs of slowing down anytime soon. In which case, I’m completely cool with another ten Chucky movies, folks.

Beginning as early as 1929, let’s stroll down porcelain nightmare lane and highlight some of the toys that terrorized film and TV.


The Great Gabbo (1929)

While most certainly not considered a standard horror film, The Great Gabbo if anything is a melodramatic piece of suspense paired with countless musical numbers- that’s the roaring twenties for you. However, because this film directed by “Silent Era” giant James Cruze paved the way for the endearing scenario that we’ve seen time and again of the split-personality ventriloquist, I felt we needed to start here.

In short, while the dummy above Otto is sufficiently creepy all on its own, it’s his puppeteer Gabbo who is the true monster of this story. Gabbo who has sustained some success with his ventriloquist act is an abusive and hateful person who can only convey any human decency through his dummy Otto. Because of this, Gabbo drives away everyone and slowly slips into a state of insanity.

If you can get past all the tedious musical breaks in this film, there’s a really messed up story in between it all. Or at the very least for creepy doll aficionados, it’s worth a look just to see the cinematic birth of the ventriloquist and dummy that many horror films have descended from.


Dead of Night (1945)

Unlike his predecessor Otto, Hugo the dummy featured in the 1945 horror anthology Dead of Night is about as sinister as they come. At the time, it scared the living crap out of everyone who viewed it. Including iconic filmmaker Martin Scorsese who lists this little guy as one of the scariest things he’s ever seen on film. Dead of Night to me, feels like a forgotten horror gem that still manages to deliver some great moments in the creepy as fuck department. So I’m pretty excited to give it a shout-out here.

Another ventriloquist with some serious mental issues and his foul-mouthed dummy Hugo, belongs to probably the most infamous (and IMO strongest) segment from this anthology film. The Ventriloquist’s Dummy touches again on the split personality issue with the puppeteer driving himself insane believing his own dummy is out to get him. I’d love to say more but for those who haven’t viewed this treasure yet, I have to stop there to avoid any potential spoilers. It’s a psychological mind fuck is something you won’t soon forget. Along with fellow paired tales, Dead of Night is as influentially important to the deadly doll genre as John Carpenter is to Michael Myers inspiring imitations for years to come.


“The Twilight Zone” – Living Doll (1963)

Upon my own research, it seems that good ole’ Talky Tina is the first visual example of a possessed doll (not a mannequin) seen in cinema. Leave it to the glorious The Twilight Zone to kick off killer doll madness for the next sixty years!

The fifth season of The Twilight Zone boasted some of horror’s most parodied scenarios such as Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, The Masks, and of course episode 6, Living Doll. The segment centers around an infertile step-father and his extreme hostility towards his young step-daughter, who has recently acquired the hippest toy on the market Talky Tina. Alone with the doll, father of the year over there winds up the voice track only to hear Tina utter some fantastically blunt sentences towards the cruel man. After realizing this isn’t some prank from his terrorized step-daughter, Erich (step-father) tries to destroy the doll, only to have Miss Tina taunt and threaten him every step of the way. And the jerk deserves every bit of it.

Rod Serling said it best: ”To a child caught in the middle of turmoil and conflict, a doll can become many things: friend, defender, guardian.”


Devil Doll (1964)

1964 brings us back to the diabolical duo of the ventriloquist and dummy with Devil Doll. Sadly (well, not really), my first viewing of this little gem came courtesy of Mystery Science Theater 3000 back in the nineties. So I can’t even take this one seriously thanks to the majestic commentary from Crow and Tom Servo stewing in the back of my head.

Along with two more Twilight Zone episodes (The Dummy and Caesar and Me) focusing on the dummy plot, Devil Doll brings us back to a familiar scenario we had seen in the The Great Gabbo. The Great Vorelli is a greedy jerk and more so the villain as he has murdered his once assistant and transferred his soul into his dummy, Hugo. So yes, the doll is alive with a very disgruntled person living inside it- can you blame him though?

Devil Doll certainly isn’t the greatest film throughout the deadly doll genre years, but it did a fine job reminding audiences from the sixties that dummies are still perfectly creepy.


Trilogy of Terror (1975)

This right here was my first introduction to killer doll movies. What a first impression, eh?! The initially made-for-television release of Dan Curtis’ Trilogy of Terror gave horror and creepy doll aficionados everywhere something wildly different with the terrifying as shit Zuni fetish doll. Although I’ll admit to you readers, the noises this little sucker makes during his hyperactive kill mode tears me into laughter every single time. It’s like a homicidal Tazmanian Devil overdosing on Adderall.

Tell me I’m wrong…

In any regard, the anthology that the late, great Karen Black carries reaches new heights and sets a high bar for creepy, killer doll movies to follow suit with “Amelia”. A young woman buys her new beau a Zuni fetish doll for his birthday that bears warnings of a spirit that lives inside it. However, the doll has a golden chain wrapped around it suppressing the angry spirit within. Keep the chain on, and all is chill. Well, the chain falls off, by itself no less, the chill is all gone for the rest of the short story.

Fun Fact: This wasn’t the only Karen Black creepy doll film featuring a crazy tiny terror. 2013 brought the fun and off the wall Full Moon horror Ooga Booga that featured the actress as well.


Magic (1978)

With an already long, established history of eerie dummies plaguing films, 1978’s Magic elevated the idea of a creepy as hell wooden instrument of evil with dummy Fats. Rumors have it, that the trailer for Magic deemed too scary per complaints from parents and was pulled from TV spots. As creepy as the 30-second teaser actually is, there’s really no evidence that proves the horror urban legend to be true. As a matter of fact, my father, 18 at the time of release, distinctly remembers seeing the ad more than a few times. Still, it’s a fun story.

With Magic, the ventriloquist and dummy split-personality plot is amplified with a wonderful psychological portrait of a truly deranged mind. Anthony Hopkins shows a bit of a precursor to Hannibal Lecter with his performance as a shy, failing magician named Corky. In the need of a gimmick, Corky obtains a dummy he names Fats and gains fame with his new foul-mouthed wooden comrade. However, like predecessors, the film begins to play out with Corky and Fats having odd, intimate conversations with Corky using Fats to convey convos with other people. Oh, and a few murders as well. Unlike previous films though, Magic really ups the creep factor and keeps us guessing as to who is really in charge here.


Poltergeist (1982)

The addition of this painted nightmare in Poltergeist gave the Steven Spielberg/Tobe Hooper movie a serious edge with this guy being the scariest thing in the whole damn film. Dolls can be unnerving enough, and they went and made this one a clown. The other thing besides questionably creepy playthings that scare the literal crap out of people. Well played good sires’.

Robbie’s clown doll doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time, but when it does, oh man. It makes for one of, if not the most memorable moment in the whole movie. The unholy matrimony of pairing the fear of both clowns and dolls into one terrifying object is one of the smartest things I’ve ever seen done on film. The 2015 remake attempted to replicate it, however it was poorly executed. And if we ever see another killer clown doll in the future, it’s going to take a team of cinephile geniuses to top the magic made here by this smiley fuck.


Dolls (1987)

Fast forward five years later, and we have what I consider, a groundbreaking and seriously underrated film for the deadly doll genre with Dolls. The collaboration of Full Moon’s Charles Band and Re-Animator’s Stuart Gordon began a trend of knife-wielding pissed-off playthings that seriously made you rethink about casually throwing around your children’s toys. Innovative with a new spin on what channels life into these tiny walking terrors, Dolls has both heart and fear lurking within the nearly hour and twenty-minute movie. Which makes this entry one of my all-time favorites.

A family on vacation stranded in a thunderstorm, happen upon an old mansion in what seems like the middle of nowhere and seek shelter. Inside the large home, live a very peculiar yet somehow endearing elderly couple and literally hundreds of beautifully crafted dolls that the couple claims they’ve made throughout the years. However, the dolls are not really what they seem (obviously) and if you’re a terrible, jerk person, you’re going to soon find that out in the most horrifying way imaginable. With a violent murder and your soul stuck inside a doll for eternity. Or at least until Mr. and Mrs. Hartwicke (the elderly couple) deem suitable.

With the release of 1987’s Dolls came a steady flow of killer doll movies to follow throughout the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. With the exception of Child’s Play and Puppet Master, none of them really hit the satisfactory note quite like Dolls did. Still waiting for that sequel Mr. Gordon!


Child’s Play (1988)

1988 took the deadly doll genre theatrically mainstream with the birth of a horror icon, Chucky. Child’s Play, like Dolls, used a child’s plaything for another human soul’s sanctuary. According to interviews with writer Don Mancini, Chucky takes homage from the Cabbage Patch consumer boom from the ‘80s, thus turning something wholesome into a walking, talking piece of nightmare plastic with the soul of a serial killer entrapped inside.

As stated earlier in these ramblings, we harbor feelings of nostalgia and a time of innocence with our favorite childhood relics. The Good Guy line represented the toy that every kid had to have as a child that came with mass marketing and a friendly, huggable persona. Imagine your Teddy Ruxpin, Cabbage Patch, or My Buddy springing to life, manipulating you, and eventually attempt to murder your ass. Pretty terrifying scenario, right?

Many films after the arrival of Chucky, tried to replicate that special type of Good Guy magic but never even came close. In 1991, Trimark Pictures’ answer to Chucky was a demonic little squirt, Dolly Dearest. While it’s a fun little killer doll flick for rainy Sundays, it doesn’t hold much of a candle to the Chuckster in comparison.

With the recent release of Chucky’s seventh film this year, it’s safe to say the highest-ranking leader of the deadly doll genre Chucky, is still as powerful as he was in his first appearance nearly thirty years ago.


Puppet Master (1989)

After Full Moon’s word of mouth cult success with Dolls, the company that has built most of its reputation on the deadly doll genre broke out with Puppet Master in 1989. Displaying for the first time ever, actual evil puppets with minds of their own. The Puppet Master franchise grew into a cult sensation, turning the pack of colorful stringless marionettes into favorites within horror fan circles. Although the puppets never spoke, each little terror displayed a unique personality that set them apart from their fellow tiny, murderous associates. Blade distinctly came across as somewhat the most level-headed (as much as a homicidal puppet can be anyway) and the most intelligent, identifying him as the leader of the group. Jester, Pinhead, Leech Woman, and Tunneler all had their own charming distinction to them also, as fans clearly have their own favorites from the series. Which brings a point where we must tip our hats to Charles Band for concocting a group of puppets with distinctly different mannerisms with the absence of all dialogue.

I’d say that’s a pretty amazing accomplishment.

With a backstory of a Puppet Master creating life within his traveling marionette show during the Nazi reign in Europe, the despicable regime attempts to steal the creator’s secrets. However, the puppet master, Andre Toulon, wasn’t having any of that shit and killed himself before the Nazis could get to him. Leaving the puppets in limbo for about 40-50 years until their discovery in an old hotel by a group of psychics. That’s when things begin to get a tad hairy.

After the release of Puppet Master, an avalanche of deadly doll films came soon after like a plague of rubber doll parts falling from the sky. Films like Demonic Toys, and several sequels for Blade and friends, both of which from Full Moon Ent., kept the glorious B Movie side of the genre flowing strong. However, it wasn’t until 2002 when we as fans got pulled back into that psychological mind-fuck of the creepy doll kingdom…


May (2002)

May is a film that isn’t given nearly enough credit and goddammit, it’s getting its due today!

The doll (Suzie) is sufficiently creepy just sitting there staring with those blue glass eyes from the seventh layer of Hell. But, the tale of May is much deeper than just another creepy doll flick. The movie tilts the emotional scales with real issues of a lonely, anxiety-ridden girl who just can’t seem to connect with people no matter how hard she tries.

The story of my life….

The main character, May, is a socially awkward young woman who has suffered through insane battles of loneliness with her only source of comfort being a doll named Suzie; a gift from her mother that sits in a glass case. Of course, throughout the film, May attempts to make social connections with several people in the movie, including a band of blind children. Sadly, it just all ends up in a massive shit show with May’s heartbroken and sending her further into a deadly isolation with her only true friend, Suzie. The end result is something you or anyone won’t soon forget.

May found a voice outside of the creepy doll genre and added something different with deep psychological thrills and some really messed up images. Fifteen years later, the movie still holds up and it doesn’t seem to matter if you’re on your second, third, or hundredth viewing; the movie will just downright make you feel uncomfortable in all the right places.


Saw (2004)

While by no means a film designated to the genre of creepy playthings, 2004’s introduction to the twisted world of Jigsaw and his handy puppet Billy, reignited the notion that ventriloquist dummies are definitely just Satan in a wooden disguise.

Billy is used as Jigsaw’s extended hand in delivering messages of death to his victims by taunting the preyed upon with insanely brilliant scenarios that will usually either disfigure them and/or fellow trappees, or just kill them. Unlike his predecessors, Billy is creepified through means of moderation, which is explained in more detail in further sequels. Personally, I think these things are menacing without any added effect, but the painted face sets Billy apart from every other eerie dummy in a horror film, solidifying a spot in horror icon history.

Directed and created by James Wan, Billy was the first of several freaky dolls to haunt their way into the genre from the filmmaker, with each becoming more frightening than the previous.


Dead Silence (2007)

Don’t scream, whatever you do…

I’m not sure who was more terrifying, Mary Shaw or her minions of puppets. I’m going to go neutral with Mary Shaw’s twisted mug exiting from the dummy’s face. It’s the stuff of pure unholy nightmares.

It was as if R.L. Stein’s literary terror Slappy sprang to life inside the mind of Wan and amplified the fear factor a hundredfold with another little brute by the name of Billy. Mary Shaw, once human and now just an evil entity, had a truckload of seriously disturbing puppets at her disposal. However, Billy was her favorite and used most throughout the movie as an angel of death to those who came in contact with it.

Dead Silence rivals 1987’s Dolls with some kind of record for the most creepy little terrors in one single film. Hell, even the humans are dolls at one point. While there is no official number for the amount of playthings featured in Stuart Gordon’s cult classic, Dead Silence stands at a count of 101- not accounting for the murdered and moderated humans.  Even though I tend to believe Dolls outweighs Dead Silence in the quantity department, without an official number, I can’t say for certain. So for now, Wan holds that title.


The Conjuring (2013)

Finally, we have the newest addition to the world of porcelain nightmares with 2013’s introduction to Annabelle courtesy of Mr. Wan. The fact that Little Miss Annabelle – who wins first prize for most menacing glare – is based on the real-life Warren investigations, just makes the doll that more unnerving.

Whether you buy into the stories surrounding the Warrens and Annabelle or not, the thought of this doll being very real is seriously unsettling. The Conjuring portrays the doll like it’s something you’d see in the playroom of the Antichrist. There’s no doubt about it; this thing is pure evil. Of course, the real famed Annabelle as most of you know is a Raggedy Ann doll, but I suppose for theatrical and/or rights reasons they had to give the allegedly “most evil doll in the world” a more horrifying makeover. I’m pretty sure if I ever saw that thing sitting in a corner, I’d burn the whole block down.

The Conjuring kicked off a universe of spin-offs and sequels, and whether you like it or not, you have to attribute a bit of that success to Annabelle’s presence. Even though the doll wasn’t the main focus in the first film in the Conjuring-verse, the fans begged for more screentime with the little demon. Thus bringing not one, but two movies featuring the malignant, piggy-tailed devil.

And given the continued success of creepy dolls in film, I highly doubt we’ve seen the last of her either.

Rehashing the long history of highlights from dolls in cinema just goes to show that just like the slasher, giant movie monsters, and supernatural horror, the deadly doll sub-genre is a formula that continues to work time and again. It fascinates the hell out of us. That being said, if Annabelle can get a prequel, I think that damn Zuni doll deserves a backstory too.

My body is ready.



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COMMENTS

9 Comments
  • Meatwad

    ‘Tales From The Hood’ should be on this list too. Great mvoie.

    • oh_riginal

      Was just about to post this until I saw your comment. That is a movie that overall deserves more praise!

    • Chrissie-Watkins

      Agreed!

  • Blood Boil

    Demonic Toys is a gift to humanity, I love it

  • ScaryLarryV

    good stuff

  • Saltoner

    Argento’s Deep Red has a pretty damn scary doll too!

    • Cappy Tally

      I was just going to say the same. That’s one of the best damn doll-related scares in horror history.

  • MODOK

    Now that’s a thorough review. Thanks!

  • Dan Warren (Forgottenretroworl

    Ghosthouse also had a creepy doll, though it obviously ripped-off the one in Poltergeist. Also, Pin (1988) is a weird one. The doll in that literally gets “wood” if I remember right.

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