Welcome back! Let’s eat.
Something Old: Dolls (1987)
Slow days at work mean I get to trawl the horror section to watch whatever lies at the bottom of the genre barrel – or, more usually, hidden gems that sit in my blind spot. I peeked at the cover of Dolls a few weeks ago on a slow day at work – “They walk, they talk, they kill.” – and put it on in the background. Whenever my I glanced at the screen, something wacky caught my eye. The moment I saw a child’s teddy bear come to life and then eat her parents and shrug about it, I knew I had to take this baby home and watch it for real. I’m so glad I did.
Director Stuart Gordon is no stranger to genre fans, an ’80s legend with hallmarks like Re-Animator and From Beyond. In Dolls, Gordon employs a similar sense of outlandish humour that carries the sometimes weak narrative, and cultivates a real sense of joy. This is one of those movies where you can’t help but imagine how much fun it must have been to create, and how lucky we are that it was.
The dialogue in Dolls is its most compelling strength – the sheer audacity of some of the lines and their self-aware yet earnest delivery is hilarious. Much like my appreciation of Death Becomes Her, Dolls is dripping with quotable lines and had me laughing out loud in bursts the whole runtime. This is all thanks to writer Ed Naha, who seems to have a keen interest in writing about… small things … penning the script for Troll, Dolls, Dollman, and co-creating Honey I Shrunk the Kids with Gordon. I don’t know what to do with that information but it’s there, and I love it.
Usually when someone calls a movie “a blast” I think the worst, but Dolls is an absolute blast in every way from beginning to end. Poor little Judy (The impossibly sweet Carrie Lorraine) is stuck with her dad David (Ian Patrick Williams) and his witchy wife Rosemary (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon) for the summer and they’re on their way to a family vacation when they’re caught in a storm. Seeking shelter, they arrive at a creepy mansion and find themselves – along with a random group of others including a salesman and two thieving, extremely 80s girls – the houseguests of an elderly couple who are just a tad “off”. Gabriel Hartwicke (Guy Rolfe) is an aged toymaker who still believes in the magic loyalty of toys and the spirit of childhood, and his wife Hilary (Hilary Mason, Don’t Look Now) floats around him, hands neatly folded, always a twinkle in her eye, reflecting back the hundreds of dolls that clutter the house. Quality old couples in horror movies aren’t appreciated enough, and these ones get it right.
A point made early on is that Judy’s overactive imagination grates on David and Rosemary who seem to resent her very existence regardless of what she’s claiming to have seen. Anyone with a vivid imagination knows the struggle and confusion that can do to a child – I remember being reprimanded by my teachers and called a liar for claiming I’d seen something magical – but Judy finds a confidant in Ralph, the jovial salesman who also finds himself at the mansion. “Do you believe in [what kids tell you?]” she asks him, while patiently explaining that fellow houseguest Madonna-wannabe was dragged away by elves and there’s “a lot of blood.” The house is full of hijinx and somehow together they’ll manage to survive “the longest night in the world.” Because it seems, at this house, toys really do come to life when you’re not looking.
I understand pediophobia (a phobia of dolls) is well and alive, so Dolls is going to touch that tender spot in a bad way for those who suffer from it. If, like much of the general population, you simply find dolls creepy, then the movie will almost surely delight you. Puppeteers bring the dolls to life in a way that’s unsettling and just schlocky enough – the dolls’ facial expressions are priceless going from eerie smiles to deranged frowns while chittering to each other. The film still looks great, and there are some solid transformation scenes that I’m going to be thinking about with a smile for a long, long time.
Dolls was released a year before Child’s Play, another beloved killer doll movie that, to me, doesn’t employ the same charm that this one so generously offers. It shines a really sweet message within about holding onto the good parts of your childhood and the benefit using your imagination can give to your life. 30 years later the abundance of laughter it inspires is surprising. It’s a nostalgic movie whether you saw it when you were young or if you’re viewing it for the first time today. So if you missed it because you were in utero, check it out now!
Something New: Nails (2017)
This one’s a bit of a fluke. I brought home a Russian experimental film by Andrey Iskanov called Nails from 2003 that despite its artistic bend, was not really for me. In case it is for any of you, it chronicles the life of man who uses trepanation to deal with his mental illnesses (He hammers nails into his head in his apartment. I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but oof.) In researching the origin of Nails, I came across a trailer for an upcoming 2017 Irish horror movie also called Nails.
There’s something about medical horror that gets under the skin. Hospitals already come with their own creepy crawly feeling and a sick scent of disease that ignites the terror centers of the brain. Give me a local legend and I can chew it for weeks. Here’s a local legend about a guy in a hospital called Nails, and a young woman who may or may not be terrorized by him during her stay in the hospital. Check out the trailer here. Yes? No? October’s looking light so far anyway, might as well branch out.
Something Borrowed: Marebito (2004)
Marebito was living in the Japanese Horror/Cult section, right next to the Pink section (do you know what I’m talking about?) and it had a beautiful lady on the cover wrapped in a sheet, and that’s why I rented it. Don’t act like you’ve never done it. Also, Marebito was directed by Takashi Shimizu between his work on Ju-On: The Grudge and the remake, The Grudge. The DVD case indicated a great and mysterious world underneath Japan that I immediately wanted to know more about. I’ve done my fair share of risky Urban Exploration and a good subterranean tour is irresistible.
Masuoka (Shin’ya Tsukamoto) is a regular news cameraman with a penchant for terror. It’s not that he wants to frighten others with what he captures, but that he wants to experience the deepest form of fear himself. Seasoned horror hounds might recognize a part of themselves in Masuoka’s desire to be afraid and lack of ability to feel it to the preferred degree. While this could become a Nightcrawler situation involving a voyeuristic obsession with darkness and decay, Marebito takes a bit of a romantic and somewhat vampiric turn.
When he stumbles on a man who gouges out his own eye, so terrified by what only he can see, Masouka believes he has found what he’s been looking for: if only he could identify what the man saw. Investigating his footage and equipment from the grisly moment reveals a pathway to a cavernous underground world where, after a thoughtful meander, he stumbles upon a naked woman chained to the rock wall.
Displaying a savior complex, he “rescues” the girl and brings her to his home where he does his best to clothe, feed, and interact with her. He gives her the name F. Over time he realizes she never eats or drinks, and spends most of her time sleeping. As most vampire or blood-requiring monster stories go, it becomes shockingly apparent that F needs to consume blood to survive. Masouka dutifully steps into the ancient role of conduit. Though F isn’t exactly a vampire, he acquires blood for her when necessary as a means to keep her alive while he alternately studies and trains her to behave like a human.
But our actions have consequences and of course it’s impossible to keep a secret this big. Somebody is always watching, and we are not always who we say we are.
Sometimes Marebito can be difficult to follow, even as it flows in the same worn grooves of other similar stories. In its way, it is a thoughtful movie that raises more questions than answers. The value you get out of it will relate to how interested you are in the concept of fear and humanity. It’s greatest scares come from what’s insinuated and implied but never revealed and just like Dolls, your imagination will do most of the work.
Something 青: Exte: Hair Extensions (2007)
We’re doubling down on Japanese horror this month because there’s a lot of it, and it’s very good. Sion Sono is a living legend of bizarre, off-the-wall horror and Exte: Hair Extensions is no exception. If you already find the concept of using real human hair extensions creepy (where does it come from?) you’re in for a nasty treat.
It’s vital that people understand how important a woman’s hair is to her sense of self. For many, after a moment of disruption, a radical change in hairstyle or colour is symbolic of one taking her fate into her own hands. At the risk of being dramatic, if you’ve never stood in front of a mirror sobbing with a pair of scissors in your hand you are truly blessed. This idea is touched on in Exte as women are seen clamouring for high-quality hair extensions and then wonderfully fleshed out with a rich serving of Japanese lore.
First, a nighttime security crew on a loading dock investigate a foul-smelling crate that’s full to the brim with human hair. In it, they find a mysterious corpse who’s had some of her organs and her eye surgically removed. Her clean-shaven skull shows that her hair has also been taken, probably for the purpose of black-market sales to meet the rising demand.
At the same time, young Yuko (Chiaki Kuriyama, Kill Bill 1&2, Battle Royale) is an aspiring stylist at her local salon. Yuko has a bright and promising career ahead of her, a fun-loving dance-obsessed roommate, and a strange habit of speaking in expository way as if reading aloud the script of her own life. She loves hair, but not as much as the weirdo Yamazake (Ren Ôsugi) who discovers that the corpse’s hair continues to supernaturally grow and cultivates it for sale to beauty shops. You guessed it, he makes a stop at her beauty parlour to peddle his wares and even creates his own jingle.
Without giving too much away, these hair extensions are a little bit special. They act as a vessel for rage, causing cringe-worthy incidents wherever they’re used. It takes awhile to get there, but the parts in between are still worth the time they’re given. Warm family drama enfolds Yuko as her awful half-sister dumps her kid at her house and disrupts her sunshiny-optimistic life. All the while we’re cheering for Yuko to be recognized for the great hairstylist she is regardless of her circumstances. She’s completely endearing, whether she’s screaming “I’ll never give up!” into the deafening ocean waves or riding her bike to work with a smile to focus on what makes her happiest: hair.
Hair features prominently in Japanese horror. Even those completely unfamiliar with the genre will recall the long, stringy hair concealing the face of Samara in The Ring, and many Yūrei (female ghosts) are depicted with the same limp, disheveled locks in such films as Ju-On: The Grudge, and One Missed Call among many, many others. This look is partly inspired by a fascinating game from the Edo period called Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, and the artist Maruyama Ōkyo’s painting, The Ghost of Oyuki.
Collette Balmain posits in her article It’s Alive: Disorderly and Dangerous Hair in Japanese Horror Cinema that, much like the way hair is used in Exte, “The dishevelled hair of female ghosts returning to take their revenge on their male oppressors can be read as a mechanism of articulating female empowerment outside of patriarchal regulatory mechanisms, albeit only possible within the liminal state occupied by the ghost.” I’ve only just dipped my toes into this research and I’m completely fascinated. If you know more about this, or can recommend movies that fit this description, hit me up!
Just like Marebito, Exte goes a little off the rails at the end. In this case, by that time the investment has been so richly rewarded that it doesn’t detract from the quality of the entire film. It even seems to make sense, in its own weird way. This is largely due to Chiaki Kuriyama’s impossible charm and scene-stealing face, and her relationship with her newfound prodigy Mami (tiny Miku Satô) and how much we as an audience want them to succeed and reap the rewards we think they deserve while others are punished for their mean-spiritedness.
Most of all, Exte: Hair Extensions‘ modest effects and heartwarming aspects make for an enjoyable group viewing experience and that’s how I’ll be watching it next. Its unique and squirmy premise is unforgettable and a great intro to Sono’s work, which I’ll be gorging myself on for the next while. Join me?
BY THE WAY: Have you all been keeping up with Blotter? True crime is like horror on steroids, and I don’t know anybody who knows as much, cuts as deep, or says it better than Samantha Sanders. It kind of worries me that’s how good it is, you know? Check it out while you’re waiting for another Unholy Wedding Buffet from yours truly, Blotter posts twice a week!
Thanks for sticking around. Still hungry? Here’s what you may have missed around here on the horror front:
Until next time, keep your heart rate sufficiently raised.
Featured Image: Media Blasters