Some say that the two inevitabilities in life are death and taxes. I’d like to amend those truths to be death, taxes and the consistent fear of dolls. I can always rely on a horror movie starring a haunted doll because dolls are inherently creepy. They fall on the edge of that uncanny valley where they resemble comforting human features but are also soulless inanimate objects and anything that is empty inside is a perfect template for a killing machine. The henceforth “creepy doll” genre is born, popularized originally by the Child’s Play series. This genre tiptoes a fine line of comedy and horror much like the aforementioned franchise. You can have the camera linger on lifeless toys but once you get them up and moving, let alone talking, it’s hard to take seriously. After a lull in Child’s Play and Puppet Master series from the 80’s, the past decade has shown three new installments in the genre that being James Wan’s Dead Silence, The Conjuring spin-off Annabelle and most recently The Boy. What excites me about breaking down these movies is how they all present their dolls differently whether they’re the central character or a plot element. Each find a unique way to accentuate features that make their dolls pop as characters and horror elements.
When making a creepy doll movie it’s most important to recognize what is the driving force of the doll. A terrifying aesthetic is only half of what makes the doll scary, the audience needs a reason why to suspect it should not be trusted. The plot of The Boy is a rich family in rural England who after the death of their son, Brahms, received a doll who looks just like him and since then have been treating him like a living child. Brahms while being a quiet, unassuming porcelain doll, we feel uneasy with him because of the faith the parents put in his being real. Oddly Brahms is one of the least violent of the dolls. His behavior is more mischievous than malicious but the intensity of the camera constantly cutting to the motionless doll’s face paired with a swelling score implies he should be feared.
Long takes of a camera lingering on a lifeless doll is a cornerstone of this genre. Its intent is to provoke our imaginations, to envision the horror that we have seen little proof of. It’s so effective as what we envision in our minds is always scarier than that on the screen. 2014’s Annabelle relied heavily on this idea as the titular character is very inactive for most of the film, we only see the destruction after she’s committed it. In the opening we discover her origins wherein a Manson girl type attacks a suburban house and when killed by the police, her blood infuses with Annabelle possessing her with whatever satanic magic she inhabited. Out of all the films, Annabelle is by far the weakest because the doll never really does anything. We witness Brahms in motion to an extent like seeing his shadow from the other side of the door or pulling down clothes, although ultimately it doesn’t matter because the twist of The Boy is that the real child has been living in the walls for the last twenty years. Now I don’t care if you think that’s dumb because it’s a completely crazy, over the top payoff. Annabelle never finds her payoff. The closest it gets is in the quiet moment we watch Annabelle rise to her feet, which is then immediately undercut by revealing she is being puppeted by a shadowy demon. When the movie is called Annabelle, you want her to be the agency of the scares and you feel cheated when in reality, she doesn’t do anything. There’s a completely separate demon terrorizing the housewife who is way cooler than a Raggedy Ann rip off.
Now we arrive at Dead Silence which is the movie that best elevates the genre and I actually enjoy defending. James Wan is very stylized, atmospheric and knows how to create haunting visuals. Dead Silence is his most overblown works (everything is too blue and the narrative twists are so ridiculous) yet it pairs well with the iconic scariness of ventriloquist dolls. This film also stands out because there is no central doll character but rather the doll is an instigator of the terror. The opening that sets the film in motion is a ventriloquist dummy showing up on a couple’s door and by the end of the night the wife ends up dead and her husband Jamie (Ryan Kwanten) must return to his hometown to confront the legend of Mary Shaw and her legion of dolls. Because this woman in black (one James Wan’s favorite tropes) is the real villain, the dolls become foreboding figures in the background, invoking uneasiness and paranoia. Even further the demise victims reach when confronted by these dolls is that if they scream the ghost of Mary Shaw will rip their tongue out rendering them just as voiceless as the dummies.
Ventriloquist dolls are a unique kind of creepy because unlike the other dolls, we associate them with speaking. When being operated by a performer they are brought to life, given a voice and personality so when they’re not in use they become a perplexing empty version of a person. Dead Silence plays with the movement of the dolls to create tension because their movement implies a third party operating them where in this case there’s no one there. Unlike Annabelle with its dissatisfying buildup and climax with its central toy, Dead Silence delivers thrills in spades with an upped ante of the sheer amount of dolls plus the terror they enact.
There’s a reason I keep going to see these types of movies even when they consistently come up short. Something that represents innocence and childhood turned on its head to be that of nightmares is exciting. It’s frustrating that this premise doesn’t lend itself to a perfect film but never two dolls films are quite alike. I admire the direction filmmakers can take the story and create immediate iconic characters because each doll has a different look and personality. I only wish the movies could be as great as the fear their corpse like bodies instill.