One of the reasons why the clown scene in Poltergeist scares the hell out of us is that we’ve all had that experience at least once in our lives, usually with a favored toy or an artfully-thrown jacket and baseball cap, or something similar. In this case, the clown doll does double duty for being both (A) a doll, and (B) a clown that is disturbing even in the light of day. Our fascination with totems and effigies that move when we’re not looking, whether it’s Pixar’s Toy Story movies or the venerable and not-very-good Dollman franchise from Full Moon Entertainment, is actually a place holder for a lot of things: the Pinocchio story, the Frankenstein/Prometheus tale (gone wrong, of course), the betrayal from something innocent from our childhood, or just a plain ol’ stand-in for a loss of control from things beyond our ken. Pick one, or pick several. It doesn’t matter. It all adds up to one thing: sheer terror.
This is one of the few things that really scares me. There’s nothing worse than a creepy-looking doll suddenly turn its head to look Right. At. You. Just thinking about some of the movies on this list gives me the heebie-jeebies. As a life-long collector of action figures, there’s a niggling thought at the back of my head that they talk about me all judgey and stuff when I’m not in the room. Not that I don’t think I could defend myself from a pack of 3 ¾” action figures, but still...
One side note: possessed or demonic dolls are most frequently found in shorter segments of anthology movies and television shows. Some famous short stories on that very subject have been turned into creepy episodes of Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, just to name two prominent examples. For this Top 5 list, we’re looking at feature-length films only. It’s a narrow list.
5. Dolls (1987)
An early and forgotten effort from horror director Stuart Gordon (when he wasn’t making Lovecraft movies) combines the old chestnut of the car breaking down in the middle of nowhere and the creepy old house on the hill to create a night of bizarre situations and toy-based murders.
Once the dolls start doing things (and we find out why this is so), it’s a race to the end with decent special effects and some creepy and chilling moments. Gordon made good horror films with very little money, and he uses all of his tricks to make the dolls scary. An overlooked diamond in the rough.
4. Child’s Play (1988)
Forget the rest of the “franchise,” because this should never have gotten a sequel. Also, forget some of the logic leaps that take place in the set-up to this venerable story. Instead, just marvel at the way Chucky switches back and forth from surrogate big brother to the latch key kid and serial killing effigy.
The movie could have used a tighter edit, and some script doctoring, but it is a solid contender in this rarified genre, playing off of several other stories that came before it. The movie was a huge hit when it came out, and the sequels it spawned were both ridiculous and regrettable. Good jump scares, if nothing else.
3. Magic (1978)
Directed by Richard Attenborough and starring Anthony Hopkins, this film is firmly in that staple of 70’s “realism” trend where everything was about feelings and psychology, and shot and framed in the most dull and uninteresting of ways. All of that aside, this movie features one of the creepiest-looking ventriloquism dummies ever made, and the film inself was helped by one of the creepiest trailers ever made. If you don’t believe me, watch this: Magic (1978) trailer.
Okay, maybe it doesn’t hold up now, but at the time, if you were a kid that, say, was fascinated by ventriloquists (ahem), the trailer was bone-chilling in the extreme. The movie's name comes from the fact that Hopkins is a failed magician who resurfaces in the hotel circuit with a ventriloquist dummy that steals the show.
As his popularity grows, we find out that Hopkins ain’t quite right in the head, of course. The dummy talks to him, and, of course, is more or less driving the crazy bus. The ambiguity helps the movie, because it’s a slow burn to the finish.
2. Annabelle (2014)
Number two with a bullet finds its way onto the list because of the new trend in making horror movies scary again for the rest of us. Creepy cultists go on a killing spree, but not before bleeding into a doll’s eye and turning it into an object of demonic rage.
This sequel to The Conjuring (2013) is actually a prequel, and also actually unnecessary, but that doesn’t take anything away from the fact that as soon as the couple’s baby shows up, all hell breaks loose and it’s awfully terrifying. A good combination of jump-scares and creep outs that put this movie on the map.
1. Dead Silence (2007)
Another ventriloquist story; this time, an old woman from the turn of the century, looking rather a lot like the old hag from William Castle’s The House on Haunted Hill, which invites the question of why anyone would go to see such a freakshow act in the first place?
But before we get to that, we’re treated to a grisly murder and a couple of leaps in logic to get us to the place where it all goes down: the main character’s hometown and family mansion. I have to confess, I didn’t initially see it coming, and the twist and reveal is nice and novel, something I've never seen before. This is also one of those new-style horror stories where the monster wins. Best of all, there’s no sequel. You can just watch this, creep yourself out, and go on about your business. Would that they all were so simple.
Some of the set pieces stretch the outer limits of credulity, but I figure, you already bought into the premise of a living ventriloquism dummy, so how weird does the movie have to be before you scoff at it? All quibbles aside, this is a great example of a Killer Doll movie with some original twists and turns.
Note: This is a part of a now out-of-control series of posts about horror movies. If you want to catch up, here's the full list: