And that’s what happens early on in this first feature from director Cuyle Carvin, and, on balance, he makes a pretty good fist of it. The premise of the story by Jeff Miller writing with Justin and Josh Hawkins is simple but effective. Robert Holbrook (Thomas Downey) is a man whose life is not going the way he wanted. He’s split up from his wife, Lynn (Elise Muller), he barely has a relationship with his seventeen year old daughter Sammey (Trinity Simpson), his career as a children’s book author and illustrator is on the skids and, to top things off, his mother has recently died. The solution? Hit the bottle and move into mum’s kind of spooky old house. And that’s where he first meets Tommy, one of three very creepy dolls (especially the one with the winking eye and the broken neck) who, when not appearing unexpectedly around the house, are kept in the attic. Of course, we know the dolls are evil because we saw the prologue which, as so often seems to be the case, weakens the story by giving things away too early, rather than whetting our appetite for the horrors that are to come.
Nevertheless, instead of being terrified by the dolls, Robert is inspired by them and sits down to write a new children’s picture book; The Dolls in the Attic. But we’ve seen The Babadook (2014) so we know that a picture book with a scary rhyme is going to take us into a dark place that we probably don’t want to go. What’s even scarier is the possibility that the dolls might be writing the story themselves.
Cue the entrance of Dee Wallace, a veteran of horror classics like The Howling (1981), Cujo (1983), Critters (1986), The Frighteners (1996), Hallowe’en (2007) and more. Here she’s Margaret, a friend of Robert’s deceased mother who seems quite nice until the mention of ‘the dolls’ at which point she becomes terrified and warns Robert and his daughter Sammey to get rid of them before bad things start to happen. Either she’s giving them good advice or, as James (Bret Green) the yard boy suggests, she’s psycho and doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Here’s a hint. Don’t listen to James the yard boy.
For most of its 84 minute running time, the story holds the viewer close to, if not all the way to the edge of the seat. Downey and Simpson are good together as a father and daughter trying to work out their damaged relationship. What better way to precipitate their healing than have them terrorised by three murderous dolls. Wallace provides just the right amount of melodramatic foreboding in her handful of scenes and James the yard boy and Lynn the estranged wife round out a strong cast in this tight little chamber piece. There’s a stretch in the third act where the wheels fall off for a while and the restraint that Carvin has shown for the bulk of the film seems to get away from him. At the same time, the logic of the storytelling suffers at the hands of the necessity to manufacture a couple of gruesome moments. But, to his credit, things mostly get back on track as we reach the neat if a bit predictable twist at the end that is followed by a coda that feels like it might be tipping its cap to the final scene in Psycho (1960). It’s not entirely successful in leaving us with that classic suspended ‘oh no’ moment, but it comes close.
For a scary doll-horror movie, Dolls has more than its fair share of good, creepy moments and few chilling scares to keep us engaged. For my money, if you’re flicking through the Netflix menu and you come across William Brent Bell’s The Boy (2016) and its trailer puts you in the mood for a bit of doll-inspired mayhem, think twice and go looking for Dolls instead. I reckon you might have a better time of it.