Out today is Annabelle, the spin-off to James Wan’s The Conjuring in which we meet the devil doll for the second time. She joins a long list of terrifying dolls, fetishes and evil toys on screen. Here are ten of the ones that worried us the most…
Film: Dead of Night (1945)
Ealing’s portmanteau horror contains six stories of pretty consistent quality, but easily the most memorable is The Ventriloquist’s Dummy. Michael Redgrave plays the human half of the man-and-puppet act, mentally unravelling as it comes to appear that his dummy Hugo has a startling degree of independence. When Maxwell’s out of the room, Hugo starts negotiating job prospects with rival ventriloquist Sylvester (who thinks it’s some very clever Maxwell voice-throwing). And when Hugo is later found in Sylvester’s dressing room, there are accusations of theft and a shooting. Maxwell ends up in an insane asylum, stamping Hugo to pieces. But then the next real person he sees has Hugo’s voice…
Film: Child’s Play (1988)
Brad Dourif’s serial killer Charles Lee "Chucky" Ray - the Lakeshore Strangler - had nifty voodoo abilities that meant he was able to transfer his soul into a Cabbage Patch-ish doll before he was shot down by cop Chris Sarandon. He then went to live with young Andy (Alex Vincent) who had trouble convincing anybody that the ensuing violent madness was attributable to the Good Guy in his bedroom.
Dourif returned to voice Chucky in every subsequent installment, of which there have been five to date. The series reinvented itself with Ronny Yu's Bride Of Chucky in 1998, a film so mental that it garnered the public approval of John Waters. That new camp comedy vein continued in 2004's Seed Of Chucky (in which Waters appeared), but last year’s Curse Of Chucky was straighter again. Your reaction to a return to “dark and scary” Chucky depends on how scary you ever thought the Child's Plays were in the first place.
Film: Magic (1978)
More ventriloquism, with a screenplay by William Goldman (based on his own novel) and Richard Attenborough directing. Anthony Hopkins is washed up magician Corky Withers, who turns to voicing a puppet as a new gimmick. The wooden pal he ends up with is the grotesque Fats, who provides edgy and abusive comedy and becomes a big hit. On the verge of the big time, however, Corky turns down a lucrative TV deal, knowing he can’t control Fats, who’s quickly become a schizophrenic separate personality. Fats eventually talks Corky into killing people and promises to take control of all aspects of Corky’s life, including his relationships. It ends badly for both of them, and once again there’s some voice transference at the end that suggests the nightmare continues…
Film: Poltergeist (1982)
There had to be a clown in here somewhere, and this scene created an entire generation of coulrophobes (the next decade’s kids had Pennywise to contend with). It starts with Robbie Freeling (Oliver Robbins) getting slightly creeped out at bedtime by the doll on the chair at the foot of his bed. He throws a jacket to try to cover it, but misses, and bravely shrugs off the whole business before getting under the covers. But when he looks again, the chair is empty. Where’s the clown gone? Is he under the bed? There’s a tortuously slow investigation until the revelation comes that no, dude, he’s behind you!
Incidentally, should that not have been enough clown for your money, there was actually more in the novelisation. Presumably a scene that was in the script at some point, we’re shown Robbie actually finding the doll in the first place. It mysteriously turned up in the back yard during his birthday party. He really should know better than to pick up strange playthings from the great outdoors. That always ends in germs or scary hauntings.
Film: Toy Story 2 (1999)
Pete is a prospector belonging to the same set as cowboy Woody. When Woody is stolen to complete a collection for sale to a Japanese toy museum, Pete looks forward to the big time, and actively sabotages Woody’s attempts to get home to his rightful owner through a campaign of insidious psychological warfare and outright assault. He’s handy in a punch-up too, taking on both Woody and Buzz Lightyear. He hates children as destroyers of toys. And most dastardly of all, he’s supposed to be mint condition in his box but will happily get out of it and walk around! He suffers a fate worse than death by being stuffed into a backpack with a Barbie. Or maybe that sounds good to you. We don’t know your life.
Film: Dead Silence (1997)
Annabelle wasn’t James Wan’s first doll. Hell no: seven years ago, there was Billy (incidentally also the name of the puppet on the trike in Wan's Saw and its sequels). This underrated little slice of typical Wan lunacy gives us our third ventriloquist’s dummy: one that mysteriously turns up in a package at the start of the film, only to kill the recipient when she starts messing around with him. Madam, show some respect! Turns out that the Creepy Puppet contains the soul of a ventriloquist who was heckled off stage, blamed for a child’s disappearance and murdered by angry villagers. Her dying wish was to become one of her own puppets, and she was buried with 101 others, all of which have lately gone missing from their grave. She now both manifests as herself and through her creations. Most of the marionettes are destroyed in a fire, but Billy lasts longer…
Film: Puppet Master (1989)
There are many puppets in the Puppet Master films, but Blade (not to be confused with the Wesley Snipes version) is their leader, and one of only a handful that appears in all the sequels. He has a trenchcoat, a big hat, wispy hair, hollow eyes, a hook and a knife instead of hands, and is alive thanks to the sorcerous work of the titular artisan Andre Toulon (William Hickey). In terms of production design he was supposed to look like Klaus Kinski, but in the narrative of the film he’s modelled after a World War II Gestapo Sturmbannführer, and contains the soul of German scientist Dr Hess (no relation to Rudolph, as far as we’re made aware). We last saw him stabbing Scott Anthony King to death in the tenth – tenth! – film, Puppet Master X: Axis Rising in 2012.
Film: Trilogy of Terror (1975)
The third of three Richard Matheson stories in this anthology, Amelia stars Karen Black as a woman who, rather unwisely, buys a sharp-toothed, spear-wielding Zuni fetish doll and merrily brings it home to her apartment. It turns out that the scroll claiming that the thing contains the soul of a hunter called ‘He Who Kills’ isn’t a gimmick. When Black fails to keep the chain around its neck that keeps it dormant, woman vs. Zuni warfare ensues. Those Zuni dolls: can’t drown ‘em, can’t smother ‘em, can’t burn’ em. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.
Film: Dolly Dearest (1991)
Moving on from the Zuni, we now come to the Mayans, and the Mexican factory where the Dolly Dearest line is manufactured. Inconveniently, the factory is near the entrance to a Mayan cult’s tomb, and when a meddling archaeologist opens it up, an evil spirit trapped for centuries decides plastic is the warmest place to hide. Factory owner Sam Bottoms allows his daughter Jessie (Candace Hutson) to bring a doll home… and you can guess the rest. The doll can speak when no one but Jessie is listening; Jessie starts drawing disturbing pictures and screaming about killing people; the housekeeper gets stabbed, thrown downstairs and electrocuted. Just your average week with an ambulatory moulded Sanzia devil child ghoul in the house. Dynamite is the only possible answer.
TV Episode: Seinfeld, “The Doll” (1996)
Sure, this is not a movie, but stick with us. George is already perturbed that his father is planning to turn his old room into a ‘billiard parlour’ when he returns to his own apartment to find his fiancé Susan unpacking her doll collection. Disturbingly, the centrepiece is a ginger-wigged horror that’s the spitting image of his harridan mother Estelle. Even worse, that evening’s amorous activity is stalled when George finds the doll in bed with them; Susan explaining that she always loved to sleep with her dolls when she was a girl. Sleep does not ensue. Getting twitchy, George finds himself at Monk’s diner publicly arguing with the effigy, and he’s not the only one who hears its voice in his head. His father’s response when he encounters it is more on the violent side. It was all Larry David’s idea, and a doll would also later fare rather badly in Curb Your Enthusiasm.