Personally speaking, I have always found dolls to be a little creepy. There is just something about them that never fails to unnerve me. Although I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what that something is, I do have a couple of guesses. Perhaps it is their empty, soulless eyes, which always seem to follow my every movement. Or maybe it’s the way that they remain perfectly still, almost as if they’re in a perpetual state of waiting. Forever watching, forever waiting, until the opportunity finally arises for them to strike. Ugh, it gives me the frickin’ willies just thinking about it.
Now, I am painfully aware of how that must sound – a grown man being so profoundly bothered by toys meant for children. It sounds completely ridiculous. An irrational fear, if ever there was one. But despite how ludicrous it may seem at face value, I am far from being alone in this feeling of dread. In fact, the reality of the situation is quite to the contrary.
Automatonophobia is a clinically documented fear of humanoid figures. Basically, it is an apprehension towards anything that is meant to represent a human but isn’t. For example, this would include things like mannequins, ventriloquist’s dummies, wax museum sculptures, and marionettes. A subset of this wider-reaching umbrella phobia is Pediophobia, which is a fear of dolls, specifically. Maybe that is why there are so many horror films that feature them as antagonists – because, deep down, we all find them to be a little creepy. And hell, with films like the five that are featured on this list, who could really blame us for feeling that way?
5. Dolly Dearest (1991)
Directed by Maria Lease and produced by Daniel Cady. Starring Denise Crosby, Rip Torn, Sam Bottoms, and Candance Hutson. Distributed by Trimark Pictures.
Synopsis: Demonic entities run amok in the 1991 black comedy horror film Dolly Dearest. After an archaeologist unearths the tomb of an ancient slumbering evil, the malevolent spirit goes out in search of a host – and soon finds one in a nearby doll factory. The plot only thickens when the possessed toy falls into the hands of the factory owner’s daughter, Jessica. As inevitable chaos begins to unfold, it is up to Jessica’s family to battle the porcelain-faced fiend in a high-stakes struggle for the young girl’s soul.
While Dolly Dearest isn’t nearly as good as some of the other entries on this list – or even as some that aren’t, for that matter – it is still a fun ride. It is a cheesy retrospective peek back into the world of low-budget horror from the 1990s. When the film first came out, it was shredded by critics, who said that it was essentially just a rip-off of the vastly superior Child’s Play (1988) that came out three years prior. Although they may have been right about this, I won’t let it stop me from enjoying the movie, nevertheless. I hope that you won’t let it stop you either.
4. Puppet Master (1989)
Directed by David Schmoeller and produced by Charles Band. Starring William Hickey, Paul Le Mat, Jimmie F. Skaggs, and Robin Frates. Distributed by Paramount Pictures.
Synopsis: After one of their colleagues dies under mysterious circumstances, a group of psychics is invited to his home at the remote Bodega Bay Inn to attend the funeral. Little do the guests know that there is danger lurking in the old hotel. An unfathomable terror that comes in the form of lethal marionettes, who are hell-bent on seeing them all dead by dawn. Now, the group soon finds themselves faced with a terrible choice: unravel the mystery of the Puppet Master or perish at the hands of his wicked creations.
Puppet Master is one of Full Moon Entertainment’s most popular films and has earned a significant cult following since its release in 1989. With a slew of sequels, prequels, and non-canon entries that have been added to the franchise over the years, the Puppet Master catalog is extensive, to say the least. While there are many entries to choose from, the first film is definitively the best of the bunch. But why take my word for it when you could always check it out for yourself?
3. Trilogy of Terror – ‘Amelia’ Segment (1975)
Directed and produced by Dan Curtis. Starring Karen Black, Frank Welker, and Walker Edmiston. Distributed by ABC. ‘Amelia’ segment based on the short story ‘Prey’ by Richard Matheson.
Synopsis: It’s Amelia’s boyfriend’s birthday and she has just returned home from buying him a present. The gift that she chose is strange, but she is sure that he will like it. It is an authentic Zuni Fetish Doll, said to be imbued with the spirit of a savage hunter. The hunter is bound to the carved figure by a golden chain, which is clasped around his waist. An interesting folk legend, to be sure – but when the chain snaps and falls off, Amelia is going to have much more to worry about than what dress she’s going to wear for date night.
The Zuni Fetish Doll in Trilogy of Terror is ruthless. What it might lack in stature, it makes up for in pure fortitude and ferocity as it pursues Karen Black’s character through her high-rise apartment. The segment has a slow burn, but when the action finally does hit, it hits hard. Trilogy of Terror is a great horror anthology movie. Although it is primarily remembered for its last segment, this doesn’t take away from the power of the other two that are featured in the film. I strongly recommend checking this one out.
2. Dead of Night – ‘The Ventriloquist’s Dummy’ Segment (1945)
Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti and produced by Michael Balcon. Starring Michael Redgrave, Magda Kun, Allan Jeayes, and Garry Marsh. Distributed by Eagle-Lion Films and Universal Pictures.
Synopsis: The final story in the 1945 anthology film Dead of Night, titled The Ventriloquist’s Dummy, centers around the character of Maxwell Frere. A successful ventriloquist, Frere travels the world, performing with his dummy Hugo. Things take a sour turn for Frere when another ventriloquist comes into the picture, exposing Maxwell’s insecurities and long-hidden mental instability. After a confrontation between the two goes awry, the audience is left with a troubling question: who was the dominant player in this malignant game of cat-and-mouse? Was it Frere? Or was it Hugo all along?
The Ventriloquist’s Dummy segment featured in Dead of Night is the first instance of a doll – or dummy, in this particular case – being used as the primary antagonist of a film. The dynamic between Maxwell and Hugo is unsettling, to be sure, for a multitude of reasons. It is a portrayal of mental illness, which has gone on to inspire countless other stories like it in the subsequent decades. The influence that Dead of Night has had on media can be seen in everything from Goosebumps to Batman. It is a classic selection of horror cinema and is definitely worth a viewing.
1. Child’s Play (1988)
Directed by Tom Holland and produced by David Kirschner. Starring Catherine Hicks, Alex Vincent, Chris Sarandon, and Brad Dourif. Distributed by MGM/UA Communications Co.
Synopsis: After being fatally wounded in a toy store while trying to evade the police, serial killer Charles Lee Ray uses the power of voodoo to transfer his soul into the body of a ‘Good Guy’ doll. Once inside of his new vessel, Charles is found by a vagrant and then sold to an unsuspecting Karen Barclay, who gives him to her son as a birthday gift. The boy loves his new toy, but soon enough things begin to take a turn for the worse. People around him start suddenly dying in suspicious ‘accidents’. Things come to a head when the authorities get involved. The kid claims that the doll is the one responsible, but Karen is understandably skeptical of this. That is until she realizes that ‘Chucky’ has been operating this entire time without any batteries.
Child’s Play is the quintessential ‘killer doll’ film. While it may not be the one that started it all, it is certainly the one responsible for cementing the trope as we know it today into the popular culture. Dark, funny, and full of genuinely scary moments, Child’s Play isn’t only one of the very best films to feature a killer doll – it’s arguably one of the best mainstream horror movies in general. A beloved fan favorite that has stood the test of time, Child’s Play is essential viewing to anyone who loves the horror genre. If you haven’t already seen it, I suggest you make a point to soon.
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