Stuart Gordon's Screaming Empire of Dolls

For my money, Dolls is the best of Stuart Gordon's non-Lovecraftian adaptations, and maybe even better than one or two of those. It already received a pretty nice DVD from MGM, with an excellent OAR transfer and two strong audio commentaries. But still, a special edition with no video extras (i.e. any documentaries, deleted scenes, interviews) feels a little incomplete. So I was happy to see Scream Factory filling that gap when it came time for their blu-ray upgrade.

Update 2/14/15 - 7/47/17: I just picked up an interesting 2011 DVD set from MGM, called 6 Horror MoviesDolls is one of those six, so I'm adding it to the comparison.

Update 8/11/23: Arrow has decided to show Dolls a little more love, giving it a fresh 2k scan and all new special features in their fancy new 'Enter the Video Store' set.  Is it enough to justify tracking down a copy of this immediately OOP and very pricey box?  Let's open it up and see.
This film has more of an almost family-friendly, children's' story feel to it, even though it's still a pretty gruesome story. It's a dark and stormy night when a little girl, her father and wicked stepmother (played to the hilt by Carolyn Purdy-Gordon) wind up having to spend the night with a creepy old couple who live in an old, isolated mansion with no telephone. The house is full of Victorian-style porcelain dolls because the old man is a toy maker living in seclusion. A cheerful salesman (Stephen Lee, who you probably remember from Gordon's Pit & the Pendulum) soon also arrives with two colorful punk rock hitchhikers, and they wind up stirring the dolls, who are actually little killer monsters who have a really negative reaction to rude behavior.
Dolls has an interesting production history I didn't realize until watching the extras. Apparently, as they were about to begin filming From Beyond, Charles Band gave him the script to Dolls and asked him to shoot it on the same sets first. So that's why it's not written by Gordon's usual guy, Dennis Paoli (though Brian Yuzna is still on board as a producer). And even though he shot it first, it didn't come out until after From Beyond, because the film took so long in post-production, adding insert shots and especially David Allen's awesome stop-motion imagery of living dolls. Everything here is just about having fun with the horror genre, often with a very classic, early Hollywood feel. The fantasy sequence at the beginning with the killer teddy bear is worth the price of admission alone, one of my favorite horror moments as a kid that still plays just as well watching it again today.
MGM released this as a pretty sweet special edition in 2005.  Remember when they used to put out all those sweet Midnite Movies discs of all their cult and horror titles, and they'd be there on the shelf at all your local stores?  Ah, I miss those days.  Anyway, I've got that here, and it's a two-sided flipper disc, with a fullscreen version on the other side.  I've also got MGM's 2011 6 Horror Movies collection, and its Dolls disc is also a flipper, but loses its fullscreen side in favor of being backed with another of the six films (they do six films on three discs).  Scream bumped this deserving title to blu in 2014 as one of their signature Collector's Editions.  And now in 2023, Arrow has brought the title back as part of their limited 'Enter the Video Store: Empire of Screams' 5-film boxed set.
1) 2005 MGM DVD; 2) 2011 MGM DVD;
3) 2014 Scream Factory BD; 4) 2023 Arrow BD.

Scream Factory's 2014 blu looks great, but they really didn't have to do much beyond taking MGM's already top notch transfer from their original 2005 DVD and putting it on blu.  It's clearly the same master, with identical 1.75 framing, colors, etc.  And unsurprisingly, MGM's 2011 DVD is a precise match for their the 2005 DVD - no differences there.  Scream's blu obviously benefits from the upgrade to high definition of course, making everything cleaner and more attractive, which especially helps in a film like this, with a heightened, stylized look.  But Arrow's latest scan (and encode) is a distinct cut above, with film grain neatly captured and finally making this film look truly filmic for the first time.  But with that said, the adjusted 1.85:1 geometry is just barely perceptible even when directly comparing screenshots, and the colors (it's a shade brighter and cooler), detail, etc are nearly the same across editions.  There were never any issues like edge enhancement, DNR or interlacing down the line that cried out for fixing.  So whether you can appreciate the upgrade will depend almost entirely on your screen size.
2005 MGM DVD.
Oh, and for the curious, the full screen version is another one of those semi-open matte deals. It gives us a little more information vertically, along the bottom. But it cuts off chunks of the sides, too. I suppose they're trying their best to make it look good for 4:3 TVs by splitting the difference; but it winds up being less interesting than a standard open matte, as it doesn't even give us much more picture for curiosity's sake.

The DVDs, both full and wide, offer the original Dolby stereo track with optional subtitles in English, French and Spanish.  Both blus have that stereo mix, in DTS-HD on the Scream and LPCM on Arrow's, and also a new 5.1 remix, in DTS-HD on both blus.  Scream and Arrow also have just the English subtitles.
MGM's DVDs already started strong (yes, the 6-pack retains all the extras from the solo releases, which is absolutely appreciated) with two audio commentaries.  The first is a really informative one by Stuart Gordon and screenwriter Ed Naha. And the second one is a more upbeat cast commentary by Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, Stephen Lee, Ian Patrick Williams and Carrie Lorraine, who played the little girl. The latter might've benefited from a moderator, as it often gets stuck when the actors can't think of anything to say; but they do have a lot to offer when they start gathering momentum.  Besides that, there's the trailer, a photo gallery and storyboard comparison.  All of which Scream carried over to their edition.

Oh, MGM's discs also had an additional commercial for their horror line of DVDs and opened with one of those annoying "YOU WOULDN'T STEAL A HANDBAG" [silly, how else do they think I pay for all their DVDs?] anti-piracy commercials.  Thankfully, Scream let those go.
But the real treat is that they've also created a new 30-minute retrospective documentary called Toys of Terror: The Making of Dolls, featuring interviews with Stuart Gordon, Charles Band, Brian Yuzna, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, Ian Patrick Williams, effects artists Gabe Bartalos, Gino Crognale, and John Vulich. It really does add a lot of depth to the release, and while it is sometimes a little redundant, repeating facts and stories that we already heard in the commentaries, it's kind of fun to hear how Gordon's tale of inspiration has changed over the years.  In the commentary, he and his wife talk about how he was looking at a collection of very old dolls late at night in a museum and thought to himself, wouldn't it be scary if he'd gotten locked inside? In the documentary, he flat out says he was locked inside the museum and had to spend the night with the dolls.

Scream Factory's blu also features a couple bonus trailers, reversible artwork and a slipcover with their then-typical comic book-style cover, which I don't think ever suited these movies.
Happily, Arrow preserves all of that.  And they've added more to boot.  First of, there's an excellent, in-depth interview with the editor, who has a lot of good memories and insight to share about working with Gordon.  And then there's a new audio commentary by David Decoteau (Creepozoids, Nightmare Sisters), "Empire alumnus and friend of Stuart Gordon."  He starts off talking about his connections to Gordon and Dolls through Empire (i.e. he cast Guy Rolfe in Puppet Master 3 based on Gordon's recommendation after working with him in this), but is mostly just a rambling disquisition about his own career.  Curiously, the box credits two moderators, despite Decoteau clearly being alone during this recording.  He has plenty of fun anecdotes, and I still enjoyed the experience, but this is a commentary for fans of Decoteau, not Gordon.  It makes a little more sense when you remember this BD is part of the Empire boxed set, but it's something you'll probably want to bear in mind before dedicating the your evening to it.

Dolls also includes two additional trailers, a fold-out double-sided poster, three art cards and reversible artwork.  It doesn't come with its own booklet, but the set itself includes an 80-page hardbound book with writings on all the films and Empire in general.  That box also comes with a giant slipcover and a replica video store membership card.
So is it worth it?  Well, like I said about Scream's disc in 2015, "it's not some fancy restoration, since we didn't need one here. It's simply the basic boost from SD to HD, plus a nice, new documentary to sweeten the deal.  A very good release for a very good movie."  Well, now we've got the restoration, and it is an improvement.  And the new extras are nice, especially the interview with the editor.  If you love Dolls, this is the ideal version, no question.  We've gone from a very good to great release.  But if you're looking at a $150 EBay price-tag, and you're not particularly interested in the other four films, Scream's blu will still probably prove to be good enough for most folks.

1 comment:

  1. I love this movie! Ever since I was a little girl, I always hoped I would catch it on AMC fear fridays. Idk if I ever did tho maybe it was on one of those specialty channels. Anyway, it's definitely a I get this lost attic in some forgotten corner of the world vibe from it. It's a cozy film. Thank you for covering it. It's so underrated.