Dolls have been a part of human history for thousands of years. There are Ancient Egyptian rag dolls on display in the British Museum, and a four-thousand year old stone doll was once dug up on the Mediterranean island of Pantelleria. Like their creators, dolls have evolved over the years, starting out as sticks and rags and developing more lifelike looking bodies and faces.
An irrational fear of dolls, also known as pediophobia which itself is a subset of automatonophobia, is a very real thing, but there are plenty of non-phobic people out there who can feel deeply unsettled by the blank staring toys. Back in the seventies Masahiro Mori, a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology coined the term ‘uncanny valley’ in relation to how the more human-like robots appear the more appealing they become… to a point. When you reach that point, or the uncanny valley, the appeal turns to unease, discomfort and fear.
We all know the names of Chucky (Child’s Play), Annabelle (The Conjuring) and even Billy the Puppet from the Saw franchise, but there are plenty of other pint sized figures that have been taking people to the uncanny valley in cinema for years. So here are five standouts who you may or may not have heard of before, but that you should definitely check out.
Otto (The Great Gabbo, 1929)
Although the doll in this film is not your typical murderous muppet that we have got used to, he is considered to be the inspiration behind every ventriloquist and dummy film that would follow.
Otto belongs to The Great Gabbo (Erich von Stroheim), a famous ventriloquist who is an abusive and hateful man and can only show any kind of decency through the use of his dummy.
His inability to not be a dick, and constant need to rely on Otto, pushes everyone in his life away and he ends up going crazy. If you can get past the musical numbers and melodramatic suspense there is a good story to be found, and when it comes to creepy dolls Otto is a piece of cinematic history.
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He Who Kills (Trilogy of Terror, 1975)
Another product of its time, the Trilogy of Terror is an anthology made-for-TV film that featured the late Karen Black (House of 1000 Corpses) as a tormented woman in each of its three segments.
The third of which, Amelia, is based upon a Richard Matheson short story called ‘Prey’. Black, in the role of Amelia, buys her new boyfriend a Zuni fetish doll, as you do, which supposedly has the spirit of a hunter called He Who Kills trapped inside. One broken golden chain later and Amelia is in for a really bad day.
Although the overall film is not a great one (it is definitely racist at times, and the noises that the Zuni doll makes while rampaging will have you laughing more than screaming), the claustrophobic terror that Amelia experiences is what propelled Black to have a cult following in the horror world. It is also possibly the first film that features a murderous doll coming to life, not counting an episode of The Twilight Zone that came out in the sixties, called ‘Living Doll’.
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Fats (Magic, 1978)
Billed as a ‘terrifying love story’ Magic, directed by Richard Attenborough and starring Anthony Hopkins, tells the story of Corky (Hopkins), a failing magician’s assistant who is told to find a way to improve his act.
He does so by returning a year later with Fats, a ventriloquist dummy with a foul mouth and even worse attitude. This reinvention of his act was just what Corky needed, as with the dummy by his side, or rather on his knee, his career takes off.
The downside of which though are all the murders that take place at Fats insistence or due to Corky’s mental instability. But that’s the beauty of Magic, it keeps you guessing as to whom is really in charge, man or the puppet. You can see hints of what would become Hannibal Lecter in Hopkins’s portrayal of Corky, and his Fats voice is especially unnerving – in fact it still is today as demonstrated in one of the actor’s recent tweets.
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Mr Punch (Dolls, 1987)
What could be scarier than one murderous doll on a rampage? Lots of murderous dolls on a rampage!
Dolls was a commercial failure when it came out but now has a cult following. It is very underrated and it’s hard to imagine that we would have had Puppet Master or Child’s Play without it.
An elderly toymaker (Guy Rolfe) and his wife (Hilary Mason) love welcoming visitors into their doll–filled home, especially if the visitors are horrible people who deserve having their soul trapped inside a doll as a punishment. When six people end up having to take refuge in the house, during a storm, things obviously go from bad to worse.
There is a lot more to the dolls than at first meets the eye, and at the heart of it all is a little girl called Judy (Carrie Lorraine) who is given a Mr Punch doll by the toymaker. Who would have thought that if you brought together Mr Punch and Judy that violence would ensue?
Blade (Puppet Master, 1989)
It is hard to believe that an eighties horror film that was released direct-to-video would go on to spawn ten sequels, a crossover, a recent reboot, an upcoming spin-off and an ongoing comic book series, but Puppet Master did just that.
The eighties and nineties were jam packed with killer doll films but Puppet Master was one of the standouts for giving us evil dolls with minds of their own. Made even more creepy by the fact that they did not talk, each marionette had its own personality and mannerisms that meant they were not just carbon copies of each other.
Although everyone has their favourite of the monstrous bunch, Blade, often considered the leader, is one of the few to have appeared in all of the films. With a hook and a knife instead of hands, a gaunt pale face, long white hair and empty black eyes, Blade’s appearance still gives people chills even now.
Got a favourite creepy doll? Tell us in the comments below.