Dolls, and six more movies

Dolls (1987)

"Toys are loyal, and that's a fact."

The unimaginative and unscary "Chucky" franchise owns the murderous doll sub-genre, but this movie came first, and it's far superior. For one thing, it has lots and lots of murderous dolls, so you get a variety of different death methods. It also has some brains.



Jan. 11, 2023

The story begins when an uncaring father, wicked stepmother, and their young daughter get caught with car trouble on a dark and stormy night. They take refuge at a big spooky mansion owned by a witch and warlock, where the warlock is also a toymaker.

Others also seek shelter from the storm, including a tubby middle-aged man and a couple of punk-era leather chicks. The witch and warlock are unfailingly polite and you couldn't ask for better hosts, but the same cannot be said for the dollmaker's dolls.

"I am a dollmaker. I make the most wonderful toys — dolls, puppets, soldiers, ballerinas. But nowadays, people seem to want their playthings mass-produced. Nobody wants dolls that are special any more, that are one of a kind."

Dolls comes from low-budget czar Charles Band and Stuart Gordon, director of Re-Animator, Fortress, and Robot Jox. It was written by Ed Naha, who wrote Troll, and co-wrote Honey, I Shrunk the Kids

The kid actress is better than most — she seems like a real kid, not adorable or precocious, not psychic or psychotic. The wicked stepmother doesn't quite become cartoonish, and while there's plenty of blood, it's not a gorefest. 

This isn't as brashly brilliant as Gordon's masterpiece Re-Animator. Dolls is more subtle, a frightening film for the whole family. It flirts with ordinary now and then, but it's something more — an oddly feel-good horror movie, both fairy tale and nightmare.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Bait (2012)

Really? A movie about a shark attacking swimmers at the beach?

Well, no. After only one poorly-CGI'd shark attack, it becomes a drama about a grocery store shoplifter caught in the act, and then there's a poorly-CGI'd tidal wave, the store is flooded, the survivors climb onto the top of the shelves, and a couple of CGI sharks swim around between the soda pop and chips. Or would, if they'd bothered to CGI any groceries into the water. 

This is not one of those craptastic Sharknado-style movies from SyFy. It's trying to be an actual movie, just not trying very hard.

Most of the characters are 20-something beautiful people, except one who's 30-something, and they're all boring and none too bright. The CGI effects are so half-assed that I'm skeptical there was ever any water in the allegedly waterlogged supermarket set.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦  

The Big Bus (1976)

"Eat one lousy foot, they call you a cannibal."

A very large, nuclear-powered bus has been designed and built by Stockard Channing, and it's ready for its first trip.

Of course, there's going to be trouble, because this is a lowbrow parody of disaster movies.

Most of the budget went toward building the ludicrously large bus, so the all-star cast, required in any disaster movie, has only affordable B-level actors — Joseph Bologna stars, with René Auberjonois, Ned Beatty, John Beck, José Ferrer, Ruth Gordon, Harold Gould, Larry Hagman, Sally Kellerman, Richard Mulligan, Lynn Redgrave, Stuart Margolin, Howard Hesseman, Vito Scotti, and Vic Tayback.

None of this is very funny, but surprisingly, a lot of it is slightly funny. A whole lot of slightly funny adds up to a good time, and The Big Bus is an enjoyable ride.

"Save the bus — forget about me."

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Kick-Ass (2010)

Dave Lizewski is a high school kid and big fan of superhero comic books, who wonders why nobody's yet made a cool costume and become a superhero in real-life.

"Seriously, out of all the millions of people who love superheroes, you'd think one would give it a try."

His friends explain it to him: Anyone who tried would get his or her ass kicked. But Dave will not be deterred, and thus, Kick-Ass is born: It's Dave, wearing a rather unimpressive green suit.

As predicted by his friends, he's beaten up badly whenever he tries to be superheroic. Along his painful travails, though, he finds that a few other people have also become superheros, with more success — Hit-Girl, who looks about ten years old, and Big Daddy, her father, who's trained her to be far more kick-ass than Kick-Ass could ever be.

In comic books, Batman and Superman have a credo to never kill anyone (or at least, they did when I was a kid). Hit-Girl, Big Daddy, and Kick-Ass have no such pretensions. They're the good guys, but many people die at their hands in this film, some by memorably grotesque means.

A young actor named Aaron Johnson plays the title role, and he's adequate, occasionally good, never believable, but does that matter? It's a superhero movie. Nothing that happens here is remotely believable. 

Chloë Grace Moretz plays Hit-Girl, and Johnson may be the star, but it's the kid's movie. Nicolas Cage plays her father, Big Daddy, and he's too old for the role, but he's game, and rocks it. Christopher Mintz-Plasse plays another masked marvel, and he's excellent in a kinda complicated role. 

This is based on a comic book, of course, with the source material's darker elements brightened up and Disneyfied. It's fun until Hit-Girl shows up, and then it's a lot of fun.

I am sick of superhero movies, but this one's something different, and superior to most. Sparks is on the soundtrack, which is full of upbeat rock to counterbalance the considerable violence on the screen. 

Verdict: YES.

Bonus review: I saw the sequel, Kick-Ass 2, several years ago, and it sucks.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Knives Out (2019)

Murder mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead, and everyone in the mansion is a suspect.

That's a familiar but durable concept, and it's from Rian Johnson, who made Brick and Looper, offering his spin on Agatha Christie, or perhaps on the board game Clue. There's no reason to expect anything less than an engaging film, but that's what this is: less than engaging.

Daniel Craig plays a private detective, adopting a Southern accent that grating and false. That's a major problem, because the character he's playing consists of nothing but the fake accent, and the police investigating the crime let Craig's annoying private eye do most of the investigating.

The story has its requisite twists, but several are so unlikely as to render reality moot. Much of this seems intended to be comedic, but my own detective skills uncovered nothing even slightly funny about Knives Out.

It can't be taken seriously as a drama, and there aren't any laughs, so it only adds up to an inflated Hollywood WTF.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Mercenary Fighters (1989)

Why am I watching this? I don't like war movies, so it's not likely I'll like a mercenary movie.

Peter Fonda, that's why. I've always liked his very laid-back approach. In almost all his performances, he's so low-key I'm always wondering, was he high that day?

Mercenary Fighters is set in Africa, amidst colonial wars or some such. The locals want to build a dam to generate electric power and move into the modern era, but revolutionaries are blocking the way, and Fonda plays a long-haired Vietnam vet whose team is hired to help the un-named nation's military quell the revolt.

And yeah, Fonda seems to have been high most days during filming.

The movie was made without permission in South Africa during apartheid. Does that make it evil by contamination? Probably, but it's a serviceable low-budget action movie, and not at all bad for what it is. The natives aren't caricatures, the scenery is lovely, and the gunfights are many but not too vivid for my delicate sensibilities. 

"Fuck this. I'm gonna find out if this job is over. I've got a house payment to make."

In addition to the laconic Fonda, there's C-movie megastar Reb Brown yelling a lot, Ron O'Neal (from Superfly) with his name misspelled in the credits, and James Mitchum (spawn of Robert) still trying to be a movie star.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Mr No Legs (1978)
a/k/a The Amazing Mr No Legs
a/k/a Destructor
a/k/a The Infernal Pursuit
a/k/a Killers Die Hard
a/k/a Mister No Legs

This is a clunky but watchable action movie with a few vaguely familiar B-level stars — and one hell of a gimmick. 

A drug-dealer accidentally kills his girlfriend, so his gang rejiggers the evidence to make it look like a drug overdose. The cops have their suspicions, especially since one of them is the dead woman's brother, and knows she wasn't a druggie. Two cops chase down leads and try to find the woman's killer.

So far, so ordinary, but one of the movie's bad guys is Mr No Legs, who has, count 'em, no legs. What he lacks in height, he more than makes up for with balls. The guy has shotguns built into his wheelchair's armrests, ninja stars between the spokes, and he does some (clearly choreographed but still) astounding fight scenes from the wheelchair. He can stump-kick you, jump out of his chair and grab your nuts, kill you with legless jujitsu, or strangle you in the pool.

He's played by Ted Vollrath, a Korean War vet who had both his legs blown off on the battlefield. He later became the first double-amputee to receive a Black Belt, and opened a martial arts dojo for the disabled.

Vollrath is a living special effect, not a bad actor, and deserved a better movie to showcase his skills. Despite being the title character, he's on-screen for only about fifteen minutes.

Mr No Legs also offers sunroof stabbings, Cuban cigars loaded with cocaine capsules, an incoherent car chase that lasts twelve minutes, and a fight at a wacko bar between two woman, a tall transvestite, a midget, and Mr No Legs.

"This is the liveliest morgue I've ever been in!"

As you've no doubt already guessed, the film was written by Jack Cowden and directed by Ricou Browning, the co-creators of Flipper.

Verdict: YES — not for Mr No Legs, but for Mr Vollrath.

Trivia: Reliable sources say that this movie holds the all-time record for being released and re-released under the most titles. 

♦ ♦ ♦

Coming attractions:

• After.Life (2009)
• Forbidden (2022)
• Kill the Umpire (1950)
• Malibu Express (1985)
• Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)
• White Dog (1981)
• Why Shoot the Teacher (1977)


There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twentyplex, you're missing out.

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Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. I try to make these reviews spoiler-free, but sometimes screw up, sorry. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.   



  1. "an incoherent car chase that lasts twelve minutes"

    Have I recommended HB Halicki's Gone in 60 Seconds (1974)? That's a coherent car chase that lasts two hours. Incredible film, one of the greatest works of art made by man.

    1. Huh. I thought I'd seen it, but I guess not. Onto the watchlist it goes, thanks.

  2. Ooof, I mentioned Richard Stanley before, the director of some '80s cult movies "Hardware" and "Dirt Devil," for a time "The Island of Doctor Moreau" and more lately very Nicolas Cage adaptation of Lovecraft's "Color Out of Space." I was aware his former partner had accused him of domestic violence but the Daily Beast just published a very long and very sick study of him, which I have to say seems pretty accurate from accounts I've read of his behavior.


    Archived: https://archive.is/sleER

    Somehow as soon as I saw the title I knew it'd be about Stanley.

    1. Thanks for the news. You were a fan?

      I checked his IMDB, and it looks like the only Richard Stanley flick I've seen is Hardware, which I didn't care for.

      It's mighty hard to surprise me with news that someone's an asshole. Almost everyone is. Violence toward women deserves a special circle of Hell, though, just because men have a big advantage in size and strength. So fuck him.

    2. He reminded me a lot of those directors we were talking about like Donald Cammell whose most famous films you kinda have to apologize for now before you recommend them, and whose careers were more... theoretical? I mean both called themselves "filmmakers" but spent very little of their lives making films.

      Stanley had a certain style that was shockingly different than most other directors I've seen. I respected him for trying to make "Color Out of Space," a story that like a lot of Lovecraft just seems impossible to depict visually (the color has no color and is probably not a color! Have fun with the cinematography on that!)

      If the story is any guide, though, he's completely detached from reality aside from being a bully and a manchild and an all around piece of garbage.

    3. Color Out of Space was the only film of his I even fractionally wanted to see, but I won't weep at denying myself the viewing. I will not give my video piracy non-dollars to such a man.

      Only actually, I will, because I'll wager 90% of moviemakers are at least at Stanley's level of assholery, if not worse.

  3. I am not the movie kook you and most of the readers here are, but I liked Knives Out. I liked the inspector too.

    Go ahead and hate me.

    1. Amy, I am also not a movie freak -- I always prefer a book to a movie, but I do enjoy an occasional movie. But I like Doug and enjoy the site. I hope you stay around so I won't feel like the only non-movie person out here. And also because you seem like a very nice person.


    2. Unlikely, Amy.

      You're entitled to like whatever you like. Some people like anchovies, I've heard.


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