DVDanger: Stuart Gordon Plays with Dolls

Horror pioneer talks Disney, fairy tales, and tiny terrors

"Toys are very loyal, and that's a fact." Director Stuart Gordon brings back his eerie 1987 fairy tale Dolls.

Between Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Dagon, director Stuart Gordon is the acknowledged king of H.P. Lovecraft movie adaptations. But with 1987's Dolls, he went for a different kind of dark fantasy. He said, "My favorite line is, 'Toys are very loyal, and that's a fact'."

Along with the Demonic Toys, Dollman and Puppet Master franchises, Dolls was part of a brief horror subgenre of miniature menaces, all from the same producer. "Charlie Band, he's responsible for all those movies," said Gordon. "He started with a movie called Ghoulies, which was about little creatures running around. He likes the idea of little monsters, and when we did Dolls, the project that he mentioned to me was a TV thing called Trilogy of Terror, which had a sequence which featured Karen Black being chased around by a Zuni doll. He said, 'that's what I want the dolls to be like'."

Gordon may seem an odd choice for such a project. Founder of Chicago's Organic Theater Company and director of the original production of David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago, Gordon is as grounded on stage as his is on the screen. He's often blended the two, adapting Mamet's Edmond for the screen, and now taking his LA Weekly award-winning production of Re-Animator: The Musical on tour.

Similarly, while his most famous works may be grotesquely fantastical, some of his best work for films and stage is grounded in reality: 2007's Stuck, based on the horrific death of Gregory Glen Biggs, and last year's staging of Taste, Benjamin Brand's retelling of the bizarre tale of Armin Meiwes, aka the Rotenburg Cannibal. He's currently trying to get funding for a script based on another true-life tale, "Mud Duck, which is based on a true story about a massacre that took place during hunting season in the Wisconsin woods. A group of white hunters start bullying a Hmong hunter, and he ends up killing seven of them. They were unaware that he had served in the U.S. army and was a crack marksman."

With Dolls getting a long-overdue Blu-ray release, Gordon sees comparisons to another, less sinister tale of living playthings. "I was thinking today that a movie like Toy Story is not that different from this film. In a sense, it's the same story." And that's a Disney insider speaking: Gordon may be synonymous with Eighties and Nineties indie horror, but his greatest commercial success came from selling his script Teenie Weenies to the House of Mouse, which then turned it into the behemoth Honey, I Shrunk the Kids franchise. He went on to direct Ray Bradbury's The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit for the studio, and became friends with Walt Disney's nephew and then-studio vice-chairman Roy Disney. "One day I was screening Dagon, and Roy came in and watched it with me. After it was over, I turned to him and said, 'This is my version of The Little Mermaid'."

Austin Chronicle: What was the genesis of Dolls?

Stuart Gordon: I was reading a book called The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim, which was about fairy tales, and how fairy tales should be scary, and how they're always trying to clean them up and Disneyfy them, but that they shouldn't. They are cautionary tales for kids, and the script seemed to be an opportunity to really put that to the test.

AC: I've had that conversation, when people talk about Little Red Riding Hood and how it's a metaphor for sexuality, but at the same time it's a story about avoiding wolves from a culture where wolves roamed wild.

SG: And don't talk to strangers. That's the other thing that story is telling us. Fairy tales are scary as hell.

AC: There's this idea that Walt Disney softened fairy tales, but a lot of his work is really dark and grim.

SG: Disney did scare kids with his movies. There's this wonderful book by Richard Schickel called The Disney Version, where he interviews Diane Disney, where she says she had nightmares for years after seeing Snow White. Right under that is a bill to Disney from Radio City Music Hall to reupholster all of the seats because the kids wet their seats. Some people think that the death of Bambi's mother is one of the saddest moments in all movie history, and Old Yeller, where he has the kid shoot the dog. He really did not pull his punches. You look at Pinocchio, and that sequence where they're turning into donkeys. That's pure horror.

AC: There are hints of that in Dolls as well, with the transformation sequences. How complete was the script by Ed Naha (Gordon's co-creator of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids) when you came on board?

SG: I would say 90% of what we shot was Ed's script. I had a couple of ideas that I wanted to add, connecting it to Hansel and Gretel, which is another scary story. The other thing I did was change the title. Originally it was called The Doll, and I asked, 'Which doll?' So we ended up changing the title, because there were so many of them.

AC: And like all fairy tales, there's an element of horror, and childlike wonder, but also humor.

SG: Everybody in that film is funny. The step-mother (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon), some of her exchanges are very much Cruella De Vil-like. I didn't want to see her hair, because hair softens a person's face. It isn't really until the very end of the movie, when she's being murdered by the dolls, that we see her hair. But Cruella De Vil was, I'm sure, in the back of Carolyn's mind. But even our punk rock girls are funny as well. There's a lot of comedy in it. The thing is, you'll never find an audience that wants to laugh more than a horror-movie audience. They always want to laugh to let off some steam, so it's always a good idea to give them those moments when they can do it without killing the movie.

Dolls (Scream Factory) is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.

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