To celebrate the upcoming release of Mannequin: Tales of Wood Made Flesh (featuring my new story, “Husks,” as well as fiction by Ramsey Campbell, Michael Wehunt, Kristine Ong Muslim, Jon Padgett, Matthew M. Bartlett, Christine Morgan, and many more), I thought it’d be fun to make a list of some of my favorite evil effigy stories from that other great love of mine: cinema.
What exactly do I mean by “evil effigy” movies? Well, these are films about something that is made to look like a living thing, but it isn’t actually alive… until one day it is… and then it goes about making others living things into not living things. Get it?
Basically, I’m talking about dummies, dolls, scarecrows, statues, golems, homunculi, and, yes, mannequins. Some of them get up and kill on their own, while others make some poor schlub do the dirty work for them. My only two requirements here are: 1. there has to be at least a suggestion of the effigy’s autonomy (in other words, movies where we know right from the start that the dummy/doll/whatever is definitely not alive, those are out), and 2. the effigy itself has to be a primary focus for the movie, not just relegated to one or two smaller set-pieces (so flicks like Poltergeist, Maniac, and May, as well as anthologies like Tales From the Hood, Dead of Night, and Trilogy of Terror are also out).
Of course, there’s still a bit of wiggle room here, so some of you might disagree with which movies I judge meet the above requirements. In which case, you can go write your own damn blog. Anyway, remember that these are just personal favorites, not necessarily films I think are objectively great. Hell, some of these aren’t even good movies, at least not in a technical sense. But I love them anyway.
Okay, enough preamble. Here, in no particular order, are My Top Ten Favorite Evil Effigy Movies (+1)…
“More fun than a barrel of mummies!” boasts what might be my favorite horror-comedy tagline of the ‘80s, and Waxwork lives up to it. Starring Zach Galligan of Gremlins fame and David Warner of more-awesome-movies-than-I-can-list fame, b-movie auteur Anthony Hickox’s best film sees Warner as a suave warlock luring Galligan’s schoolmates into a wax museum so he can transport them into the gruesome scenes the dummies depict (such as a werewolf transformation, a zombie uprising, a bloody vampire dinner-party, and even an erotic torture-chamber lorded over by the Marquis de Sade). Why? Because once all the dummies have been “fed” they’ll come to life and kick off the “voodoo end of the world.” Obviously.
Waxwork is nonsense through and through, but damned if it isn’t fun. Hickox wears his love for the genre on his sleeve, using the movie’s daffy premise as an excuse to cram in as many classic horror characters as possible. Frankenstein’s Monster? Check. The Phantom of the Opera? You betcha. Jack the Ripper? Damn right. The Invisible Man? Despite the name, you can’t miss him. The Mummy? Not a barrel’s worth, but yeah, we got one. It’s like a Famous Monsters of Filmland greatest-hits compilation updated with a gory Grand Guignol flourish.
I’ve heard people refer to Kakashi, a semi-obscure adaptation of a Junji Ito manga, as “one of those movies where nothing happens.” Good thing those are some of my favorite kinds of movies! I mean, things do happen: a young woman travels to a secluded farming village searching for her brother, who disappeared after receiving a strange letter summoning him there. So far, so Silent Hill. When she arrives, she finds the townsfolk hostile, more interested in preparing for their upcoming “scarecrow festival” than answering questions. She begins dreaming of scarecrows and wakes up clutching fistfuls of straw. As the festival date approaches, how all these seemingly unrelated events fit together is slowly (and I do mean sloooowly) revealed.
I understand if some viewers find Kakashi too languid or subdued. But for those who enjoy quiet horror where thing feels just slightly off as opposed to outwardly ghastly, this film projects a mood I can only describe as straight-up hypnotic. It lulls you in with its surface mundanity, only pulling back the veil for very rare, very brief glimpses of how fucked-up shit really is. Only in the final third does all that build-up pay off, though in not as explosive a fashion as some would prefer. To torture a cliché, it’s not the destination that’s important here, but the journey. And this journey is one of delicate, haunting grief, the kind you never talk about but which is always there, just behind your eyes.
Child’s Play 2
It’s impossible to bring up killer dolls and not tip your hat to Charles Lee Ray AKA Chucky, the subgenre’s undisputed king. Despite an imminent remake, it’s noteworthy that the original franchise is still going strong, having released its most recent entry in 2017, with a spinoff television series currently in the works. Most admirably, the franchise remains the brainchild of prime mover Don Mancini, who wrote the first four movies, then wrote and directed the subsequent three, maintaining a surprising level of quality throughout. What’s more, Mancini is constantly pushing the narrative forward while staying true to three decades’ worth of continuity.
For my money the peak of the franchise remains the first sequel, Child’s Play 2. Director John Lafia’s use of extreme camera angles and distorting lenses gives this installment a uniquely nightmarish style that makes viewers feel like children themselves. It also allows the diminutive serial killer to tower over the audience with a grisly, grinning malevolence bolstered by voice actor Brad Dourif’s Jack Nicholson-inspired performance. The grand finale where Chucky stalks his victims through a brightly lit toy factory packed to the rafters with doubles of himself is intense, and its surprisingly brutal mutilation-by-assembly-line climax hits even harder when you remember that, despite looking like a lifeless doll, Chucky is still a thinking, feeling, bleeding entity.
Before Anthony Hopkins was Hannibal Lecter, he was Corky Withers, a bumbling nebbish with a deeply repressed dark side. Corky is only able to express himself through his ventriloquist dummy, Fats, a foul-mouthed smartass who isn’t afraid to speak his mind. But wait, shouldn’t it be Corky’s mind he’s speaking? What started as an outlet for Corky’s id is rapidly becoming a living thing all its own. When Corky begins an affair with a married woman named Peggy (played by a sympathetic, conflicted Ann-Margret), it isn’t long before Fats gets jealous. If you thought this dummy’s wit was sharp, just wait until he pulls out his knife.
Based on the William Goldman novel of the same name, Magic is at its heart a tortured romance. The question is, which of its pair of unhealthy pairings is the most unhealthy, Corky and Peggy or Corky and Fats? Playing things deadly serious throughout, Magic rejects camp humor in favor of building a methodical engine of tension that retains its air of mystery all the way to the bitter end. And all the while, the main attraction is Hopkins. Since he voices Fats too, the actor basically gets to play two different characters here. Such duality proves captivating; Corky is as pitiful as Fats is diabolical. In the end, though, it’s moments where we see hints of one within the other that prove most chilling of all.
Charles Band is no stranger to evil effigy flicks. As a director, producer, and head of two separate b-movie studios (Empire Pictures from ’83 to ’89, then Full Moon from ’89 onward), the man could be said to have a wee bit of an obsession. There’s the Puppetmaster series, for one. And the Demonic Toys series. And Stuart Gordon’s Dolls. And about a million other movies with “Doll” in the title. Seriously, Google the guy; his filmography goes on forever. Even with his name attached to so many of these kinds of pictures, 1979’s Tourist Trap is still arguably the best. If not that, it’s certainly the strangest.
A funhouse mirror take on familiar horror tropes, Tourist Trap is an eerie, disorienting tale about a bunch of teens whose jeep breaks down along an abandoned stretch of highway. The only souls to be found for miles are a helpful weirdo who calls a destitute roadside attraction home, a masked mystery man with a froggy voice and a habit of suffocating folks under globs of gooey plaster, and, oh yeah, a friggin’ army of mannequins that seem to follow our protagonists everywhere they go. The movie plays its cards close to the chest for much of its runtime, stringing you along through one surreal set-piece after another (the part where the mannequins’ jaws drop open so they can, for lack of a better word, sing is pants-shittingly freaky). In time, the rest of the universe seems to disappear entirely. All that’s left is an isolated night-world where batshit insanity and department-store dummies reign.
I’ve often said that when it comes to film I prefer ambitious failures with interesting ideas to competent successes that take no risks. Take the most recent entry on this list, 2017’s The Doll. Being an extremely low-budget indie production its problems are legion, including a tenuous and inconsistent script, amateur acting, laughable kill scenes, a meandering non-sequitur cameo from Ron Jeremy (!), and more. But it does have one gold-star advantage that no other horror movie before or since has ever had: Valeria Lukyanova. The uncanny onscreen presence of this Ukrainian model, who made global headlines as a “Human Barbie Doll,” is the result of pure stunt-casting genius. It recontextualizes not only the movie’s story—in which Lukyanova plays an animate but lifeless synthetic woman pimped out by the devil-worshiping mad scientist who created her—but also the movie itself as a product and the audience’s reaction to that product.
On a personal note, I’ll point out that I consider myself a transhumanist and body-autonomy radicalist. As such I have serious ethical concerns about any movie which further others someone who has already been othered to a depressing degree (the fact that Lukyanova has some rather noxious ideas about race does little to alleviate my concerns, though it does add some new ones). Even still, I can’t deny the subtle power and morbid fascination inherent in sophomore director Susannah O’Brien clumsy but brash weaponization of the male gaze.
Black Devil Doll
Where The Doll turned the male gaze against us, Black Devil Doll happily indulges it to absolute excess. As soon as we see the introductory animation claiming this film has been “rated X by an all-white jury,” we know exactly what we’re in for. African-American director Jonathan Lewis parodies the blaxploitation genre with a horror-comedy sleazefest centered around Mubia Abul-Jama, an executed black-militant serial killer whose disembodied soul possesses (and subsequently “blackifies”) a Howdy Doody doll. After his long stint in the slammer, Mubia is understandably horny. Thus begins what mythologist Joseph Campbell might call “the hero’s journey,” as Mubia seeks out “a fresh fuckin’ batch of strange.” But murderous habits die hard, and so too do a number of buxom beauties.
Ruthlessly skewering every slasher-movie cliché and African-American stereotype in the book, Black Devil Doll is actively stupid, often mean-spirited, and always offensive. Fortunately, the sheer level of absurdity here makes it difficult to take any of its politically incorrect grotesqueries seriously. In between many, many, many leering shots of actresses Heather Murphy, Natasha Talonz, Precious Cox, Erika Branich, and Christine Svendsen, there are also graphic, Troma-esque scenes of puppet fucking, puppet shitting, and puppet drug use. Set to a druggy jazz-funk score by The Giallos Flame, this mix of mature content and immature execution makes Black Devil Doll a live-action cartoon perfect for perverts and psychos alike.
Silent horror films, especially those in the German Expressionist tradition, are unlike anything else you’re likely to ever watch. They’re otherworldly, mythic, and rare; indeed, a huge number of these movies have been lost to time. The one under discussion here is actually the final part of a trilogy, with no complete prints of the first and second entries still existing. This 1920 classic (the full title of which is The Golem: How He Came into the World) is actually a prequel to the other two. Set in medieval Prague, prejudice against Jews prompts Rabbi Loew (a fictionalization of the real-life kabbalah mystic of the same name) to create a clay golem as a protector for his people. When Rabbi Loew’s assistant discovers the woman he loves in bed with another, he tries to sic the golem on the man. This selfish act of jealousy opens the colossus up for possession by the demon Astaroth, who drives it on a rampage through the city, terrorizing the very people it was built to serve.
An epic in under 90 minutes, The Golem may not be as stark an example of Weimar-era cinema as Nosferatu, Warning Shadows, or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but its shadowy, stylized images (courtesy of pioneering cinematographer Carl Freund) stay with you long after the film is over. What’s more, few icons of the period cut as imposing a figure as the title character (played by co-director Paul Wegener), whose lumbering movements and blank expression suggest dangers both physical and spiritual.
Gun-toting antiheroes versus ambulatory burlap-sacks. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Of course it’s a product of the ’80s. Taking the Predator/Aliens action-horror route, the imaginatively titled Scarecrows drops a squad of well-trained and well-armed crooks into a cornfield late one night following a daring multimillion-dollar heist. With the authorities on their tails and greed and paranoia splintering the group from within, the last thing they need is some curiously specific form of supernatural comeuppance wherein killer scarecrows remove their internal organs and replace said guts with hay and money. But, oh yes, supernatural comeuppance wherein killer scarecrows remove their internal organs and replace said guts with hay and money is exactly what they get.
After an deceptively restrained and suspenseful first act, Scarecrows swings for the fences with splattery abandon, pitchforking hands, knifing faces, and gouging out eyeballs with barb-wire. But what really makes Scarecrows special is its potent doom-laden ambience. The sky is always pitch-black; no day-for-night shots here. The movie’s namesake villains move silently among the stalks, only speaking telepathically to mimic the voices of their victims. And in a refreshing break from convention, the script skillfully sidesteps any real explanation for the scarecrows’ origins. There are implications of black magic and a recurring photograph of three farmers, but nothing is explicated. For all the film’s indulgences, it knows the darkest dread lurks in all the things we don’t know.
Remember that scene in Poltergeist where the kid’s clown doll turns monstrous and attacks him? Umberto Lenzi remembers. Legend says that if you hold a copy of Ghosthouse to your ear, shut your eyes, and listen closely, you can actually hear Lenzi’s voice whisper “Hey, what if we made a movie where instead of just being a one-scene-wonder that spooky clown doll was the main attraction?” And so, from little acorns mighty oaks grow.
Bizarrely marketed in some territories as an unofficial Evil Dead sequel, Ghosthouse reimagines the Poltergeist plaything as property pilfered from the restless dead. Given as a gift to the cat-stabbing daughter of a grave-robbing mortician, the clown doll transforms into a conduit for supernatural mayhem, promptly killing the young girl’s family. Skip ahead ten years later and some ham-radio enthusiasts track a mysterious broadcast consisting entirely of carnival music and screams to the now abandoned funeral home (fun fact: Lucio Fulci used the same shooting location in House by the Cemetery). Before you can say “mama mia,” Italian cinema’s signature blend of gory, nightmare-logic mayhem kicks into high gear. Guillotine bisections! Hatchet head-chops! Exploding lightbulbs! Ecloplasmic sinkholes! Spectral dobermans! THE GRIM FUCKING REAPER! None of it makes any sense, but you won’t care.
All I have to do to sell you on this one is to tell you what the title refers to. Pin is the name for an anatomically correct life-size dummy resembling a man without any skin, which aloof Dr. Linden uses as a teaching tool for his two young children, Leon and Ursula, encouraging the rugrats to talk to it as if were a real live person. Let me repeat that in case you missed it: this is an anatomically correct life-size dummy resembling a man without any skin. That’s disturbing even before little Leon catches his father’s nurse fucking it. Yes, that is a thing that happens.
Understandably, Leon grows up with a few screws loose, developing an obsessive relationship with Pin not unlike the one Anthony Hopkins shared with Fats in Magic. And much like in that film it’s never 100% clear whether Leon’s conversations with Pin are solely the product of a disturbed mind or something more arcane. Another parallel is that Pin is also based on a novel, this time by Andrew Neiderman. Pin, however, is so much weirder and more lurid than Magic, even if it does dance around the source material’s more overt themes of incest (small wonder that Neiderman went on to ghostwrite books for the estate of deceased Flowers in the Attic author V.C. Andrews). Whether the lack of explicit brother-sister boots-knockin’ is a flaw or an improvement is a judgement I leave to you.