Wednesday, February 29, 2012

CURSE OF THE DOLL PEOPLE (1961) - when dolls come alive, they are always up to no good...can't they just smile and do a little dance?

The curse of a voodoo doll is creepy in the sense that it is invisible and can strike while you’re going about your daily routine. Say you go to the mall to buy a retirement present for your Uncle Stumpy, who spent the last 57 years working for a beef jerky plant. You pick up a titty mug at Spencer’s Gifts and get it gift wrapped, and then head back to your car, feeling proud of yourself for accomplishing your good deed for the day. Unbeknownst to you, a witch doctor hundreds of miles away has a grudge against you for giving him negative feedback on eBay after he sold you a Lex Luthor action figure who was missing a shoe. At that very moment, he sticks a pin in the crotch of a voodoo doll with your likeness, and you fall to your knees in pain, and the last sound you hear is the titty mug smashing on the parking lot concrete. My point is, it is pretty scary that you can die all of a sudden for no apparent reason, just like in real life. So, I guess a voodoo doll is just as scary as a sudden fatal heart attack. That’s hardly a point that needs to be overexplained with absurd examples. Oh well.

"Myron the Living Doll" was a reoccurring strip in Evan Dorkin's "Dork" comic. Yes, it's the shit.

However, voodoo dolls are also just creepy in the physical sense. Sure, some low rent witch doctors cut corners and just throw a soul patch on a stick figure and consider that a likeness of someone. But I’m talking about those dolls that actually look like real people. Say you stumble upon a witch doctor’s lair, and he has a little porcelain doll version of you, complete with your hipster glasses and buzzcut and big goofy nose. That would send chills down your spine in the normal sense that your life may be threatened, but also because it’s a little version of you, but instead with a frozen porcelain visage, with dead eyes eternally staring forward. Some goth chicks would find that awesome and take the doll home with them, but most people would find that frightening.

Curse of the Doll People wonderfully takes advantage of this. Once the first victim is claimed by a vengeful witch doctor, a four foot doll version of that character appears, using a long needle to kill the next victim. Basically, this is a cool variation on the regular voodoo doll. Why stick a needle in a doll when you could just have the doll stick the needle in for you? These dolls are the centerpiece of the film, and are among the creepiest killer dolls in movie history, if not number one. Imagine trying to sleep when a 4 foot version of your dead husband creeps into your room with dead eyes and a porcelain face. Chuckie might be more violent and gregarious, but silence and stillness tends to be more cinematically chilling as far as I’m concerned.

Well, let me backtrack. It’s swinging Mexico in the early 60’s, and a playboy doctor with a thin stache is enjoying some swank time with his caliente tribal archaeologist girlfriend (karina) before they get down to some science. He even salutes his whiskey and soda to a portrait of her deceased father, as if to say “thanks dude, for making a hot daughter”. That’s class folks. They head to a scientific meeting at an older doctor’s house, which is more like a South American version of "Playboy After Dark". The older doctor tells a story about him and his colleagues stealing an ornate idol from an ancient tribe somewhere for the ideal of “scientific research”, although he mainly seems to wanna show it off in the pad as décor. Of course, he also throws in a little tidbit about how while they were stealing the precious statue, the high priest of the tribe kept cursing his group to death, which may or may not be important. Unlike those annoyingly vague soothsayers, this high priest gives an exact time and date for the first death to take place…midnight tonight. The doctor smugly points to his watch and notes that it is five minutes to midnight, but nothing has happened, I guess because voodoo is a bunch of bullshit and science kicks ass. Suddenly, the power goes out, and the doctor is soon found dead due to mysterious causes. Way to ruin a perfectly good scotch on the rocks.

Of course, they should’ve just listened to Karina, who specializes in the field. She keeps explaining that there are things beyond the realms of science, but not in a crazy soothsayer kinda way. She has studied and written fancypants jargon papers on the subject, and is also very useful to the plot as she breathlessly explains everything to move the movie along. Really, after the first five minutes or so, Curse of the Doll People is all about horror atmospherics, beautifully shot in black and white, with the witch doctor picking off members of the scientific teams from afar, even threatening their loved ones. However, this is not a simple case of some killer dolls running around. The whole movie has a strange and surreal quality. There are ominous warning signs in the form of a braid of a doll’s hair that keeps mysteriously popping up out of nowhere. As I was saying, the dolls take on the faces of previous victims, and also show up in strange ways. For example, the maid tells one of the doctors that his daughter just received a new present in the mail from a relative. A new doll, perhaps? Sure enough, we cut to the girl sleeping in bed, and next to her is a doll with the face of the previous victim. Transporting these guys around town in coffin-esque gift boxes is a zombie in a black hat under control of the witch doctor. The zombie will also stand outside of the victim’s house and summons the dolls by playing a flute, the sound of which adds further eeriness to the proceedings. There are other odd touches like dead victims still clutching at the air in terror after they are already supposed to be dead. You know, freaky shit and whatever.

People may not take dubbed Mexi-horrors seriously, what with those Santo movies where he might piledrive the Wolfman and then get in a sports car to chase down Dracula speeding away on a moped (which are all awesome, by the way). However, there are many serious black and white mexi-horror movies of the period that are wonderful and chilling variations on the atmospheric Universal horror films, just like Spain and Italy were doing at the time (like with Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, for example). Curse of the Doll People belongs in the pantheon with the likes of The Witch’s Mirror and El Vampiro, and also stands on it’s own as a unique horror film that plays off of the stereotypical voodoo doll to create a collection of threats that are wholly original and strange. After all, what is not more horrific than that which we don’t understand? So, don’t be put off by the dubbing. If Americans at the time wouldn’t have minded reading subtitles, it would’ve been subtitled. Also, it’s not legitimate to make fun of the movie on the grounds that it is silly how everyone dresses up to just sit around and listen to Eurotrash jazz and drink an array of the finest whiskies and scotches and occasionally smooch. That’s how life was lived in Mexico City and much of Europe at the time…assuming you weren’t poor, of course.

P.S. This was written in conjunction with "The Shortening", a celebration of shorties in horror all throughout the month of February over at Deadly Doll Emily's blog "Deadly Doll's House of Horror Nonsense". Check it out!

1 comment:

  1. Intriguing. I've long heard of this film but always assumed it was mild camp. I might put it on the roadmap for next February. Awesome review!