Judge Brett Cullum can think of two things wrong with that title.
The flame of her love burned brightest in the shadow of…the
We've all been there—obsessed with a beautiful stranger who seemingly won't give us the time of day. In love with someone who doesn't return your feelings. What Living Doll does is make the obsessed person a morgue attendant in a hospital who suddenly finds his dream girl stone cold on the slab. What's a boy in love to do when the hot blonde he could never get alive is dead right in front of him? Most people would recoil in horror and probably need some therapy; however, this being a cheapy horror movie, the guy decides to take her home and make her his live-in lover. What will his parents think?
If you're not completely grossed out yet, then you might be in the target audience for exploitation horror fare such as Living Doll. I'm a horror buff, and I asked to watch this little flick and write about it. Before anyone accuses me of having a thing for dead chicks, I wasn't as intrigued by the plot as much as I was curious what legendary exploitation producer Dick Randall (Pieces, Gymkata Killer) and special effects guru Paul Caitlin (Hellraiser) would do with such a premise. In the end I found myself in front of a slow-moving, well thought-out, and ultimately icky movie with a very nice DVD package.
Mark Jax (Uther Pendragon in the television production of Merlin, and Victor's father in the TV movie Frankenstein (2004)) plays the medical student, Howard. He ends up carrying home the corpse of a sweet innocent flower girl played by UK topless model Katie Orgill. Dick Randall horror veteran and voice-over actor Gary Martin (Slaughter High) plays the best friend who suspects something is up. Eartha Kitt (Catwoman from the Adam West version of Batman) also turns up in a very small cameo as half of the landlord duo. The script was penned by Paul Hart-Wilden, who has since made more of a name as a second unit director on projects like 1994's Necronomicon. The cast and crew were a group of people who were young and excited to be working on a feature film. They made the movie in three weeks in London on studio stages, and then picked up exterior shots of New York City over three days to make the film's Manhattan and New Jersey locales work. It's a little disconcerting to see so many English people trying to affect an authentic New York accent, and some bit players sound like they are speaking to the Queen rather than being from Queens. But the leads do an okay job, and they commit to their roles very well. The film never had a proper cinematic run, and instead ended up being a straight-to-video affair. I was a little surprised at how dated the film looked given its 1990 release date. It looks like something made in the '70s, but maybe that had more to do with the budget. But oddly enough, it also feels like a '70s film in more ways than one.
The story is simple, and Living Doll is played seriously and paced excruciatingly slow. It deals with a grisly subject, and they don't skirt around the whole necrophilia angle. There are definitely some icky scenes with Mark Jax rolling around in bed with a decomposing corpse. Thankfully we never see their relationship consummated, but there is some foreplay. Then we have scenes of them getting married via a television broadcast, Howard's landlords getting suspicious of the smell, and any number of ghastly sequences that feel ghoulish. There are no subplots in the movie, and the conceit is that Howard sees the corpse as still alive in his mind's (and often the film's) eye. The problem is that all of this unfolds quite slowly, and it's not until the film's last half hour that anything more significant than "I'm dating a dead girl!" happens. Eventually the beautiful corpse starts talking to Howard, telling him to kill her ex-boyfriend, whom she believes killed her. From that point on the movie becomes more standard horror fare, as Howard has to kill for his sweetheart and risks getting caught—or even worse, realizing what he's doing. The film's final sequences are the best and most horrific. Just when it gets going, though, it comes to a quick and tidy conclusion without much fanfare. At least, at ninety-four minutes, it won't take up too much of your time, and it does have a fair amount of gore for fans of decomposing bodies and neck slicings. Trouble is it will be too slow for most horror fans, and far too distasteful for traditional drama lovers to sit through.
I could be mean-spirited, and tell you this is a crappy horror movie you should skip altogether. In some ways it is, and yet it does have a certain curiosity factor you might want to satisfy sometime. I will give Living Doll credit for taking its premise with deadly seriousness. The acting in it is fine solid work, and the effects are pretty convincing, considering it was made for a pittance. Hellraiser fans should be in familiar territory, even though this dead lover asking someone to kill doesn't move around quite as much as Frank or Julia from the first two films in that hallowed series. But I would certainly rather throw Living Doll in my player than anything after Hellraiser 2. Think of it as Hellraiser on a really tight budget with a comical cameo from Eartha Kitt, and you'll be fine. For some, that will be enough. And by all means, if you are a Dick Randall fan who loved Pieces and Slaughter High, this is a must-see. What makes Living Doll important is it was Dick Randall's last work as a producer, since he passed away in 1994. This movie completes a trilogy of UK productions begun with Don't Open 'Til Christmas and Slaughter High.
Unsurprisingly the film is distributed by Mondo Macabro, and they lavish a lot of loving attention on their little horror property. The transfer is fine even if the source print seems to be somewhat worse for the wear. Flesh tones are painfully real given the decaying subject, and the anamorphic transfer is crisp with good attention to black levels. Scratches, dirt, and grain pop up frequently and can be distracting. The sound is your basic clean monaural treatment, which is fine for such a small film. All the love lies in the extras. We get interviews with the script-writer and lead actor; both run pretty long, with a combined length of thirty minutes. There are three bonus featurettes: David McGillivray reading excerpts from a diary he kept while working on Dick Randall productions, a documentary looking at the producer's work on Don't Open 'Til Christmas, and a short film by Paul Hart-Wilder called Horrorshow, which was used as his bid to direct Living Doll. Also included are plenty of still galleries, and text information on the film and its makers. The menus all use Cliff Richards' minor hit "Living Doll," which appears prominently in the film as background music and which got on my nerves after the thirtieth time I heard it.
So basically we've got a direct-to-video B-grade horror film that takes itself seriously, even if it was made on a budget of five bucks and some change. It has no real stars in it, save for Eartha Kitt in a small role, and plods along rather slowly until a zinger of a final reel. Some nudity, some gore, and some pretty heavy pathos married to a meditation on necrophilia. It's a bad low-budget horror film that tries very hard to be a little better than what it actually is. Wrap it all up with a nice black bow and a solid DVD packed with plenty of extras, and you've got a pretty good deal for a hardcore horror fan. Living Doll would be the perfect present for your favorite Goth kid who has way too many of those Living Dead Dolls by Mezco. Toss him or her this title next time, and they'll thank you for it half-heartedly. You could do worse, and it's at least an interesting film to check out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Mondo Macabro
• Interview with Actor Mark Jax
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