A Dead-Eyed Look Back At The Creepy Killer Dolls Of Cinema

Dolls can be inherently creepy, particularly ones made to resemble us. From their glass eyes and rictus grins to their stubby fingers and obvious maliciousness, dolls suggest a soulless reproduction simply biding their time until they can strike at our kneecaps or steal our breath while we sleep. They're empty vessels, and while we can ostensibly fill that hollow void with the emotion or action of our choosing – aggressive combat tactics for our Barbies, deciding what tactical gear to pack for our G.I. Joes – each of us has thought at one point or another that our dolls might have ambitions of their own. The movies have been confirming that theory for years.

Some horror fans enjoy slashers, others love creature features, and a small contingent like seeing pint-sized inanimate dolls come to life and begin slaughtering anyone within reach of their tiny hands. Okay, maybe the contingent isn't that small as movies about killer dolls are often good fun and occasionally creepy. This month is a big one as two of the sub-genre's heavy hitters are returning to theaters – Child's Play is a reboot of the popular seven-film Chucky franchise, and Annabelle Comes Home is the third film about the dead-eyed doll that was first introduced to viewers in The Conjuring (2013).

The two franchises are easily the most successful "killer/evil" doll movies, particularly if you gauge that success in box-office, as Chucky's theatrical efforts (the first five films) have earned over $175 million worldwide while Annabelle's first two outings banked over $560m. While they have the highest profile, though, they're far from the only movies trying to scratch the itch of audiences who love being scared by toys gone bad. In fact, they're really just scratching the surface of evil doll cinema.

A common focus in the sub-genre is the idea of ventriloquist dummies with a mind of their own. 1929's The Great Gabbo is one of the earliest, but while it teases madness it's in the form of drama and heartache rather than horror. It's a testament to the creepiness of dummies, though, in that it still manages to unsettle a little bit anyway. Dead of Night (1945) is probably the first horror riff on the subject that people remember, but it's just one segment in an anthology film that ends the movie on a wonderfully grim note. Devil Doll (1964) and Magic (1978) both stretch the idea of pitting an increasingly insane ventriloquist against the dummy on his lap into feature form, and the former mixes things up by making the talking block of wood the victim of his twisted handler. Others followed including the painful to watch The Dummy (2000) – seriously, skip it – but they got a shot in the arm by James Wan's Dead Silence (2007). He delivers a creepy ass dummy as the focus of the film's early terror, but the story reveals itself as an Elm Street riff about a nasty, murderous ventriloquist unable to stomach hecklers. It's far from Wan's best, but he earns points for blending the doll spookiness with a bigger story. Still, it's Roland Emmerich's Making Contact (1985) that takes the cake when it comes to evil ventriloquist dummy movies. It's not good, but fans of films that so desperately want to play in Amblin's sandbox – think Mac and Me (1988) – owe it to themselves to check this one out.

While the aforementioned Dead of Night gets deserved praise, it started a trend of sorts of horror anthology films devoting a segment to terrifying little dolls. Roy Ward Baker's Asylum (1972) adapts Robert Bloch stories including a tale of a madman building tiny, murderous "mannequins" whose insides are packed with human guts. Two others – Trilogy of Terror (1975) and Tales from the Hood (1995) – feature stories about people terrorized by little African figures, but while Rusty Cundieff's mid 90s effort does so as commentary on racism in America, the older film simply delivers another example of it. Still, they're both fantastic slices of anthology fun. Screamtime (1983), by contrast, features a segment involving a homicidal Punch doll and is no real fun at all.

Sticking with the race angle, there's a subset of the sub-genre content with with pairing its killer doll antics with racial shenanigans, and I'm not entirely sure who the intended audience is. 1984's Black Devil Doll from Hell sees a woman buy a doll only to discover too late that it's evil and intent on ramping up her sex drive, and Black Devil Doll (2007) follows a similar template except the horny doll aims its love towards white women for added "outrageousness." The less said about Ooga Booga (2013) the better although I'd be lying if I didn't admit to smiling at that Karen Black cameo.

If that tickles your fancy where only angry little dolls can reach then you'll be pleased to know that Full Moon Features and Charles Band have built on empire on the backs of tiny killers. Ooga Booga's merely the latest in a long line of comedic horrors involving dolls brought to life with a taste for blood including Demonic Toys (1992), Dollman vs Demonic Toys (1993), Blood Dolls (1999), and Doll Graveyard (2005). Some are played straight, but Band's usual approach is to pair the kills with lowest common denominator comedy. His great success, and the franchise by which all other direct-to-video doll properties are judged, is the Puppet Master film series. There are currently thirteen (!) entries with titles like Puppet Master 5: The Final Chapter (1994), Retro Puppet Master (1999), Puppet Master vs Demonic Toys (2004), and Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (2018).

The Robert film series has a lot of catching up to do. What's that? You've never heard of this memorably titled competitor to Chucky? Well you better get on that as Robert (2015), The Curse of Robert (2016), Robert and the Toymaker (2017), The Revenge of Robert (2018), and Robert Reborn (2019) aren't going to watch themselves. Spoiler, it's because they're bad news, and as much as it sounds like I'm making up this franchise I promise you I am not.

Speaking of Chucky, while the new film looks to be taking a more serious approach, the Child's Play franchise before it has grown increasingly comedic over the years. Tom Holland's 1988 original played coy with its humor and acknowledged how silly the situation was while still playing it straight, and while the two sequels that followed aimed for the same feel they're not quite as successful in the balance. They wisely gave Chucky a seven year break after part three but came back swinging for the funny bone with 1998's Bride of Chucky which introduced Jennifer Tilly as an insane seductress who's also turned into a doll. The next three fully embraced the goofiness by turning Chucky's and Tiffany's abundant personalities up to eleven.

Speaking of franchises, there are a few movies featuring creepy-ass dolls that will never get a sequel despite being immensely entertaining. The Pit (1981) is a Canadian-made tale about a pervy little boy named Jamie, his talking perv of a Teddy Bear, and a pit in the forest filled with carnivorous monsters. (They're probably pervs too.) Stuart Gordon's Dolls (1987) is as simple a horror flick as its title suggests and follows a group of strangers who spend the night at a messed up AirBnB populated with a wide variety of killer dolls. The fx work is just fantastic here from the stop-motion animation and practical creatures to the resulting bloodletting. Umberto Lenzi's Ghosthouse (1988) is a blast of Italian weirdness, and while the disturbing clown doll is only a part of the supernatural mayhem it's a memorable part.

There have been plenty more over the years – Vacation of Terror (1989), Dolly Dearest (1991), Pinocchio's Revenge (1996), The Doll Master (2017) – but in addition to being mostly forgettable they also fit in with the majority of the ones mentioned above in that they're just not even remotely scary. There are exceptions, of course, including Dead Silence, The Boy (2016), and of course the nightmare-inducing bedroom scene from Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist (1982), but it's a surprising paucity when you consider that the initial premise behind the sub-genre's entire existence is our inherent distrust and cautious fear of dolls.

The big exception is the Annabelle franchise. Say what you will about both Annabelle (2014) and Annabelle: Creation (2017), but despite their respective script issues both films deliver some genuine creepiness and effective jump scares. Sure they pale beside the actual Conjuring films that birthed them, but the filmmakers know enough to approach the material with the goal of unsettling and scaring audiences through visuals, sound design, and a constant reminder that Annabelle is one freaky looking plaything. We don't see the doll walking around as that would instantly neuter the fear – sorry Chucky – and instead the horror is built around and through her presence in the frame.

Something so many of these movies forget, or maybe that just don't care about in the first place, is that the most terrifying thing about dolls is what we the viewers imagine they're doing when the lights go off. Are they watching us? Are they moving? Are they getting closer? Nothing is more frightening than our imagination. Well, except for that doll that's behind you right now.