13 Cinematic Dolls at Least As Creepy As M3GAN

13 Cinematic Dolls at Least As Creepy As M3GAN

Only time will tell if M3GAN becomes a horror classic, but, in 2023 currency, she’s already something even better: a TikTok superstar.

M3GAN went viral months ago when Universal released a clip of her weird and sassy dance, straight from deep within the uncanny valley. Immediately, a style (and queer) icon was born. Reviews are shockingly good, but we’ll see if the overprotective animatronic companion is able to best her own viral success.

She certainly has some competition for the title of the movies’ most iconic creepy doll. Scary dolls in cinema (usually, but not exclusively, of the possessed variety) go back to the silent era, with the Erich von Stroheim vehicle The Great Gabbo being a particularly early example of the form. That one kinda flopped, though, and the sub-genre sat mostly dormant until the 1940s, when it got another shot in the arm via the Talky Tina episode of The Twilight Zone. We’ve rarely been without a scary doll onscreen since, possibly because the horrific possibilities of a child’s toy turned into a ruthless killer are just too delicious to pass up.

Dead of Night (1945)

Freaky doll: Hugo

Purists might make a distinction between a doll and a ventriloquist dummy, but given the consistent creepiness of dummies (even genial Charlie McCarthy would be terrifying if spotted in your room at night), I’m not inclined to split hairs. “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” makes up just one story in the clever British horror anthology Dead of Night, but it is one of the most influential, helping to inspire generations of creepy dummy tales (1929’s The Great Gabbo went there first, but didn’t have nearly the impact). In this segment, ventriloquist Maxwell Frere has a falling out with his dummy Hugo, who would prefer to work with someone else. Hugo then makes life a hell for the man with the hand up his back, causing problems for which Frere is blamed. It all ends with Frere in prison — the little fella is not to be messed with.

Child’s Play (1988)

Freaky doll: Chucky, naturally

The Chucky-verse is the rare horror franchise that has grown in cultural cache over time. Everybody loves Freddy and Jason, but these days they each feel like nostalgia acts. But by the fourth film in the Chucky series, Bride of Chucky, the filmmakers realised the benefits of leaning into the camp appeal of the central concept. The current Chucky TV series, which is more funny than scary, and surprisingly good, is in its second season, and even the 2019 reboot was decent. But none of that would have happened were it not for the opening entry — more horrific than recent efforts, but far from humorless, with Brad Dourif setting the tone as the voice of the sassy title doll, which was smartly designed to look like one of the many animatronic toys on store shelves circa 1988. (For an easy entry into the modern era of the series, jump to the Jennifer Tilly-starring Bride of Chucky.)

Tales from the Hood (1995)

Freaky doll(s): Dozens of them, animated by Miss Cobb

If possessed dolls can’t always support entire film, they’ve certainly contributed some of the most memorable bits in horror anthologies. In “KKK Comeuppance,” part of Rusty Cundieff’s great ‘90s-era horror-comedy Tales from the Hood, Corbin Bensen plays a racist senator running for governor out of an old plantation house owned by his ancestor. He’s aided by a Black spin doctor who dies unexpectedly when he trips over…you guessed it, a doll. It seems that Miss Cobbs, a hoodoo practitioner from the pre-Civil War era, transferred the souls of those enslaved on the plantation into dolls after they were massacred by their owner. The dolls never left. And if they weren’t able to exact revenge on the man who enslaved and then murdered them, they’re perfectly content to do so on his equally odious descendant.

Trilogy of Terror (1975)

Freaky doll: He Who Kills

Aside from offering a thoroughly memorable performance from Karen Black, “Amelia,” the third segment in Dan Curtis’ Trilogy of Terror, almost certainly wins the prize for creepiest vocalisations, with the relentlessly attacking doll charging in with a variety of guttural, animal-like sounds. The “Zuni fetish” angle hasn’t dated terribly well, but this remains a taut, brisk, and genuinely freaky visit from the doll of your nightmares. The always great Richard Matheson (I Am Legend) adapted the segment from his own 1969 short story.

Annabelle: Creation (2017)

Freaky doll: She’s right there in the title; also, right behind you.

Introduced as a creepy supporting scare in the original Conjuring movie, the resilient porcelain doll Annabelle made enough of an impression that she earned her own spin-off in 2014, a film that all but the most ardent Conjuring-verse completists can probably skip. The period prequel, however, provides some solid, old-school scares without reinventing the form, and reminds us that opening up an orphanage at the site of a tragedy is never a good idea.

The third movie in the series, Annabelle Comes Home, returns to the present day to set loose various possessed whatsits from the basement museum of the series’ protagonists the Warren family. It’s fun, if not all that scary, with a vaguely Avengers Endgame feel. The “real” Annabelle, or, rather, the doll that inspired the movie version and that lived in the Warren family’s museum of complete nonsense, was a more standard Raggedy Ann doll, which honestly strikes me as a bit scarier than the jacked-up, try-hard movie version.

Puppet Master (1989)

Freaky doll(s): Blade (not that Blade) , Jester, Pinhead (not that Pinhead), Tunneler, Leech Woman, Shredder Khan, and Gengie.

Where to start with the 15-film (and counting) Puppet Master series? Why, at the very beginning, of course, with the cult classic(-ish) original involving the titular puppet master André Toulon (William Hickey — Oscar-nominated, but not for this), who uses an Egyptian spell to animate all of his favourite dolls while being hunted by Nazis in 1939. He hides the dolls away, only for them to be rediscovered in 1989 by a group of psychics. The plot is confusing, and events sometimes feel a bit arbitrary, but the movie has loads of atmosphere, the designs are pretty fabulous, and the filmmakers imbue each of the main dolls with distinct personalities.

If you enjoy this one, decades worth of sequels, prequels, and seidequels await you. I’m not sure what put scary dolls in the zeitgeist in the late 1980s, but between this and Child’s Play, we had the beginnings of two of the longest-running franchises in movie history.

Magic (1978)

Freaky doll: Fats

Starring wee baby Anthony Hopkins (only 40 here), Magic hit on a rarely replicated but thoroughly effective innovation in scary dummy cinema by giving “Fats” a disconcertingly large head. (Seriously, it’s hard to understand how the thing even stays attached.) Directed by Richard Attenborough and starring Hopkins, Ann-Margaret, and Burgess Meredith, Magic offers a bit more in the way of prestige than many other doll-themed thrillers (consider it the opposite side of the coin to the low-rent charms of Puppet Master). Hopkins even received Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations for his performance. The jealous ventriloquist dummy tropes are all here, but the movie smartly plays with the question of whether Hopkins’ character isn’t just genuinely disturbed, rather than a mere victim of a demonically possessed sidekick.

Devil Doll (1964)

Freaky doll: Hugo

It’s a slight spoiler, but the slightly obscure cult thriller Devil Doll places a spin on the “possessed ventriloquist dummy” sub-genre. In almost all the other films of its type, the doll is at least a little evil; here, the dummy is entirely the victim of an evil ventriloquist. The pacing might be a tad on the slow side, but it’s an effective supernatural mystery with a clever twist.

The Boy (2016)

Freaky doll: Brahms

What do you do when you lose your son at a young age? Naturally, you raise a life-sized plastic doll in his place. It’s totally normal and not at all scary, particularly when you’re the nanny hired to care for the little fake fella. Presumably the convenience of having a plastic son is still too much effort for these parents, making one wonder why they even bothered with a real child. Greta doesn’t take the rules of caring for Brahms particularly seriously, at which point scary things begin to happen. The sequel isn’t great, but the 2016 original is creepy, atmospheric fun, even if it relies too heavily on jump scares.

Suddenly in the Dark (1981)

Freaky doll: The doll here doesn’t have a name; does have a knife.

A psychological thriller with strong supernatural undertones, Suddenly in the Dark (or Suddenly at Midnight/Suddenly in Dark Night) is a rare Korean horror film from the era, and the only horror film on the resume of prolific filmmaker Ko Young-nam. A wealth family takes in Mi-OK, the daughter of a mugyo priestess who recently died. Wife Seon-hee quickly becomes suspicious and paranoid about the new woman in the house, and begins to have fantasies revolving around the doll the attractive young woman has brought with her. What might have been a story about a usurper with supernatural powers quickly becomes the story of a woman undone by her own twisted fantasies — with the knife-wielding doll playing a pert in Seon-hee’s self-destruction.

Deep Red

Freaky doll: “Mad puppet”

Not all scary dolls are literally alive. (I suppose technically none of them are, since dolls can’t be alive…right?) Dario Argento’s classic Deep Red skips all the supernatural stuff while still offering up one of cinema’s creepiest dolls. The “mad puppet” here isn’t the star, but a mechanised creature used to distract an intended murder victim. Nevertheless, Argento’s camera creates a particularly memorable scary doll, one with a bigger place in giallo history than its limited screen time would suggest.

Dolls (1987)

The late, generally brilliant director Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) didn’t always turn out masterpieces, but he never made a boring movie. His idiosyncratic imprint is on brilliant display in his labour-of-love, Dolls. A family seeks refuge from a violent thunderstorm in a creepy roadside mansion inhabited by an elderly couple who just happen to be dollmakers; naturally, the small things start moving of their own accord. It’s creepy and gory, with a bleak sense of humour and impressive attention to detail in the doll sequences, yet it’s also all strangely heartfelt. There’s the feel of childhood fantasy amidst the chaos, a unique blending of tones that papers over some of the low-budget seams.

Knock on Wood (1954)

Freaky doll(s): Clarence and Terence

One of those ‘50s-era, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink musicals, and a vehicle for Danny Kaye, Knock on Wood makes the clear case that ventriloquist dummies are frightening even outside a horror-movie context. Kaye plays Jerry Morgan, a ventriloquist who finds himself unlucky in love thanks to Clarence, the jealous dummy who sabotages his relationship with his would-be fiancée (a more progressive movie might have been about Jerry and Clarence reconciling and falling in love, but alas). A trip to Europe for psychiatric treatment sees Clarence (and his twin, Terence) stuffed full of secret blueprints, no doubt contributing to their general crankiness. It’s mostly an excuse for Danny Kaye-style shenanigans, but with a creepy possessed doll angle that might suit less horror-inclined viewers who nonetheless love anthropomorphic dummies.


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