Dolls: Dir. Stuart Gordon || 1987 || USA
Child's Play: Dir. Tom Holland || 1988 || USA
Released a year apart from each other, Dolls (1987) and Child's Play (1988) both feature children from broken homes whom no one believes, murderous dolls; and at the very least, light criticism or jabs at the toy industry, Child's Play moreso than Dolls. Child's Play is the darker of the two films, while Dolls is more of a campy fairytale.
Dolls is meant to be an odd fairytale of sorts, what with its wicked stepmother, magical house with an old couple, and overall message about not losing one's childlike wonder, even in the face of death and destruction. It's a little too gory at times to show to children, but maybe pre-teens may not be too scared by it. Overall it has a lighter and campier nature, setting the stage for all the other evil doll films that Charles Band would later produce via Full Moon Pictures. Band produced this and most of Stuart Gordon's films in the 80s and 90s. The story revolves around Judy, a little girl who is vacationing in Italy with her inattentive and borderline abusive father and her new wicked and wealthy stepmother. Their car gets stuck in the mud one evening and they along with a nice guy and two Madonna-wannabes, find a house belonging to two elderly dollmakers. Only Judy and Ralph the nice guy marvel at the dolls and toys, so as predicted, everyone else gets to encounter the darker side of the dolls as the night progresses. Dolls takes a light jab at the manufactured toy industry early on, but mostly plays up the inherent creepiness of older and handmade dolls. While I believe the film peaks 10 minutes in with the brilliant killer teddy bear scene, it is a fun film to watch.
Child's Play is an odd film with a few tonal shifts that veer from satire, horror, and a vague and somewhat gritty realism. While I have not seen all of Child's Play 2 and 3, I have seen the more recent sequels Bride of Chucky and Seed of Chucky, which exist entirely on camp. The first film sets the tone a bit for the later films, especially in the beginning when the film shows the little boy watching the Good Guys cartoon that encourages children to beg their parents to buy the dolls and accessories, while he is already wearing Good Guys pajamas and eating their franchised cereal. The Good Guys dolls are clearly based on the My Buddy dolls that were popular in the 1980s and meant for little boys (the Kid Sister doll were meant for girls), although I don't remember if there was a cartoon associated with the doll. Those toys always seemed to be advertised to lonely children, without siblings or friends, and the film plays up that idea, as if a doll, even a large one, is a replacement for a friend or sibling. Being that it is his birthday, he guilts his mother, who is a single widow that works at a department store, into buying him a Good Guys doll for his birthday. The dolls normally cost $100 (!!!), but his mother is able to buy one from a homeless guy in the alley of her store for the shocking low price of $30. It is after this scene that the film loses its elements of light satire and realism (because if the mom had been like mine, she just would have said, "no, I can't afford to buy you a doll that costs $100"), because of course, we all know that the doll the mother has bought is no ordinary doll, but a doll possessed with the soul of a serial killer who just happened to die in a shootout in a toy store the night before. Which, while kind of spooky, is also silly. I can see why the more recent films veered into pure camp, because killer doll movies are hard to take seriously.
Nonetheless, Child's Play doesn't go where I thought it would, which would be to have the other characters demonize the single working mom. That seemed to be a favorite past time of some groups in the 1980s, so score another one for the general open-mindedness of horror. The child is more demonized, at least by the other authority figures in the film; and he is placed in a psychiatric hospital. Mom eventually pieces it all together and convinces the cop to help (which he only does after being attacked by Chucky). It is also in the first film that the sequels are set up, since by the third act, Chucky begins his long and often interrupted quest to possess the soul of a human.
Child's Play has aged well, or better than it has any right to. I think it is due in part to having two Oscar-nominated actors in the cast, although you still have to wonder how the hell actors like Chris Sarandon and Brad Dourif got into a film about a killer doll. This wasn't Sarandon's first time at the horror rodeo; but unless you count The Eyes of Laura Mars, it was for Dourif. And he since become one of the go-to guys for horror, although he still has roles in higher profile or higher quality films. The film also stars Catherine Hicks as the mother, and while she isn't bad, this is mostly amusing because she later went on to play the mom on the WB/CW Christian family drama series 7th Heaven.