Horror movies thrive on turning supposedly pleasant objects, people, and experiences into nightmares: camping trips, next-door neighbors, clowns, and more. We've already covered cinema's scariest clowns, which led to the next logical question: What are cinema's scariest dolls? And why should we be afraid of dolls, anyway? Aren't they just lifeless, cold, vacant physical recreations of our own selves?
Oh. Yeah. That's probably why they're so innately creepy. So here are some of the films that tap into that weirder, darker side of dollhood.
Charles Band's long-running Puppet Master series has gone from well-made matinee-style B-movie horror flicks with a firm sense of humor -- the first five chapters are laden with kitschy charms -- to Z-grade low-effort junk, but the first entry is probably the most weirdly satisfying. It's about a group of psychics who look into the history of a freaky old Nazi scientist who gave life to a freaky bunch of maniacal dolls. It's even goofier than it sounds, and there's certainly no shortage of sequels should you want to continue the diminutive madness. Note: this franchise would go on to include films starring Dollman and Demonic Toys as well. Get busy!
Where to watch it: Streaming on Hulu and Yahoo! Rental on Amazon and Vudu.
6. Dead Silence (2007)
There are all sorts of creepy dolls out there but few are as oddly eerie as the ventriloquist's dummy, partially because of the lifelike persona. This underappreciated James Wan effort -- which was his sophomore feature following the big fat success of Saw -- feels like an affectionate throwback to dusty the lovably dusty old horror flicks from the 1940s. This one's about a young widower who returns to his creepy hometown and gets caught up in a tale involving (you guessed it) a very disconcerting dummy. And for even more dangerous dummies, check out the classic Dead of Night (1945) and the goofy Magic (1978).
Where to watch it: Streaming on Netflix. Rental on iTunes and Amazon.
5. Dolls (1987)
When you bring up Stuart Gordon's name in conversation among horror nuts, we generally go straight to Re-Animator and From Beyond (or perhaps Dagon and Castle Freak). But there's a lot of fun stuff to be found in the director's third feature, the short, colorful, and fast-paced Dolls. The plot is simple stuff -- a bunch of ill-fated motorists hole up in the wrong house during a storm -- but the tone wavers smoothly between comedy and horror, and the doll effects are pretty damn cool. And if you dig this one, check out 1991's Dolly Dearest.
Where to watch it: Rental at Vudu.
4. Annabelle (2014)
She didn't have a whole lot to do in The Conjuring, but audiences were suitably intrigued by creepy old Annabelle, so she got not only her own spinoff movie, but also an upcoming sequel! Here we discover what made such an innocent-looking dolly turn into some sort of malevolent supernatural spirit. Suffice to say it involves a pregnant woman, a home invasion, and some Satanists. It's all fairly standard stuff, but considering it's a spinoff flick, Annabelle is actually pretty decent.
Where to watch it: Rental at iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, etc.
Dolls play an important role in this brilliant little indie horror flick from Lucky McKee. Our lonely anti-villain loves her freaky little doll so much that she decides to stitch together a life-sized "friend" to call her own. Yes, it's colorfully disturbing and darkly amusing. And if "mannequin horror" suits your sensibilities, definitely dig up titles like 1979's Tourist Trap and 1988's Pin. (Or even Maniac and Pieces, if you can handle the truly nasty stuff.)
Where to watch it: Rental on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, etc.
2. Trilogy of Terror (1975)
There's a very good reason that so many horror fans remember this freaky 1975 TV movie, and that reason is named "Zuni Fetish Doll." This mini-movie features the great Karen Black being chased all over her apartment by a horrific looking tribal doll of some sort. (Its magic necklace came off, you see.) It's pretty basic stuff, plot-wise, but the design of the doll, the ferocious editing style, Ms. Black's performance, and a particularly freaky finale make this a memorable treat.
Where to watch it: Streaming on Amazon Prime.
1. Child's Play (1988)
Chucky's got to deserve the top spot, right? Not only has the little monster proved to be amazingly resilient -- his sixth sequel (Cult of Chucky) arrives later this year -- but this first entry still holds up as a sterling example of how to make a silly concept feel scary. Director Tom Holland seems to realize how easily this movie could fall apart, so he maintains a confident sense of humor and a playful approach to the scary bits. Tackle the sequel at your own risk but there's no denying that Child's Play is one of the most enjoyably memorable horror flicks of the 1980s. And certainly the Citizen Kane of killer doll cinema.
Where to watch it: Streaming on Starz Play. Rental on Amazon and iTunes.
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Scott Weinberg is a film writer and critic who has written for outlets such as Playboy, FEARnet, and Nerdist. He tweets @scotteweinberg but ignores mean people.