Short Film Review: The Dollmaker.
The Dollmaker deftly weaves a tale of grief and obsession, featuring magic, madness, horror and a devilish twist.
It’s always a delight when something unexpected drops into your lap. I was contacted by director Alan Lougher with a link to his latest short film, The Dollmaker. Checking out this tight little horror flick ended up being three treats in one. First, The Dollmaker is hosted on Alter, the new sister station to sci-fi/fantasy short film streaming platform Dust, so I get a chance to check out a new platform for our readers. Second, Al Lougher and his cast all have a wealth of short films to their credit, so I have a new vein of short film ore to mine. Lastly, The Dollmaker is a gem of a psychological horror story, so I get to review another fun short.
The Dollmaker (2017).
Jenna (Perri Lauren) and Rick (Sean Meehan) are a recently bereaved couple who have lost their young son. They are meeting with a mysterious old man, the dollmaker (Daniel Martin Berkey) who promises, with the right ingredients, to provide them with a replacement for their son. Of course, the replacement comes with certain limitations – and warnings…
One of the hooks The Dollmaker touts is a thematic resemblance to another current horror film – Pet Sematary. I’d say it’s not the best comparison for a couple reasons. First, the latest Pet Sematary is really bad. Second, even in Stephen King’s book, the focus is more on the existential horror of the events, which we’re never led to doubt. In the Dollmaker, the focus is more on the interior horror of what is happening.
The whole mechanic of the doll -that it requires physical contact to seem real, and that it can only exist inside the couple’s home – means that we can doubt how real it is. There’s no question that the Creed’s children come back to life. The voltage all comes from the malevolent method. Here, there’s a sinister psychological component. It’s more reminiscent of another good Stephen King book: Needful Things – where people will do desperate things to gain a wish that we suspect, perhaps rightly, is a con.
The Devil’s in the Details.
The acting in The Dollmaker is a touch uneven. I found parts of each performance that I disliked, but also bits I really liked. Perri Lauren’s delivery of dialogue was a bit over done in places, but her emotional and physical delivery were excellent. Daniel Martin Berkley at first seemed too theatrical, even introducing himself to the audience with a carnival barker’s flourish of a cane. As his character developed, the sly and devilish persona felt more apt, once again reminding me of Max Von Sydow’s Leland Gaunt from the movie adaptation of Needful Things.
Twist the Knife.
One thing I really didn’t care for in Pet Sematary was that there was nothing subtle or disguised. At first, I was afraid that The Dollmaker was going down the same path. The first three quarters of the film (which clocks in at a svelte 9 minutes) seemed a very straightforward riff on The Monkey’s Paw. I thought I could see what cliff our protagonists where inexorably being led to. And then the film takes a delightful hard right and drops you off a completely different ravine.
Twists in films are a double-edged sword. They can invigorate a stale story, but they can also cheapen what has come before. Chances are, if the story needed a twist to be interesting, the twist is not going to be enough to save it. Luckily, The Dollmaker had enough going on, visually and thematically, that it didn’t need a twist. The twist comes along and turns up the volume on elements of the film already on display, and forces you to reevaluate your perspective.
The Dollmaker is a fun and surprisingly sharp short film. The horror elements are mild and mostly psychological, like an episode of The Twilight Zone. There’s a bit of the red stuff, but mostly Lougher is more interested in your grey matter. The premise feels familiar, but gets a nice shot of fresh excitement by a clever structure. I’m glad when a film is able to stay a step ahead of you, like a practiced magician who still manages to draw a gasp from an audience that thinks they’ve seen this trick before. Bravo.