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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Curse of the Doll People (1961) review


Elvira Quintana (Karina), Ramon Gay (Dr. Armando Valdes), Roberto G. Rivera (Molinar), Quintin Bulnes (Zandor)

Directed by Benito Alazraki

"...Walking dead, destroy them!"--Zandor commands his voodoo creatures to kill.

The Short Version: Among the gems of Mexi-horror cinema lies this unique example of the genre about killer dolls bearing the trapped souls of those they are compelled to kill. Not only is there a memorable villainous presence, but the film stands out from foreign genre product by having a female Van Helsing type protagonist. For this to not be of the Wrestling Women-Horror hybrid school of Mexican cinema, it's very unusual. Convincing make-up and unsettling scenes of deadly dolls piercing the throats of their victims with poisonous needles are among the highlights. Complete with a few silly moments and some mild gore, don't ignore the CURSE -- seek out this goosebumper tale of voodoo vengeance.

After four archeologists steal an ancient idol from a Haitian voodoo temple, a witch doctor places a curse on them and their families -- following them back to Mexico to set the retribution in motion. This revenge is carried out by devilish dolls brought to life through black magic. Amidst strange occurrences, and bodies piling up, a lady doctor learned in such practices aids in the investigation to locate and stop the evil mastermind of the deadly dolls.

Prior to helming the lively Santo action-horror film SANTO CONTRA LOS ZOMBIES (1962), Benito Alazraki was behind this darker, more atmospheric Mexican horror spooker. More in the serious vein of THE VAMPIRE (1957), DOLL PEOPLE was produced during the best, most creative period of the Mexi-horror boom between the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Screenplay by Alfredo Salazar is remarkably detailed. A number of other Mexican horror films cram a lot of ingenious, if occasionally superfluous ideas into their movies; but with little explanation as to the nature of these examples of creative license. Alazraki's movie does the opposite by explaining pretty much everything via an inspired casting choice.

Aside from the title pint-sized killers, the most notably striking attribute of the film is, arguably, in its casting of Elvira Quintana. What's worthy of note is that it was rare, if ever (outside of Mexican genre pictures at least), that a woman was the main protagonist in this sort of movie -- especially of the sort not associated with the 'Wrestling Women' series. Some horror and SciFi films (foreign or domestic) had strong women roles, but they were still relegated to 'damsel in distress' and 'love interest' status when the action showed up. 

There's one scene in the movie where Quintana fits that description -- two dolls are sent into her room to kill her and she totally freezes out of fear. 

The rest of the time, Karina (Quintana) is a veritable Van Helsing in statuesque female form. Not only is she a doctor, but she has precise knowledge of voodoo rites and other practices of alchemy. Her awareness of witchcraft is revealed right from the start. Over the course of the first ten minutes is a conversation between a group of doctors and archeologists discussing the scenario that will lead to their deaths (apparently for budgetary reasons, we never see this set-up; it's explained to us instead). Karina questions the actions of the scientists who mock what they perceive as primitive superstition. This is another aspect of her character that subverts from the norm. She is a doctor, but is likewise mindful of the mysteries of the unknown. Her bravery is further demonstrated when she ventures to the villains lair alone.

The use of a lead heroine isn't the only worthwhile scripting idea here. The numerous horror elements are memorable in their own right.

The diminutive death-dealers carve an astonishingly creepy presence here; and are among the most unforgettable of the Mexi-horror canon. Played by either midgets or small children, the performers all wear what look like wax masks. These facial appliances never move when they breathe, so there's a realism that adds to the eeriness of these calculating doll monsters creeping towards their victims with poisonous needles ready to pierce your flesh.

The witch doctor behind the revenge is Zandor (the liner notes gives him this name although I don't recall it being said in the film), played with demonic sincerity by Quintin Bulnes (THE LIVING COFFIN [1959], THE BEASTS OF TERROR [1973] among others). We merely hear his voice and see his hand caressing one of his devil dolls till the halfway mark where we finally see him. He's this gaunt, goateed magician with a frequently raised eyebrow and a mesmerizing stare. Zandor likewise makes a fashion statement with his stylish voodoo wear -- a suit of sorts with the design of a snake adorning the shirt.

One of the best sequences in the film is the ritual by which Zandor brings the dolls to life. While his harbinger of death is in the process of killing their victim, the black magician creates a living doll in the form of the person about to be killed! The process includes spilling blood from a fresh human heart(!) onto the doll. Once the deed is done, the spirit of the victim enters the once lifeless creation. Thus a new needle wielding murderer is born.

These dolls aren't simply mindless killing machines, either. The script affords them personalities. Some are more violent than others (such as when one doll wants to kill a small child, but is stopped by another), and some disobey -- as if remnants of their human self are fighting against the voodoo magic that holds sway over their soul. At times, the dolls show child-like tendencies towards their master (and to Karina at one point). With arms outstretched, it would seem they want to be held, or cradled. Coupled with an already realistic look to these creatures, it's a haunting image.

Zandor has another servant under his power -- a zombie assistant named Staloon. This hulking dead guy with a shriveled, decomposed face handles the deliveries of the dolls to their intended targets. Packaged in boxes along with a sorcerers charm and a large poison needle, Staloon recalls the dolls by playing a flute.

The soundtrack of Antonio Diaz Conde is occasionally potent, especially the main 'Doll Theme' -- which might get stuck in your head long after the film has finished. Some of the other cues are generic with a familiarity found in other Mexi-horror movies, but it's varied at times and quite good.

Everything in CURSE OF THE DOLL PEOPLE isn't perfect, of course. There's a few silly, even incongruous moments here and there. Zandor's hypnotic disco ball in his lair stands out, as does the wolves howling every time a person is killed. The scene where Karina is about to be snuffed out by two dolls is unintentionally hilarious -- she is seemingly frozen with fear to the point she can't scream; yet when the dolls bungle things and run out of the room, she suddenly cuts loose with her vocal chords. The finale is a bit perplexing during the last minute or two. Once Zandor realizes his revenge won't be fully carried out, he decides to bring the house down in a fiery blaze. He has a glaring opportunity to simply set his victims on fire, but he chooses to rush past them to douse his curtains with flames, instead.

Along with SAMSON VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMEN (1962), this was my first exposure to Mexi-horror cinema. This was via the USA Networks Commander USA show from the mid 80s -- specializing in Mexican horror productions and Hammer Films amidst many other horror features. Needless to say, DOLL PEOPLE left a huge impression on me at that time. 

The BCI double feature (paired with NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES [1969]) contains an English dubbed version along with a Spanish language with English subtitles version. The English print (looks to have been taken from a film source) used here is missing 12 minutes. The entire opening section where we're introduced to Karina and Armando is missing (the movie instead begins at the scientists home where they discuss the stealing of the voodoo statue). Another stretch of crucial footage is missing (8 minutes and 20 seconds worth) that involves some of the murders and also the doll ritual! In fact, you will see a glimpse of the now living female doll stretching its arms outward just as the scene dissolves to a conversation between Karina and Molinar and Armando.

If you're expecting something along the wacky lines of THE BRAINIAC (1961), you may find yourself disappointed. This is a serious, moody affair falling somewhere between films like THE BLOODY VAMPIRE (1961), THE WORLD OF THE VAMPIRES (1962) and the classics THE VAMPIRE (1957) and THE CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN (1962). Aside from some goofy moments here and there, Alazraki's picture does a surprisingly good job of building suspense; and delivering frighteningly spooky creatures in the form of the macabre countenance of the killer dolls. If you haven't seen it, fans of the genre are in for a treat, and maybe a few curiosity seekers as well.

This review is representative of the BCI/Deimos double feature DVD.


Kaijinu said...

This actually looks quite promising for me. I might check this one out for the reasons of the dolls alone.

Also, is it that one of them looks like a little version of Edgar Allan Poe?

venoms5 said...

All the dolls are made in the image of the people that are killed, so that actor bears a resemblance, too!

If you do see it, make sure it's the Spanish version as the English version on this set is missing 12 minutes. There's also a Beverly Wilshire DVD if you can find it. The quality isn't as good, but it's a complete English dubbed version. The films running time is a few seconds shy of 82 minutes.

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