Some phobias, often triggered by movies, develop in childhood and stick with you for life like an overwhelming fear of circus clowns or anxiety about being alone in the dark. For me, ventriloquist dummies or anything similar to that like oversized human dolls still gives me the creeps and the horror film that best visualizes this is 1961’s Curse of the Doll People (Mexican title: Munecos Infernales, which translates roughly as “Infernal Dolls”), directed by Benito Alazraki.
While it obviously borrows elements from Tod Browning’s The Devil Doll (1936) and Dead of Night (1945) and even throws in a ratty-looking zombie for good measure, Curse of the Doll People also looks ahead to such scary-for-their-time chillers like the made-for-TV Trilogy of Terror (1975) with Karen Black being stalked by a Zuni warrior fetish doll. But the thing that places this South of the border horror in nightmare territory are the dolls themselves.
They don’t have demonic or monstrous faces like the Chucky Doll in Child’s Play or the title creatures in Joe Dante’s Gremlins. No, they’re more disturbing than that. Is it the immobile quality of their mask-like faces with the dead, staring eyes? Is it the fact that they look like miniaturized versions of authority figures? One could be a judge, another a doctor, another a government official. There is an inflexible grimness about them that is truly unsettling. And the way they move! Who’s behind those masks? Small children? Midgets? The manner in which the tiny assassins go about their business in Curse of the Doll People follows a relentless, repetitive pattern like a recurring nightmare that won’t go away. How would you like to wake up in the middle of the night and see one of these little fellas crawling up toward you from the foot of the bed with a long poisoned needle in hand?
The film’s plot is set in motion by four explorers secretly witnessing a voodoo ceremony in Haiti and being condemned to death by the high priest for observing the private ritual…and for stealing a stone idol from the temple. In due time, all four explorers die under mysterious circumstances, but the curse doesn’t stop there. The families of the four men are also marked for death and the killings continue, committed by insidious little doll-like men who resemble their most recent murder victims.
Behind it all, of course, is Zandor (Quintin Bulnes), the voodoo priest, who is using mind control to manipulate the dolls (the souls of his victims are trapped inside) and he’s aided in his revenge by his zombie assistant Sabood, who makes spooky music with his flute.
To be perfectly honest, Curse of the Doll People can be very s-l-o-w at times in its exposition and the behavior of the human protagonists is often exasperating. For instance, Linda (Elvira Quintana), the heroine, is so terrified by the sight of the dolls that she becomes paralyzed with fear, unable to move as they advance toward her. And all of the victims are so self-absorbed in their work or some activity that they never sense any danger or intrusion until the moment of attack. The little bastards might be stealthy as hell but you’d think that someone working in his office would notice one of the little buggers climbing up on a nearby chair and walking across the top of the desk toward him! But no! because this movie follows the illogical pattern of a bad dream.
Even if it does have pacing problems and laughable English-dubbed dialogue, Curse of the Doll People makes up for it with eerie, atmospheric art direction and odd, poetic touches like the scene with Sabood and one of the doll-men walking off into the night, hand-in-hand, after committing a murder. Or one where a doll cries out in agony to Linda to help him. There are plenty of perverse touches as well – a gruesome doll autopsy scene and one where a tiny assassin crawls into the bed of a sleeping twelve year old girl to snuggle up. Yikes!
Benito Alazraki was primarily a Mexican B-movie genre director churning out westerns (Pistolas Invencibles), comedies (Tan Tin y Las Modelos), crime melodramas (Lost Souls) and musicals (A Ritmo de Twist). His horror/fantasy themed films, however, are better known and deserve a chapter of their own in any history of Mexico’s golden age of horror. In addition to Curse of the Doll People are Espiritismo (1962), probably his most accomplished example of supernatural cinema, Santo Contra Los Zombies (1962) and Frankenstein El Vampiro y Compania (1962), an Abbott and Costello-like horror comedy concoction.
Curse of the Doll People is also notable for Elvira Quintana as the main heroine Linda (she is named Karina in the Mexican version). Quintana was born in Spain but emigrated to Mexico as a political refugee after the Spanish Civil War. Besides being a knockout beauty, the actress was also a highly skilled dancer and singer and she became a major star in Mexico after the release of Bolero Inmortal (1958), a musical melodrama. Unfortunately her film career was relatively brief and she died of a cerebral embolism in 1968 at the age of 32.
Curse of the Doll People is still available on a double feature DVD disc from BCI/Eclipse with another Mexican horror favorite, Night of the Bloody Apes (1969), which has wrestling matches, real footage of open-heart surgery, plenty of female nudity and a simian-like murderer (the result of a gorilla heart transplant) on the loose. The disc, first released in 2006, offers both a Spanish and an English-dubbed version of both films. In 2014, VCI Entertainment also released a DVD which features both the original Spanish language and the English dubbed version of Curse of the Doll People. None of the available versions offer a stellar transfer and all of them look like they were taken from a 16mm TV print so don’t expect the Arrow Films treatment for a title like this…but we can dream, can’t we?
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