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Sequels, squeals


As the year draws to a close, many film critics and enthusiasts alike are compiling their predictable ‘best films of the year’ lists. This is not going to be another one of those. Instead, let’s look at the year ahead in films and how we are expecting mostly sequels and remakes. So what else is new?

     Following a year of The Conjuring 2, The Purge 3, Cloverfield 2, Ouija 2, Resident Evil and Amityville (who knows how many) and even a Blair Witch remake, how could we expect anything less from 2017? Coming up this year is the long awaited third film from The Ring franchise, Rings, swiftly followed by Annabelle 2, Universal’s reimagining of The Mummy and a new Friday 13th. So let’s take a look back at the films that launched the last of these and why the idea of 'living dolls' is still so scary.

     Annabelle is a James Wan creation about – you guessed it – a possessed doll named Annabelle. The film follows a family as they happen upon the doll, try to discard it and find they can't escape the wrath of the demon trapped inside it. Annabelle was hugely successful at the box office in 2014, grossing $84 million against a $6 million budget. Annabelle, like The Conjuring, was inspired by an apocryphal 1970s' tale about a Raggedy Ann doll that was given as a gift to a student nurse who then started to notice it 'acting strangely' and was told that it was possessed by the spirit of an Annabelle Higgins; it was swiftly returned to the Halloween museum from which it came. 

     Haunted or possessed dolls appear in many different cultures. In Ancient Egypt, ‘Poppets’ were used as a religious icon to rid a body of evil or to curse someone believed to be an enemy of the Gods, and that idea persisted in the effigies used in voodoo ceremonies. The Romans would also use dolls as a means of communing with their Gods and Godesses. In literature, such effigies would become objects of fear and supernatural storytellers Rudyard Kipling, MR James and Algernon Blackwood all wrote tales about evil 'dolls' or, in the case of James, an entire haunted doll's house.

     Possessed dolls have been similarly prevalent in horror cinema, beginning with The Devil Doll in 1936 (based on a novel by A Merrittt called Burn, Witch, Burn) and Dead of Night in 1945, which featured a murderous ventriloquist's doll in the memorable final tale of an iconic anthology. In 1958, Attack of the Puppet People showed things from the other side of the human-doll divide and involved a mad scientist who turned people into dolls! Asylum (1972) was another cinematic anthology, one of whose segments concerned a killer doll infused with the sprit of nutty Herbert Lom. Magic in 1978, starring Anthony Hopkins and based on the novel of the same name by William Goldman, returned to the Dead of Night idea and struck fear into the hearts of filmgoers with the psychological take on the ventriloquist and his supposed 'living' dummy. 1989 brought with it Puppet Master, a Charles Band horror that bred its own franchise and followed on the heels of Black Devil Doll from Hell in 1984, Dolls in 1987 and Child’s Play in 1988.

     The Chucky doll of Child’s Play has become something of an icon of horror cinema after Child’s Play 2 (1990), Child’s Play 3 (1991), Bride of Chucky (1998), Seed of Chucky (2004) and finally (for now) Curse of Chucky in 2013. The Chucky films differ from most doll-based horrors that focus on human protagonist trying to fend off an articulated evil in that they operate from the doll’s POV. In the later Bride and Seed of Chucky, the dolls themselves are the protagonists and the viewer ends up rooting for them to serve up just desserts to their persecutors in an increasingly black comic approach to the subject. 

     In 2007, the James Wan-directed Dead Silence attempted to recapture the terror implicit in 'living' dolls and went some way to achieving it with one called Billy, who rips out people’s tongues when the focus isn’t on him. Dead Silence was especially frightening because most devil doll films show their dolls moving as though they're alive; Billy never moves when the camera is on him and his mobility is left to the viewer's imagination, which is always the scariest thing of all. 2015's Robert the Doll, which followed a similar line to Annabelle in being based on an urban legend, was the brainchild of Key West painter and author Robert Eugene Otto, who owned one just like it. His doll was said to have inspired the Chucky films and looks strikingly similar to that of Chucky’s son in Seed of Chucky.

    There have been many other variations on the devil doll theme, including a Twilight Zone episode called Living Doll in 1963 - some scary, some funny and some inspiring a cult following: Chucky is probably the most well-known evil-doll character due to its many sequels, although with Annabelle 2 expected on our screens later this year, Hollywood clearly isn’t done with this idea just yet and may be lining up a contender for Chucky and his five sequels.

    The moral of the story is plain: keep your distance from dolls. A killer Barbie could be round the corner.