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As horror movie plots go, the premise behind Worry Dolls is solid. A psychopath with a history of brutal killings has a box of four tiny dolls that are seeped in voodoo lore. As the film opens, his latest victim, a blood-soaked teenage girl in her underwear wriggles free of the twines that bind her. Meanwhile, a clearly disturbed man sitting elsewhere whispers inaudibly into each of four dolls before placing them into the box. When he realizes the girl is on the run, he takes after her and ends up square in the line of fire of police who have the old dilapidated mental hospital he’s hiding in surrounded. It’s no spoiler to say he’s shot dead.
I want to stop here and say that the opening 10 minutes of Worry Dolls borders close to masterful. I don’t say that lightly. Few horror films have the impact to sustain any longevity, most thriving on the gore that feeds the genre. It’s also by no means original to begin one story with the ending of another. But what director Padraig Reynolds does with the start of his latest horror film could have been the start to an entirely different movie. Like a mix of early David Gordon Green (All the Real Girls) and Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin), it creates a frightening, deeply haunting world. With the death of the maniacal killer, the cop who shoots him kneels by the dying man and whispers “okay” with great conviction, hinting that this has been a long tiresome battle. When the achingly plaintive guitar of 16 Horsepower‘s “Hutterite Mile” kicks in and the camera pulls back blending a montage of images of the Mississippi basin setting, it’s a breathtaking start, one the film never is able to top.
That lead detective on the case, known only as Matt (Christopher Wiehl) leaves that important box of dolls in his car and when his eight-year-old daughter Chloe (Kennedy Brice) finds them, she takes them. She’s living with her mother and new fiancé and has a passion for crafts, especially jewelry making. She decorates the dolls as necklaces and sells all but one at her mom’s thrift shop and keeps the other. Now the evil is nicely distributed and it’s time for some serious bloodletting.
Worry Dolls, is a surprisingly well-acted and scripted little horror film with the usual bloody gore and gruesome murders. Written by its star (Wiehl), there is lot to like about this low-budget thriller, starting with its setting (and that opening). The deep south adds an extra layer of sweaty heat to the horror, giving the story a nice look of authenticity. Reynolds handles the action well, building suspense with some good decisions, not overdoing the hyper-cuts but still keeping a necessary frantic pace. There are some inventive moments that don’t over-indulge and instead give the film a depth many in this genre lack. The dialog is above par for the genre and the twists compelling enough to stay interesting, never wallowing in the gore, keeping it, despite the ridiculousness of the plot, at least logical.
That gore actually reaches its apex at the start when the killer wields a massive industrial power drill with a two foot bit. How it’s used, I’ll keep spoiler-free, but it’s deliciously grisly. That’s not to say the other moments of slasher fun aren’t effective. None are particularly surprising, but they do meet the need. As the body count rises, the deaths become more personal and it comes down to a father trying to save his daughter from a force beyond nature. That said, this is not a bloodbath. The death’s have some meaning, and as the dolls bring out the inner pain of each person they consume, there is less mindlessness to the slaughter than might be expected.
Where it falters is with Wiehl, who is obviously a good writer, but is miscast as the lead detective. The most wooden of the lot, he can’t deliver the emotional punch that would put this story up where it could be. Brice, on the other hand, is excellent as the afflicted daughter, showing that her fine work in last year’s June was no fluke. Expect lots more from this young talent who should go mainstream, and soon.
If voodoo movies are your thing, Worry Dolls–which are very real (though less possessed than here)–will be good fun. It doesn’t have the staying power of classics in that field, such as Wes Craven‘s 1988 masterpiece, The Serpent and the Rainbow, but does deliver a brisk 85 minutes of solid horror thrills. Going back to its start, where this movie might have been better is to tell that story and keep with the tone it promised.
Director: Padraig Reynolds
Writers: Danny Kolker, Christopher Wiehl
Stars: Christopher Wiehl, Kym Jackson, Tina Lifford, Kennedy Brice, Samantha Smith