The Dummy (1982) | Directed by Louis La Volpe
Written by Louis La Volpe | Starring Ezra Teitelbaum, Carrie Vickrey
There’s something inherently unnerving about dolls; whether they exist as a representation or ‘face’ of the villains of horror as Jigsaw does for his master, John Kramer in Saw (2003), or if they are a more literal extension of their human keeper as seen between Corky and his ventriloquist dummy Fats in Magic (1978). Perhaps it’s the fine and sometimes incomprehensible line between ‘looking human’ and ‘being human’ that probes so uncomfortably into some of our deepest fears but one thing is certain; dolls (in whatever guise-toys, ornaments or props for entertainment) are unsettling for many of us.
1982 saw the release of Louis La Vope’s horror short which was broadcast on American television in between feature length films.  Entitled simply The Dummy, and running at less than eight minutes, it tells of the eponymous doll who comes to life and inflicts mental and physical torment on an unsuspecting victim. An unnamed woman (Carrie Vickery) is preparing for dinner with her in-laws and is concerned that she has little time to get everything in place. Her partner (Ezra Teitelbaum, who is also credited without a name, but who we hear her refer to once only as Tom), doesn’t share her concern and quips patronisingly: ‘of course you will have everything ready’; there is no sign of lending a hand here! As he leaves for work, she finds a male gendered Dummy (which, we learn has belonged to the man since he was 8 years old) discarded on the floor. Expressing annoyance that she keeps finding it left about the apartment she dismisses all excuses and threatens to get rid of it. Throughout this opening scene La Volpe teases us with suspense as, although we do not see the faces of the couple (who are only shown from the legs down), the dummy’s face is always peeping out as though he were inviting us to be complicit in its plans for torment and violence.
Bidding his wife goodbye, the man sets off for work and she decides to take a shower. What follows is one of the most effective scenes owing to the fact that in the shower, we are not only alone with our view of the outside world obscured, but we are also (like Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960, Psycho), incredibly vulnerable. Point of view shots from the dummy’s perspective establish a feeling of unease accompanied by a steady thudding sound over the top, similar to that of the constant beating heard in Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). This faux heartbeat is soon joined by a blurring synthesizer, reminiscent of the often-jarring score in John Carpenter’s masterful slasher, 1978’s Halloween (review). As she steps out of the shower, the audience get the first indication that the doll might be more than just plastic and sawdust, as she catches sight of the crude looking figure sat on the toilet seat; its trousers pulled down to its ankles. However, she quickly brushes this off as a childish and vengeful prank undertaken by her husband and we too breathe a slight sigh of relief; for now…
In what feels like a mock-maternal gesture she lies the dummy down on its back in order to button up its trousers and smarten its appearance. However, despite the motherly associations with this image it also carries a disturbing quality as the dummy itself, (dressed, like a gentleman, in a suit) is clearly of adult age. There are quick close ups on its face throughout this scene, drawing us in to imagine what might be going on behind those static, dead eyes. Once finished, she props him up on a chair and we are left with nothing but a shaft of light over the shiny, artificial face. In the semi-darkness his features are only half distinguishable rendering it impossible to read what his intentions might be as he sits pertly in the shadows.
La Volpe builds on the crude sensibilities of the dummy as he becomes progressively voyeuristic in moments when he peers around door frames and pops up from behind furniture. This might seem fairly tame to a modern audience used to jump scares and elaborate set pieces but here the director creates a real sense that dread is lurking in each shot as we eagerly search the frame for any trace of the garish smile. The use of party blower sounds as he emerges and disappears not only put me in mind of old fairground games such as ‘Whac-A-Mole’ but also serve to emphasize that the dummy is toying with his victim and furthermore, how much he is enjoying it.
Upon finding a drawer of silverware tossed out onto the kitchen floor, the woman finally loses her patience yelling: ‘Tom, I think you’ve gone a little too far this time’. As she works at picking up the cutlery, she is met by the dummy who, stood tall while she is on her knees displays not just a symbol of physical largess but as a figure who has a dominant sexual power over her. The synth score continues, blurring out as she locks herself in the bedroom only to spot a knife making menacing arch-like motions from under the door. Desperate for help and a means of escape, she opens the bedroom window and we find that the music ceases, an indication that this is not a threat that comes from the outside world but (more terrifyingly) from within. Gazing out at the concrete jungle that surrounds her all that can be heard is the sound of the wind blowing, echoing into the abyss. This emptiness and lack of life appears to solidify that there is no hope of her counting on the help of others; she is trapped and must face whatever lies ahead alone.
On her knees for a second time, (La Volpe seems to be exploring a reoccurring theme hinting that the dummy is not just a force of physical violence but sexual assault) the film unleashes what is arguably it’s most fearsome and sticking shot. In a moment that foreshadows the infamous scene in Child’s Play (1988) where Andy’s Mum meets eyes with Chucky underneath the couch, the seed of doubt is planted in the minds of audiences everywhere that you just never know what is on the other side of a door, watching and waiting for you. Hardening up to the reality of what is happening, the woman attempts to suffocate the dummy with her bedcovers. Preparing to ambush her ever-smiling predator, a picture of Christ can be seen in the background; if she has religion on her side perhaps this means she will be rescued before the dummy can reach her?
The Dummy evidently owes a debt to Carpenter’s Halloween with its panning shots of empty, domestic spaces which, although innocent looking, are also able to convince you there has to be something sinister lurking within every shot. What’s more, the horror assumes a greater impact when we make the connection that this should be the safest space of all; home. It’s also impossible to watch shots of the child-like feet of La Vope’s dummy approaching his victim and not think of Chucky; a seemingly harmless doll who also has a penchant for violence in 1988’s Child Play. The low-fi, home-made quality of the piece also helps to elevate the scare factor and La Volpe importantly never tries to do anything too clever or ambitious with the effects, which lends a believability while complimenting the snuff film style aesthetic. With little more than a few lines of dialogue, the score does the lions-share of establishing and maintaining atmosphere and to great success. For a short film, La Volpe employs a wide and varying range of sounds; from the urgent bell like noises reminiscent of a warning alarm before an oncoming train to the thunderous heartbeat that feels as though it never lets up, the score engenders the most primal of responses and keeps us shakily perched on the edge of our seats right until the end.
The film builds tension remarkably well, never trying to do too much or too little, and the quick and frequent cuts make for a disorientating and frenetic affect. In addition to this, just as in Hitchcock’s now infamous shower scene (which had 78 camera sets up and 52 cuts), the choice to implement such a high amount of cuts means that you are left questioning what you have or haven’t seen; it also doesn’t fail to deliver in the final scene which includes a satisfying twist. Does the dummy rise up and finish what he started in order to satisfy his appetite for violence? Will an intervening force put an end to the woman’s suffering? And just what kind of messy scene will the in-laws happen upon when they finally arrive for dinner? Taking just seven and a half minutes out of your day is well worth it to find out!
 The Dummy was shown frequently during USA Network’s Saturday Nightmares in the 1980s/90s.