Living Dolls (1980) | Directed by Todd Coleman
Written by Todd Coleman | Starring Park Dougherty, Judith Vane, Rhett Halverson
Have you ever looked at a mannequin and swear you seen it move or talk? Variable in size, shape and detail, these human-like but hallow creations have a definite mystique. Filmmakers have included them continually in horror, relying on their presence to create a deep and unnerving effect, such as in Halloween (2018) when we see a room full of mannequins in Laurie Strodes house, and in The Turning (2020) where their mere occupation of a room creates an instant air of creepiness. Walking past these plastic dolls in the brightness of the daytime rush can sometimes be unsettling enough but imagining yourself alone with a group of them in the dark is far from a welcoming thought.
Living Dolls directed by Todd Coleman is a short film originally made to entertain audiences in the run up to feature length films.  The piece centres around Melvin (Park Dougherty), a young janitor who is seen undertaking various domiciliary tasks for a high street fashion store. Ordered about by a woman credited only as ‘His Boss’ (Judith Vane) and a group of female staff, Melvin wanders off in search of escape to find himself in an attic space surrounded by mannequins. The earlier softness of his character, however, is called into question and a more complex set of attitudes and behaviours towards women are revealed through his interaction with the dolls. What Melvin soon realises is that these ‘dolls’ are not merely spectators or objects that he can defile without recompense and that there are actions to his consequences. A door slams and a piercing scream of terror rings out; will Melvin make it out alive and if (and when) he emerges will he ever be the same again?
A series of perfectly made up and wrinkle free faces stare vacantly into nowhere and rush-hour shoppers pass through their visages as though they were ghosts. These mannequins are as lifeless and inactive as we would expect them to be but with the use of close up shot our focus is implicitly drawn towards their expressions, as we watch carefully for any sign of movement. This is followed by blurred shots that abruptly come into focus, tightly framing yet more faces, thus creating the illusion that there is life in the room. The camera moves inside, and we see groups of female mannequins, faces all glaring fixated on us. Suddenly, a strand of hair blows in the breeze, setting us off balance a little. A steady focus is kept on the eyes of the mannequins who by standing collectively and in great number evoke an immediate sense of empowerment. Through the glass, the face of one of them seems to smile at us knowingly, floating disquietingly off into the shadows as Robert Fair’s melancholic piano music rolls on softly before ending on a low and lingering note, and thus providing an early warning that something is amiss.
Refreshingly subverting gender norms, the film places women in positions of power (as seen in Melvin’s boss) and shows men (Melvin) on the receiving end of orders from a group of females. Brow beaten and criticised as he undertakes various chores about the boutique, a degree of empathy is engendered at this point for Melvin. In search of some quiet he climbs a set of stairs that lead from darkness up and out of view and with the chatter of women still audible in the background, we see an outstretched arm extend directly in front of him creating a sense of entrapment. Looking crestfallen, he weaves in and out of the countless female figures which stand in circles around him before a voice calls out asking for assistance. Completely alone now but for the mannequins, there is no indication of where this voice comes from; is this Melvin’s imagination or is there a more sinister explanation? Approaching one of the dolls and with a menace in his tone, he asks: ‘do you want me to button you up?’ before wildly tearing open her dress. Not stopping at this, his odd and troubling behaviour continues as he pulls off the eyelashes of one mannequin and places them over her mouth moustache-like. This is a side to Melvin that we have not seen, one that he has chosen not to display in the company of others and his actions therefore pose questions around sexuality, power and repression. For a fleeting moment, he appears to change tack and tenderly caresses the hand of one figure. However, this gentle gesture is soon negated as he purposefully and aggressively snaps her finger.
Deciding to lie down for a while, he soon falls asleep as a female voice calls out softly: ‘there, there, now what are we going to do with you?’ Through the darkness of the shadows a hand appears, causing him to stir. Moving towards a window Melvin looks out and in a repetition of the closing title shot, a face hovers in the reflection, disturbing any notion of freedom that outside might represent. Opening the window for air, it is soon pushed back down again unexpectedly and as Melvin turns towards the mannequins, we get the first sense of him being genuinely afraid. Walking cautiously and with a blade clutched in his hand, he now moves about the room not with confidence but with total fear and apprehension.
Stumbling through the crowd of faux-women they begin to mock him, asking: ‘Why don’t you like us, Melvin? Wouldn’t you like to have a girlfriend?’ This teasing evolves into a taunting sound bath as multiple voices are heard criticising him, one declaring: ‘big boys shouldn’t play with dolls’ building to a crescendo in which Melvin cries: ‘I seem to recall that you were not smiling’ as he brushes back the hair of one figure to reveal the face of not a doll but a living woman! Horrified, he leaps towards the door and heads for the stairs but is stopped in his tracks by a fierce looking woman in a bridal dress. A montage of chaos follows and we are shown quick cuts of figures in rapid succession, never sure whether they are mannequins or real women as Melvin left to endure his ensuing fate.
Coming in at under ten minutes, Living Dolls might have a highly under-polished and unprofessional aesthetic but on the whole, this works fully in its favour. A clear exploration of voyeurism, just who represents the camera’s point of view often remains a mystery; is it an unseen character or is Coleman implicating us in everything that unravels by placing the audience in the position of observer? With its hammy performances and cheap special effects, this is undeniably a product of its time. This does not, however, diminish its success in creating a sense of claustrophobia and suspense. By touching on themes of spectatorship and gender dynamics it also proves that it is more than just a cheap thrill ride. Like a rough diamond, there are a lot of imperfections to Living Dolls but for those who are patient and willing there is also the faintest sparkle to be found.
 Living Dolls was shown frequently during USA Network’s Saturday Nightmares in the 1980s/90s.