Welcome to another installment of 31 Days of Halloween! This is our chance to set the mood for the spookiest and scariest month of the year as we focus our attention on horror and Halloween fun. For the month of October we’ll be sharing various pieces of underappreciated scary books, comics, movies, and television to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.
Growing up as a very certain kind of weirdo, my favorite TV shows were The Simpsons and Mystery Science Theater 3000. While both of them engendered in me a love of pop culture references that persists to this day (and informs my writing style and speech patterns, much to the chagrin of many people in my life), the latter taught me to find happiness in places where there is none. The art of turning something bad into something enjoyable is what separates us from the animals, and it’s a bug that bit me at an early age. Throughout high school and the first few years of college, my friends and I would scour the bargain bins of the local Blockbusters and Best Buys in search of the worst movie we could find, get in the right state of mind and laugh at the hard work of dedicated movie professionals who just happened to create absolute dreck in the process. One auspicious evening a buddy of mine strolled in the door with a $2 DVD that would change my life and expand my consciousness to accept all kinds of unexpected weirdness. That film? Charles Band’s 1999 effort to appeal to the burgeoning killer toy film market that never existed: Blood Dolls.
Blood Dolls follows the sordid tale of Virgil Travis, an eccentric Southern billionaire in the…software industry? I think? It never really comes up after the opening credits. Anyway, one of Mr. Travis’ many eccentricities is that he always wears a large rubber mask, even to the clandestine business meeting he hosts at his own home. We learn why in short order, but OH MAN, there is a lot to take in in this first scene. So his business manager Ms. Agami and her “charming young friend” Howard have come to (the back of) Travis manner to explain the circumstances of Virgil’s recent economic downturn – a billion dollar loss, according to the super legitimate Wall Street Tribune. They are initially greeted by Mr. Travis’ live-in butler, Mr. Mascaro – a lumbering, murderous clown who sounds like Tom Waits took diction lessons and has his teeth filed to little points.
He leads them inside where Howard accidentally bumps into Mr. Travis’ other live-in servant – Hyliss, a little person in a tuxedo with an eyepatch and a Jheri curl. As they enter the center of Travis manner, Ms. Agami and her assistant are introduced to what it is, precisely, that Hyliss does: he controls a leather-clad all-girl rock band that is trapped in a large cage at the center of the home and frequently electrocuted into playing often violent but sexually suggestive butt-rock at Mr. Travis’ behest. The names of the band members? Why, that would be Cotton Baby, Black Baby (five guesses how she got that name), Razor Baby and…Shirley. How did they get there? Why are Ms. Agami and her friend cool seeing these girls held captive (at least somewhat) against their will? These mysteries are bigger than you or I, my friend. Either that or Charles Band never wrote a backstory in and just said “eh, no one will care.” To be fair, he wasn’t wrong.
So Ms. Agami and Howard waltz into Mr. Travis’ office as the Cage Babies (my name, not theirs) play one of four original (and suitably terrible) songs we hear over the course of the film. The DVD comes with a documentary that explains that the producers thought that the band may have been successful enough to tour on these songs under the name “The Blood Dolls” but the actress who played Cotton Baby – who did the whole documentary drunk and dressed as Marilyn Monroe, mind you – was a holdout. Anyway, Mr. Travis dresses down his two business managers, shows off his newly acquired doll collection and then hits a few buttons on what appears to be a garage door opener sitting on his desk, which lazily ties both of his guests to their chairs and summons an electric drill from the base of one to casually murder Howard. This brings us to the grand reveal, as Mr. Travis removes his mask to show that, though his body is relatively normally proportioned, his head is the size of a fist! This effect is maybe the best part of the movie, as the constant forced perspective shots are pretty transparent. It also appears that the actor playing Mr. Travis must be allergic to whatever material comprises the ascot or curtain fabric they were using to hide his neck in the shoulder pads he wears to maintain the illusion, as the man’s skin gets progressively more inflamed as the movie goes on.
Anyway, Mr Mascaro slides Ms. Agami into a pneumatic tube that Quantum Leaps her into the form of a 4-armed samurai doll that then joins a pimp and tattooed muscle man toy as the titular Blood Dolls. More than mere collectibles, Mr. Travis uses these dolls to assassinate his business rivals throughout the rest of the film. This does raise a number of questions, like how strong are dolls? How efficient are 8-inch pieces of plastic at murdering full-grown adults? Why would you rely on barely mobile dolls to kill your enemies when you employ a 6’5″ murder clown that can speak and make pithy one liners as he kills your enemies? The short answer is that Band wanted to be able to sell merchandise for this movie and the long answer is…also that. Don’t look for logic in a movie called Blood Dolls.
Mr. Travis’ business rivals are a fun cast of community theater stock characters. There’s the bland, but hot attorney Mercy Shaw (Played by an actress named Jodie Coady!), the stone-voiced and endlessly quotable pre-crisis Lex Luthor known as George Warbeck, and George W. Bush pastiche Harrison Yulin, who sniggers like an idiot at every comment and action – and also happens to be a puppet (fittingly enough) for his dominatrix wife, Moira. Throughout the movie it emerges that Moira was the real mastermind behind Mr. T’s financial troubles, and she’s using his psychotic revenge scheme to eliminate her husband’s co-conspirators and (eventually) seize Mr. Travis’ remaining fortune for herself. We learn most of this exposition during scenes of her disciplining Harry in increasingly intense (though relatively PG) bondage scenes. That these sequences reveal that Debra Mayer, who plays Moira, is possibly the best actor in the cast (it’s a low bar as you might imagine) is also a bit of a fun aside. I won’t spoil the entire thing here, but suffice to say things only get better as the movie progresses toward its two endings – EACH OF WHICH INVOLVES A WEDDING FOR MR. TRAVIS! Not making that up.
There is just so much to unpack in this movie, and I love every bit of it. First off, let’s talk the sets. It’s very clear that they rented out one house for the entire shoot, with the mansion serving simultaneously as Travis manner, the Yulin’s home and Warbeck’s final resting place. Inside, things don’t get much better, as the layout of Travis Manner makes no sense. No matter where Virgil and the gang walk throughout the house, the Cage Babies can access the room – and there are more than a few scenes (including the very first) where you can clearly see that the girls aren’t in a real cage, just a freestanding gate. The only other setting is a freight elevator that I’m convinced was at the Full Moon distribution studio. I would be remiss to not talk about the sight gags they use to make Mr. Travis’ deformity work with the rest of the cast. In almost every other scene they place his head in the shot with some random prop to prove that dude still has an avocado dome. It’s hard to pick a favorite, whether it’s the scene where Mr. Mascaro shaves Mr. Travis or the enormous earbud on his late 90s wired headset – but I’m going to go with his brief dalliance with a Chinese food container as he plots his assault on the front of the house…I mean, Warbeck’s mansion.
Then there’s the acting. Now with some bad movies the comedy comes from how inept the actors are, but with Blood Dolls it’s not that these people are inept, it’s that they are all aggressive character actors trying to out-act each other like the movie is one big competition. First off, Moira and Mr. Travis seem only capable of speaking in monologues – and both chew the scenery like a big dog with drywall. This does lead to some AMAZING line reads from time to time, and definitely contributes to the film’s “community theater” feel. That goes double for the ensemble of side characters who really get one character trait apiece and go with it. Personally, I love Warbeck the most, but I also have a soft spot in my heart for his security detail of Squires and Son, even despite the latter’s incontinence issues. I’ll lump the music into this section too, because most of the Cage Babies’ acting involves them trying (and failing) to lip sync to songs that, because of the BtS Documentary, I know they actually recorded themselves. Of those songs, most people are going to remember the group’s more modest outings like “Kill, P---y. Kill!” but the DVD has a video for the band’s first planned single, “Pain.” They imply that the band has around 10 individual songs, but alas I have yet to track down their full LP.
If you can track down the DVD I’d really recommend watching the behind-the-scenes documentary as it is also a mess. Admittedly everyone looks like they had fun – except for the aforementioned craziness from the actress who played Cotton Baby. The documentary just awkwardly ends with her asserting that if she and her lawyers don’t sign some release the film will never get released, and then just fades to black. I mean, the movie was a direct to DVD release that only I (and evidently someone at the SyFy channel, as it often airs on the cable network late at night) bought, but it makes her look like she may be kind of a jerk. We also learn that she is a former paramour of Jerry Springer which…isn’t that surprising when you find out the actress had a big role in the Femalien series of softcore porn flicks prior to joining the Blood Dolls cast.
You can’t take this movie seriously, and I honestly don’t think it was ever meant to be taken that way. It’s a magical, ridiculous ride through an insane world of side-show freak billionaires, leather-clad lady musicians, community theater actors on the big screen and special effects produced on a shoestring budget. If you enjoy schlock cinema, Blood Dolls is a ton of fun and well worth your time – so long as that time is cracking jokes at this direct-to-SyFy Channel mess.