THE KILLER OF DOLLS Spanish theatrical artwork
(1975, Spain)
4 stars  

directed by: Miguel Madrid
starring: David Rocha, Inma de Santis, Helga Line, Elisenda Ribas, Marina Ferri, Lupe Rocha, Salvador Buchila, Alejandra Del Rio

choice dialogue:

“Are you jealous of Audrey, the doll from the park?”

- Paul gives his dolls a good talking to.

slash with panache?

[review by JA Kerswell]

THE KILLER OF DOLLS is another 1970s Spanish psycho-shocker that, at least in part, pre-empted the North American slasher cycle initiated by John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978). However, Miguel Madrid’s (directing under the pseudonym Michael Skaife) tale is a joyously demented thriller that echoes both the then fading giallo trend and the long shadow of Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960) to create something quite unique.

  Miguel Madrid pre-empts the slasher craze with his wonderfully demented THE KILLER OF DOLLS.

THE KILLER OF DOLLS, unlike many other thrillers of the time, is not really a whodunit. This despite the killer wearing a wig and creepy doll-faced mask (which is reminiscent of Leatherface in the original THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974)). We quickly find out that the person behind a series of killings is the young protagonist Paul (David Rocha), who has been kicked out of school; with his hopes of becoming a surgeon dashed. He is the son of a gardener at a sprawling estate (actually the fantastical Parc Güell in Barcelona), who shares a surprisingly grand house with his kooky mother (Elisenda Ribas).

Despite his increasingly erratic behaviour – something exacerbated by a local brat who takes to destroying dolls in front of his window (causing him to have a dramatic meltdown) – Paul’s parents leave him to his own devices when they depart for a trip. Even with the estate being locked at night, local teens find a way in and use it as somewhere to have sex away from preying eyes. However, on the first night alone Paul dons his doll mask, black leather gloves and wig and slaughters a young woman who is abandoned by her boyfriend in an outlying greenhouse. He kills another couple. Despite the woman being visibly pregnant he decapitates her with an axe and takes her body back to his room. He is surprised by the lady of the estate – the predatory Condesa Olivia (Helga Liné), who pays him a nocturnal visit with a view to seducing the handsome young man. Paul panics and sets fire to the severed head by pouring gasoline on it, which causes the Condesa to remark on the smell to which he brushes off as him burning the dinner!

  The Condesa (Helga Line) tries to seduce Paul (David Rocha), unaware that he is hopelessly insane and infrequently dressed ...

Paul accepts the Condesa’s invitation to sleep at the main house but frustrates her when he refuses to open the door to his guest bedroom and instead takes the opportunity to sneak off into the night and dispose of the body into the river. However, in the morning Paul is enchanted by the Condesa’s teenage daughter Audrey (Inma de Santis), who he watches playing the family organ. Meanwhile, more fun-seekers sneak onto the estate only to fall afoul of the doll-faced killer …

Regardless of its myriad of influences, THE KILLER OF DOLLS is really quite unlike anything else in its approach. A psychedelic fever dream that despite its eccentricities never quite loses its focus as a thriller. At its centre is David Rocha’s remarkable performance as Paul – who goes large and wildly theatrical at every opportunity but it never feels like parody. He is both petulant and sympathetic and wildly unpredictable. It turns out that his character’s burgeoning sexuality was the trigger for his descent into madness after being raised as a girl by his mother following the death of his sister (who appears in a ghostly form to torment him throughout – who was played by the actor’s real-life sister). He feels taunted by his dead sibling’s dolls which he grew up surrounded by and literally sees his female victims as mannequins that must be destroyed. The dubious psycho-sexual motivation for the killings, and ‘transvestism’ clearly influenced by Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (as well as Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED (aka LA RESIDENCIA), which had been a big hit in its native Spain in 1969), certainly wouldn’t fly today but was commonplace in the kinkier realms of the thrillers coming out of Spain and Italy at the time.

  Miguel Madrid's film borrows elements of the giallo and, arguably, the look of Leatherface and creates something truly unique ...

A perhaps unique aspect of the film is that, despite the sexually motivated violence against women, it is Paul’s character that is most erotically fetishised by the camera. Whilst for the most part the female characters keep their clothes on, Paul has not one but two nude shower scenes and spends much of the film in various states of undress or wearing figure-hugging clothes. Apparently, the shower scenes caused a minor scandal at the time as it represented the first male nude scene in Spanish cinema.

In a similar way to Juan Antonio Bardem’s Spanish psycho-thriller THE CORRUPTION OF CHRIS MILLER (1973), THE KILLER OF DOLLS seems to pre-empt the slasher movie with flashes of violence whilst still retaining the more traditional – if you can call it that – thriller framework of the time. Viewed in isolation, the scenes of the masked Paul stalking and offing his prey with various garden implements are remarkably prescient of the subgenre-to-be. There is even a chase scene after a bunch of singing, acid-raddled, woozy hippies make the mistake of crashing Paul’s realm.

A fun factoid – thanks to Kat Ellinger’s insightful commentary on the excellent Mondo Macabro Bluray release of the film – is that David Rocha abandoned in-front-of-camera acting and concentrated on voice acting - and he provided the Spanish language dub for Jason Alexander’s character in THE BURNING (1981)! Inma de Santis died tragically young in 1989 in a car accident in the Sahara Desert. Little is know about Miguel Madrid, who went on to direct just one more film: the little seen erotic thriller BACANAL EN DIRECTO (1979).

Admittedly, if you go into THE KILLER OF DOLLS expecting a straight proto-slasher you might be confounded, but those with a taste for the strange will find lots to savour here.

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BODYCOUNT 7   bodycount!   female: 5 / male: 2

      1) Female has throat slasher with hand scythe
      2) Female decapitated with axe
      3) Male killed (off screen)
      4) Female stabbed with scissors
      5) Female whacked in the head with hand scythe
      6) Female has heart removed
      7) Male killed (off screen)