So I was browsing Amazon the other day, and for once I looked at the recommendations that it gave me, and a film popped up that made me take notice. There’s a handful of films that I have always wanted to catch, but never felt quite inspired enough to actually pick up and watch. I have been told a couple of times that this one might be interesting enough to catch, so I thought “what the heck”, and grabbed it with a couple of other movies that I’ve always fancied owning. It is a few years old, made and released in the period where Asian Horror films were de rigeur, and the fact it is never really mentioned in despatches made me think it would be average at best. But just because it didn’t tickle the film taste buds of others does not necessarily mean it doesn’t have merit for yours truly. So is it a forgotten classic, or merely a film that should have been left on a dusty shelf in a warehouse somewhere in central England?
“The Doll Master” opens with a little trip to the past, where a man has made a life sized replica of his sweetheart. When the woman dies, the suspicious locals blame our man, and beat him to death. However, it seems as if his Doll was a little more animate than should be possible, and she is seen by his open grave, a look of revenge in her glassy eyes. Cut to the present day, and we meet a small group of people who have been invited to a Doll museum (which is a converted Church), having been especially selected to be models for a new group of Dolls by the Wheelchair bound Mrs Im and the Curator Mr Choi. We have Sculptor Hae-mi (Kim Yu-mi), perky schoolgirl Sun-young (Lee Ka-yeong), photographer Jung-ki (Lim Hyeong-jun) and Young-ha (Ok Ji-young), a girl who just adores her own little Doll. And let us not forget male model Tae-seong (Shin Hyeong-tak), who seems to have gotten wind of this and rather boldly invited himself. Frankly the place is all a little creepy, with Mrs Im being especially strange, and all the rooms decorated with large life size Dolls acting as Light Fixtures and Toilet Decorations. Hae-mi is further troubled by the occasional appearance of a young girl called Mi-na (Lim Eun-kyeong), who not only seems to know her, but gets very upset when Hae-mi shows no recollection at all. Then of course the bodies start piling up, with Hae-mi emerging as our heroine, assisted by Tae-seong, who of course has a bit of a secret of his own. Can they work together to find out the secret of this museum, the secret of Mi-na, and most importantly.. survive? Oh, and what is the secret that is held in the cellar?
Dolls and Clowns. Two little Horror staples than can either be terribly frightening, or for those of us that just don’t have that fear, totally stupid. Made in 2004, the Doll theme actually works quite well, feeding on a bit of a fad for Asians that collected these rather creepy but life-like Dolls, dressing them and applying make-up, keeping them almost as if they were alive. It avoids the Chucky route by not animating the little Dolls, but rather making them an constant unsettling presence, and only making them move when you can’t see them. Think of the “Weeping Angels” from the recent Dr Who incarnation, and you’ll get the idea. It is actually rather effective, and this sense of atmosphere really is the best thing about the film.
Acting on the other hand is variable at best. Lim Hyeong-jun and Lee Ka-yeong are just too annoying for words, which is made even worse by the fact they share many scenes together (and a pretty creepy attempt at romance). On the other hand Kim Yu-mi is really rather good as our “Scream Queen”, managing to actually not only be scared, but at one point totally paralysed by what is going on. My favourite is the spooky young Lim Eun-kyeong, who plays the fragile and hurting Mi-na just perfectly, both as the unknown innocent and later on as something somewhat more evil.
The film does have a bit of a problem in one aspect. We have one storyline which is somewhat straightforward about our ever decreasing cast, and the end goal of our bad guys. But the secondary storyline, involving Hae-mi and Mi-na, whilst connected, is never really that well explained. It’s hard to go into detail without spoiling things.. but I never really understood how Mi-na was actually part of this whole story, let alone became the agent for others.
Scare-wise, it works well when sticking to atmosphere and the general visuals. However, there are a couple of moments that you could call gory, which seem a little out of context with the piece as a whole. Odder still is how the UK DVD is rated an 18 – whilst there is one scene that is somewhat graphic, I have seen 15 rated films that are a whole lot worse. My guess is that our censor is very sensitive to films with killer dolls in them after the controversy over “Childs Play 3”.
It is however, an ok movie with a lot to enjoy. It isn’t as smart and clever as “Tale of Two Sisters”, and isn’t even as pretty and disturbing as “Hansel and Gretel”. But as an Asian Horror Movie that actually has some scares, and an interesting (if obscure) central premise you could do a lot worse. There’s more to Korean Horror than Long Haired Ghost Girls. Turns out there are Long Haired Dolls to watch out for also! Recommended.