The subject of bullying is one that has been covered numerous times in film, across practically every genre and sub-genre you can think of, tackled from and dissected at every angle imaginable. So imagine my surprise when Heidi Moore's Dolly Deadly - a wholly independent film which too lands under this broad, crowded umbrella - manages to not only provide a fresh viewing experience, but also deliver it uniquely, unlike anything I've seen before it. Of course, when you understand the kind of work ethic and passion someone like Moore (a veritable renaissance woman) has for putting her vision to film - producing, writing, even acting - the results should have been anything but surprising.
At it's base, Dolly Deadly is a familiar story. One in which a young child, Benji (Justin Moore) who having lived through a deeply traumatic event involving the death of his mother and only parent, internalizes the pain subconsciously, until external events force these complex harbored feelings - identity confusion, hatred, guilt, anger - to resurface simultaneously, resulting in an understandably violent cathartic reaction. To quote Heidi Moore in an interview with our podcast team Bitches of Horror, regarding the results of this kind of trial by fire, "...what if it doesn't make you stronger, what if it makes you go fucking crazy?" Therein lies the crux of the film.
I pointed out that what makes Dolly Deadly stand out from similar undertakings, is the way in which a lot of the more cerebral psychological elements are presented and visualized for us, the viewer. In this way, Heidi Moore employs multiple styles that serve to indicate what part of Benji's psyche we are peeking into, while also providing a visual metaphor for the creeping changes that occur as a result of the constant abuse he endures. For example, scenes in which Benji mentally escapes from the oppressive forces of his reality, are presented in bold colors and whimsical almost festive-like aesthetics (imagine the dream sequences in Tim Burton's Pee Wee's Big Adventure). In these segments, Benji is a master magician (considering his young age, belief in magic makes the most sense in his fantasy, so being a magician gives him ultimate power), his mother - the proud assistant - and of course Benji's best friends, the dolls - his audience (who are eerily stop-motion animated). It's here where an unhinged, unrestricted, and of course, all-powerful Benji, is able to act out on the darker whims and desires he internalizes. The juxtaposition of both the visual and contextual level between his sleeping and waking state, work well in making the snap back to Benji's dreary, depressing reality, all the more painful. That's not to say the moments outside these fantastical dreams are completely devoid of bold-color usage, just that here, they serve a different function entirely; typically either representing visual cues for the sake of foreshadowing or eliciting a specific emotional response. Remember the red hues during the violent moments in Creep Show? Like that.
Also, it's worth pointing out the great work done on the FX side (another department Heidi Moore had her hand in), with lots of wonderfully employed practical blood and gore; very impressive given the small budget. It's not uncommon for an independent horror film of this size to take the less effective but cheaper way out, and opt for CG instead. So major kudos to the team for going the extra mile and allowing the final violent act to shine, and really hit hard in the gut.
While this debut feature film is a helluva way to get a directorial career rolling (and to be fair, Moore does have a few short films under her belt) we could point to some blemishes that hamper the film's effectiveness, even if just a smidge. While most of the cast do an admirable job in their roles, a couple of standouts may have played theirs just a bit too over-the-top for my liking. Usually I'm a fan of wackadoo-type characters (what Troma fan isn't?), but in this case, particularly the visit to the mannequin-loving coke-head, was more of a side-track and distraction; even if it was funny. There were also some sound balancing and audio hiccups, but again, given the budget, completely forgivable. In the end, none of these minor quibbles really take away from what Heidi Moore set out to accomplish here. Dolly Deadly is a deeply layered personal film with a powerful message - a true labor of love - and it shows through and through. A tragic story where the old adage "what doesn't kill us, makes us stronger", doesn't necessarily ring true, and instead, happens to be the case of "when push comes to shove"...
...or rather, maim.