Valley of the dolls

Pub date November 24, 2009
SectionArts & CultureSectionTrash

CULT HORROR Many babysitters had the bejesus scared out of them by the 1975 TV movie classic Trilogy of Terror, in which Karen Black is attacked by a "Zuni fetish doll" come to malevolent life. Yet among key 1970s horror films, this one inspired relatively little imitation, unless Chucky and myriad Gremlins knockoffs count. One exception, however, remains among those subterranean titles so improbable people don’t quite believe it exists until they see it — then they can’t believe what they’re seeing. That would be Black Devil Doll From Hell, a no-budget camcorder wonder gone straight to video (and Hell?) in 1984.

It was produced, directed, written, scored, and edited — all very badly — by Philadelphia auteur Chester Novell Turner, whose whereabouts or even continued pulse no one seems sure about after he completed a second, even more obscure feature. (That 1987 horror omnibus, Tales from the Quadead Zone, is currently on YouTube. It’s hypnotically dreadful but no BDDFH.)

Shirley L. (for Latanya) Jones, definitely not to be confused with the Partridge Family lady, plays a Marian the Librarian type who buys a ventriloquist-dummy-looking doll from a junk shop. It begins inserting itself into her hitherto virginal, God-fearing thoughts … then into other places, barking some of the most ludicrously filthy dialogue in cinematic history.

Naturally, being pleasured by a jive-talking misogynist puppet can’t end well for our heroine. As if atoning for its own egregious sins, the film ends with an actual church ceremony whose sermonizing goes on even longer than its slug-slow opening credits. Stupefying, hilarious, endless (even at 70 minutes) and unforgettable, Black Devil Doll from Hell has inspired various tributes. My favorite written one is’s description: "The little train wreck that could."

Full-blown cinematic tribute — in comparatively glorious HD — just arrived on DVD after a couple years of inciting fanboy love and occasional outrage on the horror festival circuit. Black Devil Doll (2007) has puppet sex, wildly padded closing credits, an animated prelude in which G turns to X ("Rated X by an all-white jury!" tipping hat to 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song), and significant acknowledgement of "breast augmentation by Dr. Leonard Gray of San Francisco." (No joke — he’s got a Web site.)

Yup, this Black Devil Doll is local, shot in the East Bay by brothers Shawn and Jonathan Lewis, with multitasking cinematographer John Osteen. Antioch has never looked more … Antioch. There, executed Black Power revolutionist and multiple rapist-murder of white chicks Mubia Abul-Jama is reincarnated as an evil doll fully kitted out in 1970s pimpwear and jiving potty mouth. (Before you get too offended, let us note here the wiseass creators are themselves African American.) He makes himself at home with chesty Heather, but turns homicidal once she invites over equally bimbolicious pals Natasha, Candi, Buffi, and Brandi for an evening of wine coolers and Twister.

Those roles are played by thespians with names like Precious Cox, whom you probably won’t be seeing at Berkeley Rep anytime soon. Nonetheless, this new Doll is enthusiastically finagled: even when the joke runs thin, all concerned bat it out of the park in terms of sheer energy, recalling Russ Meyer’s turbo-charged expressions of knowingly absurd sexploitation. Turner’s Hell was awesome for its ineptitude and unintentional humor. The Lewis’ Doll is sheer intentional (albeit heterosexual) camp, joyous enough in its deliberate cheese and craftily rude dynamism to be equally hilarious in an entirely different way.