The Canadian production Voodoo Dolls feels like a relic — even more so than the nearly three-decades-old film already is. Its images of a shirtless black man clad in tribal paint and beaded necklaces, drumming in a trance-like state and menacing the white female protagonist seem like they’re straight out of the black-and-white horror movies of the ’30s and ’40s, when “savage natives” practicing voodoo and witchcraft regularly served as the heavies.
In this more modern instance, the resident dastardly darkie is Desmond (Graham Chambers) — no last name required, another throwback to the films of yesteryear — a caretaker at an all-girls’ school in Louisiana. Forty years after a student stabbed the school’s founder to death, new drama teacher Miss Sayers discovers a play written by the murderous student and falls under its mysterious spell. She says “Out, damned spot!” (or something along those lines) to plans to put on a school production of Twelfth Night and instead decides this random, never-before-seen play about sexually charged voodoo rituals on a Caribbean island is more appropriate for a bunch of teenage girls.
And you know what that means? Rehearsals, rehearsals, REHEARSALS! In between scintillating scenes of line reading, we get to see some ominous and supernatural goings-on around campus, from objects moving by themselves (You can almost not see the strings!) to ghosts (who are, for some reason, in black and white) to the aforementioned shirtless Negro and, last and certainly least, the saddest-looking sentient voodoo dolls ever committed to film. These things look like someone stuck googly eyes on an overcooked hotdog. I mean, seriously, if you’re gonna name a movie VOODOO DOLLS, maybe you should set aside a good chunk of your budget for the actual dolls.
The story — penned by Ed Kelleher, writer of notorious schlock like Shriek of the Mutilated and Invasion of the Blood Farmers — is a nonsensical hodgepodge of voodoo mysticism, ghost story, killer doll camp, Satanic Panic paranoia, Porky‘s-style skin flick and, against all odds, a well-meaning after school special with something to say about the social stigma of homosexuality. But mostly, it’s about…87 minutes long, and most of it is painfully dull.
Probably the most interesting thing about it is that it was directed by a woman, Andrée Pelletier — a rare enough occurrence for a horror movie today, much less in 1991. Perhaps her feminine energy lends to the measured pace and stubborn insistence on developing a sense of drama, but it also makes us suffer through scene after scene of dialogue-free INNER TURMOIL: “new girl” Vanessa pining over photos of her dead father, Rickie fretting over her budding lesbian loins, Miss Sayers staring into space as she falls under the spell of the script, blah blah blah.
Meanwhile, Desmond’s role is just basically to lurk, purportedly handling his caretaker duties, while secretly conjuring spells that end up with people dying. There’s no dichotomy in his character; he has no sympathetic cause and feels no guilt for his misdeeds. It’s almost refreshing how straightforward a stereotype he is. He just lives to serve his master, voodoo spirit Baron Samedi — who here appears to be more of a Satan-like, purely evil entity, unlike the charming antihero in Sugar Hill.
Despite its muddled, barely breathing plot, Voodoo Dolls does manage to deliver some cheese with a low-brow entertainment factor: hammy (or in the case of Chambers, catatonic) acting, elementary school play-level special effects, laughably gratuitous nude scenes and God-awful early ’90s fashion. The shoulder pad budget alone must’ve been gargantuan.
Consider this movie Exhibit A for the sad state of roles available for black folks in horror (and elsewhere) between the Blaxploitation ’70s and the “urban” ’90s.