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Killer Dolls - Barbarella (Vadim, 1968)

Updated: Jan 8, 2021

BBC television's Friday Late Film was gloriously unpredictable fare. One week it could be Judy Garland in I Could Go On Singing, and another it might be Vincent Price in The Pit and the Pendulum. It's regular timeslot was around 10.50pm yet somehow, and I have no recollection why, one night in my childhood I found myself sitting on the settee with my Mum in front of an unexpectedly inappropriate and frightening film and the memory has never left me. I suspect we had channel hopped into the middle of this movie because I don't recall its infamous opening titles sequence. All I can remember of it is a small army of bizarre china dolls with vicious metal teeth closing in on the legs of a young woman. The last image I recall, before my Mum clamped a hand over my eyes to protect me from the anticipated horrors to come, was small round bloody holes in the heroine's tights as the dolls pecked at her legs. If I'd been unnerved before then my Mum's actions confirmed that something truly horrific was to come - at that age you assume your Mum knows everything but I now realise she had probably never seen this film before and had no idea how far it was going to go.

It was some time later that I identified the film as Roger Vadim's Barbarella and I've now been able to pinpoint the date of this UK TV screening to when I was 8 years old. I've attempted to watch Barbarella a few times since then but it's very much a work of its time, and I'm not sure I'm part of the target demographic for that zero gravity striptease opening sequence, so I've rarely got far into the film without finding something more substantial to watch instead. I did however feel the need to re-visit the killer doll sequence recently just to judge how scary it really was.

This scene is readily available on YouTube (embedded below) and, on watching it properly for the first time, I can't help thinking that the dolls are pretty weak adversaries with their flat china faces and tiny mouths. The teeth are still very unnerving but viewed from an adult perspective their design is fundamentally flawed as a killing machine. I do still find this scene edgy viewing though, with those creepy kids and their suspicious knot tying skills, and the blank faced dolls advancing towards their victim with dead eyes and saw blade mouths. However I can't help thinking that my Mum's defensive manoeuvre amplified my fear, making me imagine something much worse than the events on the screen. Though I'm sure the concept of homicidal toys would probably have made its mark on my psyche either way.

Scary dolls or mannequins are always a reliable horror trope, from The Dead of Night to Chucky or Annabelle, and Barbarella's attackers are memorably unpleasant examples of the genre. On balance though, I'm more disturbed by the idea that they are the tools of feral children than I am by the dolls themselves. From a design perspective I also like the variety in the dolls' appearance - from traditional Victorian style china dolls to the ones with blue skin, blank eyes, green hair, hoods or turbans - and they have a lovely post-apocalyptic look to them as well. So while I can completely understand why this scene disturbed me so much as a child and stayed with me for all these years it represents a perfect example of how much my attitude to "horror" has changed. Despite their design flaws, on revisiting this scene I think the Killer Dolls and their creepy human owners are probably the best thing in Barbarella and I think I'd like to see more of them.



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