For years, horror cinema has used the ventriloquist’s relationship with his doll as an analog for the schizophrenic mind. Beginning with “The Great Gabbo” (1929), the malevolent doll sub-genre peaked in the 60’s – 70’s with “Devil Doll” (1964), “Terror of the Doll (Trilogy of Terror)” (1975), ”Magic” (1978), and 2 separate Twilight Zone episodes in ’62 & ‘64.
Since its heyday, there have been many different variations of the old concept. The underrated “Love Object” (2003) reimagined the doll as a life sized female sex doll, “Monkey Shines” (1988) dropped the doll in favor of a psychically linked helper monkey, and “May” (2002), one of the best horror films of the last 15 years, saw Angela Bettis’s title character living a solitary existence with her only friend, her childhood doll “Suzie”, encased in glass. Through all its permutations, the subgenre can be surprisingly rigid in its formula. A milquetoast adult loner (often with a controlling mother or a repressive childhood) is finally able to act out vicariously through the doll or dummy. The freedom of being assertive quickly turns to violence. Deaths are blamed on the doll while the unreliable narrator maintains innocence and deniability. There is often a love interest who could be his savior but is tragically too late to pry him from his psychosis. Even the ultimate mama’s boy Norman Bates kept his mother’s corpse around to act as something of a ventriloquist dummy. There is a possible “Psycho” connection in Larry Longstreth’s “The Murders of Brandywine Theater” as a crucial scene includes a taxidermied bird reminiscent of the one in Bates’s office.
“The Murders of Brandywine Theater” sticks close to the classic beats of its cinematic ancestors. When a bored truck driver picks up a hitchhiker on the highway, he is told the tale of Henry Kosta. Henry (Dian Bachar) works as a custodian at the local theater but pines to be the main attraction. On his lunch breaks he works on his corny ventriloquism act with his dummy Moxxy (voiced by Primus frontman Les Claypool). He is verbally abused at every turn by his diminutive boss (Martin Klebba), his neighbors, and his overbearing mother. The already slight Bachar plays the role with a tense isolation and is framed in wide shots which have him dwarfed by the rest of the world. Little by little, Moxxy gains a voice of his own and is soon helping Henry by ridding his life of any nuisances.
As the bodies pile up, two detectives in the form of wrestling superstars “Diamond” Dallas Page & Dustin “Goldust” Runnels begin sniffing around Henry’s home as well as the theater. A running gag in the film is that the detectives both have a childlike fascination with Henry’s ventriloquist act and are giddy whenever they have a chance to see it up close. It’s funny to see two pro wrestlers play inept, drooling fan, but it also extinguishes any threat of Henry being found out. The film lacks the engine needed to ratchet up the tension that would force Henry to take action either with or against Moxxy.
There is a reason why many entries into the malevolent doll oeuvre have been relegated to episodic television or as part of a larger anthology. Without a new spin on an old tale, “Murders” doesn’t do enough to support a full feature. Of its lean 71 minute running time, 16 minutes are spent on credits and the hitchhiker scenes which awkwardly bookend the film. Also. a well made but unnecessary animated intermission sequence makes “The Murders of Brandywine Theater” possibly the shortest film in history to have an intermission.
“Murders” is more watchable than it could have been because of curious and eclectic casting. Fans of the early work of Trey Parker & Matt Stone will be excited to see Dian Bachar display his dramatic chops, wrestling fans will love seeing Diamond Dallas Page and Goldust hamming it up, Primus fans will come for Les Claypool, and even NFL fans can catch a glimpse of former Cleveland Brown speedster Josh Cribbs.