One stormy night, seven-year-old Judy is travelling in the car with her father and his selfish and cruel new wife (who seems to permanently wear a look of disapproval and a weird sock-like thing on her head). When their car gets stuck in the middle of nowhere, they take shelter nearby in a large, gothic house, inhabited by an elderly doll maker and his wife. And a large collection of very creepy dolls. They are soon joined by the child-like adult, Ralph, and the pair of Desperately-Seeking-Susan-era Madonna lookalike hitchhikers/petty criminals he was giving a lift to. And before long it becomes apparent that the dolls can do some very unpleasant things to people they don't like.
The first half feels very much like a kid's movie, rather than a horror film. (This may have been deliberate - in keeping with the theme of children's toys. But it actually did make me double-check the film certification at one point!) The central character for the audience to relate to, is a smart little girl with pigtails (who was presumably cast for her cutesiness rather than acting abilities). Adults who have lost all their child-like qualities are baddies, and we even have a 'wicked stepmother' in the story. There is some childish slapstick-style humour, and the actor playing Ralph performs as if he's on stage in a pantomime.
However - when the dolls finally do attack, it becomes clear this is not for children at all. The violence and gore of these sequences took me completely by surprise, especially in one scene that reminded me a lot of Barbarella (1968). Up until that point, the toys had been silently creepy - with just the occasional movement of the eyes, or disappearing/reappearing in unexpected places.
There are a few minor issues - for example people keep wandering around with torches or candles, in rooms that are already lit well enough to see clearly - and later we see someone switching on an electric light! The small budget is apparent from the beginning, but it doesn't stop Dolls from being enjoyable once it gets going. It was also the first of many doll-themed, low-budget horror movies from producer Charles Band - including the Puppetmaster (1989) series, Demonic Toys (1992), Blood Dolls (1999), Doll Graveyard (2005), Dangerous Worry Dolls (2008), and DevilDolls (2012).
There is no CGI here, and on the whole the practical effects work well. I was delighted to see the use of stop-motion animation, which I've always found quite charming since I first saw Ray Harryhausen's work in the Sinbad movies, when I was a child. I enjoyed this. And if you can get past the low budget feel and not be irritated by the kid's movie style of the first half, there's a lot of fun to be had here.