Studio: 4Digital Media
Director: Andrew Jones
Writer: Andrew Jones
Producer: Andrew Jones
Stars: Suzie Frances Garton, Lee Bane, Flynn Allen, Judith Haley, Cyd Casados, Samuel Hutchison, Megan Lockhurst, Annie Davies, Ryan Michaels
After firing their strange housekeeper, a family ends up mysteriously tormented by a haunted doll.
With an unbroken streak of stinkers including “Night of the Living Dead: Resurrection” (review here), “The Amityville Asylum” (review here), “A Haunting at the Rectory” (review here), and “Poltergeist Activity” (review here), North Bank Entertainment is something like the Bizarro ’72 Dolphins of indie horror. It is painfully evident that their business model of sequelizing public domain properties or exploiting urban legends several times a year with budgets barely bigger than the cost of a Chipotle burrito has no prayer of producing anything resembling reasonable quality, let alone a hit.
Each successive title as dismal as the last, there was no reason to presume haunted doll flick “Robert” would be immune to the production company’s inverse Midas Touch. In fact, after being burned yet again by a prior release, I silently vowed to treat the North Bank label as a shameful Scarlet Letter and to eternally shun all future output, if for no better reason than to avoid an appearance of some masochistic proclivity for panning movies certain to not be worth watching. Unfortunately, a passing interest in the “true story” of Robert the Doll compelled a momentary lapse in sanity out of morbid curiosity for exactly how this one might be mucked up.
Popular rumor suggests the real life Robert influenced screenwriter Don Mancini’s creation of Chucky for the “Child’s Play” series, though I’ve been unable to source any written or recorded confirmation from Mancini himself that this is the case. In referencing Wes Craven’s passing on Twitter, Mancini mentions Freddy Krueger as inspiring Chucky’s personality. In a 2013 video interview with Crave Online, Mancini references only Cabbage Patch Kid consumerism and the generic “living doll trope” as inspirations.
The “real” tale behind Robert appears equally steeped in secondary hearsay. Take a look at the webpage for the Key West Art & Historical Society, managers of the Fort East Martello Museum where the sailor-capped old doll resides, and you’ll see Robert’s origin story is a benign one involving no more malicious mischief than ghostly giggling, footsteps, and a perceived change in facial expression. That’s about the extent of his supposed evil.
Dig deeper across the internet and you can find repeated rumors of voodoo, black magic, and insanity, as well as reports of Robert brandishing a blade, locking victims in an attic, and cursing people who pay him a visit. Now try tracing those stories to reliable words verifiable as nonfiction or somewhere that doesn’t stem from a creepypasta write-up.
“Robert” the movie builds its fiction from the broad strokes of those tall tales. When elderly housekeeper Agatha shows signs of senility, Jenny and Paul do what any responsible employer who welcomed such a woman into their home for two years would do: they sack her. Before the door has a chance to spank her backside, Agatha gifts the cursed doll to the couple’s young son Gene and mutters a vague threat in Jenny’s direction.
While Chucky occupied his early screen time by throwing a sitter out the window, and Annabelle summoned a full force of paranormal activity, Robert makes knocking over a sugar bowl and squirting paint on Jenny’s artwork his warning shots that something sinister is foot. Because nothing says “evil toy” like making a mess in the kitchen. Well, nothing except murder or supernatural spooks, ideas apparently not sedated enough for this movie’s tame idea of scary.
Robert eventually grows bold enough to start a body pile. This comes almost precisely at the midpoint, when the movie grows similarly bold enough to finally depict Robert actually doing something. For the first forty minutes, “action” is confined offscreen, with Robert glimpsed only in stationary shots where his utterly ridiculous design is in full view.
An impromptu chuckle is assured during each Robert appearance. Apologies to the person(s) who built the puppet used in the film, but the doll appears as if it was sculpted from oatmeal by a child using just one hand. Robert’s face is desperate to seem creepy, but its failed merger with a visage trying to double as a plausible children’s toy makes the dopey doll look instead like it came out of a trash fire behind Jeff Dunham’s house.
As he did with “A Haunting at the Rectory,” writer/director Andrew Davis fights a losing battle to fit his soap opera script into a framework of fright. “Robert” focuses an inordinate amount of time on the marital woes of Paul and Jenny. Jenny feels marginalized and desires a rebalance amongst her responsibilities as a mother and dreams of being an artist. Paul is bogged down at the office and worries his wife’s past problems are roiling up again. Their meandering melodrama pales against the bigger problem of Gene’s troublesome new friendship with a devil doll running around the house when no one is looking. But damned if “Robert” isn’t determined to bore its audience with misplaced character arcs having little to no impact on the horror at hand.
A prologue scene, confusingly shot from the floor with candles in the foreground and actors angled away from the camera, clearly establishes the cursed doll as sentient before opening credits even roll. Yet the screenplay insists on inserting a “wife might be crazy” angle making no narrative sense since viewers know there is no mystery to solve. Better puzzles to ponder might include questionable casting of a child old enough to know dolls aren’t alive, whether the laughably flaccid scene of a person tumbling down a staircase technically counts as a “stunt,” and do these filmmakers even know how to properly construct a movie?
“Robert” is no scarier than a booger and is about as desirable for something you would like to have in your hand. Thankfully, it is just as easy to flick away and forget.
Review Score: 25