Little. Wooden. Killer.
There’s not a lot of story in this short film, and clocking in at only about 7.5 minutes, there’s not much room for any, either. After arguing with her husband about an impending visit from her in-laws, a woman is left alone in the apartment with the creepy ventriloquist dummy that the man has owned since he was a child. Upon getting out of the shower, she finds the dummy poised on the toilet, watching her. She is understandably unsettled for a moment, and then quickly laughs it off, assuming her husband is playing a practical joke on her. The laughter stops when the dummy continues to move around the apartment on its own and begins to terrorize her, going so far as to attack her with a knife.
There’s not a lot of technology or inventive special effects here, as it is all done practically. The dummy is obviously manipulated by human hands just outside of view—but at least they are outside of view, which is better than can be said for some films. THE DUMMY is obviously the work of someone who is still learning their trade, but it is equally obvious that they know more than most. The filmmaker makes the best of what he had, and the audience is treated to a number of creepy close-ups of the dummy’s shadowy face. It is quite unnerving to see his mouth chattering mechanically while he is covered in human blood.
It has been said that this was the inspiration for CHILD’S PLAY (1988), but that could well be said for a number of films that came before this one. Still, it does make good use of some slasher film tropes that we would see in that franchise, including an unyielding miniature antagonist who attempts to slash his victim through the cracks of a closed door, and the fact that it isn’t over…even when you’re sure it should be. Here, the dummy literally loses his head in the battle, and as the woman lets loose a sigh of relief, the headless dummy sits up and we fade to black.
The musical score works suitably with the tension onscreen, but I must make mention of a single cartoonish sound effect—a zippy sort of Looney Tunes whistle when the dummy darts off camera—that seems completely out of place with the straight sense of horror that the rest of the short appears to be striving for. It was an unusual choice, to say the least.
THE DUMMY was a student film written and directed by Louis LaVolpe. During the burgeoning days of cable television, networks were hungry for content and the short was purchased to help fill out gaps in running time. It ran for nearly ten years on HBO, Showtime, The Movie Channel, and even on the USA Network in between full-length features. It has since been circulating on the Internet, and more recently had landed in rotation on the now-defunct FEARNET.
LaVolpe only has one other film on his resume—the 2010 short feature SARAH—but he has managed to turn a passion for movies into a living, regardless. He has been the NYU Film School’s production supervisor for more than two decades, and is the founder of the online education portal FilmSchoolOnline.com.
I contacted Louis LaVolpe regarding this film, and he was kind enough to answer all of my questions below:
THE DUMMY was a student film. Which school were you attending, and how old were you at the time?
I was in my twenties, attending NYU Film School. It was our first sound film, shot on 16mm film.
There have been a number of “creepy dummy” flicks throughout the years. From where did you draw your inspiration?
My inspiration for all things horror came from watching Universal monster movies as a child in the 1960s, and then later, Hitchcock. I also loved ventriloquism. My dummy would sometimes scare the hell out of me at night when I spied it in the darkness.
Looking back on the film now, what are your thoughts? Any regrets, or things that you would change?
In terms of schoolwork, the goal of the THE DUMMY was to make a first sound film. Personally, however, I wanted to experiment with camera and editing techniques now that I finally had my hands on 16mm equipment! I’m glad many viewers recognize this by their comments on YouTube. As mentioned, I was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock. He is known for creating anxiety in the audience, often punctuated by surprise or shock. The shower scene in PSYCHO is a classic example. Many non-filmmakers are surprised to learn that this scene is all editing—no special effects, just some fake blood. In fact, the knife never touches Janet Leigh. In my studies, Sergei Eisenstein’s montage theory was a real eye-opener because it revealed the mechanics of this technique. My goal in THE DUMMY was to try this out for myself. Specifically, to create suspense and surprise via camera and editing. The attack scene is all editing. We shot Carrie Vickrey first, then the dummy, then the knife. It’s important that aspiring filmmakers experiment like this, that’s why I mention it here. Ultimately, story is king, but you must know how to convey it on screen.
One aspect that always stuck out for me was the use of a cartoonish sound effect about 3:15 in, which seems to go against the tone of horror that the rest of the film was striving for. What was the reasoning behind that choice?
One of the most important things a budding filmmaker should realize is that everything has been done before. The trick is to do it a bit differently. This is especially true with devices and techniques that can be construed as clichéd. I knew that everything I was doing in THE DUMMY was done before, and better, so I didn’t want it to come off so serious. I also thought it would be cool to counterpoint the horror elements that would follow—throw the audience off track a bit. I thought the laughter was consistent with the dummy sitting on the toilet bowl and peeking over the bed.
It was picked up by a number of cable stations in the 1980s, as they looked for content to fill the gaps between programming. How did that sale come about?
After THE DUMMY was completed, I sent it to HBO. They liked it and referred me to an agent. The agent took care of the rest. In 2013, FearNet contacted me. They were fans of the film and wanted to re-air it.
You are deeply involved in the film world through your job at the NYU Film School, as well as the online courses you provide at FilmSchoolOnline.com, yet you’ve only got one other title on your filmography. What can you tell us about the short feature SARAH?
My film school partner, Ted Hunter, and I wanted to see what we could do in a longer format (50 minutes) before we tried a feature film. The main goal was to learn how to produce in the real world. We also experimented with the “look” of the film using negative flashing and soft contrast techniques. At the time, Kodak just introduced low-light movie film and we experimented with that, too. Ted was a great businessman and would have become a fine producer, but preferred entrepreneurship over filmmaking. I began my career at NYU a few years later. Incidentally, many of the young people that helped make these two films went on to interesting careers in arts and entertainment, including artist Jane Martin, prominent Italian filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi, Cleo winner Joe Perce, and actress Rena Sofer (HEROES, 24, etc.). It’s important to secure the best talent available, even in the earliest stages of your filmmaking career.
And finally, what does the future hold for the cinematic world of Louis LaVolpe?
I worked at NYU through the entire digital revolution. In the early days, the school was divided between film and analog video, sometimes heatedly. It was a crazy time and a lot of fun. Eventually digital video came along and most of us pushed hard for it. Julie Corman was the chair of the grad department at the time. One day she and Roger stopped by my office to ask for some advice because they were thinking about switching from film to digital production. That’s when I knew things were going to change in the real world, and of course, they did. It’s a great time to make movies; however, because of the huge amount of competition, it’s important to understand the principles of good filmmaking. I love conveying this information to budding filmmakers. Between NYU, Film School Online, and raising a family, it was difficult to pursue filmmaking proper. My daughters are grown now, so I have a bit more time. I’m torn between picking up the camera again and expanding Film School Online. I’ll figure it out eventually!
If you would like to relive a few moments of your past, you can watch THE DUMMY for free at the FilmSchoolOnline Youtube channel.